Beckett wrote “unenjoyable” books, says Martin Amis. Paulo Coelho believes Joyce’s Ulysses caused “great harm,” while Roddy Doyle doubts any readers are “really moved by it.” “Shabby chic” is the Financial Times’ verdict on modernist architecture. You hear it often these days, this grousing about difficult, pretentious modernism: Woolf, Kafka, Stein, and Picasso come in for it too. The emperor has no clothes. The flight from modernism—we know the names but skirt the works—may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency. And then, of course, the art can indeed try your patience and stamina. Its demands are relentless; these are creations that decline to traffic in reassurance or open themselves to clicks and scans.
One hundred years ago, more or less, those rebel modernists were not aiming to make trouble for its own savage sake. Their forbidding work belonged to complicated, unforgiving times. Living without the gods of progress or reason—and without God—they tried this, tried that, reached further, failed, and then failed better (Beckett’s phrase). Not all: some had no clothes. But for roughly four decades, from 1890 to 1930, many risked poverty and courted humiliation. Even the most extraordinary had no idea that their works would endure, or be read by more than a few hundred committed admirers—much less find their place on college reading lists. Now, even unread, they haunt the present, ghostly images of what visionary culture might be.
Across the reach of literature, music, art, and architecture, “Make It New” (Pound’s phrase) was the uncompromising slogan that summoned a gathering of brazen imaginations. The insurrectionists collaborated and competed, calling for speech without cliché, love without embarrassment, truth without self-deception. The idea was that art could be what religion had been, and what politics had failed to become—a sphere of conviction and a site of shared value. For the most audacious, this was the gamble with history that we pay a price for forgetting. We have never been postmodern, not in any sense of living after, or beyond, the decades of rupture, the modernist break with taken-for-granted conventions. Those years set the terms for our own struggle with the New. They inform our uneasy dance between art and fashion, art and money—and our fraught debates over the claims of art, politics, and religion. If you take the view that we haven’t yet lived up to their challenges, as I do, then the question is how to rouse ourselves to an unfinished task: How can we accept the call of our modernist origins?
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