Modernism and Subjectivity: A Brief Essay

Kazimir_Malevich small

Kazimir Malevich – ‘Suprematist_Composition – White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of Modern Art

One reason why there are so few decent books on modernism — pace the often excellent books and studies of individual modernist writers, painters and thinkers — is that modernism is not a term that can be clearly defined or dated. Every attempt brings risk: why this historical period as opposed to another, why this trend and not one that paralleled or preceded it? Can modernism have a specific date and place? Is there one modernism or many?
What is excluded is just as important as what is included. Should Dada and Futurism be included or should they be seen as unique challenges within the modernist movements happening across Europe. Should Vorticism and Russian Futurism be included; how should one place the short-lived collective OBERIU along with Suprematism and the artistic and other literary experiments happening across Eastern Europe and Russia, and in the early years of the Soviet Union? How to they fit into the idea of modernism? And why has modernism today retreated from the scene? Why have we returned to tired forms and nostalgia?
To understand what modernism is, it may be best not to seek a positivist account. It cannot be reduced to a defined historical period, as a part of the natural progression of art and history; or amongst its most implacable foes, as a conspiracy by academics and dealers looking to secure tenure and make money by telling people that plotless novels and blank canvases were superior to good-old-fashioned plot-driven  works and recognizable landscape paintings.
Instead, I would like to propose that modernism can only be understood as a result of the tensions that emerged within the Renaissance the later Enlightenment, in what T.S. Eliot called the ‘dissociation of sensibility,’ where the individual was now in a world were the old verities were gone, or if not completely disappeared were nevertheless under increasing scrutiny. But what was to replace the old certainties was uncertain. At the same time this was happening, there was a growing shift to living in what we would call urban environments, where life was tuned to new kinds of economic, social and political realities.
Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind outlined the psychic cost of this dissociation. Where Man could once ground the self on what were once universally accepted certainties, that was not the case anymore. In the section ‘Freedom of Self-consciousness: Stoicism, Scepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness,’ Hegel outlines how the self is now not a secure, unchanging thing that can be objectively observed, but is one in dialectical flux:

Sceptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self. It is aware of being this of self-thinking thought, the unalterable and genuine certainty of its self. This certainty does not arise as a result out of something extraneous and foreign which stowed away inside itself its whole complex development; a result which would thus leave behind the process by which it came to be. Rather consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this mêlée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved — for this identity is itself determinateness as contrasted with non-identity. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an absolutely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder. This is what it takes itself to be; for itself maintains and produces this self-impelling confusion. Hence it even confesses the fact; it owns to being, an entirely fortuitous individual consciousness — a consciousness which is empirical, which is directed upon what admittedly has no reality for it, which obeys what, in its regard, has no essential being, which realizes and does what it knows to have no truth. But while it passes in this manner for an individual, isolated. contingent, in fact animal life, and a lost self-consciousness, it also, on the contrary, again turns itself into universal self-sameness; for it is the negativity of all singleness and all difference. From this self-identity, or rather within its very self, it falls back once more into that contingency and confusion, for this very self-directed process of negation has to do solely with what is single and individual, and is occupied with what is fortuitous. This form of consciousness is, therefore, the aimless fickleness and instability of going to and fro, hither and thither, from one extreme of self-same self-consciousness, to the other contingent, confused and confusing consciousness. It does not itself bring these two thoughts of itself together. It finds its freedom, at one time, in the form of elevation above all the whirling complexity and all the contingency of mere existence, and again, at another time, likewise confesses to falling back upon what is unessential, and to being taken up with that. It lets the unessential content in its thought vanish; but in that very act it is the consciousness of something unessential. It announces absolute disappearance but the announcement is, and this consciousness is the evanescence expressly announced. It announces the nullity of seeing, hearing, and so on, yet itself sees and hears. It proclaims the nothingness of essential ethical principles, and makes those very truths the sinews of its own conduct. Its deeds and its words belie each other continually; and itself, too, has the doubled contradictory consciousness of immutability and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself. But it keeps asunder the poles of this contradiction within itself; and bears itself towards the contradiction as it does in its purely negative process in general. If sameness is shown to it, it points out unlikeness, non-identity; and when the latter, which it has expressly mentioned the moment before, is held up to it, it passes on to indicate sameness and identity. Its talk, in fact, is like a squabble among self-willed children, one of whom says A when the other says B, and again B, when the other says A, and who, through being in contradiction with themselves, procure the joy of remaining in contradiction with one another.

