Hey, let's go off half-cocked after reading the opening paragraphs of a serious Atlantic mag story! This piece is about the need to connect with our difficult modernist forebears:
Across the reach of literature, music, art, and architecture, “Make It New” (Pound’s phrase) was the uncompromising slogan that summoned a gathering of brazen imaginations. The insurrectionists collaborated and competed, calling for speech without cliché, love without embarrassment, truth without self-deception. The idea was that art could be what religion had been, and what politics had failed to become—a sphere of conviction and a site of shared value.
For the most audacious, this was the gamble with history that we pay a price for forgetting. We have never been postmodern, not in any sense of living after, or beyond, the decades of rupture, the modernist break with taken-for-granted conventions. Those years set the terms for our own struggle with the New. They inform our uneasy dance between art and fashion, art and money—and our fraught debates over the claims of art, politics, and religion. If you take the view that we haven’t yet lived up to their challenges, as I do, then the question is how to rouse ourselves to an unfinished task: How can we accept the call of our modernist origins?
That’s a big if.
There is no morality in art. There is morality in religion; there are philosophical objectives embedded in politics. The two are intertwined in a society and reflected in its art. When you sever art from its cultural moorings and make “newness” the overriding criterion by which the merits of a work are judged, then anything is possible. This results in crap. Not always. The stuff that makes the biggest break at the earliest opportunity is remembered for rashness or the effect it had on others or what it said about the taboos of the era, and sometimes it’s good in its own right. Sometimes it goes so far around what it wishes to supplant it inhabits the skin of the thing it thought it slayed.
Modern music, for example - defined here as atonal, serial, concrete, experimental, or any other style that wore its dissonance like a rebel teen who takes communion only so the priest can be shocked by the new tongue stud. Okay, you’re not pleasant. Noted. You’re difficult. Noted. I’m not saying music has to be pretty, and full of fluffy clouds and pink glowing harmonies, but when Mahler threw in dissonance it was to illustrate the absence of beauty, or the pain of unhappy emotions, or anything else that was common to the human experience. Composing something whose form is undetectable and shrieks and moans and cries is like hooking up an IV of sriracha.
I think music made itself irrelevant first, followed quickly by sculpture; painting took a while to bore everyone, because it kept inventing -isms to reveal the latest theory. All of these could be avoided by most people, and were mostly ignored; people wanted pictures that looked like things and music with a melody. But architecture: ah, here’s where they had us. There was no escape from architecture.
Let me note that I like modern architecture, just as I enjoy a lot of modern art. There is an unsparing clarity and noble reserve in the great modern office blocks. They become rote and monotonous when you get dozens of them repeated by lesser talents; whatever theory gave birth to the idea was quickly adapted to filling out the zoning envelope, which says something about the style itself. Renaissance church art had certain requirements, and individuality flourished inside the rules; modern office buildings had the “less is more” aesthetic, and when that’s an option for the patron, less is what you’ll get, and more of it.
Yet: modern architecture is the break from the past that everyone experienced. You didn’t have to read the books or the poems or hear the music to know that there was a schism between the old and new orders; nothing had a trace of classical ornamentation, stone was replaced by glass, grace replaced by sheer overwhelming scale and bulk. A skyscraper of the past had fizzy Gothic tracery unraveling in the clouds; the buildings ended with a fist. And it fit. The new world was corporate, technocratic, computerized, arranged on our behalf by minders and betters, and all this would take us to the moon and make us live for a hundred years. Science!
The lobbies had enormous pieces of modern art, but Muzak wasn’t Schoenberg. Most likely massed strings playing anodyne pop.
That world failed us all, but the best modern buildings still have appeal. Not because we imagine Robert MacNamara sitting in the penthouse with a Univac calculating the precise number of B-52 sorties to arrange an incremental rollback of Communism, but because we now imagine Don Draper in suit and hat and a Lucky idling in his knuckles, and think about a certain freedom we’ve lost, a standard of adulthood that got its face pushed in the mud at Woodstock. Of course that’s nonsense - Don Draper’s freedom consisted of Don Draper’s freedom to be Don Draper, a rather select club - but it seems as if we swapped modernism for youth culture, for yammering infantile babblings that shoved all the marginalia into the center of our field of vision and demanded that we pretend it mattered just as much as the serious concerns of previous eras.
But modernism was youth culture. It had the same old predictable motivation: down with Daddy.
Every era rebels against the precepts of the previous iteration, but after the Romantics it was no longer a matter of stylistic variations. Heart over head. The inauthenticity of artifice, as if artifice isn’t an essential quality of creation. Movements like this begin well, handled by the capable hands of people who have skill and understand form, but the torch is always grabbed by those who are attracted to destruction more than creation. The French and Russian revolutions began with the convening of popular assemblies, but there are always those guys in the back, chewing their nails, one leg jackhammering up and down, waiting for the moment to use the tools of reason to level the old bad world and build utopia. They are consumed with the notion of sin, but it’s sundered from the old conceptions. No longer a matter of the individual and God. There is no true individual, only masses, There is no God; there is the state. The slate must be cleared. The fresh slates must be reserved for those who write what is helpful. The chalkmakers must be purged lest anyone outside the circle write something contrary.
The primary urge of the revolutionary and the modernist and the adolescent: impatience.
