The Continuing Tyranny of Modernism

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (September 2013)

A little more than a year ago, here at the New English Review, Nikos Salingaros and I published a piece entitled “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism.” In this essay, we attempted to argue that art-making in the Western world still labors under the pernicious influence of the modernist revolution, and that little progress in the arts can be expected until we are prepared to free ourselves from that influence. We attempted to delineate the general tendencies of that influence, and to explain why the principles it inculcated were irreconcilable to more traditional ways of thinking about art. This essay generated a considerable amount of response in various corners of the internet, some passionately approving, some violently critical – much as Nikos and I expected. I had hoped at some point to write a follow-up to this piece, addressing some of the fair objections raised by commenters, but for the last year, I have simply found myself without the time to do so.

Recently though, a woman named Maureen Mullarkey, writing at the website of First Things magazine, attacked our essay with a fair amount of aspersion.  In the course of her attack, she referred to our piece as another “tiring…swipe at modernism,” an “unseemly” and even “doltish” attempt to beat a dead horse. She then proceeded to a brief commentary on a painting by Max Beckmann, by way of refuting – to her mind – the substance of our arguments. Such arrogant dismissal of my work, appearing at the site of a journal as reputable and popular as First Things, has finally spurred me to pen the response I had wished to write for a while now. So while this essay will be framed as a reply of sorts to Ms. Mullarkey, my real intention is to address some of the common objections made to our piece, and hopefully to shed some light on issues that have great bearing on the making of art in our day and age.

Let me begin with this stuff about beating a dead horse. Ms. Mullarkey believes, as did apparently a number of our critics, that such condemnations of modernism abound in the world, and that Nikos and I were only reiterating stale laments which had been aired many times before. This certainly comes as news to me, as I suspect it would come to Nikos. Both of us have written about our respective disciplines for years (Nikos far longer than myself); both of us have tried to awaken people’s understanding to the disastrous legacy of the modernist revolution; neither of us has found much, if any, encouragement from influential bodies in our society. This is why we were so grateful to Rebecca Bynum, who has opened up the pages of New English Review to questioning the settled orthodoxy on this, as on so many other topics. But to suggest that we are surrounded by such organs, producing copious numbers of such diatribes, is entirely false. To the contrary, there are almost no voices of dissent left. Let me clarify. I am certainly aware of some of the powerful polemics that have been directed against modernism, such as Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House or Robert Conquest’s “But What Good Came of it At Last?” But these things have been written in the past. The spirit of resistance from which they sprang has been entirely quelled. It is just untrue to suggest that there are, in our culture, at the present time, any prominent intellectual centers that have demonstrated a willingness to challenge the fundamentally damaging legacy of modernism.

But what is the point of such a challenge, asks Ms. Mullarkey. Modernism is dead. The movement ended no later than the end of the Second World War, and what has followed after has differed in various material respects, so that it is perfectly pointless to complain now about modernism, as though its influence was the problem with art today. In this opinion, she is certainly not alone. I want to focus on this question, not only because it was an objection raised numerous times to our article, but because, despite appearing like a rather pedantic distinction, it really does cut to the heart of the matter. The wholly wrong-headed belief that we have freed ourselves from the influence of the modernist revolt is symptomatic of the very diseased condition in which the arts now find themselves. No one who properly understands what the modernist movement was about, I would contend, can truly believe that its legacy is behind us, or that we have freed ourselves from its central tendencies in any meaningful way. More importantly, no one who thinks that modernism is dead can offer adequate remedies for our present condition. I cannot hope to make a complete argument to this effect here in this space, but I will at least try to suggest why I am certain this is the case. 

One of the best books I know of on this subject is Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis. In this greatly underappreciated work, Sedlmayr examines the disciplines of architecture, painting, and sculpture as they have developed over the last three centuries, and calls attention to a number of destructive trends emerging during this period. For a while, in artists like Goya or Daumier, these tendencies are checked or balanced by more traditional elements in their disciplines, elements that could be traced back to a residual belief in man’s grandeur. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, such considerations had lost all purchase on the imagination of most western artists, and all that was left was the destructive tendencies.  Among these tendencies is the fact that the arts become increasingly isolated from one another and from any public function, making “pure art” or “absolute art” a novel – if altogether vain – pursuit. Art begins more and more to depict the nightmarish emanations of psychology – “whatever belongs to horror and to night, to disease, death and decay, whatever is crass, obscene and perverse, whatever is mechanical and a denial of the spirit.”[i] Architecture starts to demonstrate a loathing for nature through its inorganic shapes and materials; painting begins to demonstrate a loathing for human nature through its distortions of the human form. Taken together, all of these tendencies can best be understood as a loss of aesthetic equilibrium:

