Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art, of which the other half is the eternal
and the immutable. . . . Charles Baudelaire
One of the distinctive virtues of modernism
is that it leaves its questions echoing in the air long after the questioners themselves,
and their answers, have left the scene. Marshall Berman
This selection from a much-admired treatise on modern culture provides a generous threshold to the world of modern art. Here Marshall Berman looks back over five centuries of modernity, focusing on the nineteenth century, to show us that in fundamental ways the experience of modernity (modern life) then is the same as our own in the twenty-first century. We can learn a lot about our own lives from the first moderns we meet in this book. From their era to ours what remains fixed is change itself; like theirs, the foundations of our world – political, social, economic, and cultural – are in permanent flux. By comparing the thought of nineteenth-century European social philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Berman illuminates the vital interaction between modern experience and modern culture, between the conditions of constant change (generally understood then as “progress”), and art predicated on the incessant metamorphosis and contingency of modern life.
The relationship between modernity and modernism is presented as “dialectical”: a key term in this reading and essential to our study of modern art. “The dialectic” carries a burden of meanings in modern intellectual history. As Berman uses it here, however, it simply defines the way opposing values such as permanence and change form a kind of unity – “a contradictory unity, a unity of disunity” – in which the identity of each depends upon that of the other. The great achievement of the modern artist, caught like the rest of us within these baffling contradictions, was to make them visible and dialectically resolved, composed, so to speak, in emblematic, and characteristically radical, works of art. To Berman, the foremost artists of the time were keenly self-aware and courageous ironists, romantic individuals who paradoxically opposed the very conditions of modern life from which they gained their purpose and energy. It is precisely in their failure to conform to the status quo that Berman’s modernist, Nietzsche’s “man of tomorrow . . . standing in opposition to his today," attained his or her highest aesthetic dignity. This posture of opposition to the way things are is called “avant-garde,” a modernist attitude defined in concrete art historical terms in the next reading by Linda Nochlin, The Invention of the Avant-Garde: France, 1830-1880. The exclusive masculinity of modern art and its historiography is analyzed and revised from a number of feminist perspectives in later essays and documents.
Note that Berman does not present avant-garde modernism as the only stance taken by artists toward modern life. Generally speaking, artists assumed one of three social postures: 1) political opposition to, 2) autonomy from, or 3) compliance with the values of the powers-that-be: the middle-class and its institutions. The third group of academic modernists – successful establishment artists situated within the classical tradition – is considered in James Harding’s essay in this chapter, Artistes Pompiers. “Avant-garde” includes both the first category of politically adversarial modernists and those in the second category of autonomous artists who alienated themselves from middle-class conventions to discover the real experience – psychological, sensual, spiritual – of the modern individual.
These distinctions will help us understand modern art if we keep in mind that the practices of artists rarely fell entirely into one or another of these categories; seldom was one attitude sustained over the course of a career. In the next reading, for example, Edouard Manet is represented as both politically adversarial and subjectively alienated. Modern Art: Contexts and Perspectives features avant-garde modernism, a minority culture within the bourgeois culture but emblematic of modernity. It declared its value to be precisely the revaluation of values for the new conditions and was responsible for the radical formal innovations of canonical modernism.
By the end of this book you will be able to discuss what makes a work of art "modern" aesthetically and ideologically. Begin by taking hold of the dialectical relationship Berman draws between the unprecedented "progress" of the modern era and the forms of modern art, avant-garde and academic. Consider how insights into the contexts of modern art might help us understand why the artworks (in all their astonishing variety) look like they do. In other words, begin to speculate about possible relationships between modern content and modern form.
Our selection is from the introduction to Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp.15-23.
For Further Reading: Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch,
Postmodernism. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1987.
Clark, T. J. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1999.
Harrison, Charles, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger, eds. Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of
Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change.
Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1991.
There is a mode of vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life's possibilities and perils – that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience "modernity." To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, "all that is solid melts into air."
People who find themselves in the midst of this maelstrom are apt to feel that they are the first ones, and maybe the only ones, to be going through it; this feeling has engendered numerous nostalgic myths of pre-modern Paradise Lost. In fact, however, great and ever-increasing numbers of people have been going through it for close to five hundred years. Although most of these people have probably experienced modernity as a radical threat to all their history and traditions, it has, in the course of five centuries, developed a rich history and a plenitude of traditions of its own. I want to explore and chart these traditions, to understand the ways in which they can nourish and enrich our own modernity, and the ways in which they may obscure or impoverish our sense of what modernity is and what it can be.
