by Wendy Steiner Heinemann, pounds 20, 291pp
THIS IS a bold and provocative book. It is also a deeply irritating one. Wendy Steiner, whose The Scandal of Pleasure set out to retrieve art and its attendant pleasures from fundamentalists of all persuasions, has now taken on Modernism with the evident aim of destroying any pleasure we might find in it.
The trouble with Modernism - a term that in Steiner's wonderfully fluid cultural scavenging can encompass everything from Tolstoy to Baudelaire to Picasso, with a little philosophical borrowing from the Enlightenment - is that it embraced, she claims, an aesthetics of the Kantian sublime. Unlike the beautiful, which is charming, playful, connected to love and the feminine, the sublime is uncompromising, limitless or transcendent, earnest, against vital forces - and male.
It is an aesthetics of purity, loneliness and, yes, ugliness. Like that artist of science, Dr Frankenstein, and his monster, it kills off home and women and displaces these earlier symbols of beauty. This is the aesthetics the avant-garde embraced with the calculated intent of alienating the bourgeoisie. Women and the beauty that they embodied in art - often ornamental, domestic and relational - went out the window. Steiner wants to bring that beauty back and save us from cultural impoverishment.
She writes: "In the shrill, scandalous, often unenlightening history of modernism, the rewarding values of aesthetic experience - communication, mutuality, understanding - are seldom in evidence. Instead, our attention is focused on social fault lines, differences in belief and behaviour dramatised by sublime scandal. In eliminating the female symbol of beauty- as-interaction, the analogy between art and human intersubjectivity is destroyed, and the result has been an exaggeration of the cruelty of unmitigated reason. It is outrageous, utterly outrageous, to believe that the most poetic subject [as Poe wrote] is the death of a beautiful woman."
Steiner is not a feminist of the puritan camp. She is not particularly interested in the assault the beauty industry may have made on the female body. Nor does she agree that the male gaze in cinema or life robs women of power. Appearances and ornament are important to her. None the less, the pages of her argument are shadowed by a sense of an avant-garde conspiracy against women.
This burden of plaintiveness rebukes the high priests of modernism who, when they didn't expunge woman altogether from print or canvas in a search for cold formality, metamorphosed her into a silent, mad, fugitive "other", like the surrealist Andre Breton's Nadja; or like Picasso and even Matisse transformed woman into an exotic, often Africanised fetish who, like the prostitute, could keep desire safely distant from the domestic sphere.
This is an absorbing argument, though Steiner's hammering repetition of it threatens to turn argument into polemic. That has the adverse effect of acting as an …