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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, June 20, 2004

LOVE AND ART IN THE AGE OF MASS REPRODUCTION

Kyle Gann has interesting thoughts on ”Putting Modernism Behind Us” at his blog PostClassic. He quotes part of discussion between two novelists I’ve never read, talking in Slate magazine about how the modernist moment in the novel, exemplified for them by James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” represented a revulsion against the traditional artforms of the west in the wake of the slaughter of the first World War. The writers agree that experiments in greater complexity are not the thing to do now, that modernism has outlived its moment, though one of the writers aptly says that he is a modernist despite himself. In his comment on the dialogue, Kyle says he envies the “apparent ease with which literary people can remark on modernism’s irrelevance these days.”

Modernism -- one of the novelists quotes Ezra Pound’s commandment, “Make It New” -- modernism is a topic that always scratches my interest. Reading a composer’s comments on the thoughts of two novelists raises a disorganized jumble of comments and questions for me on the relationship between popular arts, subsidized-institutional arts, and mass reproduction.

* Novels are popular. They always have been. They didn’t exist until after the printing press. The split between so-called fine arts and so-called popular arts didn’t occur until long after the novel was established.

* For people who tout Joyce as the apex of novelistic modernism, what do they think of Gertrude Stein? For me, her boundary-pushing is more radical than “Ulysses,” and her “Tender Buttons” laid it out before the first World War, not after.

* It seems to me that novelists have never had to confront the question of how mass reproduction changes their relationship to their audience, since their art form developed after the printing press. Also, reading remains a solitary, absorbing experience -- you can’t just have a book on in the background, like you can music or a painting (though I did suggest to a friend who’s a performer and a Joyce fan that he would be the man to a Books-On-Tape version of “Finnegans Wake”). Reading is intentional and disciplined.

* Visual artists and composers work in artforms that were fully developed before there was any way to reproduce an individual work on a mass scale. Visual artists have confronted the question of what their art means in a world that’s inundated with images. There are still pitched battles in the artworld between the conceptualists, the abstractionists, and the post-modernists (many of whom are pasticheurs mining and recombining past styles of art), but the highest reaches of the artworld acknowledge that posters, comics, photos, and magazine covers are visual arts worthy of aesthetic regard, study, and preservation. Have composers in the classical (and post-) tradition confronted what their music means in a world inundated with the stuff? Have the highest reaches of the music world agreed that advertising jingles and Top 40 songs can be as worthy as music made in the university?

* The poetry world is like the music world in this respect. Until 60 or 70 years ago, rhymed verse was still a popular form, and newspapers printed it regularly. Today, newspapers print no verse, and university poets are split between the meditative conversationalists, the traditional formalists, and the intellectual avant-gardists. The different camps despise each other’s stuff, but two of the camps unite in their agreement that the wonderful poems of Robert Service (for example) don’t make the cut, and all 3 agree that neither do the energetic and often floridly inventive slam poets. What’s up with that? Interestingly, sometimes rock lyricists, and occasionally Tin Pan Alley lyricists, do make the cut.

* One of the novelists in the Slate discussion -- the one who aptly claims that he is still a modernist -- disses (en masse!) the new multi-cultural novel as stuck in the 19th century marriage narrative. Has the dude not read Malcolm Cowley’s brilliant review-and-defense of a new e. e. cummings poem book from the ‘30s? At the time, most poets, following T. S. Eliot, declared love poetry dead. (Note: According to the university poets, it still is.) Cummings wrote love poems, as well as undecipherable slang experiments, political jeremiads, and mean satires. Cowley tells this story: “I have known a poet somewhat younger than cummings who discovered that he had irrevocably lost the woman in whom his life was centered; he stumbled home and wrote, with tears gumming the keys of his typewriter, an elegy on the death of Rosa Luxembourg. Once I asked him what he thought of cummings. He said, ‘A fine poet, a very fine poet, but, I mean -- there’s nothing more up that street.’”


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