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International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Chris Nineham

The two faces of modernism


From International Socialism 2:64, Autumn 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Gareth Jenkins’s Novel Questions in International Socialism 62 is more than an interesting discussion of the English novel. The general points Gareth makes suggest a particular framework for a Marxist understanding of much of the culture of the last two centuries. His defence of ‘strong realism’ is essential reading, and his theoretical approach is crucial; we have to judge whether works of art, he says ‘get to grips with the complex dynamics of social development... and not simply whether they satisfy certain formal aesthetic criteria’. [1] But Gareth applies his own criteria unevenly, and his overall account is weakened by his dismissive attitude to modernism.

Gareth is absolutely right to underline the unique qualities of the classical realist novels of the early 19th century. As the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs first pointed out, the novels of Scott, Balzac and later Tolstoy, were written as the rising capitalist class created the conditions and the need for a fearless examination of society. The revolutionary slogan, ‘Liberty, Fraternity and Equality’, offered the hope of the full and free development of the individual through class struggle. In Lukacs’s words capitalism had ‘for the first time made history a mass experience’. [2]

The finest novels of the period captured the complex dialectic between society and the individual with a clarity unmatched before or since. Their heroes are products of social change, but they also express the need for it. ‘Scott’s novels marched towards the great heroes in the same way as history itself had done when it required their appearance’. [3] Some later English 19th century novels like Middlemarch retain an ambition to grasp society in its totality through representative characters. But Gareth Jenkins’s – and Lukacs’s – crucial point is that once the bourgeoisie had secured power, it rushed to bury its revolutionary origins.

By the second half of the 19th century the writer could no longer occupy an artistically privileged position at the eye of the storm. Relative social stability could sustain art that was descriptive and sometimes compassionate, but the real relations of society remain hidden beneath the calm.

The high points of 19th century culture need defending. The establishment wants to empty them of all social content and turn them into harmless heritage while sections of the left would like to junk them as ‘bourgeois ideology’. Marxists understand that because capitalism excludes workers from access to so much culture we still have a great deal to learn from the culture of the past, particularly from the culture of revolutionary periods.

However, in his enthusiasm to defend 19th century realism, Gareth is too quick to write off all that has happened since. Although he accepts Brecht’s point that you can’t simply tell contemporary writers to ‘write like Balzac’, he seems basically hostile to modernism:

It [modernism] denies the potential of the human subject either by withdrawing into a private ‘space’ of subjectivity or by making the subject as inhuman as the forces which confront it in the public world. Either way, the condition of alienation is accepted as given, whether despaired of or rejoiced in …

Fragmentation, plurality, the dehumanisation of the subject, the aestheticisation of experience – all of which remain key elements within the modernist movement, even at its most radical and challenging – emphasise the sphere of individual refusal as the only meaningful sphere. [4]

The simple fact that so many modernist artists, from Picasso to Grosz and from Heartfield to Bertold Brecht were passionately interested in overcoming alienation and releasing the ‘potential of the human subject’, doesn’t in itself prove Gareth wrong. It does suggest however that Gareth is telling only half the story of modernism. I want to take issue with three main points; that modernist art was always and only a reflection of fragmentation, that it could only be an individualistic response and therefore ignored society, and that it accepted alienation as a given.

Modernism is a term used to lump together an enormous body of artistic work in all forms – poetry, cinema, painting, architecture – that was produced roughly between the 1890s and the mid 20th century. General definitions are difficult, but modernist work tends to be formally experimental and highly self conscious – think of the Cubist paintings of Picasso or the ‘flow of consciousness’ of James Joyce’s novels. Gareth Jenkins is right to emphasise dislocation and fragmentation as characteristics of modernism. The ‘high period’ of modernism from 1900–1930 was of course a time of unmatched upheaval, in which the promises of the bourgeois revolution were finally shattered by war, slump and workers’ revolt. The accelerating development of technology and the penetration of mass production techniques into every sphere of life added to a deep sense of uncertainty. In Perry Anderson’s words, ‘European modernism in the first years of this century thus flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present and a still unpredictable political future’. [5]

It has been very tempting for Marxist criticism to glorify modernism given its origin in such a period of upheaval, and its – at least formal – rejection of the past. After the Russian Revolution the intellectuals of Proletkult argued for a rejection of all previous culture, claiming that modernist techniques were the basis for a brave new working class art.