If we group all these symptoms together and examine them carefully we arrive at a diagnosis which we might well characterize as loss of the mean, or loss of center…Man seeks to get away from art which should be the mediating element between senses and spirit, and art itself struggles to escape from art in which it has as little satisfaction as man now finds in man. Art strives away from man and from all that pertains to man and measure.[ii]

This loss of an aesthetic center did not result from an “offensive against Victorian-era academies,” as Ms. Mullarkey asserts. It is true that some apologists for modernism have attempted to make this claim through the years, but no one who examines the period with a minimum of care can take it seriously. The offensive undertaken by that generation amounted to a campaign against western traditions of art-making, against western traditions as a whole, against the laws and limits necessary to civil society, against human nature itself. It is simply a fact of historical record that many of the modernists themselves testified to the primary place which the destructive impulse, the will to disorder, played in their artistic endeavors. Rimbaud maintained that the poet becomes a “seer” through a “long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses.” Picasso declared modern art to be a “sum of destructions.” The Futurist author Marinetti listed “the maximum of disorder” among his goals for art. Those who refuse to acknowledge that an impulse of willful destruction was one of the leading sources of energy for the modernist revolution are as resistant to historical reality as the kind of people who think The Da Vinci Code was really on to something. Jacques Barzun stated the matter very clearly:

The arts of Modernism have done one more thing; they have played a part in the general relaxation of conduct so widely complained of since the mid-century. The attack on authority, the ridicule of anything established, the distortions of language and objects, the indifference to clear meaning, the violence to the human form, the return to the primitive elements of sensation, the growing list of genres called Anti-, of which the root principle is “Expect nothing,” have made Modernism at once the mirror of disintegration and an incitement to extending it. And all this was going on long before the moral, sexual, and political rebellions that shook the western world in the 1960’s.[iii]

Yet even among those artists who did not proclaim a desire to ruin, even among those genuinely convinced they were creating something new, their work turned out to be destructive more often than not anyway. That is because they did not create in the right way; they did not create forms. Ms. Mullarkey is simply wrong about this. She maintains that, “modernism did not abandon form. Rather, it sought a means of creating fresh forms for interpreting the world.” But it is all too clear that she is using the term “form” in the typically sloppy way it is used nowadays, in a manner that makes no clear distinction between “form” and merely “innovation.” We have grown into the general habit of taking any stark departure from precedent as the invention of a new form. This faith in innovation, this prioritization of the new, is one of the central heresies of modernism, one which has lost none of its influence on contemporary attitudes concerning the arts.

Edmund Burke once laid it down as a political dictum that “to innovate is not to reform.” We might lay it down as a critical dictum that “to innovate is not to form.” A form is an ordering principle, one which transforms our bewildering, multifarious experience in a way that is at once intelligible and responsive to our sense of beauty. As Yvor Winters wrote, “the creation of a form is nothing more nor less than the act of evaluating and shaping (that is, controlling) a given experience.”[iv] An artistic form is a vehicle that lifts us, if even for a moment, out of the never-ending flux of causality and into the more transcendent realm of truth and harmonious being. A form does not belong to the artist, but to the community in which he wishes to make his meaning understood and felt. For these reasons, the creation of a genuine artistic form is always an act towards building up the rational, communal nature of man.

The main innovations of the modernists are almost never of this sort. Their stylistic departures are almost always contrived at breaking down some kind of order, of rendering our experience even more unintelligible, inharmonious, or disconcerting than it already is. The gigantism of steel and glass skyscrapers; the discursive, grammatical, and syntactic abnormalities of stream-of-consciousness narrative; the Cubists’ bizarre dismantling of nature – none of these things have the effect of rendering our experience more intelligible, or reconciling us to the world in some harmonious fashion. To the contrary, their general effect is to disorient and confuse the audience, to make man less comfortable in his experience, and to provide an adequate reflection of a world which in many people’s minds was growing – and perhaps had always been – fundamentally unintelligible, meaningless, and brutal. Their effect is to break down the human capacity for transcendent knowledge and, finally, civilized life itself.

Let me offer an example of what I mean. In W.H. Auden’s elegy for Yeats, the poet laments Yeats’ death by stating, “a few thousand will think of this day / As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual,” and hails the dead man with the deflating praise, “You were silly like us.” Commenting on these lines, Wendell Berry cites their “wearied and belittling sophistication,” and goes on to observe:

The poem – to use a concept now out of favor, but nevertheless indispensable – lacks decorum. It is not fitting to its subject; it hardly exists even in reference to its subject. It appears to come from the same impulse that keeps translating some great work into slang or ‘common English’ or ‘the vocabulary of a twelve-year old.’ Thus Auden memorializes the death of Yeats in a Modernese that compulsively trivializes it (and him) – and so fails to take Yeats either as seriously or as lightly as he took himself.[v]

The norms dictating what sort of language are appropriate in respect to a man’s death – the same norms which informed elegiac poetry for centuries – erode in the hands of Auden on account of what Berry calls his “studied, fashionable, even ostentatious indifference to the problem of decorum.” This is something new, but it is something newly ruined, not something newly made. No new norm of civilized life is being generated; an old one is just being wrecked. No new form is coming into being; one of the elements of an old form is being dismantled. And this by an artist who was by no means one of the most rebellious or deliberately destructive of his generation. Examples of this same kind of thing abound in the work of his more studiously annihilating contemporaries.

