Art and morality: The tyranny of the modern

In 1991, while on a visit to Paris, I spent a free afternoon at the Pompidou Center, the modern art museum.  It was a strange time to be in Paris, birthplace of the modern.  The anti-Gorbachev coup in the Soviet Union had just been overturned; the Soviet Union itself was dead as an ideal (and soon as a nation).  The Social Democrats had been voted out in Sweden.  An entire age, born in the blood of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and given its first artistic forms in Paris by Matisse and Picasso and Braque, was ending.

I had never seen the museum before.  Although I knew what to expect, the sight of it left me scratching my head.  Here was a tangle of metal guts and pipes, rusting in the moist Parisian air.  The ugliness, being intentional, could be a case of my not getting it:  chacun a son gout.  But what surprised me was how old-fashioned this architectural monster felt.  It had been finished only 14 years before, but it was hyper-modern, and the modern, at that twilight moment, had become out of date.

Inside, the feeling returned in force.  Not wishing to appear a dunce, I tried to decipher the enigmatic canvases and obscure sculptures, reading their titles with growing perplexity, until a sudden conviction seized me:  none of this will last.  French academic art in the nineteenth century produced thousands upons thousands of works, all stored in museum attics today.  The same will happen to modern art.  It’s an affectation, a pose rather than a style, and affectations can’t last beyond the circumstances that made them socially intelligible.

What was the modernist pose?  The same one assumed by the Leninist party in Russia:  that they represented the avant-garde, the vangard of progress of the human race.  Modernist sects squabbled with and contradicted one another about everything else, but each stood by that claim.  Each, to its faithful, was the future.

Insofar as art has a moral function, it is to embody and make real the abstract ideals of the community.  Yet an avant-garde sees itself quite differently:  its moral mission must be to eradicate, by whatever means, the community’s love affair with the past.

Modern art declared war on tradition, on convention, on morality, on historical Western notions about the place of beauty and human dignity in artistic production.  Styles were invented or imported from alien cultures, never consciously evolved from the European masters.  Modernism, like Leninism, wished to bully rather than seduce the community into a better future.

The effect of this rupture with a living tradition can best be observed in the treatment of  the human figure.  The first truly modern painting was Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The received wisdom is that it represents five nude prostitutes, three of them with faces modeled on African masks.  But consider the painting with an innocent eye.  The figures seem caught in the throes of a dreadful transformation.  They are shedding their humanity.  They are becoming dark, ungainly things.

What makes the Demoiselles modern is the artist’s substitution of a private jargon for traditional means of communication.  Either we follow Picasso blindly or we get left behind:  in this respect, the modern artist is a tyrant to his public, as he is over his forms.

But the dehumanization of art — a phrase coined by Picasso’s compatriot, Ortega y Gasset — has moral consequences.  The wrenching loose of art from the maternal culture turns  the human figure into nothing more than a subject of experimentation:  modern art becomes a reverse version of Dr. Moreau’s island, where wild animals were converted into bestial people.  Nazi medical horrors are not far in the future.  We come away from the Demoiselles vaguely ashamed of our humanity.

Because modernism wrapped itself in the mantle of progress, we tend to assume its inevitability.  Now that it has become a dead relic, we can question that assumption on many grounds.  Viewed, once again, with an innocent eye, modernism appears like a traumatic tear or wound in the evolution of Western art.  In fact, the Western artistic tradition died of it.  The cause of this lethal trauma has yet to be accounted for.

I don’t have an answer; to attempt one would would occupy too much space.  Let’s make a couple of obvious observations, then move on.

The old forms were exhausted.  One need only walk down any public garden in Paris to feel an overwhelming weariness with neoclassical statuary.  Rhetoric had trumped honest artistry.  The ghost of Greece hung strangely over factory smokestacks and Metro stations.  The modern contempt for the human figure might be explained by the mindless sensuality of late neoclassicism:  serried ranks of white stone people, all nude, all striking faux heroic or demure poses.

Then World War I brutalized an entire generation — it may be, brutalized the West forever.  Modern art, which preceded the war’s butchery, seemed prophetic.  Those bestial faces in the Demoiselles seemed far truer than the stone nymphs and heroes in the Jardins du Luxembourg.

A moral exhaustion was at work too.  Certainly, the break with tradition appeared justified, and offered a kind of desperate hope.  Like the Bolsheviks, the avante-garde artists felt themselves engaged in a tremendous, epoch-making enterprise, one which would settle what the poet Apollinaire — who died after the war of head wounds suffered in combat — called the long quarrel between order and adventure.

