Nowadays, for anyone who takes a keen interest in the arts and has acquired the habit of making them an object of critical thought, there is one issue—or perhaps I should say, one debate—which is more and more found to overshadow all others, and that is the debate over the nature and destiny of modernism. This debate takes many forms and addresses itself to a great many aspects of cultural life, from the most purely aesthetic to the most explicitly political. More over, the participants in this debate are extremely diverse. They include not only the expected artists and critics and patrons of the arts, and the administrators and publicists who preside over our arts institutions, but also specialists in the social sciences, political activists and theorists, journalists and editorial writers, and philosophers, intellectuals, and academics of all kinds—all of whom have lately discovered in the problem of modernism a subject they deem to be central to the cultural and political life of our time. All tend to enter into this debate with strong feelings, and indeed pronounced passions, which are not always based on a mastery of the materials under discussion but which nonetheless derive from a sense that something important has changed in the relation of culture to society in our world, the world of the bourgeois democracies, and that the key to this change is to be found in that complicated conjunction of historical developments which generally goes under the name of modernism.

A debate which elicits the fierce polemical participation of so many diverse parties and interests is not easily summarized, to be sure, yet its salient features are, I think, now sufficiently clear to be identified and examined, and it is to this task that I wish to address myself here. I do not come to this subject as a neutral observer, of course. The most striking feature of this debate about modernism is—as the title of this paper suggests—the extraordinary degree of enmity it exhibits toward modernism itself; and in relation to this fierce enmity I wish to speak here as something of a champion and defender of the phenomenon that is now under attack. For it seems to me that in this attack on modernism by its enemies what is really at stake is something essential to the vital cultural life of our democratic society.

At the outset of this discussion, it will help us to understand both the intensity of this attack on modernism and its amazing scope if I offer some examples which can be held in the mind, as it were, as specimen citations from what is already a vast critical literature. Examples that commend themselves for this purpose abound, alas, as every publishing season for years now has added new and ever more vehement contributions to the fray. From Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, on the one hand, to T J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life and Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, on the other, all shades of political opinion are represented, and in the case of at least one book, Suzi Gablik’s Has Modernism Failed?, which calls for nothing less than a reformation of human nature itself, this literature has even acquired something akin to a religious dimension. Since the subject is now close to constituting a virtual subdivision of the book-publishing industry, it was inevitable that college textbooks would also be issued, and the alert firm of Harper & Row has been quick to establish its priority in the field with three titles widely used in the classroom: Modern Art and Modernism; Modernism, Criticism, Realism; and Pollock and After; all published in the last four years and all organized to promote a more or less Marxist interpretation of the subject.

From this large and burgeoning literature I shall offer only three representative citations drawn from very different political perspectives. The first and longest comes from an essay by a critic immensely influential in academic circles, Fredric Jameson, who, after much competition among the universities for his intellectual favors, has lately settled into a chair at Duke University. Jameson’s text is entitled, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” and appears, incidentally, in another of those anthologies designed for the classroom—The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture.[1] In this essay Jameson is concerned to explain why, as he says, “classical modernism is a thing of the past and why postmodernism should have taken its place.” The reason for this historic shift, Jameson writes, is to be found in what he calls “the end of individualism as such.” And on this subject he offers the following commentary:

The great modernisms were ... predicated on the invention of a personal, private style, as unmistakable as your fingerprint, as incomparable as your own body. But this means that the modernist aesthetic is in some way organically linked to the conception of a unique self and private identity, a unique personality and individuality, which can be expected to generate its own unique vision of the world and to forge its own unique, unmistakable style. Yet today, from any number of distinct perspectives, the social theorists, the psychoanalysts, even the linguists, not to speak of those of us who work in the area of culture and cultural and formal change, are all exploring the notion that that kind of individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past; that the old individual or individualist subject is “dead”; and that one might even describe the concept of the unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism as ideological. There are in fact two positions on all this, one of which is more radical than the other. The first one is content to say: yes, once upon a time, in the classic age of competitive capitalism, in the heyday of the nuclear family and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic social class, there was such a thing as individualism, as individual subjects. But today, in the age of corporate capitalism, of the so-called organization man, of bureaucracies in business as well as in the state, of demographic explosion—today, that older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists. Then there is a second position, the more radical of the two, what one might call the poststructuralist position. It adds: not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth; it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of that type. Rather, this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they “had” individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity.