The hallmark of real formal innovation is that it provides a basis for subsequent artists to generate even more complex formal orders. So the formal innovations which Giotto employed in the modeling of the human form provided guidance for Masaccio’s own modeling of the body, even as the latter incorporated those bodies into compositions organized through new perspectival techniques. Masaccio’s own work would, in turn, serve as a model for numerous painters of the High Renaissance, and help to make their masterpieces possible. Similarly, when Petrarch established the sonnet form as a vehicle for creating an almost perfect balance of sincerity and artifice, his model would provide a starting point for generations of poets, from Camoens to Ronsard to Shakespeare, to craft an adequate vehicle of expression for themselves. Or when Wordsworth and Coleridge revived the ballad form, infusing it with an unprecedented lyricism, their innovations delivered English poets after them a brilliant new instrument, on which they might play, for nearly a century, such beautiful pieces as “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “The White Ship,” or “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”  This is what authentic formal innovation looks like; it is always generative of more formal innovation. 

Nothing of this sort took place during the early twentieth century. The modernists did what they did, and then, before they were even in their graves, people started talking widely about “the death of art.” How can anybody seriously believe that a movement pouring out a cornucopia of new, genuine forms would be followed, almost immediately, by the wholesale starvation and desiccation of the arts? It’s a pure fairy-tale. Those who think this way, those who laud the rebelliousness of the early modernists, and then feign horror at what came next in the middle of the century, remind me of no one so much as Stepan Verkhovensky, the flippant intellectual in Dostoyevsky’s Devils, who flirts with political radicalism in its milder forms, only to discover that he has produced a son fervently, murderously, committed to the same revolt he only dallied with.  

What occurred instead, in the place of true formal progress, was an unending process of envelope-pushing, a continuous impulse to probe the limits inherent in each of the respective disciplines in more and more extreme ways. One can see this dynamic exemplified perfectly in the single career of James Joyce. The transformation of his style from Portrait of the Artist as the Young Man to Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake consisted in an ever greater dissolution of ordinary syntax and grammar, and a continual thickening of the haze over narrative exposition. As Peter Gay writes, “Joyce pushed the dissection and reconstitution of prose to an extreme that nobody could surpass without landing in sheer incoherence.”[vi] Subsequent novelists could not imitate Joyce’s form, because there was no form there to imitate; there was just the relentless – if admittedly exuberant – breakdown of form, the expanded application of what Gay calls “a willingness to transgress rules that had governed writing for centuries.” All that later writers could do was imbibe this spirit of “heresy,” and go about their own transgressions in their own ways – as did, for example, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. 

But this spirit did not peter out after the Second World War. It is still sovereign over the minds of mid-century novelists like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Gunther Grass, as well as the dramatists of the Theater of the Absurd, figures like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, all of whom, according to Gay, shared the “classic modernists’” desire “to discard all hints of traditional principles like the logical sequence of events, which only forces an ordering, and therefore misleading, device on a disorderly world.”[vii] And of course, this discarding of clear narrative exposition, this commitment to muddling up one’s story, plays a central role in the fiction of David Foster Wallace, whom many are now proclaiming the greatest novelist of our day and age. Whatever the differences between the works of these writers, there is, running through all of them, from the earliest of the modernists down to our contemporaries, a continuity of transgression.

Similar continuities are observable in the other disciplines. The figures of Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon are every bit as dehumanized, every bit distorted into indignity, as the figures of Max Beckmannn or James Ensor. Contemporary architects like Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenmann design with the same preference for sterile materials and disconcerting geometry as can be discerned in the buildings of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Poets like Paul Muldoon, James Tate, and Jorie Graham produce works every bit as obscure and divorced from discursive meaning as many of the compositions of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Again, there are certainly differences among these artists, but what is relevant to my argument is the stylistic contiguities between their works. Architects of today may seek to disconcert the public through different means than architects of the early twentieth century; the relevant point is that they are still seeking to disconcert the public. Poets of today may pursue obscurity through a different idiom than poets of the early twentieth century; the relevant point is they are still pursuing obscurity. The ways these artists are similar to the earlier modernists are more important than the ways they are different. The ways styles coming after the modernist revolt differ from one another is less important than the way all those styles together differ from everything that went before. The false assumption that relatively minor adjustments in different disciplines have constituted real stylistic departures from modernism, even while the central principles of modernism have been retained, is evidence of the stagnation in which the arts have become mired. 

