Gabriel Josipovici’s beautiful exposition of Modernism rests on the recognition that it was born out of a crisis in the arts. Unlike other writers on Modernism, he does not seek to situate a historical era in which this crisis erupted, but understands it instead to be a question of individual awareness on the part of a range of artists across time that the task of representation they have set themselves is impossible. But the courage and brilliance of these artists lay in the way they determined to create nevertheless, but with this acknowledgement of inevitable failure, fraudulence, uncertainty, anxiety – call it what you will – present at every step of the way. The art that emerged from this conundrum provided us with some of the most startling and provocative aesthetic experiences – among them the singular narratives of Cervantes, Beckett, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, the poetry of Wordsworth and Eliot, the art of Picasso, Durer, Duchamp, Rembrandt.
I mention here some of the myriad of artists whose work is explored in this book so you can see the sheer breadth of Josipovici’s scholarship. Between you and me, I get the feeling he has read everything. The point, though, is that Modernist art can be understood as a sort of hothouse flower, something that grows only under special conditions, but reliably grows under them. Prime among these is what he terms ‘the disenchantment of the world’, a rich and complex situation in which man (and it does tend to be mostly man in this book) recognises the split between himself and the world in which he lives. Increasing clear-sightedness about man’s place in the universe might have been enlightenment of one kind, but it came at a price: the loss of the numinous, a sort of healing magic that bound man to his place and his destiny and conferred perfect meaning. Religion and history combined to create disquieting new conditions of existence whose consequences Josipovici finds best embodied in the philosophy of Kierkegaard: ‘All Kierkegaard can do is to try and explore in every way imaginable the troubled heart and soul of nineteenth-century man, one who has been given his freedom twice over, first by God and then by the French Revolution, but who does not know what to do with it except torment himself with the sense he is wasting his life.’
Kierkegaard is often considered one of the earliest Existentialists, which is to say, a philosopher wired in to the extreme anxiety that arises out of freedom. He cannoned back and forth between the terms of ‘possibility’ – essential to breathe but scarily indeterminate – and ‘necessity’ – a form of imprisonment that was also security. He identifies a sickness of confusion and despair attacking the lionheart of his peers that is summed up in the recognition that whilst one might be a genius, one could no longer be an authority. Belief in the old traditions that conferred authority was crumbling away, and there was nothing that could be found to replace them. The truth was that life had no essential purpose, no given meaning, and, crucially for art, any attempt to make life coherent and meaningful was fundamentally dishonest. This is why, for instance, ‘for Kafka, the act of writing was itself seen as a kind of violation of the world’. The imposition of order and structure and form on chaos was precisely that – an imposition that failed to evoke the visceral punch of reality.
In the central part of this book, Josipovici explores the strategies Modernist artists adopted to respond to this catalogue of doubt and uncertainty. Central is Barthes’ understanding that realist art foregoes the ‘trembling of existence’; well, to be accurate, Barthes found a formulation for a quest that had long motivated a certain section of artists. If traditional representation produced only a copy of reality, a tracing from real life that lacked its vitality and presence, the answer was to create a kind of art that bristled and trembled with its own aesthetic existence. This is what artists like Mallarmé, Picasso and Cézanne were trying to achieve – something so visually stimulating and alive, something so challenging to our perception, that to engage with it was to have a highly specific and charged experience. There are some exquisite analyses in this section, employing a technique I particularly appreciated of tracking, in subtle ways, similar creative processes across different artistic forms: music, painting, poetry, writing. One of the intriguing aspects of Modernism is that it was an artistic movement that involved a wide variety of forms, and their comparison is always illuminating.
When this book came out it provoked something of a hostile reaction in the critical press. Reviews focused almost exclusively on one of the closing chapters that attacks modern novelists like Ian McEwan, Philip Roth and Julian Barnes. Having read the book, I can now understand why. After a series of gorgeously delicate explorations, the switch to straightforward negativity is surprising. For me it was rather like watching the prima ballerina accomplish her series of complex pirouettes, only to turn around and start slugging the corps de ballet. I suppose it was necessary in order to make this book a polemic, but the problem with polemics is that they take pride in being partisan and uncomplicated. So, for instance, Josipovici also has a pot shot at the British, which seems odd, after so much careful interdisciplinary, international work. What about contemporary art in Italy, say, or France? Have they kept the Modernist torch alive in a way Britain hasn’t? And if they have, then I would rather have read about that – it would have interested me much more.
Josipovici is an astute critic and one who has clearly thought deeply about what the critic ought to be doing. The good critic, he says, should be able to ‘get close enough to [works of art] to convey something of what their making involved for their makers and their viewers’ and I would happily endorse that. I think of the critic as part skilled diplomat, introducing a variety of sometimes conflicting perspectives in such a way that the value of all can be heard. And I think of the critic as part mental sherpa, doing the intellectual heavy lifting with grace, so that those travelling alongside can really experience the view. But when Josipovici claims that the critic fails when s/he ‘cannot see the difference between…works that illustrate and works that live’ I can’t really go along with that. In the very terms of debate this book prizes, the good works of art are honest about the mechanisms of their production – they draw back the stage curtain, if you like, so you can see the ropes and props and personnel of the theatre that work to create the illusion. Well, the fundamental building block of all criticism, and one that is often hidden away so that illusion may be maintained, is subjective opinion. The good critic, to my mind, is never far away from the acknowledgement that his or her experience is not always, inevitably the ‘right’ one. Josipovici acknowledges that there are many different stories of Modernism, of which his is only one version; but he is insistent that Modernism produces the best art. And that, quite honestly, can only be up for discussion. I am quite ready to believe Josipovici is a man of genius, but he cannot be – for they are now irrevocably extinct – a man of authority.
Fortunately nobody ever said you had to read a book and agree with every word of it. There are many wonderful explorations of Modernist art in its pages and for anyone who has an interest in the history and development of art, this book is essential reading.
ETA: I meant to say! This is for the Wolves group read of What Ever Happened To Modernism? Many thanks to them for choosing this book and letting me take part.