For anyone, suspecting that the critique of modernism in all its forms, as expounded in these pages, are just expressions of a reactionary, conservative, fascistoid and frustrated mentality, the following articles are wholeheartedly recommended. They demonstrate an increase of well-thought attempts to take distance from petrified biasses and conventions of the last century which dramatically hinder new developments in the arts, including (serious) music. Independently from each other, critics from left to right begin to see the cultural reality which is in front of us, but which seems to inspire infinite denial in the various cultural establishments. One of the first thorough criticism of certain forms of modernism came from the British philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton, and his subtle but irrefutable damnations have often been explained-away as coming from ‘the conservative camp’. But now similar observations appear from many different sides, which show that they are not politically or socially determined but resulting from a profound dissatisfaction about what our culture is capable of producing today and a profound wish to find solutions.
An early psychological depth-analysis of musical modernism was presented by the German musicologist and composer Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz in his admirable booklet Damit die Musik nicht aufhoert, Eisenach: Musikalienhandlung Karl Dieter Wagner, 1997 and in his perceptive essay Avantgarde und Trauma – Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts und die Erfahrungen der Weltkriege, in ‘Lettre International’, German issue nr 71, Berlin, winter 2005. In The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford University Press 1997, Roger Scruton explores – among other things – modernism from a philosophical and musicological angle. It is in these searching attempts that a solution may, or can, be found for the extraordinary problem that the West has put, through its cultural institutions, a nihilistic, nonsensical and destructive image of its cultural identity on a pedestal which is protected, funded and defended with a zeal, worthy of a better cause.
Another interesting article, by American cultural critic Roger Kimball:
Of course one could say: why bother? We live in a pluralistic culture where every form of art, old and new, high and low and every shade of grey can exist in freedom and can compete for attention in public space. But this is not so: our culture is not pluralistic at all. The money destined to support contemporary artistic enterprise in public space, i.e. new art and new music, is carefully channelled towards art forms which follow a definite collection of narrow ideas and assumptions, developed in the postwar period, with the exclusion of alternatives. It is schocking to discover that many serious artists are working independently of what ‘the establishment’ expects from ‘new art’, still cultivating high artistic standards, and many of them of great talent, but they cannot be seen in the museums of modern art or heard at the festivals of new music, both the kind of places entirely dedicated to modernism, postmodernism, concept art, etc. etc. mostly all possible forms of nonsense and puerile attempts. This means that these artists cannot, or hardly, reach audiences who could be pleasantly surprised about such a variety of high quality works. There are many people around in these institutions whose ignorance and irresponsibility make sure that serious new art and new music cannot be found there. New art and new music have become a separate category, next to the museum culture of the old collections of paintings and sculpture and old music in the concert halls and opera houses, run by an entirely different kind of people who, understandably, don’t care much about the ‘new’ forms which merely demonstrate a sorry decline, and most of the time present new works merely out of a sense of polite obligation. New visual art and new music as found in the established forms of presentation have killed themselves off completely in the chase after entirely nonsensical goals.
It seems to be clear that, for the arts, the ‘modern project’ has run its course. Only two options are, by now, open: giving-up the notion of art altogether, or a renewal of tradition (renaissance). In the ‘new art’ and ‘new music’ establishments, the first option has already been chosen, wholeheartedly, consciously or out of ignorance. People with artistic talents, and people with cultural insights will choose the second option, on the condition that the notion of ‘tradition’ is interpreted as a dynamic and not a conventional and reactionary concept – which is entirely possible, as the past demonstrates. But what does that mean: ‘a renewal of tradition’? A style imitation of Mozart? Or of Mahler? I believe that the concept of tradition has to be seen as a very broad territory, within which very different interpretations would be possible. The presense of the past in the form of the available repertoire should not be considered a mere historic narrative on a time line, but as a great number of contexts where composers can delve into the treasury, creating their personal mix based upon their authentic nature and taste. This is in fact a postmodern notion, and it throws-up the question of which parameters are available to handle such rather chaotic availability. Since history is not of much use here, it seems that notions of style, taste, and character – so, subjective and instinctive factors – have to replace notions of progressiveness, conservatism, avantgarde and the like, which are all pointless because of being historically determined. Musical languages that are farther down in the past, are more difficult to integrate, but in principal every style should be available for interpretation. And that is what we already see in some contemporary composers: Nicolas Bacri, Karol Beffa, Richard Dubugnon, David Matthews, Wolfram Wagner, and others, reconnecting with the early 20th century, when the roots of the art form were still intact.