Later he will add:

Hence the Unhappy Consciousness the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being.
This unhappy consciousness, divided and at variance within itself, must, because this contradiction of its essential nature is felt to be a single consciousness, always have in the one consciousness the other also; and thus must be straightway driven out of each in turn, when it thinks it has therein attained to the victory and rest of unity. Its true return into itself, or reconciliation with itself, will, however, display the notion of mind endowed with a life and existence of its own, because it implicitly involves the fact that, while being an undivided consciousness, it is a double-consciousness. It is itself the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its own essence; but objectively and consciously it is not yet this essence itself — is not yet the unity of both.

An important part of modernism is recognizing this new sense of the self that emerged. While many books about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment tend to place positive weight on the emergence of what we would call modern individualism that arose out of the collapse of the old ways of thinking about persons and their relationship to society and religion, these thinkers and writers have often downplayed or ignored the tensions and contradictions that arose. In the effort to undermine old certainties, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers often could not ground the new certainties any better. If old certainties were argued to be set on unexamined or arbitrary foundations, the new ones were many times set upon ones that were as unstable and prone to collapse when subjected to the same scrutiny given to the ones now removed. The self and its place in this new world was as uncertain as the foundations on which the new order was trying to set itself upon, hence Hegel’s sense that self-consciousness was unhappy when it became aware of its divided and contradictory being.
Kierkegaard recognized one consequence of this dissociation of sensibility and that is the tendency of persons to seek some basis on which to ground themselves. One way of doing so is by absorption into the anonymous urban mass. Kierkegaard recognized the consequence of this absorption, which in his A Literary Review, he called ‘levelling.’ The danger in this levelling is that it removes the will of persons to examine themselves and gives rise to inauthentic selves based on what is external. As he was to put it in The Sickness unto Death:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

By the late-19th Century, this feeling of the self under threat, of the ennui  produced by the self’s perilous relationship to mass society, of at any moment it being swallowed up, was memorably described by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria as the feeling one gets when missing a step on a darkened staircase.

Heidegger in Being and Time will take this idea of levelling to describe the anonymous ‘they’ of das Man, that of modern urban mass culture that directs persons to superficial externalities:

In this averageness with which it prescribes what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional that thrusts itself to the fore. Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known. Everything gained by struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every secret loses its force. This care of averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call “levelling down” of all possibilities of Being.

We might call this public opinion or received wisdom, an all-to-easy set of prescriptions for our selves and our agency, that are external to us and un-reflected upon. This is why today, in my opinion, there is a nostalgia for the old forms, for novels written in the modes from the 19th century with its comfortable psychology; for serious music that tonally mimics earlier styles.
Modernism brings this tension to the fore, of Hegel’s dialectical self and its relation to the world with the pressures of sinking the self into modern society’s anonymous levelling of spirit. Kierkegaard waned of the dangers of the levelling affect of the public, of which nostalgia is one such consequence :

The public, however, is an abstraction. To adopt the same opinion as these or those particular persons is to know that they would be subject to the same danger as oneself, that they would err with one if the opinion were wrong, etc. But to adopt the same opinion as the public is treacherous consolation, for the public exists only in abstracto.

Modernism resists this levelling of the public, of the treacherous consolation of the old forms.

‘Listening’ to Music

Walter Benjamin By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CBC Radio recently aired ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ a history of the recording industry by Robert Harris. It ran through the usual suspects of why the recording industry has declined in recent years. What caught my attention was a moment when Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’ — or as it is often translated, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ — was referenced in relation to a work of art’s ‘aura.’ The program argued recorded music and its mass production and distribution offers a more authentic experience of music. Through recorded reproduction, listeners form a profound emotional attachment with a particular piece of music or with an individual performer that is not possible in a ‘live’ setting. Far from diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art, mechanical reproduction enhances that ‘aura.’

Benjamin’s essay is one of his most cited; and most misread around this idea of ‘aura.’ ‘Aura’ is today  argued to be  identical to the work of art — be it a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music: it is carried forward with each reproduction. The more accurate the reproduction, the more accurately the ‘aura’ is conveyed and the more immediate is the person’s experience of the ‘aura’ of the work of art.

What this misses is Benjamin’s argument that the ‘aura’ of a work of art is something more than the moment of a work of art’s creation. A work of art has always been reproducible. Replicas were often made by apprentices learning their craft or created for patrons seeking copies for their households. Roman commissioned copies Greek statues and vases to adorn their homes and master painters often made copies of their own work to sell. However, reproduction can only go so far: “In even the most perfect reproduction, one think is lacking: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in a particular place . . . The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological — and of course not only technological — reproduction.” Mechanical reproduction takes a piece of art out of its place in history, eradicates tradition and substitutes a mass experience. As consumers, we are all supposed to agree that this particular painting is ‘a great work of art,’ even though most will not be able to say why a work by Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Balthus, Freud, Newman, Bacon or Rothko is important, both in terms of the historical forces the artist worked within or the work’s technical and stylistic originality. It is enough that it is reproduced endlessly which in today’s consumer market speaks to its importance and ultimate value. Is it surprising that works that are not commonly reproduced and marketed, regardless of their quality or importance, are regulated to a lesser status? Why are El Lissitzky or Klimet Redko not more well known or more valued?