Despite their worship of adventure, the modernist patriarchs at least kept the human form in mind.  Picasso himself produced what I believe is the finest portrait of the modern period:  that of Gertrude Stein, who emerges from a dark background as a creature of light and shadow, stolid, pensive, nothing less than a complete personality.

Physical beauty is absent in the portrait of Stein.  No doubt the subject had something to do with this deficit, but in fact modern artists were curiously blind to the beautiful in people and things.  Most saw the human race as too ghoulish or foolish to be redeemed by external attractiveness.

“At the root, there was always something penitential about modernism,” notes Robert Hughes, “with its stern abjuration of the world’s sensuous pleasures in the interest of higher ones. You were never left in any doubt that the monk’s cell was a better place to be than the capitalist’s study, let alone his wife’s boudoir.”

Yet there were exceptions.  Modigliani’s female faces, though spare to the edge of caricature, were wistfully beautiful.  His female nudes, not in the least spare, might have come from the brush of a latter-day Rubens.

Whatever its moral worth, the modernist impulse began with a burst of genius.  By the end of World War II, when the leadership of the avante-garde passed to our country, the sectarianism and self-obsession that were to kill off the movement had already set in.  The decline was predictable from the first premises of modernism.

“Avante-garde” is a military term:  it means the scouts who move ahead of the main army.  Picasso and Modigliani, working in a culture dominated by conventional academic art, could with some justification claim to point in a different direction.  But by the postwar period, the avant-garde had become the academy.  When everyone is a scout, where is the army?

The only answer was to rebel against the art of the first rebels, yet that could be pushed only so far before descending into utter incoherence.  The demand for ever more extreme “progress” attained by ever more private idioms left American artists splashing wildly at canvasses in the hope that something visionary would happen.  In my opinion, it rarely did.  American postwar art at its best possessed a formal decorativeness — the kind of objects needed to cheer up the living rooms of millionaires.  At its worst, it exhuded a comic  self-indulgence that sealed it off from the mainstream of American life.  The works produced were forgettable.

America’s undeserved fate was to lead in art for the first time during the period of most embarrassing triviality in the history of the West.

I won’t belabor the point.  Enormous canvasses, instrusive sculpture, architecture — of which the Pompidou Center was a last gasp — that seeks to dominate its surroundings, increasing claims of magical powers by the artists, decreasing interest by the community:  while the classical impulse in Western art took 500 years to exhaust itself, modernism did it in three generations.  The revival of confidence in traditional modes of judgment, which began in the 1980’s, finished it off, as in a political context it finished off the Soviet Union.

The Italian futurist Marinetti proclaimed in 1909, “We want to demolish museums and libraries.”  Today, modernism and futurism survive because of those monuments to internal contradiction:  the modern art museum.  Every major city must have one:  the MOMA in New York, the Tate in London, the Hirshhorn in Washington and, of course, the Pompidou Center in Paris.  The modernists failed to persuade the masses, but they coopted the rich and powerful in capitalist countries — presidents and potentates who wanted reassurance that the future belonged to them.

Ideological despotisms, on the other hand, easily coopted the modernists.  The Italian futurists followed Mussolini to a man.  The Russian futurists joined the revolution, which killed off the best of them.  Others, like Picasso, either joined the Communist Party or became outspoken Marxists, although the Soviet Union banned their work.  In the savage  conflict between order and adventure that was the twentieth century, modern artists, almost without exception, played a dishonorable part.

The modernists wished, like God, to create out of nothing, but human beings lack that much imagination.  They abolished tradition, and in doing so aborted themselves.  They sought to improve the species with their private visions of the future, but art is a language, not a religion or a political platform.  It gives reality to values, relations, and ideals forged in the community at large — the living and the dead.  Divorced from the community and hostile to its ideals, modern art was from the start morally hollow, and within a generation became a series of empty poses and gesticulations turning back on themselves:

Shape without form, shade without color;
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion. . .

An artist tyrant, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, must fail before he starts.  Yet modern art left behind a powerful, destructive legacy:  the belief that sensitive souls must loathe the community, and despise ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  This remains an article of faith among postmodernists, who are really modernists who have lost their manhood and conviction.

The art that might have exalted and transcended the ordinariness of our lives has been used to mock and condemn us.  We return the favor.  Perpetual war between artists and the community that supports them can’t be a sign of moral good health, for them or for us.

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