On Greenberg’s definition of Modernism

13 February, 2009

[From a discussion on the Modernity (or not) of Sibelius]

Greenberg’s essay really is piffle – his argument is really metaphysical rather than concrete. He asserts but does not demonstrate. He pretends to discuss Modernism in general, but is really only talking about the plastic arts, painting in particular. His argument is finally based on a Bohemian pose.

From the top: Greenberg says Modernism rose in response to the crisis of Romanticism, in particular to the degenerations of revivalism and academicism (he mentions this didn’t apply to music or literature, but doesn’t think this exception to his thesis needs explanation).

What actually made this new movement different from previous new movements is rather vague. Greenberg says:

Modernist innovation has been compelled to be, or look, more radical and abrupt than innovation used to be or look: compelled by an ongoing crisis in standards.

Over the past hundred and thirty years and more the best new painting and sculpture (and the best new poetry) have in their time proven a challenge and a trial to the art lover — a challenge and a trial as they hadn’t used to be. Yet the urge to relax is there, as it’s always been. It threatens and keeps on threatening standards of quality. (It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.)

So Modernism may be defined as being especially radical and challenging, in response to a threat to “standards of quality”. (The phrase in brackets is particularly interesting – the word “apparently” suggests he doesn’t understand why things use to be different.) Is “the urge to relax” really the great threat to standards of quality?

No, the threat is not the urge to relax, but the cause at the root of this urge, which is:

the demands of a new and open cultural market, middlebrow demands.

the relative democratization of culture under industrialism

an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past.

these threats, which came mostly from a new middle-class public

So that’s the problem, you see. The common people became more affluent, and more interested in art. Their “middlebrow demands” precipitated the crisis, which could only be resisted by art becoming “a challenge and a trial”. What were these “middlebrow demands”? How were these demands made? How did they differ from demands of previous times? (“It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.”)

From Greenberg’s argument we see the basic problem was that the new public existed at all. After all, the elite do not want to be associated with the pastimes of the plebians. Imagine an aesthete in a concert hall listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony – and surrounded by suburbanites having a jolly good time. Intolerable! How could they possibly appreciate such a masterwork?

It is in answer to this crisis that art must become “a challenge and a trial”, in order to weed out those who desire to “relax” (this desire not being a problem before Modernism pronounced it so, “apparently”). This is in fact the archetypal Bohemian gesture, a ego-defensive attempt to shock the bourgeoisie (√©pater les bourgeoisie), and drive the impure ones from “our” temple.

What does this have to do with Sibelius? Not much. He began composing in the style of his time, and developed his individual voice, modifying his methods to facilitate expression. Nothing especially Modern about that. He wasn’t endeavouring “to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism”, although he was resisting the pressure of Modernism to atonalism and a general pose of radicalism.


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