Such a simple minded response misses the contradictory nature of all modernism. Gareth is right to point out that modernist work often appears as a retreat from society. Its emphasis on dislocation and alienation could open the way to a kind of rampant subjectivity. His criticism of Virginia Woolf, for example, is telling: ‘one cannot escape the feeling, beneath the richness of language, of artistic impoverishment which follows from impoverished grasp of social reality’. [6] However, if the modernists often found a retreat or refuge in their art, many of them also found a form of rebellion against a society that had gone crazy, and a conventional art that was no longer adequate or honest. The Dada artist Hans Arp suggests this dual role for his art. When hiding in Switzerland from ‘the slaughterhouses of war’ he wrote:

We searched for an elementary that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times. We aspired to a new order that might restore the balance between heaven and hell. This art gradually became the object of general reprobation. Is it surprising that the ‘bandits’ could not understand us? Their puerile mania for authoritarianism expects art itself to serve the stultification of mankind. [7]

When Marcel Duchamp chose to put a urinal on display in a gallery he may not have been exposing the dynamics of capitalism but he was rejecting complacent and cosy art that simply justified the status quo – precisely the slavish and superficial art of the ‘Naturalists’ that Lukacs so despised. When the Dadaists covered gallery walls with cut out images of violence and greed from magazines they may have despaired of any decent future for mankind, but this simple rebellion had its value. As Trotsky said of the modernist writer Celine, ‘exposing the lie he instils the want for a more harmonious future ... the very intensity of his pessimism bears with it a dose of its antidote.’ [8]

Modernism, however, was more than a rebellion. While it expressed dislocation, it had to find ways to overcome it in order to survive. A famous quote from the reactionary modernist poet T.S. Eliot describes this process. The poet’s mind, he says, is ‘constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes’. [9] Poetically, artistically, the modernists were trying to find ‘new wholes’ in an alarming world. This could and did lead artists in all sorts of directions. Eliot’s elitism is clear from his contempt for ‘the ordinary man’ in the quote. The Italian Futurists found meaning in a celebration of the inhuman power of technology and the destructiveness of war.

But the search for new artistic method, and the corresponding self consciousness about the role of the artist in society, could lead to a critique of society itself. If the artist was alienated then perhaps a new art should find a new place in society. Camilla Gray describes why the pre-revolutionary Russian Futurists developed a rudimentary street theatre; their ‘antics and public clowning [were a] naive attempt to restore the artist’s place in ordinary life, to allow him to become, as they themselves profoundly felt the need to be, an active citizen’. [10] At a time when technology was promising undreamed of transformations, when capitalism was being shaken by war and revolution, the frustrated artist could go further – perhaps a new art requires a new society. In Trotsky’s words it depended ‘on what angle the artist was struck by the revolution’. In Russia the Futurists went over to the side of the workers:

The workers’ revolution in Russia broke loose before Futurism had time to free itself from its childish habits ... before it could be officially recognised, that is, made into a politically harmless school whose style is acceptable. The seizure of power by the proletariat caught Futurism still in the stage of being a persecuted group. And this fact alone pushed Futurism towards the new masters of life, especially since the contact and rapprochement with the revolution was made easier for Futurism by its philosophy, that is by its lack of respect for old values and dynamics. [11]

For a few years before the Stalinist clampdown the Russian modernists were able to try and unite political and aesthetic revolutions. The poet Mayakovsky described the project: ‘We do not need a dead mausoleum of art where dead works are worshipped, but a living factory of the human spirit – in the streets, in the tramways, in the factories, workshops and workers’ homes.’ [12]

The Futurists’ rhetoric is sometimes childishly impatient as well as passionate. Workers cannot skip over the past and create a fully formed ‘socialist’ culture in a day. Time will be needed to grapple with and assimilate the achievements of past cultures. But there is no mistaking the excitement of the Russian Futurist experiment. Far from ‘accepting alienation’ these artists were raging against it, and searching to overcome it in practice.

Precisely because they are self conscious and self referential, the best modernist works convey the ambiguities of the artists’ predicament. The Cubist paintings of Picasso or Braque are fragmented but playful at the same time. They celebrate the artists’ new found freedom from perspective and an new mastery over form at the same time as threatening to dissolve into chaos. There cannot be a better insight into the age.

Moholy-Nagy, a consciously political theorist of modernism, made the link between social change and visual form explicit in his discussion of abstract art that ‘projects a desirable future order’ ... ‘creates new types of spatial relationships, new inventions of forms, new visual laws – basic and simple – as the visual counterpart to a more purposeful, co-operative human society’. [13]

At its most politically conscious and sophisticated, in the work of Brecht, Eisenstein or Dos Passos amongst others, modernism could express the fragmentation of experience under capitalism and the potential that capitalism creates for new unity. All three of these artists consciously used montage to point out the monstrous contradictions of the system and to encourage the public to see themselves as activists who have the potential to end these contradictions.

