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Museum of Modern What?

I am a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in danger I do recover them.
                    The shoemaker in Julius Caesar,  Shakespeare

essay by Arthur Mortensen

In a recent, long conversation with an old friend, the re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art entered in.   Wasn't it peculiar, we wondered, that the footprints of what was described as modern art, i.e, work done between 1890 and the 1950s, and by some acolytes in the fifty years since, so strongly contrasted with those of what we both thought of as modern sensibilities, that one print showed soles with holes, the other new and whole.     A bold statement -- and what was an available proof for it?   We both hesitated on the edge of the abyss, unwilling to use the word audience.   It seems a horror to use such a word, especially to those to whom the drumbeat from critics, academics and colleagues has been the same for a century, that an audience entails something unspeakable, a daughter having sex for example.   Odd, but in a democracy, a majority is deemed competent to elect a government which may determine the future of nations and peoples, at least by those parties beyond American Democrats.  Still, as good ex-students, we tried to avoid this gravest stigma in the arts.  But the word had to emerge; nothing else would do.   As Saul had his thousands, so did modern art.  But as David had his ten thousands, so had art, poetry, music, novels and films of a distinctly modern sensibility, a sensibility not rooted in salons and academia, but on the field of battles ranging from the Marne to Warsaw,  Guadalcanal to Tora Bora, or on the intellectual battlefield of knowledge and technology from Einstein to Borlaug to plans for terraforming another planet, or on the field of arts in photography, naturalist painting, figurative sculpture, and poetry whose content stretched into the wide world.   The difference wasn't political.   Of modern sensibility in poetry and prose one might find not only Charles McCarry and Tom Wolfe, but Isabel Allende and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not only Robert Frost and Elino Wylie, but Primo Levi and Miklos Radnoty, not only the nouvelle vague of Resnais and Chabrol, but Scorcese and Kubrick, not only Arthur Clarke and Stanislaw Lem but Ursula LeGuin and Frederick Turner.  Funny thing about all of them, even the poets:  lots of people read them or see their movies.    Does this crude measure of audience mean anything, or are we to take it instead as a proof that the creators sold out?

God knows we're expected to.  The arguments come fast and furious and are variations on a theme.  The basic logic of the "sold out" charge follows:  "the vast majority of people who look at a work of art are unconscious captives of the dominant politics (invariably oppressive).  Therefore, any artist who has a large audience is either a) unconcious of the dominant politics and therefore naive, or b) is  cynically manipulating an audience of the unconscious for no other other reason but to gain money or power. "  And generally there's a codicil: "This does not obtain if the audience is comprised of citizens of a (pick one) a) people's republic, b) Islamic republic, or c) America when both Houses of Congress and the White House are occupied by Democrats."    Let's see.   Isabel Allende and Gabriel Marquez  are fast friends of Fidel Castro's.   Stanislaw Lem lived quite happily and successfully in USSR-occupied Poland, while offering a level of satire against it (or any other presumed authority) to rank with Voltaire's.   It would be hard to find a serious argument that either Martin Scorcese or Stanley Kubrick worked much to the right of the average socialist.   Miklos Radnoty was a classicist poet murdered by the Nazis.  Robert Frost was hated by his own biographer, not to mention most of the people who ever met him.  Elinor Wylie was part of a rather snooty set, to be sure, but not one likely to be emulated in Canton, Ohio.  Primo Levi survived Auschwitz.   Resnais and Chabrol were battered by cultural and political wars in post-war France that make our own cultural police actions look tame.   LeGuin is a strong feminist in her politics and in her fiction.  Frederick Turner would rather be an astronaut writing poetry on a Mars station.   Where's the commonality of whoredom, of being stripped for action on the Minnesota Strip, looking for a john?

