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: