The End of Enchantment

<i> Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books, including "The Dancing Column" (1996)</i>

The first artist to call himself “modern” was (as far as I know) Solsternus: “This rather pleasing picture was made by doctor Solsternus, supremely modern in his art [hac summus in arte modernus]” was how he signed the mosaic high on the facade of the cathedral of Spoleto in central Italy, and he dated it 1207--in letters large enough to read from the ground--though we know nothing else about him. Nor do we know if this boasted modernity had been a problem to him--though it has been something of a problem to others ever since. In antiquity, even if it comes from the Latin modo, it was not known anyway. Modo meant “just now” or “at this moment,” but when Solsternus created his very Byzantine-hieratic mosaic, it may well have looked startling to his contemporaries because it was done half a century before the splendid Roman mosaics, that would outshine it.

People who adopted modernity as a label, or had it thrust on them, were always in some way at odds with authority. The Dutch and German followers of the popular mystical movement known as Devotio Moderna had their troubles with the authorities in the 14th and 15th centuries, for instance, and in the 16th and 17th, the artistic-philosophical quarrel between the ancients and the moderns raged for many decades--and was derided in Jonathan Swift’s “Battle of the Books.” By then modernity had spawned “modernism” as a term of abuse, to rhyme with “solecism,” though by the 19th century modernism shifted again to mean a movement or group which challenged received authority.

So the modernist heresy was denounced by Pope Pius X in 1907 for making too free with authority theology, but modernity in the arts (and the avant-garde movements that went with it--Modernisme in Catalonia, Art Nouveau et cetera) has been alternately derided and applauded since the last decades of the 19th century. It became associated with a complex of notions, some harmonious, others contradictory: the primacy of reason and the end of social conflict, secularism, democratic government, socialism, equality and the conviction that something had ended--Nietzsche thought it was Philosophy--and that a new and rational society would require the art which was just then coming into being and would be independent from the art of the past: that we can look forward to “New styles of architecture, a change of heart” as W.H. Auden put it. This optimistic modernism is supposed to have been killed off as its programs and hopes were defeated by World War II, the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags. Modernity or modernism finished at some undefined moment after the war, to be replaced by Postmodernism, which has turned out to be something of an anticlimax, as well as much more short-lived. Maybe we have all been too hasty. Modernity may turn out to have been an “unfinished project” after all, and its dream of an equitable and pluralist society, if not attainable, is at least worth striving for.

Debates about when modernity started and when it finished--if it really has finished--are inevitably inconclusive, and T.J. Clark’s “Farewell to an Idea” and Peter Conrad’s “Modern Times, Modern Places,” though they both have the M-word in the title, avoid these debates. Conrad deals with 20th-century culture through its arts and claims to prepare us (rather cheerfully) for the next one; Clark, though he begins his modernity in Year 2 of the French Republic, 1793, and considers it a closed episode (he wants to bid modernity farewell), acknowledges that his view is not unique and that there are other modernities covering different time spans than the one he has selected. Because his account is a farewell, it is inevitably tinged with melancholy. Friends who have read the essays that make up “Farewell to an Idea” have complained about it, Clark confesses, and he has tried to counteract it. Although he may not quite have succeeded in banishing melancholy, his book is exhilarating to read because, like everything of Clark’s, it is clearly, almost seductively, written. What is more, it is shot through with his passion for the pictures he has chosen to consider: You can almost sense him running his fingers over the surface of the paintings to assess the way pigment has been applied--whether with palette-knife or brush or finger--to the canvas or panel, the way tones merge from broken and contrasting colors. Yet for all his love of the particular, there is nothing episodic about the book: However vivid the detail, it is always grafted onto some theoretical considerations.

He moves from Jacques-Louis David’s icon-like portrait of the murdered Marat, dated to his opening “Year 2" (of the Republic) to the shimmery picture of two resting farm girls by Camille Pissarro; he considers Cezanne’s “Bathers” with the help of Freud, goes on to some early Cubist canvases of Picasso and Braque, then to El Lissitzky at Vitebsk and to the procedures of Jackson Pollock. He concludes the book by invoking Ezra Pound, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Primo Levi--tragic figures all--who offer the hope that “the myth will survive its historic defeat.” Before concluding, though, he offers a “defence” (his own word) of Abstract Expressionism.


Apart from the David, the other pictures were painted during the last century and show the contingent nature of modernity that “points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future--of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, or infinities of information. This process goes along with a great emptying and sanitizing of the imagination. Without ancestor-worship, meaning is in short supply--'meaning’ here meaning agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding . . . in which a culture crystallizes its sense of the struggle with the realm of necessity and the reality of pain and death. The phrase Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world,’ still seems to me to sum up this side of modernity best. . . . The disenchantment of the world is horrible, intolerable.” And he adds: “Any mass movement or cult figure that promises a way out of it [that is, the disenchantment] will be clung to like grim death. Better even Fascism than technocracy: there is a social id in most of us that goes on being tempted by that proposition.”