Such continuities of transgression as I have pointed to (and many, many more could be cited), persisting all the way to our day and age, ought to demolish the idea that the modernist period is behind us. In the end, though, the most revelatory evidence for modernism’s persistent legacy is to be found in the work of figures who sought to resist or escape those continuities in some fashion, who were in fact antagonistic to some element in modernism. Because what one finds in such work, more often than not, is faint reaction, a meager attempt to recover one or two remnants from obliterated tradition, instead of a robust appropriation of tradition. I think here of a figure like Philip Larkin, who did express a certain distaste for the modernists, and who attempted to reclaim some of the formal elements they had eschewed. But reading his work, one is struck by how commonly flat and prosaic his verse is, how even in his best pieces, like “The Whitsun Weddings” or “Aubade,” the language treads far too closely to colloquial speech to register any great intensity (“I work all day, and get half drunk at night;” “The fathers with broad belts under their suits / And seamy foreheads, mothers loud and fat; / An uncle shouting smut”). The language is simply not stylized sufficiently to achieve the impressive effects characteristic of all great poetry, and this is partly owing to the fact that the technical repertoire has become greatly depleted by the time Larkin comes along. Too much has been lost; too much has been squandered. The full range of techniques developed over centuries were cast away by the modernists, and those who came after could often only gather up a scattered trace here and there. This privation too belongs to the legacy of the modernist revolt.   

Thus we see the hopeless, deplorable condition of poetry in our time: a hermetic refuge for scores upon scores of untalented poseurs, all ridiculously unaware that whatever they are doing does not bear the slightest resemblance to the practice which formerly went under the name of poetry. They are various in their approaches, to be sure, but perfectly uniform in their dreadfulness. Some present their trivial reflections about table condiments, while others offer vulgar rants about their favorite body parts; some combine meter and rhyme with the most un-poetic, quotidian idiom, while others employ the un-poetic idiom without the rhyme and meter; some retreat into the last extremes of esotericism, while others write stuff so simple and sappy it would be rejected by the editors at Hallmark. But what none of these people do – what none of them can do, what none of them has the slightest idea how to do – is raise language to that pitch of intensity which carries us out of the quotidian and stuns us into the contemplation of important truths; that is to say, to do the sort of thing that poets did for centuries, and which for centuries they regarded as the essential end of their craft. And as it goes with poetry, so it goes with the other artistic disciplines as well; the technical vocabulary in which artists used to be fluent has become a foreign tongue, with the result that very little, if any, of the work produced today strikes one as representing the heights of its discipline. Even the best intentioned artists of our day consistently refuse to come to terms with the extraordinary damage their respective disciplines have incurred over the last century.

But something else has been lost besides just technique. Here I would ask the reader, even those who have been broadly sympathetic to my argument up to now, to reflect, and consider whether he or she does not suspect that the kind of art which was produced in the past, the kind of art for which such technique was relevant, is now an impossibility, that an impassable gulf lies between the modern world – our world – and what came before, and that we must hereafter resign ourselves as a civilization to creating art devoid of the spirit that infused the beautiful works of Praxiteles or Chaucer or Shubert. I have certainly heard or read this sentiment expressed more than once. Roland Barthe once declared that “to be a modern is to know that which is not possible any more,” and I would be surprised if the majority of our contemporaries did not sense that something like this is true in regard to the arts. But of course, the belief that the modern age is fundamentally different from every era that went before it, that a decisive break has been made with the past, and that artistic styles must henceforth attest to that break – this is the essential dogma of the modernists. How in the world, then, can anyone suppose that modernism is dead when this, its most decisive, its most characteristic, and its most pernicious conviction, still possesses the minds of the greater part of our generation?

Let us be perfectly clear about what such a conviction really means. To look to the masterpieces of the past does not mean to “routinely repeat” or imitate that work, as Ms. Mullarkey asserts (and in asserting, just repeats one of the most common clichés of our time). Great artists throughout history have turned reverently towards their predecessors, not to replicate mechanically this or that isolated feature in works they admired, but rather, to imbibe the standard of excellence they found instantiated there, to fully absorb into their spirit the criteria deducible from the works of those who had already scaled the heights of their respective disciplines.  As Sir Joshua Reynolds stated in the first of his Discourses, “By studying these authentic models (what he calls “the great examples of Art”), that idea of excellence which is the result of the accumulated experience of past ages, may be at once acquired…”[viii] To maintain that artwork produced prior to the modernist revolt is no longer relevant to contemporary artists is to maintain that the standards upon which that work was created – the “ideas of excellence” embodied there – are no longer relevant to contemporary artists, and this is equivalent to claiming that the very highest standards of artistic creation are no longer relevant to contemporary artists. The oratorios of Handel or the nocturnes of Chopin; the etchings of Durer or the self-portraits of Rembrandt; the odes of Holderlin or the novels of Dostoyevsky; the cathedrals of Tuscany or the manor houses of England – these things represent the very highest achievements in their respective disciplines, and if you tell a young artist that they no longer have anything to do with his practice, that they were created according to obsolescent or exploded philosophies, then you are telling him that the most exalted standards of his art are forever beyond him. You are instigating an unavoidable crisis of confidence in him about whether or not we are capable of creating the greatest sort of art anymore.    

