Modernism's Other Work: The Art Object's Political Life

Modernism's Other Work: The Art Object's Political Life

Modernism's Other Work: The Art Object's Political Life

Modernism's Other Work: The Art Object's Political Life

Synopsis

Modernism's Other Workchallenges deeply held critical beliefs about the meaning-in particular the political meaning-of modernism's commitment to the work of art as an object detached from the world. Ranging over works of poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, and film, Lisa Siraganian persuasively argues that modernism's core aesthetic problem-the artwork's status as an object and a subject's relation to it-poses fundamental questions of agency, freedom, and politics.

With fresh accounts of works by canonical figures such as William Carlos Williams and Marcel Duchamp, and transformative readings of less-studied writers such as William Gaddis and Amiri Baraka, Siraganian reinterprets the relationship between aesthetic autonomy and politics. Through attentive readings, the study reveals how political questions have always been modernism's critical work, even when writers such as Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis boldly assert the art object's immunity from the world's interpretations. Reorienting our understanding of the period, Siraganian demonstrates that the freedom of the art object from the reader's meaning presented a way to imagine an individual's complicated liberty within the state. Offering readers an original encounter with modernism,Modernism's Other Workwill interest literary and art historians, literary theorists, critics, and scholars in cultural studies.

Excerpt

This book challenges deeply held critical beliefs about the meaning—in particular the political meaning—of modernism’s commitment to the work of art as an object detached from the world. Ranging over works of poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, and film, I argue that modernism’s core aesthetic problem—the artwork’s status as an object and a subject’s relation to it—poses fundamental questions of agency, freedom, and politics. I hold that these political questions have always been modernism’s critical work, even when—indeed, especially when—writers such as Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, and William Gaddis boldly assert the art object’s immunity from the world’s interpretations. in the process, the book sets out to upend our understanding of relationships between aesthetic autonomy and politics, relationships that long have been misunderstood in critical studies of modernism. Theodor Adorno’s theorizing notwithstanding, modernist aesthetic independence is too often derided for its political obfuscation and elitism. Modernism’s Other Work disputes this narrative, expanding the political framework for modernist studies in an altogether different direction than Frankfurt School theorists envisioned. I examine what a range of writers truly meant by autonomy and how its operation was conceived simultaneously and deliberately as an aesthetic and political act. the paradox of their accounts of autonomy is at the heart of this work.

We can begin to see this conception in Wallace Stevens’s response to questions asked in 1934 by the editors of the left-wing journal New Verse : “Do you intend your poetry to be useful to yourself or others?” He initially affirms the most conventional account of aesthetic autonomy: “Not consciously. Perhaps I don’t like the word useful.” Yet in responding to the very next question, “Do you think there can now be a use for narrative poetry?” he reverses himself, admitting poetic use with the caveat that the heroic poet leads the way: “There . . .

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