Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Modernism in question

The fading of the fetish of postmodernism - long overdue in my opinion - has led to a revival of the trend it ostensibly replaced, modernism itself. 

But what is modernism? In literature it can clearly be identified with the emergence of such French avant-garde writers as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. Those more oriented to the anglophone sphere focus on the "men of 1914": Pound, Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce. In painting a strong case can be made for the Cubist foursome, Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger, recently seen here at the Met in the Lauder Collection. In architecture the giants Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius emerged ca. 1922. 

What binds all these figures together is their seemingly contradictory embrace of modern life and technology combined with an ironic attitude towards them. I find myself returning over and over to these figures, who were truly "phares," beacons of light in Baudelaire's terms.

A question that frequently arises with modernist writers is this. Weren't all these figures reactionaries, if not actual fascists? That is true of Pound, Céline, and Marinetti, though not at all points of their careers. However, the poets Esenin and Mayakovsky were stalwart supporters of the incipient Soviet regime, as was, in a different way, Bertolt Brecht. During WW II in France Samuel Beckett worked actively for the Resistance. Some pertinent questions have been raised about J.-P. Sartre in this period, but after the war he consistently supported, in his own fashion, the left. Others, like Joyce and Rilke were uncommitted.