Review: MODERNISM AS THE VANGUARD OF A CONSUMER AESTHETIC TWO VIEWS
By Loren Goldner
T.J Clark. The Painting of Modern Life Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (New York: Knopf, 1985)
Jerrold Seigel. Bohemian Paris Culture, Politics and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830- 1930 (New York Viking 1986)
The 1960s, it is well known, were something tantamount to a meltdown in the domain of culture, completely recasting the terms of discussion. By 1970, in the place of partisans of the “new criticism” quietly communing with “the works themselves,” and pseudo-Marxist critics inspired by socialist realism and Proletkult, there appeared a whole industry of structuralists, semioticians, deconstructionists, and phenomenologists producing various hybrids of Marx, Freud, Saussure, and Heidegger. In this climate, it became possible, and fashionable, as journalist Tom Wolfe once remarked, “to be a Marxist without having to get messily political about it.” As the more politicized environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s receded, the constraints of leftist fashion fell away (particularly in France) and the ideology of “post-modernism” was born. The excellent books under review here are refreshing exceptions to this widespread state of affairs, and have none of the pretentious excess of ill-digested theory that vitiates so many of the currents invoked above. They are, on the contrary, to be situ- ated in a slowly growing body of serious social histories of culture that address the issues raised by theory in the only terrain where they can be settled: in the social, economic, political, and cultural totalities that throw them up in the first place. As the more explicitly theoretical of the two works, Clark’s suc- ceeds in meshing his stated frame- work (taken from the Situationist International) and a wealth of historical material, with a grace that easily explains the nostalgia of a Hilton Kramer (in his hatchet job on the book) for aesthetics as understood by Bernard Berenson. Both’ Clark and Seigel, indeed, have provided important insight into how the once-revolutionary appearances of modernism, its ability to provoke scandal, could have become the ruling ideology from which neo-conservatives man the ramparts of “culture” against the onset of barbarism. In short, they’ are excellent studies in the, “ambiguities” of modernism or (in Clark’s book) in how the first phase of modernism from Manet to Seurat was socially situated in the emergence of a new class of people with bourgeois aspirations and tastes. Indeed, one of the most im- portant insights to emerge in the discussion of the past decade is the elucidation of the link between an emergent culture of consumption in mid-19th century France and the appearance of modernism. (This insight has undoubtedly been expedited by the recognition of the link between the post-1973 world economic crisis and the end of modernism now generally acknowledged, if poorly grasped, by the partisans of “post-modernism”.) Attention has shifted from the significance of the crushing of the Parisian working class in the June days of 1848 (Clark’s previous work on Courbet begins with precisely that event) to the emergence of consumerism, materialized above all in the department store, in the Second Empire. Although this is a question not explicitly addressed by either Clark or Seigel, France’s innovative position in this new kind of consumerism is probably the single most important reason why modernist art and a Bohemian sub-culture flourished in Paris for at least 40 years before appearing in other countries. T.J. Clark’s book contains discussions of the Haussmannization of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, in its abolition of street life and the crowd, of the emergence of the suburbs, and of the history of the cafe-concert, which could almost stand on their own as social history. He is concerned to show that “Haussmann’s Paris was not a neutral form in which capitalism incidentally, happened: it was a form of capital itself ….” He uses this social history as the backdrop for detailed discussion of such works as Manet’s Olympia (1865), Manet’s and Monet’s work in Argenteuil, and Manet’s Un bar aux Folies Bergeres (1882) as social relationships, mediated by paintings. The book builds toward a demonstration that the work of Manet and those who followed him elicited the agitated response they did because the management of urban space and the organization of more and more surfaces of social life for the new consumption had introduced ambiguity in the appearances of social class, and these paintings captured that ambiguity. “Paris was parade, phantasmagoria, dream, dumbshow, mirage, masquerade” writes Clark, and the new painting broke with the harder edges of classicism and the myth-making of romanticism in an attempt to capture that mirage. Clark shows that the real subjects of this sensibility, “the perfect heroes and heroines of this myth of modernity” were the nouvelles couches sociales, the calicot the petite bourgeoisie that occupied the streets slowly emptying of the petits metiers of the old Paris. He provides a theory of the social underpinning of modernism (its beginning and its end) with implications well beyond his subject when he writes: “In any case, once the nouvelles couches sociales were no longer available as heroes of