In the WSJ the other day there was a piece about the Tour de Montparnasse, a late-modern bulk that stands as a rebuke to everything Paris had spent centuries accumulating. People hated it when it was built and apparently hate it today. I remember seeing it in high school, and being impressed - this audacious slab, straight up, a French cousin to the IDS building in the city where I wanted to go to college. When I got close up I saw the raw concrete in the public areas - honest! Unadorned! Au revoir to bourgeoise artifice. It was ugly and callous, demeaning and contemptuous. A complete and utter break from everything Parisians expected of a public space, and hence the ultimate modernist work. It was miserable. But it was new.
If you were around back then, experiencing Modernism was like a bout of the Ludovico technique:
You couldn’t look away. The critics moistened your orbs with the balm of medicated opinion. Eventually you got used to it. Presented with actual beauty afterwards, you were unable to respond.
So how do we reconnect with the great modernists? Redefine the term. Give it to those who expressed new ideas in classical forms and new mediums, like film and photography and jazz. Stop pretending Joyce and Klee and Gropius and Berg mean more to our culture than Chaplin, Bourke-White, Raymond Hood, and Gershwin. The difference between the two groups is that a lot of people paid a lot of money for the work of the latter batch. Theirs was the modernism people chose.
Man, if the opening paragraphs set me off, I can’t wait to read the rest of the piece.
One more thing: whenever people talk about Modernism, it’s always the usual suspects in literature and art, with a nod to a few architects whose conceptions of how people really want to live were predicated on a unique combination of Olympian disregard and outright insanity. Not a lot of talk about the difficult composers who drove the Classical ‘ Romantic tradition to Hollywood soundtracks. No one ever talks about the visual vocabulary of 30s modernism, which was more futuristic, technocratic, egalitarian and beautiful than anything the 50s / 60s modernists produced. Two World’s Fairs were built in this American Moderne mode, streamlined and gleaming; the quantity of stunning buildings that were both individualistic expressions of their sponsor and purpose AND bound to a common style is unparalleled in the 20th century. Add a government-sponsored public works program that injected the style into American towns at the molecular level, and mass-culture cinema that identified it as the look of the future, which by the way was also the look of your new Post Office.
This was the true break from the past - and it wasn’t enough. It had to be replaced with the decorative I-Beams of Mies and expositions of Structural Honesty and a brusque dismissal of sensual forms. It’s not that Modernism hates beauty - it just has an instinctual aversion to what it thinks everyone else thinks is beautiful. Which of course sets the stage for the rejection of beauty by anyone’s definition.
But once upon a time they built these things.
1934 World's Fair. Pure abstraction. The last moment, perhaps, when the era could conceive of something into which one person could see the yearning for the transcendent, and someone else could see the triumph of a rational aesthetic. By accident they invented something that would have made a beautiful transition between the old world and the new, and they did it in the service of selling admission tickets. The war blew that all away. After that came googie and tail-fins and neon and the jet-age / space-age aesthetic, and these culturally-specific attributes lacked the hairshirt internationalism of the modernist pan-humanity creed. Modernism was not stage-dressing for hamburger consumption or grocery shopping.
Oh, but it was. And everyone loved it because it was new and clean and playful and American. It was happy.
It’s the modernist’s lament. Everyone is so damned happy for the silliest of reasons. If only they knew how miserable they should be, everything would be so much better.
Here endeth the sermon, posted without re-reading or revision. I want to have popcorn and watch TV.
Now, the Cues! Do I have to explain? Fine. As I say every week: if you're just joining the Listen project, it includes a selection of music cues gleaned from old radio shows In this case, "The Couple Next Door," the wonderful 1958-1960 radio show written by, and starring, Peg Lynch. It's library music the producers dropped in to get them in and out of scenes. It's the background soundtrack for mid-century life.
New this week: HTML5 / Mobile compliant! Listen on your phone! Finally catching up with the world; just wish the players were prettier. I found one I really like, but it's still Flash.
CND Cue #190. Bouncy cheer, dovetailing down into the inevitable Chord of Domestic Continuity. (Which is what I'm calling it this week.
CND Cue #191. This is part of something I've heard before, but not this ending. Note: I'd bet that this was used to wrap up scenes, not shows.
CND Cue #192. Never heard this. Let me set the scene: the husband has gone skiing for the first time in years, and ended up in a small mountain-town hospital. Drama! The wife must go up to see him, if a friend agrees to fly. Key word here: fly. Listen close. Right at the end. Minor key.
CND Cue #193. Listen for the same motif again. This time most of the motif is playing. Remember: flying.
CND Cue #194 & 195. Just to show you how two different pieces of music can sound as if they're cut from the same bolt.
The other plot of the week concerned blowhard braying ass Charlie getting, and turning down, a job that took him to Europe, followed by Charlie and Madge's decision to just go live in Europe. I mention this because no one who listened to the show knew what was happening, really. I asked Peg about the two characters, who were favorites; she made a whaddya-gonna-do face and said that they had to be dropped because people didn't like them. So I was listening to her write the characters out of the show.
It's an interesting period in the series, the start of 1959: it's lost three main characters and one huge long plot arc. I wonder how she builds it all up again.
I was going to call and ask whether it was a challenge, but I looked at my watch, and thought, it's probably naptime.
Finally, the weekly Jell-O ad. Which week is it this week, Don Wilson?
I think he's really stretching this one. But it ran in January, if that helps.
That's it for this week! Column up here; scroll down to the COLUMNS pane.