The realm of culture is the realm of meanings, the effort in some imaginative form to make sense of the world through the expressiveness of art and ritual, particularly those ‘incomprehensions’ such as tragedy and death that arise out of the existential predicaments which every self-conscious human being must confront at some point in his life. In these encounters, one becomes aware of the fundamental questions – what Goethe called Urphdnomen – which frame all others. Religion, as the oldest effort to comprehend these ‘mysteries,’ has historically been the source of cultural symbols.
If science is the search for the unity of nature, religion has been the quest for the unity of culture in the different historical periods of civilizations. To close that circle, religion has woven tradition as the fabric of meaning and guarded the portals of culture by rejecting those works of art which threatened the moral norms of religion.
The modern movement disrupts that unity. It does so in three ways: by insisting on the autonomy of the aesthetic from moral norms; by valuing more highly the new and experimental; and by taking the self (in its quest for originality and uniqueness) as the touchstone of cultural judgment. The most aggressive outrider of the movement is the self-proclaimed avant-garde which calls itself Modernism. I see Modernism as the agency for the dissolution of the bourgeois world view and, in the past half-century, as gaining hegemony in the culture.
The difficulties of defining Modernism are notorious. Schematically, I would specify three different dimensions:
1 Thematically Modernism has been a rage against order, and in particular, bourgeois orderliness. The emphasis is on the self, and the unceasing search for experience. If Terence once said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me,’ the Modernist could say with equal fervor, ‘Nothing inhuman is alien to me.’ Rationalism is seen as devitalizing; the surge to creativity is propelled by an exploration of the demonic. In that exploration, one cannot set aesthetic limits (or even moral norms) to this protean reach of the imagination. The crucial insistence is that experience is to have no boundaries to its cravings, that there be ‘nothing sacred.’
2 Stylistically, there is a common syntax in what I have called ‘the eclipse of distance.’ This is the effort to achieve immediacy, impact, simultaneity, and sensation by eliminating aesthetic and psychic distance. In diminishing aesthetic distance, one annihilates contemplation and envelops the spectator in the experience. By eliminating psychic distance, one emphasizes (in Freudian terms) the ‘primary process’ of dream and hallucination, of instinct and impulse. In all this Modernism rejects the ‘rational cosmology’ that was introduced into the arts during the Renaissance and codified by Alberti: of foreground and background in pictorial space; of beginning, middle, and end, or sequence, in time; and the distinction of genres and the modes of work appropriate to each genre. This eclipse of distance, as a formal syntax, cuts across all the arts: in literature, the ‘stream of consciousness’; in painting, the elimination of the ‘interior distance’ within the canvas; in music, the upset of the balance of melody and harmony; in poetry, the disruption of the ordered meter. In the broadest sense, this common syntax repudiates mimesis as a principle of art. [. . . ]
3 The preoccupation with the medium. In all periods of cultural history, artists have been conscious of the nature and complexity of the medium as a formal problem in transmuting the ‘pre-figured’ into the ‘figured’ result. In the last twenty-five years, we have seen a preoccupation not with the content or form (i.e., style and genre), but with the medium of art itself: with the actual texture of paint and materials in painting, with the abstract ‘sounds’ in music, with phonology or even ‘breath’ in poetry, and with the abstract properties of language in literature – often to the exclusion of anything else. Thus it is the encaustic surface, not the image, that generates excitement in the paintings of Jasper Johns; the aleatory or chance factors in the music of John Cage; the aspirate rather than the syllable, as a measure of line in poetry of Robert Creeley – all of these as expressions of the self, rather than formal explorations of the limits and nature of the medium itself.
Modernism has, beyond dispute, been responsible for one of the great surges of creativity in Western culture. The period from 1850 to 1930 probably saw more varied experiments in literature, poetry, music and painting – if not more great masterpieces – than any previous period we have known. Much of this arose out of the creative tension of culture, with its adversary stance, against the bourgeois social structure [. . .]
There has been a price. One cost has been the loss of coherence in culture, particularly in the spread of an antinomian attitude to moral norms and even to the idea of cultural judgment itself. The greater price was exacted when the distinction between art and life became blurred so that what was once permitted in the imagination (the novels of murder, lust, perversity) has often passed over into fantasy, and is acted out by individuals who want to make their lives a work of art, and when, with the ‘democratization’ of criticism, the touchstone of judgment is no longer some consensual agreement on standards, but each ‘self’s’ judgment as to how art enhances that ‘self.’