In the realm of serious music, technological reproducibility has made this detachment from tradition and mass effect even more pronounced. Today, a person has many versions of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg etc. to decide which to invest in, from recordings using period instruments and playing styles, to ‘historic’ recordings of works from the early part of the 20th century. One can even become a devotee of certain styles of performance or a particular interpreter’s approach to a composer. Cults accrue around Callas,Gould and Karajan, with devotees collecting every recording no matter how questionable the approach or the quality of individual performances.

Whatever reputation certain performers may have in the general public and the ready availability of modern recordings, it does not escape the fact that today most persons lack any practical knowledge of music as art. Few today can play an instrument and most have little or no knowledge of musical theory or solfege. Music is a mass produced item made to be part of one’s aural landscape, but without really having to ‘listen’ to it. Adorno warned of this. When music stopped being a part of one’s being, requiring space and silence in which one can devote close attention to, then a deep disconnect happens between music as art and background noise. Music becomes difficult to distinguish from the clatter of spoons in a cafe or a conversation on a street corner.

Can one today recognize the harmonic or rhythmic differences in Mozart, Berg, Schoenberg, Carter and Messiaen, Birtwistle, Ligeti and Schnittke? Can one place each of these composer’s works in their historic context or how they revolutionized the harmonic and rhythmic templates for those who followed? Without a knowledge of music, to read the written score or to play individual pieces to understand how it is constructed and works, that depth of understanding is impossible to do exclusively through listening to recordings.

Like the plastic arts, the fidelity of reproducibility is mistaken for the ‘aura’ of their originality. The emotional attachment one develops with a particular piece of music is not the same as understanding what makes that piece of music unique and important; more critically, why one piece of music is more important than another. Discrimination of taste and knowledge comes to an end with mass production.

Wagner, The Enigma

Wagner Image

Richard Wagner, Munich 1871, via Wikimedia Commons

One cannot be neutral with Wagner. He provokes both unreserved praise and passionate devotion, and severe condemnation. The piety of ‘Condemn the man, not the music’ founders when it comes to the monumental scope of his mature works and the monstrosity of his personality and anti-Semitism. Debates about the extent to which anti-Semitism pervades his works, how deeply inscribed into the artistic texture of the works, grows voluminous. Each time his works are performed, the debate rages once more: Is Wagner Bad for Us?

This is the fascinating title of Nicholas Spice’s talk where he tackles this question. Wagner’s music and its ability to both embrace and repel a listener, is what gives his music both its power and its uneasiness. Take Tristan and Isolde, what many consider Wagner’s most supreme achievement. Spice points out how the famous Prelude avoids final cadences that one finds in most tonal music. This avoidance holds “the listener in a state of unrelieved alertness,” and that the opening 17 bars lead to an “interrupted cadence that gently forbids us to leave the musical line.” This tension is embodied in the story of Tristan and Isolde themselves; their illicit love played out in the second act where they long for the night to continue so their lovemaking will not end. Daylight will bring about the end of their love. The only thing in their fierce delirium that will sustain their love is death. No wonder that many early listeners found this opera unsettling, even some to declare it degenerate and unhealthy. Those of weak nerves were told to avoid this opera. No friend of Wagner, Nietzsche complained of the pernicious nature to the nerves of Wagner’s music and how it attracted the weak and exhausted.

This tension, as well as Wagner’s ability to organize and composes large-scale works that  combine in ways still unsurpassed of music and drama that moved simultaneously, is what makes his music so powerful. The problem comes when the music becomes tied to Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism and reactionary politics. Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’ makes the argument that Wagner’s betrayal of the revolutionary spirit of the 1840s, of his dismissal of bourgeois politics and his adoption of biological anti-Semitism in his later writings on art and music is embedded in the very fabric of Wagner’s operas.


ADORNO by LGd, via Wiki Commons

The troubling paradox is these same tensions and his musical genius also point to a more politically and philosophically positive outlook, side-by-side with Wagner’s gross politics and anti-Semitism. Zizek, a passionate Wagnerite, has written several times on the emancipatory kernel in Wagner’s work.  

