The Customer is Always Wrong

February 06, 2008

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The Customer is Always Wrong

Review of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, by Peter Gay: W. W. Norton, New York City, 2007, 610 pages

If a Nobel Prize existed for the authorial achievement that most obviously combines clichéd competence with ideological obsession, Peter Gay’s Modernism would win it at a canter. The review attributed to Dr. Johnson pre-emptively dealt with such works: “This book is both good and original, but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.” Gay’s originality rests, for the most part, upon his assumption—which makes Rip Van Winkle look like a veritable prodigy of sleepless diligence—that one can still ascribe intellectual merit to Freudianism. For Gay, there is no God but Freud, and Gay is his prophet. The author of an entire volume on the Godhead (Freud: A Life For Our Time), Gay demonstrates no more likelihood of abandoning his religion than does the nearest imam of abandoning his. Readers cannot say they were not warned: “Even when it [Freudianism] makes no explicit appearance,” Gay announces as early as page xxii of his latest publication, “it lies at the heart of my historian’s reading of the decades when modernism helped to define the realities of social and cultural life.” Unusually for a Freudian, he admits (a few lines afterwards) the force of Freud’s confession: “before the problem of the poet [Freud’s actual noun is the somewhat less specific Dichter], psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.” Gay fails to point out that Freud spent the greater part of his life doing the precise opposite, thereby perpetrating such howlers as basing his entire theory of Leonardo’s erotic tastes upon the mistranslation of one word. Being Freud, or even a disciple of same, means never having to say you’re sorry.

Sometimes, above all in Modernism’s earlier chapters, Gay manages to keep his Freudianism under decent control. He starts off in a workmanlike enough fashion, with modernism’s early history. Baudelaire emerges. Flaubert emerges. Both Baudelaire and Flaubert are prosecuted for obscenity and, in the former’s case, for blasphemy as well. Walt Whitman issues Leaves of Grass. Impressionist painters scandalize the public. Those Rising Middle Classes just keep on rising. The railways get built like nobody’s business. God’s obituary gets repeatedly written. The trouble with Gay’s narrative on these subjects is that a reader would have to be extremely ignorant, or extremely amnesiac, to find it unfamiliar. Since the 1950s, if not beforehand, it has been the essence of every university or community college course that was ever offered on modern art’s history. (The actual phrase “modern art” was first used, apparently, by the novelist J. K. Huysmans in 1879.) Gay does score a few insightful points, notably his frank acknowledgment of how slender a rationale T. S. Eliot possessed for trying to Christianize Baudelaire’s aesthetic, or, in Gay’s somewhat boorish terminology, “to hijack Baudelaire for the cause of Jesus.” (Boorishness is apt to mark Gay’s few comments on Christianity, or as he prefers to call it, “the Christian legend ... [which is] really, when you think about it, a highly improbable story.” Improbable compared with what? The Immaculate Conception of Saint Sigmund?) Nevertheless any adequate encyclopedia could supply much of the material Gay discusses, and his account is distinguished mostly for what it fails to include.

One would have relished, for example, a serious effort (or any effort) to explain that maniacal anti-bourgeoisie hatred which Baudelaire and, especially, Flaubert injected into modernism’s bloodstream. It was a hatred all the more ridiculous, and all the more dangerous, because it took the form of masochism: its artistic adherents being, after all, bourgeois themselves. Not a single aristocrat or prole in the entire bunch. Save for this obvious masochistic element, the emotion thus generated did not differ from Der Stürmer’s subsequent loathing of Jews, or from Stalin’s eventual cheery talk of “exterminating the kulaks as a class.” Fortunately, mere historical accidents—of the kind that Marxists, with their infantile determinism, suppose to be impossible—prevented Baudelaire and Flaubert, at least, from acting on their own hate’s implications. Gay could have treated this hate’s phenomenon at length, but instead he is content merely to note, in a civil and brief manner, its occurrence.

About one-third of the way through Modernism, the standard abruptly declines, as non-artistic criteria more and more influence the selection of topics. Page and pages deal with Oscar Wilde, not because of The Importance of Being Earnest, but because of his sexual martyr status. Virginia Woolf, thanks to her feminist rather than literary significance, makes it with predictable ease into Gay’s elect. (Mercifully, we are spared Sylvia Plath.) Marcel Duchamp—best known for his appropriating a urinal, calling it art, and signing it “R. Mutt”—becomes “the truly indispensable icon for its [modernism’s] history,” with the clear implication that this is a good thing to be. Gay quotes approvingly what is itself an approving description, by the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, of Duchamp: “the great saboteur.”

Naturally little matters like the difference, if any, between Duchamp-type art and deliberately parodistic non-art are primly ignored. Not a syllable in Gay about “Ern Malley,” the nonexistent Australian vers-libre purveyor whose creators fooled British modernist panjandrum Herbert Read—and hordes of others—into thinking him a neglected genius. Not a syllable, either, about the equally nonexistent composer “Piotr Zak,” whose Mobile for Tape and Percussion comprised simply twelve minutes’ worth of random noises recorded in a B.B.C. radio studio. Complete silence, also, about that pictorial masterpiece “And The Sun Was Setting Over The Adriatic,” which, after having been exhibited at Paris’s Salon des Indépendants, turned out to be the work of a donkey with a paintbrush affixed to its tail. (“Art is what you can get away with,” Andy Warhol later observed.) However much Gay invokes “the lure of heresy,” any heresy against his own modernist heroes’ dogmas obviously must not be sanctioned even by being noted. The more grotesque a particular modernist’s self-assurance, the more Gay tends to take him at his own valuation. This is a strange role for a historian (rather than a public-relations shill) to be adopting, but one with which Gay sees no problem.

