Thursday, March 24, 2022

Post-What: Just What Was Modernism, Anyway?

“By 'modernity,' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the so-called eternal and the supposedly immutable . . . “ – Charles Baudelaire, poet of the inexpressible.
It is very important, perhaps even crucial for some of us, that we come to have a full and clear grasp of what modernism actually was before even dreaming of approaching the thorny question of what so-called postmodernism might mean. Let’s not be too hasty here. Like most advanced forms of alternative thinking, at least on the surface, modernity emerged as a discussable notion during the mid-19th century in Europe, specifically France, which had already long established itself as a vanguard socially, politically and culturally, especially with the invention of the camera in about 1840. But also like most advanced ideas, the concept of the modern was imported by America and drastically enhanced before being blown up to global proportions.

In the context of art history, modernité, and the designation of modern art covering the early period from roughly 1860-1870, first entered the lexicon in the head, hands and pen of French poet Charles Baudelaire, whose 1864 essay entitled “The Painter of Modern Life” tossed his invented neologism like a conceptual hand grenade into the cultural marketplace. The radical symbolist poet, and possibly the first modern art critic, referred to “the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis and the responsibility which art has to capture and explore that experience.” 

Baudelaire further claimed, quite rightly, that the modern artist had “a particular relationship to time, characterized by intense historical discontinuity or rupture, openness to the novelty of the future, and a heightened sensitivity to what is unique about the present moment.”

We might indeed be living in the brave new world they warned us all about, but it took so long to get here we don’t quite recognize it, and we just might enjoy the ride. We need to explore why visual images are so important in our lives in the first place, how they make us human, and how the machine changed our perception of what art looks like. The history of technology didn’t just start with the Industrial Revolution; it began when humans first used tools to change their world. From the cave wall, to the painted canvas, to the printed photograph, to the moving picture, to advertising, to television, to computers and beyond, these delivery systems have all comprised an entertaining and often amusing adventure in the world of art.

The ability to have more than one copy of an image, whether in etchings, prints, posters, movies or magazines, each one privately viewed by millions of eyes, is one of the most important developments in human culture. The key to this saga is the fun of discovering that we actually all live inside our own images of the world, and that everyone’s is equally accurate. So, therefore we should always be prepared to be amazed by otherness in any form.

To me, all of the images of modernist icons in this grid are in some sense identical, even interchangeable, as they each embody precisely the selfsame principles, except each is expressed in the unique language of its own medium. Yet this also suggests that we can almost listen to a painting, to see a piece of music, to smell the aroma of a literary work, and, as the architect Corbusier once suggested, to live inside the machines we call buildings.

Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913); James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922.

Therefore to sit, and watch and listen to the ballet Rite of Spring in Paris, which provoked a riot upon its first performance in 1913, is identical to sitting in your armchair at home and reading Joyce’s one-day evocation of Dublin in his startlingly brilliant novel Ulysses, which was banned for several generations due to the unusual treatment he delivered of both stream of consciousness and human intimacy. And likewise, just as with a grid abstract painting by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in 1921 and a domestic villa of staggering elegance designed by Le Corbusier in 1931, they are also, in a very significant way, machines for modernism to deliver its salient messages.

Composition with Large Red, Mondrian (1921). (MOMA)

Villa Savoye-Possy, Le Corbusier, 1931.

One way to commence thinking about our fascination for visual images, from the cave to the computer, and as a point of departure in exploring their intense passage through the modernist epoch, is to briefly focus on a very important essay that the culture critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote in 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” That essay, as well as his majestic Arcades Project (1927-1940), to which we’ll return often throughout this narrative, changed everything about our understanding of what an image is, what it does, what it can be. Thus visual art before photography is the logical place to begin a survey of what on earth happened to art in the restlessly curious hands of the avant-garde. Benjamin, as we’ll see, was a brilliant outlier who helps us grasp the ungraspable. In fact, one of his most important notions was that the “aura” of any artwork begins at the point it approaches the inexpressible.

Any comprehensive survey of the history of images from the cave to the canvas must first ask the simple question: why are visual images of all kinds so important in our lives? What happens to our perception when the flow of images is so constant and inescapable that we now longer actually see the many images bombarding us perpetually? Art during photography is the captivating and radical period when the definition of images inalterably changed forever. That flow is the only way to see the surprising family resemblances between the cave wall and Picasso’s feverish brain. And anyone desiring to know just what modernism actually was (and still may be, in my estimation) need look no further than Benjamin’s Arcades Project study.

Benjamin’s seminal concept of the decay of the aura of an artwork through its mechanical reproduction, updated to focus on digital reproduction in our current era and its impact on the affective domain in light of the absence of a distinction between original and copy, is essential in this regard. Like the steel Arcades of capital cities in the last century which he wrote about so poetically (calling Paris the capital of the 19th century, for example), the digital domain of the internet is the connective tissue for a global culture with no central capital city but with a presence everywhere via the Iconosphere.

