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In this lively, personal book, Robert Scholes intervenes in ongoing discussions about modernism in the arts during the crucial half-century from 1895 to 1945. While critics of and apologists for modernism have defined modern art and literature in terms of binary oppositions—high/low, old/new, hard/soft, poetry/rhetoric—Scholes contends that these distinctions are in fact confused and misleading. Such oppositions are instances of “paradoxy”—an apparent clarity that covers real confusion.
Closely examining specific literary texts, drawings, critical writings, and memoirs, Scholes seeks to complicate the neat polar oppositions attributed to modernism. He argues for the rehabilitation of works in the middle ground that have been trivialized in previous evaluations, and he fights orthodoxy with such paradoxes as “durable fluff,” “formulaic creativity,” and “iridescent mediocrity.” The book reconsiders major figures like James Joyce while underscoring the value of minor figures and addressing new attention to others rarely studied. It includes twenty-two illustrations of the artworks discussed. Filled with the observations of a personable and witty guide, this is a book that opens up for a reader’s delight the rich cultural terrain of modernism.
I want to insist on the existence of badness in poetry and so to establish an antithetic point of reference for the discussion of goodness.... The purpose of my essay is ... to show the relationship between examples acknowledged to lie in the realms of the good and the bad. -W. K. Wimsatt
My objectives in this chapter are to look into the way the terms High and Low were deployed in the critical discourse around Modernism, and how they slide easily into absolute notions of Good and Bad. I shall also try to situate that discourse in relation to some earlier versions of the High/Low distinction, and to use the results of that investigation to argue that the paradoxy we find when we look into these matters should lead us to rethink the Modernist canon and curriculum, opening up both of these to accommodate texts formerly excluded, and should make us more alert to the way that texts we think of as belonging to one or the other of these categories often have crucial elements that our critical discourse associates with its opposite.
In a recent article Andreas Huyssen finds it necessary to clarify the interpretation of the "Great Divide" between High and Low Modernism that he advanced to such great effect in his book, After the Great Divide:
Much valuable recent work on the editing, marketing, and dissemination of Modernism has misconstrued my earlier definition of the Great Divide as a static binary of high Modernism vs. the market. My argument was rather that there had been, since the mid-nineteenth century in Europe, a powerful imaginary insisting on the divide while time and again violating that categorical separation in practice. After all, the insight that all cultural products are subject to the market was already advanced by Theodor Adorno, key theorist of the divide, in the late 1930s. (366-67)
Huyssen goes on to say that he was mainly interested in how the divide played out in the context of Post-Modernist attempts to break down the wall between High and Low, and that he now wishes to reconfigure or reconsider the divide in terms of a global approach to comparative literary studies. This is all well and good, but it seems to me that certain aspects of the divide have never been properly understood, and that in order to understand them we need to reexamine some of the internal contradictions and other problems that I am calling paradoxy in the work of those who theorized the divide during the Modernist period-not just Adorno but others, ranging from Georg Lukács and Clement Greenberg to the literary New Critics. It will also help, after this, to consider briefly some previous formulations of the High/Low opposition, from which the Modernist version evolved.
We can start with Lukács, who was insisting on the distinction as early as 1914-15, when he wrote Theory of the Novel. In the preface he wrote for the 1963 edition of this book, Lukács points out that he had composed the work during World War I, in a mood of profound depression as he contemplated the future of Europe. First published in a journal, it appeared as a book in 1920. In this work, Lukács wished to make an argument for the novel as a major form of literary art-a motivation that he shared with such illustrious predecessors as Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, though his reasoning was very different from theirs. For Lukács the novel succeeded the epic as the proper narrative mode for an age after the death of God, a narrative grounded in what he called a "transcendental homelessness" (61). Lukács felt that the dignity of the novel was threatened by the presence of a number of similar but trivial narrative modes, the most prominent among them being "mere entertainment literature" (71). The novel, he asserted, unlike other literary genres, was cursed by having an evil twin: "a caricatural twin almost indistinguishable from itself in all inessential formal characteristics: the entertainment novel, which has all the outward features of the novel but which, in essence, is bound to nothing and based on nothing, i.e. is entirely meaningless" (73).