There are lengthy, political elabortions to this sellout logic, especially in how to avoid such a devastating state, that include such "fundamentals" as a) any connection with artistic traditions or popular conventions (other than cynical exposures -- see Quentin Tarantino) is verboten; b) absolute originality is required, as any reference will be politically corrupted by another age and another hegemony;  c) the audience, such as it is, must be constantly re-educated, explained to, brought up to the level of the artist in his or her genius;  d) whatever the audience responds to favorably should be regarded with critical (political?) suspicion.

These twin conceptions, that popularity is a proof of an artist's decayed value, and that art must always and forever be part of a constant revolution away from whatever used to have an audience, have had a predictable effect.  One, the wealthy success stories of a few Modernists and post-Modernists can be safely held as proofs of the old saw that there's a sucker born every minute.   And two, nobody outside of the presenters, critics and buyers of this work gives a damn about it -- as intended.  It's a great deal if you're one of the chosen.  You can be a wealthy snob with a multimillion dollar condo in SoHo and still be one of the special people in the arts.  Neat trick. It's not so neat for the army of hangers-on and disciples graduated from American universities every year, needless to say, most of whom have to opt for either teaching other potential stars, or wait tables for a living.   But then there's an answer for that; such Modern artists have integrity. 

If there's a commonality in the other group -- perhaps we could call them the Out Group, it's in the fusion of classical means with a sensibility that could not have existed prior to 1914.   This sensibility arose away from Modern Art, which became the province of an educated elite, and patronized by a wealthy clan centered in the smarter districts of London, Berlin, Paris, and New York.  Modern Art's  "popularity" was largely induced by public relations campaigns (but only in restricted circulation magazines with an expensive advertising base) and  art appreciation courses taught by those  not  deemed  "stars" by the critics, publishers and galleries who sponsored the products of Modernism.  But, that Out Group was forced to cruder means, putting their work before a public that, even though educated,  often seemed more interested in football than in new classical music, challenging movies, bold novels, or that most unusual of contemporary poetry not about the poet but about a bigger world.   While so-called modern art became ensnarled in elaborations of abstract formal elements that cognoscenti could offer knowing comments about while sipping a chardonnay blanc and nibbling on bris, it often seemed little more than painting about painting, sculpture about sculpture, film about film, or prose about prose, an endless teaching exercise in otherwise uninteresting and separated elements of what used to be called art.  That Out Group, on the other hand, strode into the middle of newspaper headlines and presented what it claimed to be the stories.   Those weren't about formal elements, though such were used in the most successful work, nor were they abstracted in order to appreciate the finer qualities of color, instead colored with detail and craft to obliterate an abstraction's lies.   In its strange reductionism to endlessly varied formal elements, Modernist art often looked more like propaganda than art, devoid of qualification, irony, compassion, distinction, detail, or anything else that might identify the work as being apart from the official definition of High Art.   The Out Group, on the other hand, was clearly uninterested in such demands, but chose to be eclectic, happy to use elements of a given art's tradition, wandering from subject to subject without the de rigueur repetition of politically personal themes.   Modernists scorned not only tradition but, by its second and third generations, any reference to tradition whatsoever.   In Eliot, you could smell the classical elements of poetry, but by 1960 all of that had vanished among Modernist poets, replaced by a uniform sincerity, regardless of whether a single line made sense.   By the 1960's, Modernism began to aver that sense and sensibility were themselves too suspect to work toward, waging their endless political fight against the bourgeoisie (steelworkers, doctors, business people?), and others of the various dragons of their age with work, such as Robert Bly's Light Around the Body or Teeth Mother, Naked at Last, barely translatable without notes by the author.
That Out Group took a different tack; one often does to find wind and a direction.  Primo Levi, in addressing the gravest crime of a politically criminal era, took the approach of using precise, refined, elegant, persuasive, and metaphorically rich and coherent language.  Surviving Auschwitz or The Periodic Table don't require notes, improvised explanations at a reading, or a connotative performance style, complete with zither, to convey their meaning.    The stories were detailed examinations of events that many millions knew about, and a few millions had firsthand experience with.  Does this have anything to do with why Primo Levi's books were read by millions of people?   Or was he just slutting to the latest fad, spinning literary hula hoops?

