Blowhard, Esq. writes:
It’s funny how after over a century of a near-stranglehold on elite sensibilities, modernism refuses to give an inch in the art world. Whether in novels, gallery art, architecture, fashion, or music, the implicit (or even at times, explicit) assumption is that the “challenging,” “forward thinking,” and “avant-garde” frontier is where all serious work is produced. Argue that art that invokes traditional pleasures is just as worthy of praise and one is regarded as quaint at best or a dangerous reactionary at worst. Traditionalist art produced in the past may be perfectly acceptable, but when it comes to the way we live now, only modernist (or modernist-derived) expression has any kind of respectability among our cultural mandarins.
To be fair, I enjoy many works of modernism. My issue isn’t with the individual works. What gets me about the modernist worldview is its bullying insistence on universality, how it has positioned itself as the inevitable culmination of art history. It’s not merely one way of looking at the world, it’s The One True Way to which all other forms of expression are inferior and subservient. To which I respond — using the most elevated vocabulary of traditionalism available to me — “Fuck that shit.”
Here are some books that I’ve found helpful in providing an alternative to the Modernist Narrative. Even if you don’t find them as convincing as I do, I hope you’ll find them to be provocative and challenging in the best ways.
The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey. In this very readable academic monograph, Carey looks at English modernists like Pound, Lawrence, and Yeats. Disgusted by the mass culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and seething with contempt for the common man, they consciously created a new aesthetic that was purposefully intellectual, obscure, and difficult.
Story by Robert McKee. Although aimed at Hollywood and screenwriting, McKee’s book is one of the best pieces of literary criticism I’ve ever read, an update to Aristotle’s Poetics for the 20th century. Modernist art and critics denigrate things like narrative, plot, and character — here’s The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody coolly dismissing “mere storytelling” — but McKee argues they’re the among the highest callings of art as well as being very difficult to pull off. Michael Blowhard talked about the book here. Right now the Kindle edition is only $6.
True and False by David Mamet. It might be somewhat of a stretch to include this one on the list, but hear me out. Yes, you’ll find praise for Woolf, Stevens, and a healthy dash of Freudianism in this work, but Mamet (as his political conversion shows) is a traditionalist and conservative. In this book he dismantles the cult of Method acting with its hyper self-conscious “sense memory” and self-absorbed psychologizing. In contrast, his preferred acting technique, based on Roman Stoicism, basically consists of standing up straight, speaking clearly, and finding the most physical way to express a scene.
And here’s Mamet on “The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius”:
For the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John le Carre, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian.
Each year, of course, found the press discovering some writer whose style, provenance and choice of theme it found endearing. These usually trig, slim tomes shared a wistful and self-commendatory confusion at the multiplicity of life and stank of Art. But the genre writers wrote without sentimentality; their prose was concise and perceptive; in it the reader sees the life of which they wrote, rather than the writer’s ”technique.”
For to hell with this putrid and despicable Graduate Degree sensitivity. Le Carre had been a spy, Higgins was a working lawyer and district attorney, and God knows what Patrick O’Brian had not been up to in his 80-plus years.
The purpose of literature is to Delight. To create or endorse the Scholastic is a craven desire. It may yield a low-level self-satisfaction, but how can this compare with our joy at great, generous writing? With our joy of discovery of worth in the simple and straightforward? Is this Jingoism? The use of the term’s a wish to side with the powerful, the Curator, the Editor. The schoolmaster’s bad enough in the schoolroom; I prefer to keep him out of my bookshelf.
Every once in a while a book comes along with the power to alter permanently the view of a subject you thought you knew well. For me this year, that book is Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner (Princeton University Press, $14.95). When I picked it up, I thought it a general writing guide with examples, like Robert Graves’s and Alan Hodge’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder. But it is actually a treatise on one particular style, which the authors call classic prose.
The classic style calls for presentation to be unproblematic. It eschews self-conscious special-pleading. This does not mean that there are no doubts surrounding the classic prose stylist’s situation. It is simply that, since the reader and writer know them so well, it would be tedious to enumerate them. Many contemporary academics imagine they can add depth or importance to their writing by injecting problems at every juncture: “And how should I, a white, middle-aged male, approach reviewing a book on writing style? And what gives Thomas and Turner the authority to instruct us on the style choices of individuals? Is not my activity of reviewing itself hegemonic?” Such confessional questioning, by which writers try drearily to convince us what swell, self-aware people they are, is the antithesis of the voice classic style attempts to achieve. This goes along, Thomas and Turner say, with an absence of hedges in classic prose, the device so common in legal, business, and especially philosophical writing, where the author is in terror of being caught out in some generalization. In classic prose, the rule is: clarity everywhere, but not always letter-accuracy. The classic writer does not rehearse every possible exception to each generalization: the reader knows the spirit in which the generalizations are made and understand their likely limits. If there are exceptions worth noting, the classic stylist can be counted on to note them.