What strikes us so often about artwork prior to the modernist revolt is its free, unembarrassed openness to certain kinds of feelings, certain intuitive responses to experience, that artists no longer seem capable of treating, or at least capable of treating without irony. I mean attitudes of reverence or piety; a belief in – and affection for – the heroic capacities in man; a simple enjoyment of the beautiful and a repugnance for the ugly. I would trace such feelings to what might be called a native disposition of human volition, what Chesterton referred to as “the great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate despots of existence.”[ix] Of course, one finds examples in modern art where such feelings receive unadulterated expression, but it is remarkable how often they are ignored, feared, or outright mocked in the art of the modernists – how often the intuitive desire for beauty is checked by a surfeit of ugliness; how often the intuitive desire for order is stymied by a proliferation of chaos; how often the intuitive desire for human dignity is drowned in a flood of human degradation. The diseased self-consciousness, the reflexive, entirely pre-rational skepticism, which are such evident characteristics of the modern mind, rear up again and again in the art of our age, like some hellish guard-dog, to frighten and abase human nature back into its timid quiescence. A constriction, a deformation, an ultimate abolition of an enormous range of our spiritual instincts are reflected in so many of the stylistic choices of modern art. The conviction that those choices are all that we have left means that that narrowing of our souls must be a permanent feature of our lives and our art from here on out, that from now on we can create only what is appropriate for truncated vestiges of humanity.

But why would anyone believe such a thing in the first place? What is at the root of this suspicion that continues to haunt us, that some qualitative gulf divides modern man from his predecessors? Sedlmayr grasped the reason perfectly: the stylistic imbalances that emerged in the various arts were themselves the reflection or embodiment of the spiritual disequilibrium that has come to afflict western civilization over the last several centuries. That loss of center burdening the painter or the architect is only one consequence of the centrifugal dissolution of civilized life itself: “Yet all these symptoms are a symbolic expression of analogous tendencies in mankind as a whole, nor is it in art alone that man is striving away from the mean, away from men – though it is precisely this tendency that modern art illuminates with such quite exceptional clarity.”[x] Later, he writes more explicitly:

the disturbance which we called the loss of center or loss of the mean is seen to have its origin in the forcible separation of the human and the divine in man, in the tearing apart of one from the other, and in the loss of the mediator between man and God, the God-man. The lost center of man is simply God, and the innermost core of his disease is the loss of his relationship with him.[xi]

What motivates the stylistic preferences of the modernists, what nourishes in them the belief that these preferences offer us the only accurate reflection of the age we live in, is a sense of the world’s disenchantment, the fear that “the death of god” was a real fact, that all discourse concerning a transcendent or supernatural reality has grown meaningless and outworn, and that the whole moral vocabulary which originates in the apprehension of such a reality has similarly grown meaningless and outworn. I do not think I need to point out that this attitude has taken hold of an enormous portion of western peoples, including a huge majority of their purported intellectual classes. It is the prevalence of these fears or doubts, the assumption that a resignation to disenchantment must now be the starting point for thought, that is supposed to constitute the reason for our separation from earlier generations of mankind, the real reason why “to be a modern is to know that which is not possible any more.” To those captivated by such an attitude, my whole critique of modernism, centered as it is around the metaphysical concept of “human nature,” will sound entirely unconvincing. So the question of the validity of modernist art really comes down to the question of whether “the forcible separation of the human and the divine” reflected in it shows us something permanently true about human nature, or instead, the local though acute exhaustion of one particular civilization. 

This essay is obviously not the place to settle this question. Suffice it to say I believe there are very good reasons to regard the death of god as a cultural, and not a cosmological event, and to regard as deeply erroneous the distorted picture of human nature which has followed from this event. I think we have all the reason in the world to consider the various modes of modern skepticism, the shapes which disbelief has assumed from materialism to deconstruction, as so many retrograde forms of ignorance; not cosmological discoveries made, but philosophical errors accumulated. I think we have excellent reasons to regard the modern age as the opposite of an enlightened era. And because I believe these things, I cannot but regard the idea of our irreversible break from the past – the notion captured by Virginia Woolf’s famous announcement that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” – as an obscurantist fable, a fantastic costume of historical determinism thrown over our failure to live up to our spiritual and intellectual heritage.

