Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Black, Tim. "Modernism and the Lure of Heresy." SPIKED REVIEW OF BOOKS 12 (2008).

Gay, Peter. The Lure of Heresy: from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: Norton, 2007. Faced with a term in constant dispute, some critics, in search of the quiet life, content themselves not with a singular definition but with a set of modernisms - as myriad as the categories allow, be it geographical or disciplinary. Others prefer to abstract a principle so general – irony, say – that modernism loses any historical specificity at all. In this regard, Peter Gay’s Modernism is admirably ambitious: it attempts to preserve the particularity of the artworks themselves, be it Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, while gesturing to that general modernist sensibility they embody. As Gay makes clear in his opening chapter, ‘the manifestation of modernism’ ought to be treated as ‘a single historical epoch’. This, he says elsewhere, ‘dates roughly from Baudelaire and Flaubert to Beckett and beyond to Pop Art and other dangerous blessings’. What the artists, writers, composers and architects share is not only a ‘climate of thought, feeling and opinions’ but two principles in particular: ‘the lure of heresy that impelled their action as they confronted conventional sensibilities’ and a commitment to ‘principled self-scrutiny’. With these two elements marshalling his interpretation of a vast array of cultural artefacts, Gay proceeds to present a narrative of modernism, tracing its history through periods of pugnacious self-confidence and impending defeat. Each artist, each grouping – be it Picasso, the disparagingly named Fauves, or the Hitler-worshipping, Nobel prize-winning Knut Hamsum – becomes a character, better still, a hero in Gay’s epic tale of modernist derring-do. Each of Gay’s dramatis personae exhibit his two key modernist traits – that is, the desire to challenge the cultural establishment (Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new’) and to give expression to hitherto unencountered depths of the self, be it the ‘monologue interieur’ of Joyce or the near pathological self-portraiture of Max Beckmann. . . . Read the rest here:

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