Jameson then goes on to identify the aesthetic dilemma which follows from this analysis. The older models, as he calls them, naming Picasso, Proust, and T. S. Eliot, “do not work anymore (or are positively harmful), since nobody has that kind of unique private world and style to express any longer.” The only thing now possible, in this view, is for culture to turn to pastiche and parody, and this means, he adds, that “contemporary or postmodernist art is going to be about art itself in a new kind of way ... that its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment of the past,” etc.

The second passage I want to cite approaches the debate from a very different perspective—one that takes abstract art, especially the kind of abstract painting that was produced in New York in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement, as emblematic of the evils caused by the spirit of modernism. Here the writer is not an academic but a journalist, Roger Starr, a member of The New York Times editorial board and formerly the housing commissioner of New York City. In Starr’s view, many of the catastrophes which have overtaken New York City in recent decades can be traced to, of all things, abstract painting and the modernist impulse as he understands it to be embodied in that painting. Thus in his new book on The Rise and Fall of New York City he writes as follows:

It would surely be overreaching to suggest that the spirit of nonobjective art forced New York into its financial difficulties of 1975, or that it continues to hold before the city the specter of other severe difficulties that it may face in the future. But it is not overreaching to suggest that when the institutional leaders of the city make modern painting and sculpture their most prized art form, and when they devote as much time, intelligence, and, not least, money to its pursuit as the New York leaders of the postwar world have done, they demonstrate a set of values that endangers those needed to keep an urban polity on a firm, reasonable, and safe course. . . . Accepting as a form of high and serious art an arrangement of colors and shapes that has no relationship at all to objects of the world outside the canvas inferentially denies the value and importance of understanding the relationships between those objects and the observer. It offers the viewer instead spatial relationships that relate the paints ... to each other within the canvas and nowhere else.[2]

By this reasoning the turn away from abstraction and toward various modes of representation which has been the single most conspicuous feature of contemporary art in New York for a decade now would have to be taken as a sign that “severe difficulties,” as Roger Starr calls them, can now safely be consigned to the past as far as New York City is concerned. But I doubt if he would agree with that. It is not, in any case, the merit of Starr’s criticism which interests me here—in my opinion, it has no more merit than Fredric Jameson’s—but the fact that a writer in his position feels compelled to make it—that is, to seize on modernism as the source of so many of our social ills.

Clearly the “institutional leaders of the city” whom Roger Starr has in mind are mostly named Rockefeller, although he never comes right out and says so. No such reticence is to be found in yet another writer who traces many of our social ills to the influence of modernism—Daniel Bell, who in a recent article entitled “The Revolt Against Modernity,” essentially a rehash of the book he first published in 1976 called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, speaks of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as “a satrapy of the Rockefeller family.";[3] (One somehow doubts that Professor Bell would ever refer to Rockefeller University, that citadel of scientific research, as a “satrapy of the Rockefeller family,” but that’s the way it goes with the enemies of modernism. Which is to say, anything goes—even if a word like “satrapy” in this context evokes nothing so much as the pages of the old New Masses.) That for Daniel Bell modernism is the enemy we can have no doubt, for he had already confided to us in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism that “I see Modernism as the agency for the dissolution of the bourgeois world view.”[4]

What makes the discussion interesting, of course, is that Jameson rejects modernism because it has proved so conclusively to be, in effect, a coefficient of the bourgeois world view. The Left rejects modernism because it is seen to be an integral part of bourgeois democracy; the Right, if that is the word for these writers, rejects modernism because it is seen to subvert bourgeois democracy.

Jameson is, I suppose, a Marxist of some sort—let us call him a post-structuralist Marxist. He is certainly anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois. Bell likes to call himself a socialist—and, as we have seen, he does have a fondness for the old socialist rhetoric. Whether he is really anti-capitalist or anti-bourgeois, however, I have my doubts. Roger Starr has sometimes been called a neoconservative, and this is a position close to my own (at least on matters other than modernism and culture). Starr is certainly pro-capitalist and pro-bourgeois. Yet despite these differences in the content of their respective criticisms, such distinctions play little or no role in the passion and prejudice which these writers (and so many others) bring to this debate.