I could adduce numerous arguments to support my conviction that there is something permanent in the human soul, something which has remained untouched by all the philosophical, material, and political changes of the modern world. But arguments are not why I believe this. Art is. Great art from the past has repeatedly brought me into communication and sympathy with men long past from the earth, men who spoke different languages than I do, adhered to different customs than I do, and held many different beliefs than I do, but who could still move affections in me identical to the ones they themselves experienced and attempted to express. A few moments with a Scarlatti sonata or a Keats’ ode is sufficient to reduce to nonsense the contention that these men were different in any fundamental respect from me, or that their art has in it anything antiquated or passé. To the contrary, I have consistently found work pre-dating the modernist era to be more relevant to my life, precisely because I find it generally arises out of a saner and wiser vision than what has descended upon my own times. I do not suppose that aesthetic pleasure can refute philosophical doubt. I only wish to point out the real reason why I have never been able to take seriously, not for so much as a minute of my life, the idea that modern man has changed fundamentally from his predecessors, and why I have never once felt inclined to denigrate or distrust those eternal wishes of the soul – among which must be included an aspiration for something beyond our mundane existence – simply because that is supposed to be “the way we live now.”

Clearly then, my objections to modernist art presuppose certain philosophical premises, and I take it for granted that those who do not share those premises – which is probably the greater portion of the western public – will find nothing convincing in the case I have been trying to make. But what I have found consistently appalling is that those who presumably do share some of those premises – traditional-minded people, Christians, conservatives, and the like – have proven every bit as blind to the detrimental consequences of the modernist revolt as the most radically progressive could be. Nothing could demonstrate the trite, cliché-ridden state of our thinking about the arts on the right better than the fact that the arts writer for a magazine which presents itself as a bastion of religious orthodoxy does not see anything – anything at all – of suspect philosophical provenance in the modernist revolt, that she cannot even catch a trace of the spiritual catastrophe which Sedlmayr saw so clearly at work in the stylistic aberrancies of the modernists.[xii] An enormous range of the modernists’ innovations – atonal music, free verse, cubism, buildings devoid of ornament, novels devoid of a clear plot – came into the world to be the adequate stylistic expressions of the spiraling despair of the modern era. Each of these things attests, in its own way, to the increasing incapacity of western human beings to achieve ordered liberty. The attitudes of their creators towards that disorder may have varied quite considerably, with some abetting the breakdown gleefully, others lamenting it in sincere melancholy. But for the greater portion of modernist art, the stink of dissolution and decline hangs over it.

Well, we cannot go on declining forever. At some point, we will have to try civilized life again. When we do, we will find that the role the arts play in such a task will be central. Only the arts can awaken and nourish those primal spiritual instincts, that adoration of beauty and order, that affection for our own dignity, which must provide the foundation of any humane civilization. Only the arts, by moving us through expressions of our best desires, can make us aware of those desires, and of the immaterial reality they might disclose to us. But not every artistic style is appropriate to this task. A style that developed out of doubts about the legitimacy of those spiritual instincts is obviously not suited to their adequate expression. But this is precisely what I, along with Sedlmayr, maintain in the case of the modernists: that the greater portion of their styles originated in a disbelief or disaffection with desires essential to the rational nature of man. Their work was fundamentally destructive, intended to rid the world of Romantic sentimentalism, or the remnants of Christian dogma, or the very concept of human nature, or what have you. But artists of our own age, who have seen quite enough of destruction by now, who wish to engage in a work of renewal, a reconstruction of civilized life, will simply not discover appropriate tools for the task in the styles of the modernists. They must look elsewhere for their forms.

Those who persist under the false impression that modernism’s core superstitions (for such they are, ultimately) have been laid to rest entirely fail to account for how deracinated our lives and our artwork have become. They do not realize how impossible we still find it to be comfortable in the totality of our experience, or to make artwork true to that totality. They can only repeat the false mantra that artwork must represent its age. But there is no more primitive, backwards superstition than the idea that there is any necessary relationship between a people’s historical circumstances and the artistic styles they select. Moreover, it should be obvious that this belief, if accepted, means the death of art in our times, because the age we live in is undeniably ugly and vacuous, and any art that endeavors to represent it must necessarily become tainted with that ugliness and that vacuity. Great art, on the contrary, always endeavored to get at those permanent truths, those sources of universal value – we might call them “first things” – which do not alter from age to age. It is the presence of such representations that alone explains how the poetry of Homer or the paintings of Fra Angelico can continue to kindle our admiration these many centuries later. If the artist can find such permanent wisdom in the cultural resources of his era, all to the good. But one must be wonderfully sanguine to believe that Western culture, at the present time, provides a particularly rich resource of permanent wisdom. One must be strangely unacquainted with the dominant ideologies of our age – materialism, political correctness, free-market worship, and progressive liberalism in all of its hideous forms – to believe there is an ounce of truth in any of them, or that any of them can inspire the creation of outstanding art. 

