Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, by Peter Gay (W.W. Norton; 640 pp.; $35)

Artistic creation, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is a “form of possession or madness” that “seizes a tender, virgin soul and stimulates it to rapt expression.” Artists have always struggled to persuade the world that the madness that drives them to create is genuinely a gift of the Muses, and not merely a trick of vanity. Their task has only become more arduous as prosperity increases and works of art proliferate.

The history of artistic modernism is in part the history of the psychological plight of the artist in a prosperous world. In his new book Modernism, historian Peter Gay traces the evolution of the modernist psyche from Baudelaire to Frank Gehry. At the core of modernism, Gay concludes, is the “lure of heresy” that beguiled artists as they confronted the “conventional sensibilities” of the thriving middle classes. “It is striking,” Gay writes, “how little changed across the decades in the modernists’ sheer hatred of the commonplace bourgeoisie.” Gay makes a case that the modernist rebellion against convention enlarged the boundaries of creative freedom. He is less persuasive in his analysis of the psychological calculus that underlay the revolt.

In the nineteenth century, an unexampled prosperity began to lift the world out of its Malthusian doldrums. The new affluence threatened art by creating a surplus of artists. Competition grew more intense, and it became ever more difficult for an artist to stand out in the crowd. Some artists—now mostly forgotten—earned their bread by pandering to middle-class tastes. The shrewder ones perceived that as soon as art ceases to be the exclusive province of an elect few, it loses the mysterious qualities that distinguish it from mere technical craftsmanship.

For centuries, artists, conscious of their elect status, shunned the herd. “I hate the vulgar rabble,” Horace sang. The difficulty, for the modern artist, was that the canons of formal beauty with which Horace and Virgil kept the mob at bay were fast becoming commonplace in the literate nineteenth century. The artist, cherishing his esoteric secrets, sacrificing to the Muses to please a select clientele, was understandably distressed to discover that every shopgirl whom he met could burn with the hard, gemlike flame quite as well as he. The vulgar now aspired to culture: think of Leonard Bast in Howard’s End, reverently studying The Stones of Venice. A monopoly was broken; daylight was shed on magic.

Thus was born a new aesthetic, one that enabled the artist to revive the mysteriousness of art and shut out the prosaic masses. The Greeks taught that art springs from two sources. The artist has an Apollonian vocation: he is a maker of order. But he acknowledges, too, the claims of Dionysus, for without an insight into the secret depths of life he is powerless to create. For centuries artists tried, with varying degrees of success, to please both masters. But when the philistine classes began to “come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” the modernist rebelled. He heretically deposed Apollo and replaced his harmonies with a mysticism of disorder, an aesthetic of Dionysian misrule sure to baffle the wood-hewing peasants who were just then learning to fondle pretty things. Leonard Bast might get on with Ruskin; he’d have a harder time with Finnegan’s Wake.

One sees an early rejection of Apollonian clarity in Henry James, who, after his play, Guy Domville, was booed off the London stage, turned his back on the demos, and began composing his brilliantly obscure, quasi-modernist masterpieces. His novel The Ambassadors has many merits, but only a leisured aesthete or a salaried professor will have the time or the patience to ferret them out, given the book’s prolix obscurities. For decades the publisher reprinted it with the chapters out of order; no one noticed.

T. S. Eliot, one of Gay’s archetypal modernists, was attracted to older forms of order. As he wrote in For Lancelot Andrewes, he wanted to articulate a point of view that “may be defined as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” But a passion for order would not suffice to make his reputation as a modern poet. He had to cultivate a wrecking instinct—a passion for “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria”—and show a talent for demolition.

A poet, in Greek, is a “maker,” a contriver of order. In The Waste Land, however, Eliot is simultaneously both a maker and an un-maker, subverting older patterns of order by ripping apart the poems of others and stitching them back together again, out of order:

Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony . . .

Eliot reveled in Dionysian disorder; he succeeded, in The Waste Land, in composing verse quite incomprehensible to the democratic rabble who took their instruction from what he sourly called the “common type of popular literary lecture.” Yet he continued to profess himself a lover of Apollonian order, a disciple of Dante, a proselyte ravished by the originally Hellenic, subsequently Christianized idea of a divine force that harmoniously “moves the sun and the other stars.”

So, too, Virginia Woolf. She adored the traditional music of the English sentence, yet in her prose she undermined the organizing principles of English fiction and presided with a maenadic glee at the auto-da-fé of the English novel. She tapped the rock with her thyrsus, and the fatal fissure yawned. Her literary assaults played a part in the overthrow of the conventional structure of the novel, those rhythms of plot and story line that impose order on a chaos of words. In the aesthetic world that modernists like Woolf helped create, highbrow writers compose unreadable, plotless novels, which go unread save by the salaried literary caste and suburban book clubs, while middle- and lowbrows compose vulgar, cliff-hanging stories about the sexual travails of serial killers. The gulf between the two literary terrains has steadily widened and now seems all but unbridgeable.

Modernism’s code of destruction succeeded in endowing art with a new, esoteric mysteriousness. Its outré stunts allowed artists to stand out in a crowded age. The early modernists, in their destructive frenzies, found their way to new and useful forms, which, in their richness and strangeness, possess something of the occult magic that led Plato to associate art with divine madness. But the aesthetic output of the second and third generation of temple-topplers has, as Gay himself concedes, been much more meager.

Gay blames the inability of modernism to repeat its early successes on the “democratization of culture” and on vulgar middle-class tastes. But he overlooks another, no less potent reason for modernism’s slide into aesthetic impotence. Destruction has its place in art: when forms grow tired, they must be replaced. But culture is a constructive enterprise; an Apollonian instinct for harmonious form must balance the Dionysian impulse to dissolution and formlessness. Just as the neoclassical art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries died in the trite Apollonianism of nineteenth-century academic painting, so the heretical energies of the modernists have expired in the no less trite Dionysian art of the present age. Subversion has become boring. Picasso’s daring eroticism has its interest; Andy Warhol’s Blow Job is fully as insipid as a painting by Alexandre Cabanel.

The French critic Sainte-Beuve defined Baudelaire’s pioneering modernism as the artist’s effort to create, “at the extreme borders of the known regions of Romanticism, a strange pavilion of his own . . . where narcotics are indulged in for the purpose of writing of them afterwards, and where a thousand poisonous drugs are drunk in the finest porcelain cups.” Goethe, who called the Romantic “sick,” had a premonition of the aesthetic catastrophe to which this super-Romantic assault on harmonious order would lead. In the second part of Faust, his Mephistopheles cringes when confronted with the Dionysian bestiality of the Walpurgis Night. Eros, Goethe implied, had given way to wantonness; he made Satan himself sigh for a little decency.

The modernist mantras are today as dated as they are dull. Yet the modernist régime itself is, paradoxically, more powerful than ever, its orthodoxies as firmly entrenched in today’s aesthetic world as the academic school’s were in the nineteenth century. Gay’s book will only reinforce the dogma that holds that any attempt to revive Apollonian order is a sign of reactionary philistinism: good taste today recognizes only the Dionysian. Even a figure with as many resources at his disposal as Prince Charles has been unable to get very far in his attempt to reintroduce, in the world of architecture, a poetics of symmetry, proportion, and harmony. But the prince is on to something: the great artist of the future will be one who finds a way to make Apollo interesting again.

“We live in an age of musical comedies,” Gay writes in his concluding threnody for modernism. He’s right, but he fails to see that the modernists are as much at fault for this state of affairs as those who pander to middle-class tastes. The modernists, too, are guilty of treason against the Muses. They, too, have sinned against art.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next