A better question might be this:  how did Modernism address the Holocaust?   Answer:  it didn't.  Instead, its allies among politicians started drawing comparisons between the murder of six million Jews and the slaughter of chickens for the dinner table.  And so we evolve from Meyerhold and Marx to Keith Herring and PETA.

But wait! cries un critique (best to use French when describing the various citoyens of the Modernist and post-Modernist scene), isn't it true that Hitler and Stalin both hated l'art Moderne?   You can always depend on this one.  When all else fails, when you discover that most of Frederick Turner's or Stanislaw Lem's readers, for instance, have gone to college, then fall back on Hitler and Stalin's trashing of icons of Modernism to "prove" your argument against their efforts to create readable and engaging work.   The obvious followup for the unintimidated is easy, though:  in favor of what did the dictators trash Modern art?   Funny thing, the art favored by both Hitler and Stalin was itself highly abstracted and propagandistic; there's nothing to reference the present or the past in either the woman-on-a-tractor paintings of Soviet social realism or the grandiose buildings by those architects favored by Albert Speer.   While Modernist art eliminated such troublesome elements as observed detail and classical reference, Hitler and Stalin's artists were required to use classical technique to obliterate both the past and any detailed reference to the present.  Now, any halfway decent scholar of antiquities like John Donne or Michelangelo could easily tell you that such a use negated classicism altogether, rather as the use of cinema verité in a Goddard film makes an obviously contrived subject seem valid by framing it in the illusion of spontaneity.   It looks like the same merde to this writer.  From the diverse collection in that Out Group, what could we surmise is the modern sensibility?

It doesn't seem hard to answer.   The modern era, which we might extend back to the Industrial Revolution, embraces planetary displacement of peoples, global change, world war, aggressive and previously unimaginably savage political conflicts.  It also has exploration of the cosmos, a more than doubling of the average human lifespan, a vast upsurge of wealth distributed not to a tiny percentage of people but to billions.   There has been an interconnection of the world through telephone networks, mass communications, and the Internet, not to mention a complete overturning of medeaval and ancient perceptionis of how the world and everything in it works.   It includes not one, but three, paradigm shifts:  the industrial economy of the 1800s; the mass society of the 20th century; and the astonishing evolution of societies segmented not so much by geography as by interest in the 21st -- made possible by communications networks and worldwide sharing of knowledge and information.   It also embraces an expansion of the democratic franchise from a few million to several billion people, from one to a hundred nations.  The literary salons of the early 19th century gave way to publishing empires and vast audiences of readers by the 20th, and again to the Worldwide Web and segment publishers in the 21st.  What had been essentially invisible lives for the vast majority of people became more public and visible than anyone would have guessed, not nightmarishly, as in Orwell, but as a liberation from the anonymity that characterized the old industrial world.  While this did permit the broadcast of pathological ideas, it also allowed a rapid mobilization of thought itself to oppose that illness, and a convenient means of targeting the enemy.   From looking at these few bits of the modern, an obvious question arises: where is Modernism in all of this? 

The answer seems equally obvious:  nowhere.

Strangely, to all but those sullied exemplars of capitalism, the marketers, those most fully engaged in examining, confronting, and either fighting or celebrating this new world have been artists using techniques and approaches that would have been familiar to Vasari in 16th century Florence.   They told stories without flinching or hiding behind games;  they wrote poems in form and meter, plays, screenplays, epics and novels that embraced not only the present but a myriad of possible futures; they painted pictures using classical technique to illuminate modern settings and people.  In this work, they did not hesitate to use any tool from the full palette of art, provided it communicated to a reader, a viewer, or a listener, and in a language understandable without mandated attendance at a re-education camp in Siberia or in the Ivy League.  While Modernism and post-Modernism alike pranced about private salons, exhibiting their superiority in a language unrelated to the time we're living in, this grubby little Out Group produced the cultural artifacts that most of the world regards as truly modern art.

                                                                                              Arthur Mortensen