Lukács wanted the novel to do serious cultural work, which meant, for him, a Hegelian project, in which characters would embody the workings of a progressive historical dialectic. This led him, as similar concerns led Erich Auerbach, to privilege novels that offered a coherent and historicized narrative position (omniscience) and dealt with social and economic forces from a progressive perspective, exposing the evils of capitalistic society in the manner of Balzac or pointing the way toward a better social system. The pessimistic naturalism of Zola he did not approve, and, indeed, Lukács linked naturalism to aestheticism as excessively concerned with sensual details. Granting these concerns their seriousness, his attack on "the entertainment novel" is still shocking in its vehemence: "the entertainment novel ... is bound to nothing and based on nothing, i.e. is entirely meaningless" (emphasis added). The double nothings, and the unnecessary adverb intensifying the already absolute "meaningless" to a presumably lower level of inanity, reveal a serious problem here.
This man was protesting too much. Which suggests that he was fond of the guilty pleasure found in these works and was trying to exorcize the demon from his consciousness. But my serious point here is that multiplying the zeroes and intensifying the meaninglessness simply will not work. Literary texts cannot be classified so rigidly. The divide that Lukács was trying so strenuously to create never existed and could not exist, because narratives are essentially entertaining, whether epics or novels, and because a narrative cannot be entirely meaningless or based on nothing. In asserting that novels are "essentially entertaining," I mean to insist that narrative structures are linked to a distinctly human psychology of pleasure at a very fundamental level of existence. Lukács was too thoughtful a critic to ignore this, and in his later work he modified his extreme position. But the question of the purity or rigidity of the divide is the most important issue we shall face. If we were to follow Lukács, we might define the opposition in terms of entertainment versus representation (allowing the word "representation" to stand for the complex issues Lukács addressed using terms like "realism" and "narration"), but before accepting any single view, we must look more deeply into the ways in which various critics have defined the divide. We can begin with the powerful formulation articulated by the American art critic Clement Greenberg in the 1930s.
In his 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," Greenberg made a frankly class-based assessment of the High/Low divide. Great art-high culture-depends, he argued, on a class with leisure and education: "No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold" (8). But these proper patrons of the highest art, "the rich and the cultivated," were being wooed away from supporting the avant-garde artists who kept the flame of culture alive-wooed away by a spurious commercial or academic substitute: "that thing to which the Germans gave the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fictions, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc."(9). In a brief historical excursus, Greenberg blamed the birth of kitsch on "peasants who settled in cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois." These wretches "learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture" (10). Thus they demanded-and got-something less elevated than the art that the rich and cultivated had supported:
To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide. Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money-not even their time. (10)
Just how this cheap stuff manufactured to please half-educated peasants succeeded in luring the rich and cultivated away from their support of high art is left a bit unclear by Greenberg, but we can tease out his reasoning if we look closely enough at what he is saying. We can note, as in Lukács, the vehemence of the denunciation of what is being designated as Low in this formulation and the insistence that the distinction be absolute, despite some awkward cases that seem to claim a middle ground. This is apparent, for example, in Greenberg's description of The New Yorker as "fundamentally high-class kitsch for the luxury trade" (11). Genuine art, for Greenberg, is "necessarily difficult" and requires work from the cultivated consumer (15), while kitsch offers the pleasures of art without the work. High equals difficult; Low equals easy. High art offers pain, which the cultivated can transmute, with effort, into pleasure; Low art offers its pleasures directly. Greenberg compares T. S. Eliot to Edgar Guest (whom he patronizingly calls "Eddie"), Braque to a Saturday Evening Post cover (read Norman Rockwell), and Michelangelo to Maxfield Parrish. We, the cultivated ones, know better, yet we will put the lower pictures on our walls and read the lower books as well. Why should this be the case? Greenberg's answer to that question seems to be this:
Avant-garde art is necessarily critical of late capitalism ("capitalism in decline"). The cultivated ruling class does not want to hear this message. Therefore this class turns away to cheap and easy satisfactions.