Now this is quite the most remarkable thing about this debate, and what really identifies it as marking a new development in the history of modernism—the way it has ignited passions and confounded all the old alignments. What we are witnessing is, among much else, an historic breakdown in the divisions which once separated radicals from conservatives, for instance, or the avant-garde from the philistines—divisions which served for so long to chart the course of modern cultural life.

As a result of this altered situation, the old terms have lost much, if not quite all, of their meaning. Those who pride themselves on being either radicals, on the one hand, or philistines, on the other, need no longer, at least on the question of modernism, necessarily find themselves in adamant opposition (as, of course, they once would have been). As for the champions of modernism—who, not so long ago, would have been universally regarded as the opponents of reaction—they, or I should say we, now often find ourselves described, and not unjustly either, as representatives of a conservative impulse. We are indeed in a new historical situation in which positions once easily stigmatized or praised as radical or conservative, avant-garde or philistine, no longer always serve as a reliable guide to the beliefs and commitments which govern cultural life.

How, then, does it happen that on this question the old alignments have so completely broken down, and there is now arrayed against modernism and its achievements such a vigorous and wide-ranging campaign of deconstruction and disinformation?

The essential precondition of this campaign was, of course, the absorption of modernism into the mainstream of American cultural life. Not until modernism achieved—and was clearly seen to achieve— its mainstream status in the academy, in the marketplace, in the media, and in our institutions generally, did it begin to come under the current critical assault. Virtually all of the earlier attacks on modernism had emanated from a fundamentally middlebrow cultural establishment concerned to defend and reaffirm its own legitimacy in the face of what were looked upon as upstart or malevolent challenges to its authority. These earlier attacks on modernism had failed to be effective, as we know—and largely, I believe, because they finally had nothing to offer as an alternative to the modernist tide. When that failure came to be widely recognized, then the way was clear for modernism to itself become the established culture, and that is what it did become.

This is a development we can date with a fair degree of precision, even if we cannot wholly account for the rapidity with which it occurred when it did occur. It happened in the early 1960s, in the Kennedy period, and in my view we cannot really expect to understand the current assault on modernism if we fail to grasp that it was in the Sixties that modernism first established its authority as mainstream culture. For both modernism as mainstream culture and the accelerating assault on modernism, which began in the Seventies and has reached a point of crisis in the Eighties, are together part of what the Sixties bequeathed to American culture and American society.

This aspect of the Sixties has been very little understood, I believe, for its beginnings predate the developments we generally associate with the Sixties—the emergence of the counterculture and the antiwar movement and the tremendous changes they brought in their wake. In our preoccupation with the consequences of that upheaval we tend to forget that the Sixties witnessed an extraordinary expansion in the cultural life of the nation, and that this expansion occurred largely, though not exclusively, in those areas which brought high culture— high culture as distinguished from popular culture—to a public larger than any which had theretofore been receptive to it.

We need only recall that this was an era that saw the building of a great many new museums and the expansion of a great many existing museums. It brought us Lincoln Center in New York, and many similar complexes around the country. It was in this period, too, that dance emerged for the first time as a mainstream artistic interest, and there were similar developments in other fields.

What has not been much remarked upon, however, is that it was in the Sixties, too, that the media underwent a drastic change in attitude toward the arts, and especially in its attitude toward modernism in the arts. We tend to forget that it wasn’t until the Sixties that a living painter or sculptor of modernist persuasion could expect to receive a sympathetic response from the principal art critics on such publications as Time and Newsweek and The New York Times. On this matter I can speak from personal experience, for it was in the fall of 1965 that I was invited to join the staff of The New York Times, and the editors who offered me the job made it very clear that they now felt obliged for the first time to employ a critic who could be counted upon to be more informed and up-to-date about modern art than those they had generally employed in the past. (They had already made one or two attempts at this, but none had worked out.) For they weren’t looking for a cheerleader, and, I might add, they certainly didn’t get one when they hired me. But they were looking for a writer who took the subject with the requisite seriousness. As the then executive editor of The Times, Turner Catledge, explained to me (with something of a sigh): “Our readers are now a lot smarter about all this than we are.” To keep these readers and win still others the managers of the paper felt it necessary to redress the balance, and this meant—in some fields at least—joining the modernist tide instead of opposing it.