Changes in culture interact with a social structure in complicated ways. Where there is a patronage system, the patron – be it prince, or church, or state -commissions a work of art, and the cultural needs of the institution, such as the Church, or the tastes of the prince, or the demands for glorification by the State, will shape the regnant style of the time. But where art is bought and sold, the market is where culture and social structure cross. One would expect that where culture has become a commodity the bourgeois taste would prevail. But in extraordinary historical fact, this has not been the case.
The phrase ‘cultural hegemony’ – identified with the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci – signifies the dominance of a single group in shaping the prevailing world view which gives a people an interpretation of the age. [. . .]
Marxists have assumed that under capitalism there has . . . been a single cultural hegemony – the ideas of the ‘ruling class.’ Yet the astonishing fact is that in the past hundred years, if there has been a dominant influence – in the high culture at least – it has been the avowed enemy of that class, Modernism.
At the start the capitalist economic impulse and the cultural drive of modernity shared a common source, the ideas of liberty and liberation, whose embodiments were ‘rugged individualism’ in economic affairs and the ‘unrestrained self in culture. Though the two had a common origin in the repudiation of tradition and the authority of the past, an adversary relation between them quickly developed. One can say, as Freud would, that the discipline required by work was threatened by the libidinal energies diverted to culture. This may perhaps be true, but it is abstract. What would seem to be the more likely historical explanation is that the bourgeois attitudes of calculation and methodical restraint came into conflict with the impulsive searchings for sensation and excitement that one found in Romanticism, and which passed over into Modernism. The antagonism deepened as the organization of work and production became bureaucratized and individuals were reduced to roles, so that the norms of the workplace were increasingly at variance with the emphasis on self-exploration and self-gratification. The thread connecting Blake to Byron to Baudelaire – who is the avatar of Modernism – may not be literal, but it is a figurative symbolic lineage.
So long as work and wealth had a religious sanction, they possessed a transcendental justification. But when that ethic eroded, there was a loss of legitimation, for the pursuit of wealth alone is not a calling that justifies itself. As Schumpeter once shrewdly remarked: The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail. The central point is that – at first, for the advanced social groups, the intelligentsia and the educated social classes, and later for the middle class itself – the legitimations of social behavior passed from religion to modernist culture. And with it there was a shift in emphasis from ‘character, 1 which is the unity of moral codes and disciplined purpose, to an emphasis on ‘personality,’ which is the enhancement of self through the compulsive search for individual differentiation. In brief, not work but the ‘life style’ became the source of satisfaction and criterion for desirable behavior in the society.
Yet paradoxically, the life style that became the imago of the free self was not that of the businessman, expressing himself through his ‘dynamic drive/ but that of the artist defying the conventions of the society. Increasingly, it is the artist who begins to dominate the audience, and to impose his judgment as to what is to be desired and bought. The paradox is completed when the bourgeois ethic, having collapsed in the society, finds few defenders in the culture (do any writers defend any institutions?) and Modernism as an attack on orthodoxy, has triumphed and become the regnant orthodoxy of the day.
Any tension creates its own dialectic. Since the market is where social structure and culture cross, what has happened is that in the last fifty years, the economy has been geared to producing the life styles paraded by the culture. Thus, not only has there been a contradiction between the realms, but that tension has produced a further contradiction within the economic realm itself. In the world of capitalist enterprise, the nominal ethos in the spheres of production and organization is still one of work, delayed gratification, career orientation, devotion to the enterprise. Yet, on the marketing side, the sale of goods, packaged in the glossy images of glamour and sex, promotes a hedonistic way of life whose promise is the voluptuous gratification of the lineaments of desire. The consequence of this contradiction is that a corporation finds its people being straight by day and swingers by night.
What has happened in society in the last fifty years – as a result of the erosion of the religious ethic and the increase in discretionary income – is that the culture has taken the initiative in promoting change, and the economy has been geared to meeting these new wants. In this respect, there has been a significant reversal in the historical pattern of social change. During the rise of capitalism – in the ‘modernization’ of any traditional society – one could more readily change the economic structure of a society: by forcing people off the land into factories, by imposing a new rhythm and discipline of work, by using brutal means or incentives … to raise capital. But the superstructure – the patterns of family life, the attachments to religion and authority, the received ideas that shaped people’s perceptions of a social reality – was more stubbornly resistant to change.