The task of the artist at the present moment of history, then, is to supply his or her contemporaries with those truths our culture has entirely forgotten, those abiding insights into human life we have neglected for so long. The great artist of our time must be free to imagine possibilities for human life that are nowhere instantiated in our decadent age, but which are no less real for that; to revivify intuitions we have ignored or defied out of our reflexive skepticism. The great artist of our time is not concerned with representing our age, but with healing it. To do so, he or she must invent entirely new cultural forms that have no present existence in our exhausted civilization – forms of drama, methods for structuring the built environment, varieties of musical composition that no one living, except for the artist him or herself, could even suppose possible. That is why I feel such indignation towards those persons who keep repeating the same lie that the artist must be the spokesman of his age, or that he must be confined to the cultural forms presently on offer from our society. There is something genuinely oppressive – one might even say “tyrannical” – about the propagation of this falsehood, because it subjects artistic creation, which ought to be the preeminent expression of man’s freedom, to the servile superstition of historical determinism, and finally renders the renewal of our culture impossible. How much wiser were the words of Friedrich Schiller on this very point:

The artist is indeed the child of his age; but woe to him if he is at the same time its ward or, worse still, its minion! Let some beneficent deity snatch the suckling betimes from his mother’s breast, nourish him with the milk of a better age, and suffer him to come to maturity under a distant Grecian sky. Then, when he has become a man, let him return, a stranger, to his own century; not however, to gladden it by his appearance, but rather, terrible like Agamemnon’s son, to cleanse it and to purify it. His theme he will indeed take from the present, but his form he will borrow from a nobler time, nay, from beyond time altogether, from the absolute, unchanging, unity of his being.[xiii]

Does all of this mean I do not find merit in any modernist art, or that I do not enjoy any work produced during the last century? No, it does not, though on the whole I think it obvious that it rarely, if ever, approaches the standards evident in the work of the previous six centuries. But I am less concerned with evaluating this or that particular artist as I am with tracing back the roots of our culture’s present debility, a search which implicates the modernists in ways few are willing to concede anymore. Let me offer an analogy: for the last year, in the state where I live, numerous home inspectors have been traveling around examining the houses affected by last year’s hurricane. In some cases, the devastation is so great that nothing remains which would remind one of the form of a house, and the building must simply be condemned. In other cases, the storm has ruined this or that part of the property, while other parts remain sound. In others, little to no outward damage in the structure is observable. So the inspectors find an enormous range of effects from the storm’s impact upon this or that structure, but surveying the scene as a whole, they can have no doubt that a catastrophic force has left its mark there. Similarly, one can survey the whole of twentieth century art and find the stylistic disequilibrium identified by Sedlmayr manifested in greater or lesser form in this or that artist, but no one can be blind to the dynamic of unbalance that runs through the period.

So, for instance, I think Yeats a beautiful poet, but I am certain much of that beauty results from the fact that the sonority of his early style owes much to Romantic poetics, and that even later in his career, after his verse had become less expansive and more austere, he still retained an ear for the musicality of the language. And I am certain too that the fad for symbolist obscurity is vastly less pronounced in his work than in that of Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens, and that on the whole, the poems most marked by the mannerisms of his age (“Byzantium,” “Lapis Lazuli”) are inferior to those where that influence is less evident (“Adam’s Curse,” “A Prayer for my Daughter,” “Easter 1916”).  In other words, Yeats’ merits as a poet are owing to the fact that he largely escaped the worst influences of his period, and that he retained in his style something of an older, sounder tradition. I think something similar could be said of most of the successful work of the twentieth century.[xiv]

Of course, such general statements about period styles contribute little or nothing to our encounter with individual works of art, which must be appreciated in all of their particularity. But for criticism, and especially that sort of criticism which seeks to influence the direction of art-making, such generalities can be highly useful, and in our present situation, I would argue they are indispensable. Barzun concludes From Dawn to Decadence by imagining a generation turning the tide of decline and beginning the work of cultural renewal. Among their labors, Barzun notes, “they distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence – in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present.”[xv] This is precisely what Nikos and I were up to, but it is obviously a task that requires a general argument. Only by tracing the general lineaments of the movement which exploded at the turn of the last century can we begin to understand what has gone wrong with our artistic traditions, and what must be done to restore them. Those who objected to our piece on the grounds of “generalizing” are simply the kinds of people who never gave a moment’s thought to either of these things.