modern life — once they became a banal and established part of the bourgeoisie — description of that life, ideological or otherwise, largely ceased.” For Clark, the ambiguity and uncertainty in Manet’s portrayal of a prostitute in Olympia or later, of the consumption of the image of the barmaid in Un Bar aux Folies-Bergeres, as well as the ambiguity of class identity in the presence of the nouvelles couches sociales portrayed on the margins of Paris at’ Argenteuil or la Grande Jatte by Manet, Monet, or Seurat — all constitute the making of the myth of the modern in a marginality presumed to exist between the bourgeosie and the working class, a marginality in which “the struggle for a right to a bourgeois identity” was fought out. Modernism, for Clark, was born in the space between the appearance of the nouvelles couches sociales and, presumably, its later full arrival at a (redefined) bourgeois identity. Thus the “crisis of representation,” to use a certain language, which begins with Manet, the point at which “art becomes an object for itself” (these formulations are not Clark’s; indeed, he steps around them, apparently fully conscious of the sluicegates of empty jargon they can open up where his subject is concerned) is essentially the distance which art must take from the sensuous portrayal of reality as more and more of that reality is invaded by the new, managed “popular” consumption of which Haussmann’s Paris was the supreme symbol. But the clear implication is that this, viewpoint of art is itself bourgeois: the myth of marginality it lives on can survive only until the ambiguity of social identity of the nouvelles couches sociales is eradicated by the final subjugation of reality to consumed appearances. If we should not take excessive liberties with Clark’s implications and extend his analy- sis to modernism as a whole, it nonetheless constitutes a brilliant interpretation of the social meaning of Manet, Monet, and Seurat, one guaranteed to arouse the ire of both those who, in the years of Reagan reaction, want to restore an impossible de-contextualization of art from its social sources, as well as those who cling to the myth of modernism as a break with bourgeois culture. Indeed, there is scarcely a better characterization of Jerrold Seigel’s Bohemian Paris than as an analysis of “the myth of modernism as a break with bourgeois culture.” Seigel, in contrast to Clark, is concerned with the ambiguities of Bohemian revolt generally, but this insistence on ambiguity is exactly what Clark’s and Seigel’s books have in common. The thread running through Seigel’s narrative is that of the blurring of the lines between art arid the Bohemian demi-monde which occurred as the 19th century progressed. He is interested both in artists, from Baudelaire to Breton, involved voluntarily or involuntarily with Bohemia, as well as in actual Bohemians whose personal trajectories turned out to be far more bourgeois than one might initially expect. He demon- strates, in apparently dissolute lives, deep affinities for values that turn out to be pre-eminently bourgeois, but also — and this is perhaps Seigel’s most important insight, one closely paralleling Clark’s analysis — how the evolu- tion of Bohemia itself was re- fracted through the use of publi- city in the commercial sense, pre- sumably in tandem with similar de- velopments in more general forms of consumption. If Clark showed how, from, the 1860’s onward, painters and the public reacted to the blurring of appearances of so- cial class in the new “popular” consumption, Seigel shows how, with the emergence of Bohemia be- fore and after 1848 and in its subsequent evolution, Bohemians again and again resorted to the use of organization and methods eminently capitalist in ways that saved them from the dissolution associated with the milieu. In this ambiguity Seigel finds an explanation for the repeated drift” of Bohemians into conservative de- fenders of the. status quo. Mur- ger, the first great publicist of Bohemia before 1848 (in the decade in which the term came into use) was propelled to the right by the real revolution which dashed the “liberated fantasy” of earlier Bohemian lyricism. Courbet, one of the artists along with Baude- laire whom Seigel separates out from Bohemia by the seriousness of his aesthetic commitments and his equally serious radical politics,, nevertheless made use of his per- sonal notoriety to gain access to “the confusion that had grown up between art and the life that parodied it, the entanglement of modernism with Bohemia.” But if Cocteau, in Seigel’s view, is barely able to maintain the lines of distinction, they are finally dissolved by the appearance of Dada and surrealism in the early 1920s. With Breton’s notion of art as reclame and Aragon’s use of items of modern consumption in the Paysan de Paris the theme linking these objects with reverie is carried to its conclusion. Superficially, Clark’s and Seigel’s book come from different frameworks. Clark is explicitly Marxist. Seigel, on the other hand, believes that neo-conservatives “refused to recognize how much the forms of culture they rejected perform vitally necessary tasks of resolution and reconciliation,” while Marxists exaggerate the radical potential of modernism. Clark’s book is there to show that a creative Marxism can perfectly elaborate the conservative underpinnings of that movement.