Today, by contrast, it is the economic structure that is the more difficult to change. Within the enterprise, the heavy bureaucratic layers reduce flexible adaptation, while union rules inhibit the power of management to control the assignment of jobs. In the society, the economic enterprise is subject to the challenges of various veto groups (e.g., on the location of plants or the use of the environment) and subject more and more to regulation by government.
But in the culture, fantasy reigns almost unconstrained. The media are geared to feeding new images to people, to unsettling traditional conventions, and the highlighting of aberrant and quirky behavior which becomes images for others to imitate. The traditional is stodgy, and the ‘orthodox’ institutions such as family and church are on the defensive about their inability to change. Yet if capitalism has been routinized, Modernism has been trivialized. After all, how often can it continue to shock, if there is nothing shocking left? If experiment is the norm, how original can anything new be? And like all bad history, Modernism has repeated its end, once in the popgun outbursts of Futurism and Dadaism, the second time in the phosphorescent parodies of Pop paintings and the mindless minimalism of conceptual art. The exclamation points that end each sentence of the Manifestoes, have simply become four dots that trail away in the tedium of endless repetition.
In the revelation of wisdom, the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk because life had become gray on gray [a paraphrase from the Preface to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right}. In the victorious apocalypse of Modernism, the dawn is a series of gaudy colors whirling in strobismic light. Today, Modernism has become not the work of serious artists but the property of the culturati, the ‘cultural mass,’ the distribution sector of cultural production, for whom the shock of the old has become the chic of the new. The culturati have carried over, in rhetoric, the adversary stance against bourgeois orderliness and sobriety, yet they impose a conformity of their own on those who deviate from its guarded canons. [. . . ]
In this double contradiction of capitalism, what has been established in the last thirty years has been the tawdry rule of fad and fashion: of ‘multiples’ for the culturati, hedonism for the middle classes, and pornotopia for the masses. And in the very nature of fashion, it has trivialized the culture.
Has Modernism been ‘co-opted, 1 as Herbert Marcuse suggests? In one dimension, yes. It has been converted into a commodity for promotion and profit. But in the deeper transformations of structure, that process can only undermine the foundations of capitalism itself. The sociological truism is that a societal order is shored up by its legitimations, which provide the defenses against its despisers. But the legitimation of the culture, as I have argued, is the quest for self-gratification and the expression of ‘personality.’ It attacks established orthodoxy in the name of personal autonomy and heterodoxy. Yet what modern culture has failed to understand is that orthodoxy is not the guardian of an existent order, but is itself a judgment on the adequacy and moral character of beliefs, from the standpoint of ‘right reason.’ The paradox is that ‘heterodoxy’ itself has become conformist in liberal circles and exercises that conformity under the banner of an antinomian flag. It is a prescription, in its confusions for the dissolution of a shared moral order. [. . . ]
[.. .] We stand, I believe, with a clearing ahead of us. The exhaustion of Modernism, the aridity of Communist life, the tedium of the unrestrained self, and the meaningless of the monolithic political chants, all indicate that a long era is coming to a slow close. The impulse of Modernism was to leap beyond: beyond nature, beyond culture, beyond tragedy – to explore the apeiron, the boundless, driven by the self-infinitizing spirit of the radical self. Bourgeois society sundered economics from moral norms to allow the individual to pursue his own self-defined wants, yet at the same time sought to bend the culture to its restricted moral norms. Modernism was the major effort to break away from those restrictions in the name of experience, the aesthetic and the experimental and, in the end, broke all boundaries. Yet if we now seek to return economics to moral norms, is there not a similar warranty for culture?
We are groping for a new vocabulary whose keyword seems to be limits: a limit to growth, a limit to the spoliation of the environment, a limit to arms, a limit to the tampering with biological nature. Yet if we seek to establish a set of limits in the economy and technology, will we also set a limit to the exploration of those cultural experiences which go beyond moral norms and embrace the demonic in the delusion that all experience is ‘creative’? Can we set a limit to hubris? The answer to that question could resolve the cultural contradiction of capitalism and its deceptive double, semblable et frere, the culture of modernity [‘Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frere’, Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal\. It would leave only the economic and political mundane to be tamed.
First published in Partisan Review, vol. 45, New York, 1978.