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Ezra Pound and the Ideology of Art: Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism

By Dickey, Frances | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Ezra Pound and the Ideology of Art: Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism


Dickey, Frances, Twentieth Century Literature


Ezra Pound's significant engagement with visual art and artists makes him a natural subject for visual culture studies. As a young poet, Pound worked under the spell of Pre-Raphaelite painters and the impressionist James Abbott McNeill Whistler; later, as he "modernized," Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (among others) showed him the way. Throughout his London years (1908-20) Pound worked closely with artists, collaborating with them on projects such as BLAST, sitting for them (resulting in portraits by Lewis, Gaudier, and Alvin Langdon Coburn), "booming" them in his reviews (as in the art criticism he wrote for the New Age from 1917 to 1920), debating with them, and of course frequently infuriating them. The impact of vorticism, along with futurist painting, cubism, and collage on the "open form" of the Cantos has long been a central topic of Pound scholarship, from Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era and Timothy Materer's Vortex through Marjorie Perloff's The Futurist Moment, Charles Altieri's Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry, and Vincent Sherry's Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism.

In this well-documented field it is not easy to find an opening for an original critical intervention, but in Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism Rebecca Beasley offers new research findings and detailed analysis of Pound's engagement with the milieu of artists, art criticism, and the ideas driving contemporary art during Pound's formative years in London and Paris. What distinguishes her approach from earlier studies of Pound and the visual arts, she claims, is her focus on the "shifting ideological significance" of the arts for him (2), "an insistence that the visual arts be seen as part of the 'argument' of Pound's work, providing a model that is not restricted to the formal" (7). In the current critical parlance, "visual culture" usually refers to all cultural artifacts and activities with a visual component (including advertising, new and old media, toys, fashion, landscape, etc.). Beasley's scope is restricted, however, by Pound's own preference for the traditional fine arts of painting and sculpture. In this book, approaching Pound through the discipline of visual culture studies means shifting the focus away from works of art or poetry and toward the discourse of art criticism as Pound practiced it. Beasley has exhaustively documented Pound's changing ideas about the visual arts, based on his prolific published and unpublished prose, and used her results to trace the evolution of his politics. She concentrates her attention on four episodes during the years 1908-24 that, she argues, map out his ideological transformation from individualist to fascist follower.

Beyond its considerable documentary function, the book also seeks to illuminate the relationship between formalism and politics in Pound's art criticism and in criticism generally. Beasley contends that the vocabulary Pound developed for writing about art in the nineteen-teens was motivated by conservative political beliefs that led to his later fascism. She also argues, mainly by implication, that Pound's vocabulary and his work as a critic made possible the development of an academic practice of "formalist" literary criticism. She identifies this practice with New Criticism ("the formalist literary criticism in which modernist studies "was forged" [205]), but she also seems to have in mind any analysis of modernist writing that privileges formal experimentation for its own sake, such as Perloff's. "Formalism" is thus seen to carry a political agenda, whether as waged openly by Pound or as concealed in the practices of academic critics.

Chapter 1 serves to orient this argument in the context of Pound's earliest art criticism, which he wrote as a graduate student smarting from his encounter with philology. Reacting against the academic study of literature, Pound proposed aesthetic appreciation, or "taste," as an alternative.

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