The Second World War created an immense spiritual hangover, a devastating disappointment in humanity. This translated itself in a couple of ideas which formed the core of modernist ideologies. In his ‘Philosophy of New Music’ (1947) T.W. Adorno produced a couple of them, which were wholeheartedly embraced by a majority of composers, especially in Middle-Europe because such position seemed to offer the moral high ground. Here is a typical example: ‘Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.’ Since then, European states have generously spent fortunes on the establishment of this kind of musical philosophy, so that composers and performers, specialized in that repertoire, could deplore catastrophe ad infinitum from the windows of their Grand Hotel, overlooking the valley of tears, with a glass champagne in hand. Destruction became an attractive career choice, and it is no surprise that younger generations happily accepted this pose: it sounded dramatic, suggested suffering and an anti-bourgeois stand of opposition against lies and attempts to cover-up Europe’s drastic suicide. But what really happened, was a luxury continuation of suicidal destruction, thus finishing-off the job of Hitler and Stalin, applauded by a small audience and patted on the back by the state.
If new art in the West has to recover from its postwar decline, first of all the ideologies which still determine new art and new music in public space, have to be discarded. The entire support and presentation structure of new visual art and new music has to change, to be able to create a really free territory. Only then it will be possible to restore the art of the West to its former greatness.
John Borstlap / 2015
Addendum April 2016:
Modernism as a mind set transcends boundaries of genre. Postwar modernist architecture has done immense damage to the human environment, especially in the old cities, taking advantage of postwar housing shortage and utalitarian thinking in the rebuilding of war-torn societies. We know of Le Corbusier’s plans to break-down an important area of the centre of Paris and replace it with concrete tower bloks, and it should not come as a surprise to find-out about his fascist sympathies:
“The revelation comes in two new books, Xavier de Jarcy’s Le Corbusier, un fascisme francais (Albin Michel, 2015), and Francois Chaslin’s Un Corbusier (Seuil, 2015), released as a major retrospective of his work goes on display in Paris, which has been accused of “white-washing” the embarrassing political history of the celebrated architect and designer.”
Another famous modernist postwar architect, the American Philip Johnson, who had a very strong influence upon postwar modern architecture, suffered from similar ‘idealism’:
Webern was a fervent nazi-sympathizer, and the equalizing, streamlining mind-set of Schönberg’s idea of serialism was embraced by postwar totalitarian ‘composers’ like Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis. The roots of the famous ‘summer school’ of Darmstadt in fascism have been described in Toby Thacker’s ‘Music after Hitler’, 1945-1955 (Ashgate Publishing Ltd 2007). And so on and so forth….. fascism, antisemitism, utopianism, totalitarianism – all ingredients of anti-humanist thinking aimed at destruction of civilization.
2 thoughts on “Critique of modern art”
I just discovered this site, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Since my childhood in New York City in the 1950s I have seen one building after another, one neighborhood after another, destroyed and replaced by anti-human monstrosities, with the official critics approving of how wonderful it all is; in other arts, all attention given to an pseudo-aesthetic of abstract formalism and nihilism.
Only recently have I begun to realize I am not alone.
Everything has been so watered down and for way too long in our culture. Almost anyone can now call themselves an artist, a musician, a poet, etc., which I think is the great appeal of it all. The truly sad part is what we are really missing by putting “amateurs” (who have often become famous) consistently above those who have learned what has taken centuries to discover. It is all tossed aside, and we have been conditioned to find much meaning where there really is none (except within the mind of the artist). Few are brave enough to call the bluff, and the rest don’t know better.