Each deity in modernism’s pre-1945 Valhalla—Picasso, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Charlie Chaplin, Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright—gets much the same blandly eulogistic treatment from Gay. When he ventures a criticism, as he does of Mies van der Rohe’s scorn for his generous patrons or of Le Corbusier’s truckling towards Marshal Pétain’s régime, the effect is all the more notable and agreeable because it so rarely happens. (Knut Hamsun is castigated for his latter-day pro-Nazi sentiments, but the lifelong Communist sycophancy of Louis Aragon, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Neruda is not mentioned at all.) Otherwise, instead of analysis, readers are supplied with mere reverential profiling. They must look elsewhere for honest admissions of – for instance – Picasso’s psychopathic misogyny (when are feminists going to start uttering serious protests against this?), or of Stravinsky’s post-1918 creative decline, or of Ives’s willfully blatant amateurism. (The only thing to be said for most of Ives’s music is that most of his prose is more childish still: a fact liberally, though not perhaps wittingly, demonstrated by Gay’s numerous quotes.)

Since Gay’s chief concern lies with the visual arts, it is mainly with other commentators on these arts that he must be compared; and the inescapable result of such a comparison is this. By now the sole justifications for churning out a generalist account of visual arts’ modernism are if an author is blessed with a brilliant prose style that can compensate for his conventional thinking (Robert Hughes’s studies The Shock of the New and American Visions are examples of such a style), or if he is genuinely and valorously contrarian in spirit (as Paul Johnson is in his Art: A New History). Gay, lacking both Hughes’ brilliance and Johnson’s courage, is bound to disappoint and, worse, to bore.

Yet if Gay’s account of pre-1945 modernism is a prisoner to idées reçues, his account of modernism after World War II is almost tabloid in its superficiality. The modernist revolution, we are assured, “bounced back into vigorous life in 1945 once again” after Hitler’s and Mussolini’s (Mussolini’s!) attempts to crush it. And of what did this postwar “vigorous life” consist? Well, action painting for one thing. “The place of Jackson Pollock in the modernist pantheon is secure,” Gay proclaims, thus deftly sidestepping the question of whether Pollock was any good or not. He also sidesteps the question of how Pollock came to be hailed as a master in the first place. In particular, he is silent on the CIA’s determination to ram abstract expressionist “painting” down the world’s throat, the relevant spooks suffering from a quaint belief that copious doses of “Jack the Dripper” (Time magazine’s felicitous phrase) would weaken Soviet rule. The fact that post-1945 modernism was fundamentally subsidized by the hapless taxpayer – whereas at least pre-1945 modernists had needed to make do with whatever private patrons they could find – is surely a truth of some genuine sociological importance. But you would never guess it from Gay, any more than you would guess from Gay the lasting spiritual consequences of arts largely divorced from a willing public. Possibly the most quintessentially modernist sentence in Gay’s entire book is to be found on page 562: “I recommend Warhol’s a (a novel) (1965), which, despite the praise it has received, is virtually incomprehensible.” So it’s virtually incomprehensible, but he recommends it anyway. “In this shop,” C. S. Lewis noted with some asperity about modernist emporia, “the customer is always wrong.”

Confidence in Gay’s jolly artistic prescriptions for human happiness – which include a lavish tribute to Frank Gehry’s 1997 design for Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum – is hardly fortified by his outright errors. Not content with his supposition (in a section on the Franco-American composer Edgard Varèse) that there is a legitimate English word spelt “accompanyist”, he errs even in so readily ascertainable a datum as the year of The Rite of Spring‘s first performance: it was not 1911, as he imagines, but 1913. Picasso, who died in 1973, is credited on page 442 with living till 1979. Gabriel García Márquez’s year of birth is said by Gay to be 1928, when every reference source known to this reviewer gives the year as 1927. Moreover, it is actively false to deny Brecht’s Jewish ancestry, which itself ensured that he would have had no German future under the Nuremberg Laws. (This ancestry did not prevent him from his own typically expectorant brand of Jew-baiting: “The spit gives out,” he once remarked, “before the Jews do.”)

Altogether Gay’s is a production that, if offered as a bachelor’s thesis and purged of its more conspicuous psychobabble, might warrant indulgence. Offered on the open literary market, it scarcely even begins to compete with existing analyses, including the Hughes and Johnson books mentioned above. Its author’s distaste for sustained criticism of his more fashionable love-objects so falsifies the overall historical picture which he means to convey, that a phrase of Chesterton about the dangers of grand cultural theories comes to mind. “Theories of that sort,” Chesterton wrote, “must be rather easy to make up – if you leave out more than half the facts.”


R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of the newly published A Student’s Guide to Music History.

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