To redress the balance—in fact, to catch up on the artistic and cultural reality of the moment—was very much what this shift in the early Sixties was about. Tremendous changes had taken place in American cultural life in the Fifties which were accorded little, if any, sympathetic representation in mainstream cultural institutions and almost none in the mainstream media. In the visual arts, for example, the New York School had established itself in the Fifties as the leading international art movement of the post-World War II period, yet it was accorded no recognition in such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum or the National Gallery in Washington. Even the Museum of Modern Art, which in principle specialized in such developments, gave the movement only sporadic recognition until 1959 when it mounted a major exhibition, called “The New American Painting,” for the first time. There were exceptions, of course—a critic here, a curator there, an adventurous collector or two—but for the most part what might be called mainstream highbrow taste —elite taste—in the Fifties still favored French painting over anything American and representational art over anything abstract.

By the early Sixties there existed in this country a public that was large and growing which felt very keenly this discrepancy between what I have called the cultural reality of the moment—anyone who had been to school in the Fifties understood that modernism in one form or another was at the heart of it—and the paucity of its representation in the mainstream institutional life of culture. Out of an interest in their,own survival and prosperity, it was thus in the early Sixties that these mainstream institutions set about closing the gap. How it was done, and whether the doing kept faith with the original impulse, whether something valuable and important got lost in the process—all these are questions worth exploring on another occasion. The point to be grasped here, however, is that it was not the institutional life of culture which initiated the change— the institutions responded to a change which had already occurred. They initiated nothing in the realm of artistic creation; they were attempting to catch up with and keep abreast of what had already been created and had already elicited a significant response. It was out of this situation, moreover, that the National Endowment for the Arts first emerged in 1965—as a response to a cultural development already in progress.

How this shift of modernist culture into the mainstream would have turned out if, as the Sixties developed on its headlong course, there had been no war in Vietnam, no rock music or birth-control pill, no military draft or drug culture or antiwar movement or Woodstock, etc., we are not in a position to know. All of these upheavals did occur— they swamped us, and we are still, in a sense, digging our way out of the debris which they left in their wake.

What, we may ask, was the fate of modernism in this historical upheaval? What role, if any, was it seen to have played in the counterculture and the antiwar movement and the sexual revolution of the Sixties and early Seventies? This, I think, is the crucial question, for it is in relation to the role assigned to modernism at this turn in our history that the current crop of modernism’s avowed enemies has emerged.

By and large, and allowing for differences in emphasis and nuance, the roles assigned to modernism in the upheavals of the Sixties by its current enemies derive from two very distinct interpretations of what modernism was and is. The first, which is now clearly identified with the political Left, rejects modernism out of a sense of bitter disappointment and betrayal. (This is the position of Jameson and his numerous academic brethren.) This view may be summed up as follows: Modernism claimed to be revolutionary, it claimed to be anti-bourgeois, it promised us a new world, but it turned out to be a coefficient of bourgeois capitalist culture, after all, and we therefore reject it as counterrevolutionary and indeed reactionary. And further, since modernism is in some sense the only high culture which currently exists in living form, we also reject the claims of high culture and must work to destroy the privileged status it enjoys in the cultural life of the bourgeois democracies. Hence the new role assigned to popular culture as an agency of political deconstruction.

That, I think it is fair to say, just about sums up the judgment which the intellectual Left has made on modernism as a cultural movement.

It is more difficult to characterize the second categorical interpretation of modernism made by its enemies on the basis of its role in the upheavals of the Sixties—the interpretation which unites Roger Starr, Daniel Bell, and a good many others. As I said, Bell claims to be a socialist and Starr has been called a neoconservative. Lionel Trilling, upon whose ideas Bell and other writers of this persuasion so much depend, regarded himself as a liberal but was regarded by many others as a conservative. So what can we call this interpretation? Despite what I have said earlier about the fallen status of the word, I am afraid we must fall back, after all, on the term philistine—it is the one that will have to do until we can come up with a better one.

