Three big aspects [of Modernism]

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

Three big aspects [of Modernism]

From Iian Neill

Published before 2005


Melvile Holmes wrote:

There are three big aspects to modernism, or modern theory, that come to mind: Formalism (the belief that the Art in any supposed artwork is actually its abstract design elements), the avant-garde (that there was at least in Western culture a continual development and evolution of artistic styles that was pushed forward by individuals who did something new - starting with Giotto even Cimabue), and this one, that you can't go back to the past and that legitimate art must reflect its age.

I wonder whether we could raise questions about the implications of each of these three aspects. With regards to Formalism: as I.A. Richards points out in Principles of Literary Criticism, early modernist thinking on formalism (actually, from Walter Pater onwards) tended to assume that there was an "aesthetic feeling" or "mood" that could be isolated from the experience. That is to say, that Formalism tends to support the view that the experiences we undergo before art are completely distinct from those that take place in everyday life. If these experiences are unique to art, then art, as such, not only need not REFER to anything, but such external reference threatens to introduce impurities. We can see how this principle of non-referential beauty is embodied in the notion of Formalism. This is the idea that it is formal qualities of mass, shape, and line, distinct from narrative associations or moral sentiment, that is given durable form in art. The crucial question is: may these formal sensations be abstracted from content and still deposit a work of art, rather than a geometrical scheme?

To move on for the moment, the patricidal myth of artist as founder, innovator tends to concentrate attention exclusively around the START of stylistic developments; yet we know, historically, that the ripest fruits of genius have tended to issue towards the end of the autumn harvest, rather than the sowing of crops in seed-time. J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Richard Wagner, are all valetudinarians presiding over the twilights of their ages. Yet the modern innovator-myth celebrates genius in the iconoclasm of its youth, its shattering of traditions and conventions. There is iconoclasm in Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner, to be sure, but there is something more than shattering and wanton destruction: there is the forge, the bellows, and the re-smelting of old metals into new alloys undreamt of by their contemporaries. Their lesser successors sought originality through the novelty of destruction, of breaking old idols for the sake of it, for the outrage of defying taboo. These are the impermanent intelligences that have nothing to offer history but the cracked cases of their own writings, to whose construction they paid too little attention.

Late Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, in particular, all demonsrate this abandonment of the musical call to arms, in favour of more exclusive and introspective meditations on the evolution of their thoughts. We could say, for example, that Chopin's formal innovations in the G Minor Ballade were necessary ground-work to the higher architectures of the final Ballade in F minor. The feeling is that conflict - tension and release - has moved away from overt modes of expression (let's be crude: there's even a levelling in dynamic extremes) to chains of thought that grow progressively more reflexive. The Gigantomachy of Beethoven's youth gives way to a Psychomachy of his maturity. I keep grasping at words like "abstruse", "abstract", "universal", "spiritual", without settling the issue any more satisfactorily. Phrase like "noble restraint" or "resignation" more closely nick the mark; but the latter resembles the tiresome description of classicism, and the latter suggests "world-wea riness" and rejection, when in fact they are the highest expressions of "world-joyfulness" or "gladness" and the lust for living.

It becomes difficult to describe them in terms of expression, because the least touch of ego and self-assertion would vulgarize them. The phrase "impersonal" or "non-self expression" might get closer if we knew what it means, exactly, to have a self without having an ego. "World-soul", "universal spirit", "all-embracing humanity" all sound like more or less collectivist deities. That, or mealy-mouthed abstractions, kind of one-size-fits-all truisms we can paste on whatever ineffable experience we fail to articulate. These late works are not abstruse, and they certainly are not obscure. They are "truths burningly held in the divine hand". They aren't the senile ravings of a disintegrating intelligence, or arid cryptograms, but living Symbols, daimonia of the gods.

I suggested that the feeling of these valetudinary works is that "conflict - tension and release - has moved away from overt modes of expression." I think there's a clue in "tension and release." The tension seems to be stimulated not so much BY formal antinomies, as these formal tensions are the condensation of chemical processes that are taking place invisibly, in secret. The real reactions are not operating visibly through the forms but, for the lack of a better term, in "the soul."

I'd like to propose a physiological allegory. Oscar Wilde says that "Art is both surface and symbol." The outer surface or skin of this Symbol constitutes the realm of abstractable form. The beauty resident in this Symbol, according to formalism, is literally skin-deep. It's very beauty is the play of light over the surface, its mysteriously attractive undulations, depressions, and curvatures. These variations in form are answerable only to each other; they are not influenced by other entities. It is that layer of analysis that sees in a work of art only a series of abstract relations, sufficient in of themselves, that neither exhibit nor desire to form any filamental attachments to other organs.

Then there are those surgeons of Beauty who desire to cut an incision past this epidermal layer, because they suspect the fluctuations in outward form are governed by the contractions and dilations of a musculature. They look beyond the appearances of forms on the Symbol's surface to the causes. They slice so far into the tissue so as to conclude that there is a mechanism of fibrous filaments beneath - that communicate between the skin on the surface and organs more deeply embedded. They supect, but are completely mystified by the processes of these internal organs. We may name one of these organs Moral Sentiment, used in in the 19th century acceptation of Poe and Coleridge: not sentimentality, but the moral faculty of the mind. How does this organ operate, or more importantly, interact with the musculature and skin that give it visible form? By processing impulses transmitted through the nervous system from the flesh, working on them according to its internal imperatives, and sending back to the surface via nervous fibres new muscular directives.

So what does this excessively obscure allegory (that strains at the seams of allegory) actually describe? Simply that the attempt to describe the suggestiveness of a poem, the grace of a Greek sculpture, or the classical balance of a sonata in terms of self-sufficient formal relationships fails to account that behind these forms, as it were, are networks of nervous fibres whose purpose is to communicate meaning.

As for the third aspect, Ingres has the last word (Nietzsche seconded him): "You say that I must follow the age. But what if my age is wrong? Should you commit error merely because your neighbour does so?" - words to that effect.

Chris Miller wrote:

First, when we look at the orgins of the great variety of things that we recognize as great art (this "we" includes me and the art museum curators - though definately not all members of Goodart), it is apparent that the only qualities that these disparate things share is something about their abstract design. That's all that Chinese calligraphy and the Sistine Chapel can be said to have in common. (or -- whatever else they have in common is beyond speech).

Before formal values, there's one other thing that the Sistine Chapel (the war horse tirelessly trotted out) and Chinese calligraphy have in common: perhaps the most obvious thing. They're attempts at communication.

I would say even, that this is the FIRST thing. The formal values are the spherical surface of the meanings that convolve within. Without the motions of the interior, the surface of the sphere would come to rest. There would be no movement to analyze, to probe, to classify, to explain. Because the interior is in movement - though hidden - we must attempt to perceive its convolutions, its turbulence if you like, through the perturbations of the outside layer.

best regards,
Iian