It is a fairly obvious and an accepted fact that art after photography looks and sounds drastically different. However, it is less clear why this is the case. It is also natural enough to reconsider and reevaluate art objects in the ever-evolving context of critical insights from major thinkers in the field; however, some thinkers are so major in their contribution that a case can be made for the sheer necessity of reinterpreting all the art which occurred before their time as well, in their critical shadow. Such a thinker is Benjamin, a cultural theorist and historian who was so influential his influence is almost invisible, and one whose insights were so visionary they did not come fully into play until the 21st century. Even the Mona Lisa looks different after Benjamin, who in 1930 astutely asked us to more closely examine “images, our great and primitive passion.”

By 1963, the year of Gerrit Rietveld’s masterfully sculptural take on the concept of ‘the chair’, artists such as Andy Warhol were busy making inroads into establishing the post-modern style. But even though Warhol, one of the four most influential and important artist of the 20th century, is a valid and virtual emblem for the postmodern ethos, he is still, to my mind, also an exemplary evoker of the classically high modernism of Benjamin. This is the case because he so magisterially reflects the machine ethic at work in the manufacturing of his images. 

Gerrit Rietveld, Chair, 1963.

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964.

Most obvious in the development and evolution of images in their long march towards the avant-garde is the rise of cinema, only about fifty years after the invention of photography. Repetition in sequence is also at the heart of the modernist agenda. As rightly famous as he is as one of the premier cultural theorists of the last century, Benjamin is ironically, on the other hand, a highly undervalued documentarian of the pre-modernist and even the postmodernist period, due in part to the fact that he employed drastically modernist techniques in the elliptical delivery of his highly recursive and idiosyncratic content.

His most amazing accomplishment in this respect was using the hyper-modernist methods of montage, juxtaposition, seriality, dissonance, and inter-text. Each epoch, he argues with Michelet, dreams the epoch that is to follow. Consider for a moment the cathode-ray tube of an early television set as an ethereal, infinitely repeatable and highly immaterial Arcade, and you will see exactly what I mean. Warhol’s Double Elvis portrait and David Lynch’s 1990 fever dream, Twin Peaks, are two more examples of irony-drenched image styles which belie the demise of modernism and instead posit my basic premise that the postmodern is really only the modern, deconstructing itself before our very eyes. 

Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis (1963). (MOMA)

David Lynch’s conscious dream made with Mark Frost, Twin Peaks (1990).

Exploring the purpose and results of the aesthetic experience: this was the very core of the modernist and avant-garde agenda. That, and of course deconstructing the entire history of art that preceded it. We now inhabit an Iconosphere of global proportions at the very event horizon of images, heralded by the arrival of the dialectical image.  Photography, films, television and computers have had major impacts on perceptions of visual art, and indeed, how reproducibility has completely altered our shared visual perceptions of the world we live in and perhaps even of our reality itself. Investigating the nature of reality, not realism but reality, was the main tenet of modernism and the avant-garde.

One thing everyone can be certain of, regardless of whether they understand its ramifications or not: the advent of the 20th century was a kind of dynasty which irrevocably altered all the art made before it and all the art made after it and also appeared to herald the demise of traditional notions of beauty and harmony. We would need to psychoanalyze the age itself, what British poet W.H. Auden termed the Age of Anxiety, to unearth the underlying reasons for the near-collective artistic abandonment of conventional “beauty” in the last century. But that abandonment continues unabated today, via our seemingly newfound appreciation for the beauty of opulent decay, itself already a neo-Baroque immersive idea of epic proportions.

Everything from art and music to dance and architecture, everything which can be said to have a modernist sensibility, is laden and embedded with a kind of meaning-ennui. Thus this essay is also a guided tour of the hell of perfect progress. The forms in which it is expressed may be different, but the content it contains remains constant. There is only one subject and theme to this phenomenon: how contemporary thought allowed, or even demanded, apparent exuberant ennui to be explored in every conceivable way possible. And in some cases, even inconceivable ways were employed for the job at hand. As a matter of fact, those ones are especially fun to wrestle with.

Behold the cultural continuum of modernism: what the modern was and still might be, through subterranean relationships between things that, on the surface, appear to be quite different. That, after all, is the meaning of a continuum: not the things themselves but the link between those things. The links between things which follow one another so gradually that we cannot tell where one ends and another begins. Here, that transition is the link, expressed as a radically altered and disordered beauty with a common theme, shared among all disciplines which convey the modern sensibility.

One way to grasp this forward flow is to recognize that while abstractions was one of the hallmarks of modernism, it wasn’t the only one. For example, Picasso’s portrait from 1937 is so advanced, so modern, that it actually manages to be postmodern at the same time (as we currently use that term).

Thus, in order to fully appreciate what I think is the secret underside of modernism, namely that it was always already in the process of superseding itself via its obviously beating heart of contingent ephemerality, it’s useful, even inevitable, to return to the origins of modernity, and especially to Baudelaire. Walter Benjamin is again, and as usual, our best tour guide, via his unfinished masterpiece Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. In this amazing study of the inventor of modernity as a concept, he examines the capitalist organization of life in the city using mid-19th century Paris as a prism reflected (and refracted) in the poetic and art critical work of Baudelaire.

