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Modernism: The Lure of Heresy Hardcover – November 12, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Putting a Freudian view of life as an arena of conflict at the center of a view of modernism, this outspoken study tracks the avant-garde across a wide array of high culture—literature, music and dance, painting and sculpture, architecture and film. Conventional Victorians, according to Gay, found the belief in art for art's sake of libertine and aesthete Oscar Wilde as much a perversion as his homosexuality. But even fans often get it wrong, says Gay, embracing Edvard Munch's most famous painting, The Scream, as the quintessential symbol of modern angst, while Munch meant his nightmarish vision as a confession of his own inner state. And thanks to generous patrons, the oeuvre of anti-artist Marcel Duchamp, an enemy of museums, is featured prominently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Modernism isn't a single style, Gay shows: in literature, Ulysses's wordy, sensual world stands in direct opposition to Virginia Woolf's in Mrs. Dalloway, spare and cool. This latest from Gay (National Book Award winner for The Enlightenment) isn't a monumental or definitive treatise but a highly personal, arbitrary and invigorating collection of mini-essays that view a variety of artistic works from a fresh perspective. 16 pages of color, and b&w illus.. (Nov.)
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An elegant, erudite, insightful, and entertaining analysis of the arts and culture of our time. -- Ada Louise Huxtable, author of Frank Lloyd Wright
An elegant, erudite, insightful, and entertaining analysis of the arts and culture of our time. -- Ada Louise Huxtable
As a cultural and intellectual historian, he has perhaps no peer in his own generation. -- Harold Bloom
Beautifully written, wide-ranging and psychologically acute....Gay's magisterial book is richly rewarding. -- Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World
This is cultural history of the highest magnitude, a work as astute in its analyses as it is massive in its ambition. -- Stacy Schiff, author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)
Treats the not-always-distant past with the suave, detached but never-indifferent passion of someone possessed of...a true historical imagination. -- Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon
You can be sure that students and journalists and teachers will be stealing from Modernism for years to c ome. Bravo! -- Hilton Kramer, author
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This is not what I would consider a "scholarly" text. It is a history presented to a more general audience. (And one of the blurbs above speaks of Gay as a "superior popularizer.") If you are looking for the former, this might not be for you.
In fact, the book very much has the feel (and there are moments in the first part that hint at this) that in writing this Gay was confronted with the option of either addressing his central ideas in depth using many pages to do so or more presenting a more cursory and more casually readable exploration, and he chose the latter. Which is not at all a criticism of the book. Nor are the two previous points. I am simply here describing the book for those who are thinking of purchasing it without looking within it first. While this is a very enjoyable book, personally while reading it I was wanting to close it and move to something like Bradbury and McFarlane's book of the same name -- which is much more of a scholarly presentation.
Let me be clear, however, I do not mean to say this is a coffee table history. Gay is presenting his idea as to what was/is Modernism. And it is an interesting idea, one that finds its currents more in the psyche of the artists than in the characteristics of the their work, which to me is the correct path. (Though, I am very curious to know what a person who knows little about Modernism would take away from this book. I wonder if the limits of the text create false ideas -- like an undervaluing of the Symbolists.) If you are looking for a lighter introduction to or survey of Modernism, this might be worth the price of admission.
If I have one negative, it is that the book seems very uneven in its use of illustrations. The opening section introducing the ideas of the book has many, and then, when the book gets to the meat of the matter, they disappear almost entirely. One would think it would be the other way around. (In fact, it hints to me that the book as published may not be the book for which Gay was aiming.)
I give it four stars, though 3 1/2 would be more accurate.
The problem with Modernism is that there is so much of it, particularly if you set out to write about poetry and fiction, music, architecture, painting, pop culture, and the many movements and sub-movements attending them. And of course, he is not bounded by any national borders. This is history with a capital H. That means that he has relatively little space (4-6 pp., usually at the outside) for each major figure. Thus, the book is a sweeping survey, an excellent introduction to the subject. Theory is kept to a minimum. He focuses on two aspects of Modernism--its penchant for aesthetic heresy and its stress of subjectivism.
The book is also scrupulously fair, recognizing silliness and extremism where they are found and recognizing the important realities that work designed to shock the middle class cannot exist without a middle class prepared to consume it and a society sufficiently free and stable to protect the shockers and provide them a safe place in which to work.
Personally, I would like to have seen a little more discussion of individuals who distinguished themselves but who did not subscribe to the Modernist agenda, writers such as Graham Greene or George Orwell and any number of individuals who produced magnificent work within the constraints of traditional forms. This is a book about Modernism, of course, but that could be contextualized with sharper contrasts. Gay is a believer, though a balanced one. Still, he sees grandeur in the international style of architecture and tends to overlook the ugliness of fifties' boxes with smudged glass and drip stains from flat roofs. I did not expect him to take Tom Wolfe's stance on the Bauhaus or on abstract expressionism, but Wolfe's (much-maligned) stance is shared by many. The book concludes with a survey of contemporary Modernism, with Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim and Marquez's fiction. Gay sees the world of fiction as relatively flat, though there are many skilled practitioners. It is only flat, in my opinion, if you confine yourself to Modernist writing. Pynchon, e.g., does not fit his template and is thus not considered, though he is a towering figure. This is a small quibble in light of the book's accomplishments, however. I highly recommend it as an introduction to the subject and as an instructive, entertaining, well-written book.