This philistine view, then, may be summed up as follows: Modernism was largely responsible for all the upheavals of the Sixties. What we saw happen in the Sixties was the ethos of modernism translated into action, modernism brought into the streets, so to speak, and enacted in every aspect of the sexual revolution and the whole counterculture. In this view, Woodstock was in some sense the culmination of the modernist dream of a society in a permanent state of orgy and ecstasy. Above all, modernism promised us the destruction of capitalism and bourgeois life, and the Sixties showed us just how subversive modernism could be if its governing ideas were acted upon.

But how much of the culture of modernism was it that dreamed of a society in a permanent state of orgy and ecstasy? In actuality, the counterculture of the Sixties derived from ideas which were deeply inimical to the fundamental modalities of modernist thought if we take the latter—as I think we must—to be represented by such figures as Flaubert and Henry James and Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and even the early Ezra Pound, Manet and Cézanne and Matisse and Picasso and Brancusi and Miró and the painters of the New York School, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, etc. It wasn’t the works of James Joyce or Thomas Mann or Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein which were carried in the rucksacks of the antiwar marchers, and it wasn’t to the music of Stravinsky or Schoenberg that they marched.

Now the exact relation in which the high culture of modernism stands to the cultural upheavals of the Sixties and the exact relation in which the high culture of modernism stands to capitalism and bourgeois democracy are both questions of a far greater complexity than the enemies of modernism can bring themselves to acknowledge. The Left position wishes to delegitimize modernism for failing to fulfill a revolutionary function; the philistine position wishes to delegitimize modernism by making it the scapegoat for social developments it regards as calamitous. Both, I submit, are based on caricatures of history.

That there has been from the beginning of the modernist movement a révolté element is not to be denied, of course, but it was rarely, if ever, the dominant element, and in each case where a group or movement, such as Futurism or Dada, allied itself with a politically revolutionary cause, it was the aesthetic component—not the politics—which proved to be enduring, and which came to play a role in shaping the sensibility of high culture in bourgeois societies. That, of course, is what is so frustrating about modernism for the ideological Left—that the principal achievement of modernism always turns out to be aesthetic rather than political. And as the Left has no way of accommodating the aesthetic either as a mode of cognition or as an autonomous cultural enterprise—both of which may be said to constitute the very foundations of what modernism finally represents—it must consign it, either literally or figuratively, to the so-called superstructure. But the philistine position cannot accommodate the notion of an independent aesthetic impulse, either, and so aesthetic achievements must likewise be stigmatized as ideological if they are to be discussed at all.

Something more than modernism is also being caricatured in these attacks—namely, the bourgeoisie, in other words, you and me, and the life of the mind in middle-class, capitalist society. Reading through this vast literature on the failures and/or crimes of modernism, one would scarcely suspect that bourgeois life had been changed more than a little, and by and large for the better, since Balzac and Flaubert wrote about it in their novels, or that the culture of modernism has played a decisive role in making bourgeois life a more liberal, a more enlightened, and a spiritually more spacious environment than it once was. The truth is, the culture of modernism has served all along as the aesthetic and spiritual conscience, and sometimes even the moral conscience, of middle-class life, and it is this which has made it pre-eminently the culture of democratic capitalist society, however many the conflicts it may still have with that society, and it is this which has made the culture of modernism so anathema to anti-democratic political regimes. Isn’t what is really at stake, then, in this attack on modernism something central to the vital cultural life of our democratic society? Central, that is to say, to democracy itself? I think it is.


  1. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster (Bay Press, 1983) pages 111-125. Go back to the text.
  2. The Rise and Fall of New York City by Roger Starr (Basic Books, 1985), page 219. Go back to the text.
  3. “The Revolt Against Modernity” by Daniel Bell, in The Public Interest (Fall 1985), page 57. Go back to the text.
  4. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell (Harper Torchbooks edition, 1978), page xxi. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 7, on page 1
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