As we see in that text, Benjamin is continually fascinated by the construction of social consciousness and the revolutionary spirit that preoccupied city dwellers as modernism’s grip took hold, and even before it was fully recognized as an abstract force in our lives. He reveals the source of power in the emergence of the crowd as a phenomenon, but also of the defiant reclusiveness of the modern flâneur who stands apart, since it is only through his isolation from the hoi polloi that he is able to accurately assess the swiftness of the current within which reality itself is being transformed. 

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of the Weeping Woman (1937). (Tate Gallery)

As Jeanette Willette once pointed out, “Every age needs it observer and every era requires an interpreter. To elevate the culture above mere description, that individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter. Baudelaire was above all a disaffected and alienated student of a society undergoing the pressure of transition. That he was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, modernité.” His special significance was indeed that he articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content. After him, only Benjamin himself was able to occupy this privileged yet peripheral position when it came to encapsulating the essence of modernism.

Baudelaire’s essay for the 1846 Salon, “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” is still prescient for the manner in which it explained something that was powerfully imminent and yet was beyond the reach of the average cultural observer. He characterized a classical tradition that has been eclipsed but also a new classicism which very few, apart from astute and occasionally whacked-out investigators such as himself, could feel emerging right in their midst: “It is true that this great tradition has been lost and that the new one is not yet established. The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences which drift about in the underworld of a great city all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our own heroism.”

Willette further clarified her belief, which I share, that “[m]odernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor for the faint-hearted.” And I find myself amazed at Baudelaire’s prophetic acumen, his ability to appreciate those “floating existences” which drift about around him

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of transition. The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes, crumbling under urban renewal. According to Baudelaire’s greatest biographer, Walter Benjamin, he was part of Bohemia, the new avant-garde: the alienated, the aspiring artists in waiting.

To the question “Who was Baudelaire waiting for?,” I would propose the following answer: he was waiting for us, all of us today, we amorphous occupants of the age after modernism.

It’s useful to remember that the concept of the modern is not in itself necessarily of modern origin: the Latin adjective modernus, for instance, derived from the verb modo, meaning presently, just now, is first encountered in the 5th century of the common era. Modernism, for both Baudelaire and his shadow, Benjamin, was as crystal clear in its embrace of rapid change as it would be for Benjamin’s own later shadow, the renowned Canadian media and culture critic Marshall McLuhan. It is best defined in terms of the concept of constant change, even within its own structural tenets (which is what I mean when I insinuate that postmodernism is really only modernism wearing its grown up clothes). And it further involves an overreaching identity which is all to often easily misunderstood, what my favourite art critic Harold Rosenberg defined as “the tradition of the new.”

It was Baudelaire who best encapsulated this state of mind when extolling the virtues of a young modern artist he had taken note of: “Thus to begin to understand him, the first thing to note is that curiosity may be considered the starting point of his genius.” This inherent curiosity, when taken to the extremes of experimentation and abstraction we saw during the century after Baudelaire, is a sensibility which, to the average viewer, listener, or observer, appears to be quite the opposite of what we had become accustomed to as defining virtually all of the “embodied meanings” of our culture: order and proportional harmony.

But as the culture changed, and as it became more global in nature, so did its meanings. We still need to examine the cause of the changes, and their effects on all our lives, since there is nothing we see, read, wear or live in which does not act as a reflection of those very changes. In our case in the industrialized west, it was the almost total abandonment of classical balance and traditional notions of beauty amongst all the creative modernist expressions of the 20th century, bound together through so many different linked variations on a single theme.

How does modernism still secretly function in our lives, either with or without our awareness? In terms of musical forms, noise is constituted by dissonance, the opposite of consonance; at least that much seems straightforward. But the big picture is even more enticing. If we can utilize the term aesthetic noise in the broader sense of customarily recognizable non-beauty, then we can begin to make some sense of the multi-faceted modernist world that in many ways still remains at the core of our collective cultural experience. This is because many drastically different forms of expression make manifest a single kind of content

All this really means is utilizing a helpful method for comparing and contrasting differing things at a foundational or subterranean level, one which makes their apparent differences disappear, and their basic continuum links rise to the surface, through convergent evolution. A cultural example of this exotic idea would be a stylistic comparison of a Mark Rothko painting, a John Cage concerto, a Samuel Beckett novel, a Martha Graham dance, a Mies van der Rohe building, an equation by Einstein, stories Kafka, Kerouac and Burroughs, a film by Jean Luc Godard, andpoem by e.e. cummings. In cultural developments, and the artistic properties they manifest, the works of art themselves tend to relate to each other, and to us, through that very convergence: the development of similar aesthetic adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. Modernism hasn’t gone away, by the way; it’s just sleeping in late. 

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.


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