Sunday, March 18, 2007

Enduring Modernists

I'm envious of my fellow Brit Lit bloggers who made what sounded like an excellent event in London, with Gabriel Josipovici, entitled "Whatever Happened to Modernism?" Good precis of the event from the Sharp Side and This Space. I went to the V&A's "Modernism" exhibition last year and was interested how modernism has many facets - the V&A, naturally, concentrating on architecture and design, rather than literature, music and painting. This is where the problems lie of course. For on the one hand modernism is a distinct movement at a distinct time, and the modernist impulse, could, one thinks, be seen as being almost entirely related to that time; and that if we are now in a period where none of that impulse or influence is still there - or, if its so dissipated by assimilation - then with time passing that's hardly a surprise. I've written before that I consider "Finnegan's Wake" or "The Making of the Americans" a cul-de-sac from which there is no return; for unlike the visual arts, abstraction in the written arts is almost always a negative. In fact, the best modernist writing would be against abstraction - would be about a determined clarity. That clarity in the visual is about releasing paint from it being a representative art, and making it explicit for its own sake. But just as modernism never really took hold in English architecture, design or painting, it didn't really take hold in English literature either; sometimes for very good political reasons. (In architecture and design the conflation of modernism with a certain type of systemic oppression is where the English, for all our faults, find a distinction - is the modernist impulse illiberal? might be the question that is implicit in an English rejection of it.) But from what I can gather from this lecture - and the comments on it - what is in play now is the issue of artistic complacency, where a form is appropriated without consideration of the birth pains of that form. I suppose the "breaking of the pentameter" of free verse would be a good example; Pound certainly never meant it to mean free, as in without responsibility. Like a Stuckist painter, unable to comprehend that the failure of their argument is not Painting vs. other artforms, a contemporary novelist/short story writer/poet who is simply filling a particularly shaped box (named: novel, poem, story) without considering why that box is in any way appropriate (or not), IS essentially complacent. Importantly, modernist writing is not necessarily better than a non-modernist one; (a minor imagist vs. Tennyson for instance), but the intent will have an effect over time. I wouldn't disagree if it is that Josipovici still thinks that English literature is "narrow, provincial and smug" - though I'd be interested to know how the word "Provincial" is used. It is a long time since British writing has had the confidence of authority (perhaps the sense of a "great" country passing on to its literature), yet I would doubt whether it has ever had a sense of radicalism. Those of us who appreciate its wider merits realise, regrettably, that we're working in an inherently conservative artform. Yet English writing is peculiar as well in that it is not tentative - how can it be? with such a long lineage - and this is where the smugness can come from I think. I was talking with a friend about "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith, and we can neither of us understand the level of acclaim given the book. Whereas its source material, "Howard's End", has a particular historical moment behind its structure, Smith's reworking is merely a convenient trope, no more than "Bridget Jones' Diary" reworking "Pride and Prejudice." Yet, Smith is a writer who certainly appreciates modernism, even if she doesn't aspire to more than its range of ideas. Confidence without responsibility is the often hollow centre of the English novel or poem.


Charles Thomson said...

You have missed the point of Stuckism, which is actually the very one you are making, namely that form without content, understanding and purpose is redundant. Stuckist advocacy of painting is the tip of the iceberg, the bulk of which is concerned with the need for values, namely truth to self and experience, as well as to the clear communication of those. You are right that abstraction in the written arts is a negative, but it is too in the visual arts, where "determined clarity" is equally necessary, and a fundamental of Stuckism.

Charles Thomson said...

Oh, last post by Charles Thomson

Co-founder, The Stuckists

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks for your comment Charles, and I'm pleased that Stuckism has gone beyond the media representation of it which was perhaps my stereotyped characterisation above. Perhaps I should have said "like a conservative watercolourist." Though I didn't mention it in this post, I should have referenced this excellent article which I'd mentioned a few posts earlier.