Parsifal with its declamation “Enthuellt den Graal!” is an announcement of a new social order, one where the Grail is to be revealed at all times and not as an object for a select, closed community and order. “As to the revolutionary consequences of this change, recall the fate of the Master figure in the triad Tristan-Meistersinger-Parsifal (King Marke, Hans Sachs, Amfortas): in the first two works, the Master survives as a saddened melancholic figure; in the third he is DEPOSED and dies.

Even the ending of the immense Ring cycle can be seen not as a loss but as something necessary, where the world of the gods now corrupted by avarice and materiality, falling into what Marx would call commodity fetishism with the taking of the Rheingold,  must come to an end. Man is now free, standing before the spectacle, to forge a new world. Even the elements singled out as showing Wagner’s anti-Semitism (Alberich, Mime, Hagen as figures of the Jews  who bring lust for power and corruption to the universe) are more complex, embodying  the social and political antagonisms that existed in the society Wagner lived within: “An appropriate reading of Wagner should take this fact into account and not merely “decode” Alberich as a Jew, but also ask the question: how does Wagner’s encoding refer to the “original” social antagonism of which the (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” itself is already a cypher?”

Zizek does not downplay Wagner’s anti-Semitism or the reactionary and disgraceful aspects of his politics and person. He does not indulge in that typical liberal compromise of defending the music and making Wagner’s anti-Semitism some private quirk; or worse, as some have done, seize on some bit of kindness to say, “See, he was not all bad. . . etc.”; nor does he reduced Wagner’s works to mere proto-fascist pamphlets, so they can be safely dismissed in a kind of morally superior waving of the hand. This is sometime the case with other critics of Wagner, as if his work is simply the Horst-Wessel-Lied on a larger scale.

To approach Wagner, one must take the monstrous with the sublime. To fully appreciate and understand Wagner’s music, to truly embrace it, one has to come in contact with that which makes it troubling in order to find its revolutionary core. One can’t detour around either or pretend they are not there.

How Are We to Think of a Museum?

Museums are contested spaces. Never stable either in the physical space a museum occupies or its purpose. Foucault described the  museum as a heterotopia, a space of difference in which the elements of culture are suspended or reversed. At any moment the objects displayed can take on  radically different meanings, where what is thought eternal can be upended and questioned. The same goes for  the building. Any new addition or change, especially a radically architectural one, can bring about a new debate about the role of the museum. A break with ‘tradition’ can call even the museum’s ultimate function in question, especially its role as a space of preservation.

Hegel in his lectures on aesthetics make the point that when the life of art has been diminished in secular society, where art cedes its place to philosopher for contemplating the Absolute, the museum becomes a place not for art’s revitalization but for its mere preservation; where preservation here means that art is largely separate from living culture. It become dead, depoliticized. Taking his lead from Hegel, Adorno would later describe the museum as the “family sepulchers  of works of art.” It is only when art can break out into real life once more can art become relevant again, both politically and socially.

The strong reactions that often accompany discussion about museums is around this very question. What is its role: one of dead preservation, in the sense of Hegel and Adorno, or where Foucault envisions the museum as  place of permanent critique with the past as the museum embodies the critical apparatus of the Enlightenment in order to look back upon itself. (The paradox is that it can only be done within the very Enlightenment values and critical apparatuses it homes to subject to critical examination. Foucault is sensitive to this . . . but that tension to be commented upon at another time)

It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to the Royal Ontario Museum’s move to not only change its logo, but its mission as a museum. This is how Janet Carding, ROM director and CEO described what was happening: “We’re changing our visual identity now to focus on the Museum as an indispensable resource. We’re placing the ROM’s encyclopedic collections, research and curatorial expertise at the heart of the new brand, and showing how, through the ROM, people can connect to their world.”

The logo makes not reference to the structure of the building or its recent Daniel Libeskind addition which provoked many negative reaction is the local press and public. Instead, it is to symbolize “access and dynamism” to the museum’s collections.  If the ROM’s history is any guide, there is nothing to suggest the ROM will not continue to display artifacts in glass cases with many exhibits wrenching the objects out of context and history. As a museum, the ROM feels more like Lefebvre’s notion of the museum as a space of accumulation, a throwback to the 19th century and its rapid industrial and capitalist expansion; a place of connoisseurship or objects and artifacts for a specific elite or class (one is reminded of what Heidegger argued was the problem with artwork being displayed in galleries and not in public where persons can experience art in its “happening of truth.”) The ROM rarely engages a person or provokes them to think, to critically engage them, rather than making them feel they are walking through a collection of curios.