Why does any of this matter? Modernism too is constantly attacked and trivialised. The conventional wisdom is that art and politics do not mix. To the faddish presenters of the Late Show the idea of a conscious social role for the artist is crude and old fashioned. That suits the establishment. We need to fight for recognition and understanding of artists who were at once angry and technically brilliant, expressive and politically committed.

The establishment itself tends to attack modernism in its most social incarnations. It condemns modernist architecture particularly. Tower blocks offend it, not because the materials used were shoddy or the lifts are not properly maintained – although these facts give its attacks a real resonance – but because they are public housing. Around them lingers the memory of an idea that cities could be planned for people, and even by people, that the architect could serve society, not just Lloyds or Natwest.

The idea of art and society coming together was most fully developed by those of the modernists who found inspiration in the revolutionary upheavals that followed 1917. In France, Le Corbusier planned utopian housing schemes for a harmonious new society. In Berlin the artists of the Bauhaus tried to develop a whole philosophy of design for a socialist order. Much of the rhetoric and some of the practice of these artistic revolutionaries seem naive and utopian to us today. There is no doubt they needed interaction with a mass movement to continue developing. But the best of them found new ways of exploring the reality of their time which could point towards ending the alienation and fragmentation of capitalism.

In his article Gareth rightly warns us against the tendency to see modernism or realism ‘as a set of techniques, rather than the ability of a culture to grasp the underlying dynamics of an epoch’. [14] The techniques of modernism have indeed survived it, but they have been used in ways which can confuse the debate.

Once the revolutionary groundswell of the inter-war years had subsided, the notion of expert social planning was easily taken over by the reformists who had need of schemes to cheaply rebuild bombed out cities. The idea of an artistic ‘avant garde’ could also be taken up by artists who had turned their back on any social role. The revolution had been defeated, technology had been used by big business to enslave, not by workers to liberate. The post-war abstract artists may have begun in the belief that their art could be a haven from a hostile world, but some of them quickly discovered it could provide them with a passport to privilege in the post-war boom.

Earlier, modernist art had mainly outraged and offended the establishment. After the war ‘avant garde’ abstract painting became the officially sanctioned culture of corporate America. The paintings of Jackson Pollock and Theodore Roethke looked impressive, seemed meaningful and had absolutely no connection with any aspiration to change the world. By the 1980s no self respecting capitalist could be without a smattering of ‘new art’ in the office. The likes of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst are not interested in questioning their roles as artists – they are quite happy as international celebrities, dreaming up mildly eccentric status symbols for the rich.

In the last 20 years certain ‘radical’ artists and critics have actually celebrated and encouraged fine art’s drift into harmless obscurity. Following Althusser’s disastrous claims that the realm of ideology is effectively separate from the economic base, it became fashionable to talk of a separate ‘ideological struggle’. A whole generation of supposedly subversive artists became obsessed with challenging conventional ‘modes of representation’ and ‘discourses’. The result – art that was completely self-referential and irrelevant to anyone who had not been to art school.

Just as we need to defend the great realists from their superficial imitators, so we need to disentangle the most penetrating and challenging work of the modernists from those who want to turn art into a commodity. In the next great upheavals, new artists will want to learn from their pioneering efforts to break down the barriers between art and life.


1. G. Jenkins, Novel Questions, International Socialism 62, p. 116.

2. G. Lukacs, The Historical Novel (Penguin 1981), p. 20.

3. Balzac paraphrased by G. Lukacs,ibid.

4. G. Jenkins, op. cit., pp. 114–115.

5. P. Anderson, Modernity and Revolution, quoted in A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism (Polity 1989), p. 40.

6. G. Jenkins, op. cit., p. 115.

7. Quoted in D. Britt (ed.), Modern Art – Impressionism to Postmodernism (London 1989), pp. 210–211.

8. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art (Pathfinder 1981), p. 202.

9. Quoted in M. Bradbury and J. McFarlane (eds.), Modernism (Penguin 1976), p. 83.

10. C. Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863–1922, (Revised edn, London 1986) p. 116.

11. L. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Redwords 1991), p. 160.

12. V. Mayakovsky, quoted in A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 57.

13. Quoted in D. Britt (ed.), op. cit., p. 201.

14. G. Jenkins, op. cit., p. 113.

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