Monday, March 14, 2016

Six Waves of Modernism: A New Periodization of Modern Art and Literature

Instead of conceptualizing Modernism in terms of a facile Modernist-Postmodernist binary or--even more naively--as a univocal, monolithic movement that can be easily characterized, it might be more productive and provocative to think of Modernism as a series of waves, each successive wave of artistic production arising as a response to, reaction against, or transformation of, the previous wave. The six major waves (each of which contains multiple 'wavelets') can be roughly identified as follows. (Dating is highly approximate and reflects the years during which the identified tendency was at its height; like waves, the periods overlap, and characteristics of each period exist as minor tendencies in all others.)

1. Avant-Gardism; or, The Redemption of the Real (1860-1885). The first wave of Modernism begins with Manet's defiantly original paintings of the early 1860s (Luncheon on the Grass, Olympia), includes the whole of the Impressionist movement (Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Morisot, Sisley, Renoir, Caillebotte, Cassatt, et al.), and is also exemplified by the ironic lyrical realism of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, the naturalism of Zola, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the great novels of Tolstoy and Turgenev, Chekhov's plays and stories, the realism and eroticism of Courbet, the paintings of Winslow Homer, the best essays of Emerson, the art criticism of John Ruskin, the space-carving, cathedral-like steel-frame architecture of the great 19th-century railroad stations, such as those still standing in Paris.

2. Decadence; or, The Fascination of the Object (1885-1900). Modernism's second wave pushes the avant-garde's redemptive gaze into a grotesque fascination with the object-as-other (or, in other words, the object as mirror of disavowed subjectivity). This wave is best exemplified by the poems of Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson, the paintings of Gustave Moreau, Dostoevsky's great novels, the works of Huysmans and Lautreamont; Bram Stoker's Dracula; the portraits of Thomas Eakins, the portrait photography of Nadar, Matthew Brady and others, the films of Melies and the Lumieres, the sculpture of Rodin, the prose of Walter Pater, the fiction and later plays of Oscar Wilde.

3. Experimentalism; or, The Deconstruction of the Object (1900-1918). The Cubism of Picasso and Braque is the most obvious example of third wave Modernism's analytic fragmentation of the supposedly 'known' world, but we might also point to Matisse and the Fauves and their redemptive dissolution of reality into colors livelier than life. We can hear an Experimentalist impulse in Schoenberg's early adventures in atonality and Stravinsky's pounding rhythms. We see it in the chromatic slashing of Expressionist painting. We read it in T. S. Eliot's early poetry and the prose of Gertrude Stein; it's the real reason Pound could never make his Cantos 'cohere'. It reaches a probably ultimate horizon in Dadaism's anti-art provocations: Duchamp's urinal as an invitation to piss on the objects we have come to worship--a provocation repeated so often that it has now become clich├ęd (only the aesthetically ignorant could truly have been shocked by Serrano's Piss Christ).

4. Syncretism; or, The Labyrinth of Subjectivity (1918-1960). Cramming all the years between the end of WWI and the election of JFK into a single artistic period is surely the most provocative part of my proposed periodization. But I contend that these years, often seen as radically fragmented by multiple historical traumas (Stalinism, Great Depression, Fascism, WWII, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Cold War), can be more usefully viewed as connected by a single--albeit radically pluralistic--aesthetic through-line: during these years the various innovations of earlier Modernist waves were syncretized in artistic explorations of the labyrinth of human subjectivity. (Webster's Ninth defines syncretize as "to attempt to unite and harmonize esp. without critical examination or logical unity," thus differentiating it from the logical synthesis of the Hegelian and Marxist dialectics. Syncretism is a more instinctual, artistic way of thinking, independent of the demands of traditional logic and reason.) Obvious examples of such syncretism are Joyce's Ulysses, Proust's voluminous A la recherche du temps perdu, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves; Picasso's paintings from The Three Dancers (1925) through Guernica (1937) to his explicit Old Master pastiches of the 1950s; Surrealist art with its cult of irrational juxtaposition of objects (literal syncretism) and its goal of exploring the unconscious (the labyrinth of subjectivity); the drip paintings of Pollock, De Kooning's women and Rothko's geometries, which can all be seen as bastard stepchildren of European painting of the 20s and 30s; expressionist cinema from Caligari to Laughton's Night of the Hunter; the literary through-line that runs unbroken from Kafka to Schulz to Borges to Kis; the tone-row compositions of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern; Berg's Lulu, Brecht's Dreigroschenoper and Beckett's Endgame; Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Welles' Citizen Kane, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

