Modernism & Its Institutions

Article excerpt

I couldn't portray a woman in all her natural loveliness. I haven't the skill. No one has. I must, therefore, create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight, and through that beauty interpret my subjective impression. Nature is a mere pretext for a decorative composition, plus sentiment. It suggests emotion, and I translate that emotion into art. I want to expose the Absolute, and not merely the factitious woman.

--Georges Braque, circa 1908

Subject, with her, is often incidental.

--Wallace Stevens, on the poetry of Marianne Moore, 1935

Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It's very tiny--very tiny, content.

--Willem de Kooning, 1963

Although we have lately been advised that "the days when one could sit down with an easy mind to write an account of something called modernism are over," (1) there nonetheless remains very little in our experience of the arts even in this first decade of the twenty-first century that can be separated from the traditions that were established by what used to be called the modern movement but that nowadays tend to be known collectively as modernism. As I shall be using the term here--that is, modernism as a movement in literature as well as the visual arts--it was never monolithic in style, ideas, or impact. It encompassed a broad range of styles, from realism and symbolism to pure abstraction, and a variety of anti-styles we associate with the legacy of Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism.

In its heyday, which by my reckoning dates from the 1880s to the 1950s, it was as easily identified by the traditions it rejected as by the innovations it embraced. What it mainly rejected in the pictorial arts were the moribund conventions of nineteenth-century academic instruction, which had elevated a narrowly conceived mode of depicting the observable world to the status of an aesthetic and cultural absolute. What modernism rejected in architecture was ornament, decorative embellishments, and explicit references to historical precedent. As far as painting and sculpture are concerned, modernism introduced a radical revision in the very concept of representation, the implications of which are admirably summarized in George Heard Hamilton's introduction to his classic history, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940:

   In the half-century between 1886, the date of
   the last Impressionist exhibition, and the
   beginning of the Second World War, a change
   took place in the theory and practice of art
   which was as radical and momentous as any
   that had occurred in human history. It was
   based on the belief that works of art need
   not imitate or represent natural objects and
   events. Therefore artistic activity is not essentially
   concerned with representation but instead
   with the invention of objects variously
   expressive of human experience, objects
   whose structures as independent artistic entities
   cannot be evaluated in terms of their
   likeness, nor devalued because of their lack of
   likeness, to natural things. (2)

What was most conspicuously embraced by modernism in the literary arts were so-called free verse (vers libre) in poetry, which entailed an abandonment of traditional rhyme and meter, and the "stream of consciousness" technique in fiction, which was introduced to literature in English by James Joyce but was made more accessible to public comprehension by the popularization of Freudian psychoanalytical therapy. These innovations entailed a rejection of nineteenth-century narrative conventions in favor of more hermetic literary structures based on myth, symbolism, and other devices more commonly found in poetry, especially modern poetry, than in prose fiction.

Moreover, owing to the resolute and often vindictive resistance that such innovations met with in the arena of public taste, it was probably inevitable that ways would be sought to circumvent that resistance. …