This quotation is inevitably melancholy: The atrophy of ancestor worship has occasioned the dearth of meaning, the disenchantment of the world, but this dispassionate view of his position is an essential theoretical counterpoise to Clark’s passionate attachment to the works of art he wishes to consider. Passion can also turn against some of the pictures when he--but so very ambiguously--defends Abstract Expressionism. Of Hans Hofmann, the last Abstract Expressionist he scrutinizes, for instance, he writes: “A good Hofmann is tasteless to the core--tasteless in its invocations of Europe, tasteless in its mock religiosity, tasteless in its Color-by-Technicolor, its winks and nudges toward landscape format, its Irving Stone title, and the cloying demonstrativeness of its handling. Tasteless, and in complete control of its decomposing means.”

“Decomposing” is the key word. Hofmann was vulgar, in the way Pollock, with all his “Gothick wildness,” was not. Yet though the space which Hofmann’s pictures inhabit, “the unique blend of opulence and spareness that is the taste of the picture buying classes in America,” implies that a good Hofmann “seems always to be blurting out a dirty secret,” what it shows “is the world its users inhabit in their heart of hearts . . . the visceral-cum-spiritual upholstery of the rich.”

Pollock, on the other hand, even when his paintings are used as a background for fashion models by Cecil Beaton, has a force which saves him. As Clark writes, “There is a line of art stretching back to David and Shelley that makes no sense--that would not have existed--without its practitioners believing that what they did was resist or exceed the normal understandings of the culture, and that those understandings were their enemy. This is the line of art we call modernist. Pollock is part of it. Perhaps at the end of it, perhaps not. . . .”

The exhilaration in reading “Farewell to an Idea” arises from the struggle Clark conveys over whether art has come to an end or not. Hegel’s verdict that “art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past” seems to invite him to a dialectical relationship with the works that fascinate him, even though the Hegelian proscription has left these works stranded on the beaches of history. Or perhaps not quite stranded yet, because as Clark writes, “Modernism, as I conceive it, is the art of the situation Hegel pointed to . . . [though] he could never have guessed that the disenchantment of the world would take so long.”

Clark has forced me to quote him verbatim to convey his tone of voice and to convey the sense of struggle with ideas and objects, to pit his interpretation against or alongside those of other critics: Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss. If you are at all interested in the painting of the last century, you will have to read the book--and you will find it as exhilarating as I did.

In “Modern Times, Modern Places,” Peter Conrad’s modernity is not so fraught; Hegel, whose valediction to art broods over Clark’s text, does not appear in Conrad’s book; his geography is, in any case, quite different. Clark’s cities are Paris, London, New York--with a Russian excursus at Vitebsk; Conrad’s are Vienna, Prague and Berlin as well as Paris. Also St. Petersburg, Milan, Tokyo, New York--and Hollywood, because, clearly, film is a passion with him as much as opera (about which he has written learnedly). His book is much longer than Clark’s and assumes that, however often art had been killed off over the last century, it will continue to be produced and will continue to matter. He sets out to examine the three forces that have made the biggest impact on the culture of our time: the transformations of the urban proletariat, the mapping of the unconscious by Freud and the dematerializing of physical phenomena (or our perception of them, anyway) through the discoveries of Wilhelm Roentgen and Albert Einstein--and the bomb that followed from them.

Conrad’s treatment is, therefore, not chronological but thematic. He is the master of an extraordinarily wide, perhaps unique, field of reference: all the art and history of the century--which allows him to make some brilliant and unexpected connections. His range, unlike that of most English-language historians of ideas and / or culture, extends beyond painting and sculpture to include design, architecture and planning among the visual arts. Of course a mammoth survey like Conrad’s cannot avoid the occasional slips: The great Viennese architect (and enemy of Art Nouveau), Adolf Loos, did not condemn ornament as criminal; Corbusier’s auditorium for the League of Nations building in Geneva was not built of glass, nor did he adapt it for his Centrosoyuz building in Moscow; and Paul Scheerbart’s poetic manifesto of 1910 can hardly be called a treatise on glass in building. But for all such minor slips, Conrad is perceptive about buildings and can be very good on music (as on Mahler, Stravinsky and Luciano Berio, for instance), though not on Puccini, for which I (for one) can’t blame him.

Of course Conrad’s vices are the opposite of Clark’s: He has to be rushed and clipped given the huge field he needs to cover, whereas Clark may be dialectical and ruminative. Even the works of art he truly admires have to be dealt with summarily: Lulu, the eternal feminine, in her various avatars (Wedekind’s play, Pabst’s film, Alban Berg’s opera--and her metamorphosis into Sternberg’s Lola) rates only a couple of pages. Short on the particular, therefore. Alexander Kojeve, whose lectures on Hegel precipitated French existentialism, turns up for his view that the Japanese are post-historical or even post-human, because in their society all social conflict has been resolved. Few figures rate a whole chapter: Charlie Chaplin is the only person who is allowed to give his name to one; although ever-changing Picasso also gets one of his own, the chapter is named after slippery and inconstant Mercury. For all such slips and infelicities, Conrad’s method offers the fascination of the unexpected and the often-revealing links and interconnections. Yet his message, encapsulated in the title of the last chapter--"Keep Going!"--is played against a summation of the current condition as bleak as Clark’s.

The modernities of Clark and of Conrad take up the challenge which artists and thinkers have had to face--in different ways--ever since Solsternus signed his mosaic. Their challenge over the last century has been more urgent and more aggressive than ever before, yet we still have time and history with us and modernity may still have a few surprises to offer.