5. Anarchism; or, The Object Strikes Back (1960-1996). Academic discourse most often refers to this period as 'postmodern,' but it might with more historical validity be called the era of decolonization, postcolonialism, postimperialism, feminism, neoliberalism... Indeed, it might be named after any number of developments far more materially important than the collected works of Derrida, Foucault and Lacan. I prefer to think of these years as the era of artistic anarchism, a period of anti-authoritarianism in which artists radically critiqued the discourse of mastery that underlay previous waves of Modernism. We see this most dramatically in the final phase of Modernist painting's greatest capital-M Master, Pablo Picasso. In the paintings, drawings and prints Picasso produced from the early 1960s until his death, the elderly master becomes younger than he ever was; he throws off the weight of art history, the museum he carried in his mind, and proceeds to play in paint. The canvases of these years evince a new liveliness in the artist, a Matissean simplicity and vibrancy in his brushwork, a new and utterly uncensored concentration on the materiality of sex and the body. All authority gone, Picasso is left with all his passion still to spend, and in this last decade he spends it lavishly. We might also think of this as Picasso striking back against the forces that threatened to freeze him into an object, a safely museumed old master. And this points to the second (or is it simultaneous?) moment of Modernism's fifth wave: into the void of authority flows all the stuff that was previously silenced, marginalized, devalued, objectified. These former 'things' now seize the sites of subjectivity and speak for themselves. We see this in the science fiction novels of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, the fictions of William Burroughs, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the novels and plays of Jean Genet; the hardcore postmodern novels of Barth, DeLillo, Pynchon and Wallace, as well as the softercore pomo of Vonnegut and Heller; underground film from Maya Deren to Kenneth Anger to Stan Brakhage; Warhol, Rauschenberg and the early years of Pop Art before it became corporate wallpaper; Toni Morrison's novels, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Shame, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and other magic realists; the later figurative paintings of Philip Guston; Robert Crumb's comics; Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider; the hippie fiction of Richard Brautigan and Tom Robbins; Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater; the unhinged visions of David Lynch.

6. Cosmopolitanism; or, The Subject Goes Global (1996- ). Even Isaiah and Ezekiel would probably agree that prophecy is a mug's game, but if forced to guess the future's judgment of the most important trend in our present aesthetic moment, I would settle on cosmopolitanism, world-citizenship, with its connotations of pluralism, cultural liberalism and global humanism. (Despite everything from the stolen 2000 U. S. election to al qaeda, the Iraq fiasco and the rise of Herr Drumpf, I remain optimistic about this century; if we survived the 20th, we'll make it through the 21st.) Conrad and Nabokov might be seen as the multinational, multilingual precursors of our time. Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and his subsequent novels and nonfiction are among our moment's quintessential artistic products. Likewise the four full-length fictions of W. G. Sebald, the works of Roberto Bolano, J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, the sf and fantasy novels of China Mieville, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, the films of Guy Maddin, Charlie Kaufman's screenplays, Kiarostami's Certified Copy, the recent films of Lars von Trier, the literary and cultural criticism of Edward Said, John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards, the novels of David Grossman, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing; the essays of Susan Sontag, the late poetry of John Ashbery, the paintings of R. B. Kitaj, Cormac McCarthy's borderless Border novels; William T. Vollmann's literary explorations of just about everything, everywhere...

(Needless to say--but I'll say it anyway--this schema is offered only as a generalized, shorthand way of thinking about Modernist art. It is suggestive, not exhaustive. It's an attempt at description, not prescription; and no judgments of relative aesthetic value are implied.)

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