Peter Gay’s “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy”

I’ve been reading a newish book, Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. Gay is a major cultural historian, and a biographer of Freud, and in this book he sets himself the big task of capturing the essence of modernism in just 450 pages. Since I had seriously begun to doubt that such a thing as modernism actually ever existed, I read it sceptically, but with interest.

Gay goes through the twentieth-century arts, one by one, and identifies two themes that link the important modernists – the first is the the urge to heresy. Gay is a not just biographer of Freud, but a devotee, too, so there is always the suggestion that the modernist artists have an Oedipal relationship with their artistic predecessors. The second is that art of the modernist period was essentially about the exploration of subjectivity.

Emphasis on these two themes means that he presents a somewhat lopsided view of the period, giving a lot of emphasis to the Expressionists, for example, whose work was all about splashing their own subjectivity all over the canvas.

It means that when he discusses Schoenberg the early atonal expressionist phase gets much more emphasis and analysis than the twelve-tone serial phase. It means that Schoenberg’s Hollywood tennis partner George Gershwin doesn’t even rate a mention in the index, even though his use of jazz harmonies was one way of modernising classical music (and even though he introduced tone-rows into the score of the Fred and Ginger film Shall we Dance).

Kurt Weill also gets only a passing mention, and his chum, the most influential modernist playwright, Bertolt Brecht gets hardly more. So there’s a pattern. Modernists who do well at the box office don’t get much of a look-in (except in the cinema chapter, where this can’t be avoided) and nor do those whose motives are mostly political – unless their politics are so loony that they are self-evidently just crazy self-expression, like Strindberg’s or Hamsun’s.

Above all what struck me was that this book describes the modernists in the way that they themselves would like to be depicted. It takes them at their own high valuation. Its artist heroes are lone figures struggling against an unthinking bourgeoisie; some achieve recognition in the end, but you feel that Gay really prefers those, like Cezanne who die before their true worth is realised.

This is the heroic myth of modernism, and I don’t think it usually fits the facts very well. Major modernist talents like Eliot, Picasso and Stravinsky were recognised early, at least within the world of their art. Their work may have continued to cause some controversy, but controversy is the sign of interested public engagement, and they each in different ways developed full and profitable careers that allowed them to retain their audience while developing and sometimes radically changing their styles.

And how unthinking was the bourgeoisie? There are points where Gay mentions that his artists are actually actively supported by an intelligent middle-class audience, but he can’t quite let go of the myth. He wants his artists to struggle (and seems a bit confused when they don’t need to.)

Gay mentions the tendency of the avant garde to seek protection in cliques, but his psychological interpretation of modernism never lets him explore the interesting sociology of the subject. By concentrating, in traditional art-historical fashion, on the giants, he neglects to remind us that they were surrounded by plenty of modernist lesser talents. In his chapter on literature, for example, no mention is made of the Sitwells, the English modernist showpieces of the twenties. Later decades have not found their work especially interesting, but at the time they were notorious, well-publicised and often useful (Their Wheels published Wilfred Owen, for example). If this modernism wasn’t fulfilling Gay’s criteria, what was it doing? How did it manage to exist?

Concentration on the few super-talents allows Gay to put all the struggle into the minds of the great artists. But there were plenty of minor artists doing a modernist thing of some kind in their own way. I’d like to know more about the social conditions that allowed the minor figures to flourish, and to create modernist communities, sometimes of minimal talent, like the New York Dadaists, for example.

Having said all that, I actually quite enjoyed Gay’s book. As is often the way with wide-ranging surveys, I learnt most about the topics on which I was previously ignorant, and was less happy when reading the sections on figures I knew well. So the sections on James Ensor and Knut Hamsun were revealing to me, while I kept raising  mental quibbles when reading the section on T.S.Eliot.

If a full history of modernism can actually be written, we’ll have to wait for a while yet, because this isn’t it. It’s an interesting stroll among masterpieces with a lively mind, though, and not to be despised.

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