But then, why should they ponder what has gone wrong with modern art when they don’t see anything wrong with it in the first place? Why should people convinced they are looking at a masterpiece when they observe a splattered canvas or a concrete box worry their heads over how to remedy a cultural situation they find perfectly acceptable? This is the real issue behind many of the objections made to our article; over a century’s worth of steady exposure to cultural junk has so impaired the taste of the Western public, that many people simply cannot recognize junk anymore when they encounter it. I have to say that Ms. Mullarkey appears like a perfect example of what I mean; she points to that awful Beckmann painting to prove her point, completely oblivious to the fact that any person with a decent standard of taste would regard its deformations as an entirely unworthy representation of Christ. But of course, she is not alone in this deficiency. We all know that these sort of people are endemic now in our culture, the sort that stand in front of a pile of detritus in a gallery and wax loquaciously about the political message symbolized by the mess. In such people, the ordinary sensibilities of the human organism have been eradicated and replaced by ignorant little dogmas. And the higher one goes in the hierarchy of our artistic institutions, the more such deficient sensibilities are evident. This is hardly surprising to anyone who has considered the general tenor of our age. Its rot is all of a piece. We have laws made by people without the least sense of justice; money controlled by people without the least sense of prudence; schools run by people without the least sense of learning; and art made and judged by people without the least sense of taste. It’s all of a piece.

So I have no hope or intention of changing the minds of the garbage-mongers currently polluting our cultural space, those reactionary rebels who affect the pose of the avant-garde, while strenuously maintaining a status quo now lasting for over a century. They cannot see the problem I am addressing because they are the problem I am addressing. My concern is with the artists who come after us, those persons of great talent, and even genius, who may find their flourishing impaired by the wasteland we have bequeathed to them, who may still be unable to extricate themselves from our superstitious conviction that “there are some things which are no longer possible,” and who may conclude, from the failures of our age, that humanity is no longer capable of producing anything better than glass boxes, incoherent rants, and other assorted crap. But we can do better – much, much better. And so my arguments are directed towards those emerging artists who wish to create according to only the very highest standards, and who wish to have nothing more to do with the stupid and destructive skepticisms that have vitiated our entire culture. If I can bolster the confidence of such artists in their intentions even a little bit, I will be content. I will be content if I can instill in them some impatience with the wreckage of culture wrought in the last century, if I can encourage them to preserve their inherent creative intuitions against its contamination, and if, when they are filled with astonishment and emulation at the beautiful things ushered into the world by their more ancient predecessors, and wonder if such things are still possible, I can assure them, as well as I may, “yes, such things are still possible.”


[i] Sedlmayr, Hans Art in Crisis (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007), 138.

[ii] Sedlmayr, 151-152.

[iii] Barzun, Jacques  From Dawn to Decadence (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 727.

[iv] Winters, Yvor  In Defense of Reason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1947), 20.

[v] Berry, Wendell  Standing By Words  (Berkley, CA: Counterpoint, 1983), 108-109.

[vi] Gay, Peter  Modernism  (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 499.

[vii] Gay, 458.

[viii] Reynolds, Joshua  Discourses  (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 81.

[ix] From his essay on “Robert Browning.” I have quoted the whole passage elsewhere, but it deserves to be repeated as often as possible, so here it is: “Poetry deals entirely with those great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate despots of existence. Poetry presents things as they are to our emotions, not as they are to any theory, however plausible, or any argument, however conclusive . . . If bereavement is a bitter and continually aching thing, poetry will say that it is so, and no philosophers will persuade poetry to say that it is an evolutionary stage of great biological value. And here comes in the whole value and object of poetry, that it is perpetually challenging all systems with the test of a terrible sincerity. The practical value of poetry is that it is realistic upon a point upon which nothing else can be realistic, the point of the actual desires of man.”

[x] Sedlmayr, 153.

[xi] Sedlmayr, 174-175.

[xii] Another example of this sort of obtuseness can be found in Gregory Wolfe’s recent book, Beauty Will Save the World. For my review, see here:

[xiii] Schiller, Friedrich  “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man” in Essays (New York: Continuum, 1998),108.

[xiv] It should be noted that Yeats himself expressed reservations about the direction art and poetry were taking towards the end of his life. In “Under Ben Bulben,” the poet traces the history of art until “confusion fell upon our thought,” and warns young poets against the stylistic defects becoming commonplace, defects which he claims result from a disregard for tradition: “Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made, / Scorn the sort now growing up / All out of shape from toe to top, / Their unremembering hearts and heads / Base-born products of base beds.”

[xv] Barzun, 801.


Mark Anthony Signorelli's first collection of poems, Distant Lands and Near, is now available. His personal website can found at:

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