The Hole in Our Soul by Martha Bayles. Bayles argues that American pop music ran off the rails when it abandoned African-American musical forms — specifically, the blues — as its foundation and instead based itself on the avant-garde sensibilities of European modernism.
All What Jazz by Philip Larkin. Michael Blowhard writes:
Hey, all you folks who find that post-swing jazz doesn’t do it for you: have you ever tried reading Philip Larkin’s “All What Jazz?” It’s a fabulous collection of essays and reviews (by a fabulous cranky poet) about jazz, by a guy who can’t stand much that’s post 1950 — the best cranky, curmudgeonly writing about jazz I’ve ever run across. He likes it when it swings, and he thinks (or thought, he being dead) bop was the end of the jazz he loved. And he did love early jazz. You don’t read him thinking, hey, this is a guy who just hates jazz. You read him thinking, this is a guy who really loves early jazz and is heartbroken about what’s happened to it recently. Superworth reading. He gets in some enjoyable slams at bop and postbop along the way too.
A Pictorial History of English Architecture by John Betjeman. Betjeman is perhaps best known for “Slough,” a poem, as John Derbyshire notes, about the transformation of “the sort of sleepy Victorian country town Betjeman loved into a modern, industrialized outer suburb of the metropolis.” Betjeman also wrote books in praise of the English cottage and church.
From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s slim volume — easily read in a day — traces the intellectual and artistic development of modernism in architecture while dismantling its pretension with his signature humor. If you’ve ever wondered why some of us here are always pointing fingers at bad buildings and slamming their designers, this is the place to start.
The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. My interest in traditional architecture began with SimCity 2000. Game designer Will Wright was influenced by a number of books so he included a bibliography in the game’s manual (click on the image to enlarge):
Yes, it includes the execrable Corbu, but that list also introduced me to Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs (I had forgotten that Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects was on the list.) Alexander’s A Pattern Language is endlessly browsable and forever changed how I looked at the built environment. In A Timeless Way of Building, Alexander introduces his theory of traditional architecture which he then fleshes out in subsequent books like A Pattern Language. Michael Blowhard interviewed Alexander’s colleague Nikos Salingaros here. In this famous debate, which nicely summarizes the traditional v. modernist attitudes, Alexander faced off against modernist Peter Eisenman.
“Architecture: Choice or Fate” provides a chance to sample Krier’s mind and eye. At first glance, it’s simply a handsome coffee-table book by a guy who hasn’t built much. Images and diagrams of schemes, plans and proposals are accompanied by quirkily organized comments from Krier. In fact, in an understated way, it’s a complex and intriguing work. Text, pictures and design all mesh and advance a vision; Krier is making a case and exemplifying a method at the same time. We’re used to this, but we have come to associate it with modernism — with Joyce or Calvino, for example. We make comments when reading such books about how their real subject is “the artist’s mind,” or perhaps “consciousness itself.”
Krier’s book has that kind of complexity and interwovenness, but it’s explicitly anti-modernist — and in discussing buildings and towns, he’s proposing that the mind itself play a different role than it plays in modernism. Forget the fireworks of abstraction and inwardness: How about using the mind (and buildings and cities) to help us find a place in the world, and in history too? If you enter into the book’s method and argument, it can be indescribably moving to turn a page and find a delicate pen-and-ink cartoon of a man on a porch looking past a colonnade toward a plaza: Consciousness and social life, for so long at odds, have opened back up to each other once again.
More on Krier here.
The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe. What Wolfe did for architectural modernism in From Bauhaus to Our House here he does for the abstract expressionists. The section where Wolfe likens them to the medieval Scholastics is especially trenchant. And don’t forget: Fuck Clement Greenberg.
The Art of the Salon by Norbert Wolf. One of my favorite college classes I ever took was a freshman year intro to Western art survey course. My California public school art history education was close to nil, so a whole world finally opened up. The prof who taught the course was generous and unpretentious, but she still hewed closely to the Official Narrative that saw fine art and architecture as an inevitable progression towards modernism. She dismissed Academic painters as stodgy and retrograde without ever exploring their work with us.
Yet even though the Victorian Academics fell out of favor with the art world, they proved to be hugely influential on the then-burgeoning art of movies. Artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme, James Tissot, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, and Julius LeBlanc Stewart deserve a critical reappraisal.
The remaining two are unread by me but both come highly recommended, so I thought I’d include them.