More on Modernism and its Discontents

Modernism, Part 2
Here are a few more selections from the Mia Fineman/Peter Gay book discussion from Slate. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

Though I don’t think Pop Art brought about the end of Modernism by democratizing art, I do agree that Modernism suffered a kind of slow death in the early 1960s. The primary cause of death—and I’m certainly not the first to suggest this—was the steady assimilation of Modernist avant-gardes by mainstream institutions like museums and universities, and by the market. By the 1960s, Modernism had metastasized into the official culture of art. The shock of the new had grown old, and Modernism’s taboo-shattering transgressions gradually evolved into the highbrow equivalent of classic rock.

Which brings us to my next question: What comes next? In your final chapters, you entertain the possibility of a Modernist revival, pointing to the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry as works that carry the torch of Modernism into the 21st century. You end the book on a personal note, describing your experience of a recent visit to Gehry’s titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You convey your enthusiasm for the “wealth and elegance of the forms” through loving descriptions of the building’s “assortment of curves, of weight-bearing, slightly twisted pillars, of curved internal bridges, of enticing balconies, all of them enlivened by museum-goers wandering about the spaces.” Your verdict: The museum is a “Modernist masterpiece.”

Now, Gehry’s Guggenheim is surely innovative and thrilling to behold, but is it Modernist? Like many independent-minded artists, Gehry doesn’t like to be connected with any particular style or movement. Nonetheless, his work has been widely discussed in terms of architectural Postmodernism, and even more specifically, in terms of Deconstructivism, a style that arose in the late 1980s and is often associated with the work of Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid, among others. Like these architects, Gehry rejects the Modernist principles of “form follows function” and “truth to materials.” His designs represent a radical departure from the straight lines and ordered rationality of International Style architecture. So, I wonder if you could say a little more about why you consider Gehry’s Guggenheim to be a Modernist, as opposed to a Postmodernist, work? And more broadly, I’d be interested to know what you think of Postmodernism as a term to describe the cultural and stylistic tendencies (like irony, fragmentation, hybridity, and self-reflexiveness, to name just a few) that have surfaced since Modernism’s demise in the 1960s.

Peter Gay:

As for Gehry and Postmodernism. Early on, I wrote a chapter on Postmodernism, which particularly worried and incensed the academy. I therefore decided not to get involved in quite another fight. I greatly enjoyed and enjoy Modernism (whether Picasso or Virginia Woolf or Orson Welles) but thought that Postmodernism was a fad and would not last forever. So I gave up writing about it and threw away the chapter. I don’t call Gehry Postmodern. I agree that he is unwilling to be enlisted in any school or category. He tries in the most interesting way to fulfill the client’s needs. But as distinct from Postmodernist architects like Eisenman and Libeskind, he does respect form following, or at the least not offending, function. To judge from his recent (say last quarter-century) designs, he does not construct things that simply play games or impose their moral prejudices on the public. Thus Eisenman’s balconies in Tegel or Libeskind’s voids, areas of devout silence (where you are supposed to feel terrible about the Holocaust), make demands on the public that Gehry and others like him would not dream of making.

3 Replies to “More on Modernism and its Discontents”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    Woo! If Peter Gay won’t engage seriously enough with the Postmodern even to cede it the reality of being a Movement, then perhaps I can stop thinking about it too. That’d be an intense pleasure. On the other hand, shining through all the hi-brow conversation is the distinct possibility that Gay admires Frank Gehry and wants him, for that reason alone, in the Modernist canon — even though that’s probably not where he belongs. But from Peter Gay there can be no louder praise, so he’s committed a high IQ solipsism, I think: I like it, therefore it is what I like.

    We are naming our eras too rapidly, a sign of deadly self-consciousness and obsession with a look, followed by another look. To do this is to market to ourselves, to spy out hooks and angles and handles that only the distance of half a century or more will make discernible, to replace pleasure and meaning with taxonomania.

  2. Taxonomania–I love that. Thanks for your insights Elatia. In general I am a fan of Peter Gay, but let’s remember–art is NOT his expertise so much as is sifting through the evidence of the past to create a pattern of sense. I want to read the book just so I can see how his lens works on something I know and have very strong feelings about. (Weimar Culture, not so much…)

  3. Elatia Harris says:

    I too like to read smart people on art and food, especially if they don’t particularly know much that you can’t read about either. What anyone interesting thinks is important about one’s own dear subjects is just fascinating. About 20 years ago Oliver Sachs wrote about a painter who became color-blind at midlife. The description and analysis of his paintings before and after was so much about the visual cortex, so little about art.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: