Sunday, January 13, 2019

Vive la différence!

No, that's not a sexist remark, au contraire. I have just been reading an interesting piece on modernism and the history of the novel: Was Modernism Meant to Keep the Working Classes Out? This item is just a brief blurb about a scholarly book by Jonathan Rose titled Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes published by Yale which I have not yet read. But the blurb has a couple of intriguing quotes:
The intelligentsia was driven to create literary modernism by a profound loathing of ordinary common readers. The intellectuals feared the masses not because they were illiterate but because, by the early twentieth century, they were becoming more literate, thanks to public education, adult education, scholarships, and cheap editions of the great books. 
If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.
The difference that I am citing is between the history of modernism in literature as opposed to the history of modernism in music. While we can certainly find suggestions of the dislike of the common listener in music, Arnold Schoenberg's creation of a concert society specifically designed to not appeal to the usual listeners, for example, with many other composers like his student Alban Berg or his rival Igor Stravinsky, we find the situation quite different and much more complex. Why is this? Or, if you disagree, how do you see it being similar? What about the fine arts? Paul Johnson, in his book that I keep citing, describes one trend in art in the 20th century as "fashion art" meaning art that was designed to be instantly eye-catching and to become obsolete after a season or two, hence the numerous "periods" in Picasso and the multiple varieties of cubism and abstraction.

Architecture, which is covered quite well in Johnson's book, seems to have quite a different dynamic in its recent history. The problem with that book is that, while it expresses a lot of fresh and provocative opinions (one of my favorites is his dismissal of Francis Bacon as being unable to draw, therefore also unable to paint), it doesn't flesh out the arguments and suffers from some poor editing. What I would really like to see is an in-depth discussion of how the history of the arts, visual, literary, musical, theatrical, dance and so on, differs and why this is so. Not sure who could write such a book, but I will start looking for it. If my readers know of such, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I might have to take a stab it it myself!

The financial aspect is often telling, so I might put up a post on the financial incentives in the visual arts as opposed to the world of music. As an envoi, let's listen to two very different pieces of twentieth century music that are both, in their own way, very popular, i.e. not written out of a "profound loathing of ordinary common [listeners]". The first, "A Day in the Life" by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, is from 1967:

The second is the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich from 1937:


Gavin said...

I think that's a bit of a slur on literary modernism. For example, Hemingway is often considered a modernist, and his writing is clear and lucid. The same with Joseph Conrad.

I'd argue that modernism is about trying to find a way to clear off the excrescences of the Romantic period and find a way to do something new. That's as true of Stravinsky as it is of Hemingway. I personally love Ulysses, but it's always felt more like the odd one out with its willful obscurities. Even Mrs. Dalloway by the elitist Woolf is easy to read on a surface level.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Gavin, for a different perspective. I suspect that Rose might be thinking of more recent writers, who avoid genre popularity in favor of a more "literary" style. Michael Ondaatje? But you are right, there are lots of fine writers who do not give you a sense that they have contempt for the common reader.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

My take on the article about Rose is a little bit different. While some of the 20th century modernists may have been highly elitist in "Masscult and Midcult" Dwight Macdonald claimed that many of the modernist/avant garde authors of the early 20th and late 19th century didn't see THEMSELVES as avant grade so much as they saw themselves trying to purge 19th century literature of its cliches and what Adorno would call kitsch.

But the bigger take-away I got from the article was the boom in literacy in the 19th century was able to happen because of how much of what we know think of as a literary canon was public domain.

When the "Blurred Lines" verdict came down a few years ago I recall some people being aghast at the ruling but for those of us who draw inspiration from mainly public domain music the ruling is somewhat irrelevant; but it IS interesting to observe that for people who are steeped mainly in popular musical culture from the last fifty years they do run into some challenges with so much of the recorded music of the period being so firmly within copyright.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, quite true. You could make a defence of their efforts in terms of the inherent elitist nature of high art. A lot of the trends in the 19th century were towards art forms, like opera, that were designed for large audiences including members of the middle class, and away from genres like chamber music that were more specifically for an aristocratic minority.

The extension of the Mickey Mouse copyright to 125 years is a prime example of the privatizing of what would in the past have been public or folk art.