Greenberg's assumed connection between avant-gardism in art and a socialist or anticapitalist avant-gardism in politics is no longer a viable assumption-if it ever was one. That is, we can no longer easily assume that violating aesthetic conventions contributes to the alteration of social structures. That is one reason why Greenberg's distinction is not useful for us, though the more nuanced version of this position developed by Adorno and Horkheimer must be considered. Another reason lies in Greenberg's insistence that kitsch is "mechanical and operates by formulas." We can clarify this problem by rethinking Walter Benjamin's distinction between works of mechanical reproduction and works that retain the aura of the oral storyteller. The actual oral storyteller, whether epic or more humble, worked with formulas at every level of production from verbal to structural and thus was formulaic without being mechanical.
Formulas belong to crafts; mechanical reproduction belongs to industry. They are very different things, and the tendency of Modernist critics to equate them is a major aspect of Modernist paradoxy. What it comes down to, perhaps, is a distinction between works that are virtually identical-truly mechanical-and works that are individualized productions of a formulaic craft. It seems to me that the novels of Jane Austen are formulaic in plotting and even to some extent in characterization (all those villains whose names begin with W, for example), but are nonetheless clearly the products of a crafty individual rather than a factory. Perhaps Clement Greenberg considered Jane Austen's novels "high class kitsch"-I do not know. But my point is that formulas have a place in almost all art, and sometimes an important place, as E. H. Gombrich demonstrated so powerfully in Art and Illusion. Much of the pleasure we derive from works of art has to do with our recognition of formulaic patterns-and this includes music, visual art, and verbal art. This is an important and complex matter that deserves a chapter of its own, which it shall receive, but I must make two observations about it at this point.
1. There is undoubtedly a sliding scale between the highly formulaic (call it mechanical) and the highly original in aesthetic texts, but the absolute ends of the scale are impossible to occupy, since they would yield no new text at one end and an unintelligible text at the other. 2. Modernist discourse often insists that aesthetic value is distributed perfectly along this scale, with the best work at the original end and the worst at the formulaic end. This discursive position has played a major role in creating and sustaining the Great Divide and the paradoxy of Modernism. A lifetime of reading, looking at images, and listening to music on both sides of the divide has convinced me that interesting work (and uninteresting work) may be found all along this scale. I shall argue, then, that we have something to gain by attending to the works of the modern period without accepting the presuppositions of many Modernist critics.
A second problem in Greenberg's formulation is in that snappy put-down at the end of the passage I quoted above: "Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money-not even their time." Now if kitsch is in fact a remedy for boredom, time is precisely what it demands-or, rather, what it fills. It is, to some extent, there to fill empty time with pleasure. Matei Calinescu shows a keen awareness of this in his own discussion of kitsch in Five Faces of Modernity:
To understand the nature of kitsch we should, then, analyze the particular hedonism characteristic of middle-class mentality. Its primary feature is perhaps that it is a middle-of-the-road hedonism, perfectly illustrated by the "principle of mediocrity" that always obtains in kitsch (this all-pervading mediocrity is easier to notice in the more elaborate and exaggeratedly complicated forms of kitsch). (244)
Kitsch is the direct artistic result of an important ethical mutation for which the peculiar time awareness of the middle classes has been responsible. By and large, kitsch may be viewed as a reaction against the "terror" of change and the meaninglessness of chronological time flowing from an unreal past into an equally unreal future.... The fun of kitsch is just the other side of terrible and incomprehensible boredom. (248)
"Fun," of course, is a word that trivializes the pleasure to be obtained by works labeled kitsch, but the notion of a kind of existential boredom, a fear of the meaninglessness of a life without hope for human progress or a heavenly reward, is far from trivial. Calinescu, I believe, may exempt himself too easily from "middle-class mentality" and disparage too readily the need of modern human beings for pleasure. (I am rejecting the notion that there is a real distinction between "fun" and "pleasure." I see Calinescu's "fun" as a term meant to trivialize rather than describe.) But by pointing toward a "terrible and incomprehensible boredom" as an aspect of the modern situation, he offers us a major clue to the function and power of works composed by modern writers who accept "mediocrity" (a word I hope to redeem) as their portion and the pleasure of audiences as their goal. I would thus distinguish between works that attempt to pass themselves off as high art by aping the superficial signs of superior achievement-true kitsch, if you will-and works that decline the masterpiece gambit and aim at a lower but genuine level of artistic production-the level of craft, as opposed to art, perhaps, or the level of entertainment, as opposed to what I called "representation" in discussing Lukács above.
Excerpted from Paradoxy of Modernism by ROBERT SCHOLES Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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