The maelstrom of modern life has been fed from many sources: great discoveries in the physical sciences, changing our images of the universe and our place in it; the industrialization of production, which transforms scientific knowledge into technology, creates new human environments and destroys old ones, speeds up the whole tempo of life, generates new forms of corporate power and class struggle; immense demographic upheavals, severing millions of people from their ancestral habitats, hurtling them halfway across the world into new lives; rapid and often cataclysmic urban growth; systems of mass communication, dynamic in their development, enveloping and binding together the most diverse people and societies; increasingly powerful national states, bureaucratically structured and operated, constantly striving to expand their powers; mass social movements of people, and peoples, challenging their political and economic rulers, striving to gain some control over their lives; finally, bearing and driving all these people and institutions along, an ever-expanding, drastically fluctuating capitalist world market. In the twentieth century, the social processes that bring this maelstrom into being, and keep it in a state of perpetual becoming, have come to be called "modernization." These world-historical processes have nourished an amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, to give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own. Over the past century, these visions and values have come to be loosely grouped to ether under the name of "modernism." […]
In the hope of getting a grip on something as vast as the history of modernity, I have divided it into three phases. In the first phase, which goes roughly from the start of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, people are just beginning to experience modern life; they hardly know what has hit them. They grope, desperately but half blindly, for an adequate vocabulary; they have little or no sense of a modern public or community within which their trials and hopes can be shared. Our second phase begins with the great revolutionary wave of the 1790s. With the French Revolution and its reverberations, a great modern public abruptly and dramatically comes to life. This public shares the feeling of living in a revolutionary age, an age that generates explosive upheavals in every dimension of personal, social and political life. At the same time, the nineteenth-century modern public can remember what it is like to live, materially and spiritually, in worlds that are not modern at all. From this inner dichotomy, this sense of living in two worlds simultaneously, the ideas of modernization and modernism emerge and unfold. In the twentieth century, our third and final phase,the process of modernization expands to take in virtually the whole world, and the developing world culture of modernism achieves spectacular triumphs in art and thought. On the other hand, as the modern public expands, it shatters into a multitude of fragments, speaking incommensurable private languages; the idea of modernity, conceived in numerous fragmentary ways, loses much of its vividness, resonance and depth, and loses its capacity to organize and give meaning to people's lives. As a result of all this, we find ourselves today in the midst of a modern age that has lost touch with the roots of its own modernity.
If there is one archetypal modern voice in the early phase of modernity, before the American and French revolutions, it is the voice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is the first to use the word moderniste in the ways in which the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will use it; and he is the source of some of our most vital modern traditions, from nostalgic reverie to psychoanalytic self-scrutiny to participatory democracy. Rousseau was, as everyone knows, a deeply troubled man. Much of his anguish springs from sources peculiar to his own strained life; but some of it derives from his acute responsiveness to social conditions that were coming to shape millions of people's lives. Rousseau astounded his contemporaries by proclaiming that European society was "at the edge of the abyss," on the verge of the most explosive revolutionary upheavals. He experienced everyday life in that society – especially in Paris, its capital – as a whirlwind, le tourbillon social.1 How was the self to move and live in the whirlwind?
In Rousseau's romantic novel The New Eloise, his young hero, Saint-Preux, makes an exploratory move – an archetypal move for millions of young people in the centuries to come – from the country to the city. He writes to his love, Julie, from the depths of le tourbillon social, and tries to convey his wonder and dread. Saint Preux experiences metropolitan life as "a perpetual clash of groups and cabals, a continual flux and reflux of prejudices and conflicting opinions... Everyone constantly places himself in contradiction with himself," and "everything is absurd, but nothing is shocking, because everyone is accustomed to everything." This is a world in which "the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, truth, virtue, have only a local and limited existence." A multitude of new experiences offer themselves; but anyone who wants to enjoy them "must be more pliable than Alcibiades,1 ready to change his principles with his audience, to adjust his spirit with every step." After a few months in this environment,
I'm beginning to feel the drunkenness that this agitated, tumultuous life plunges you into. With such a multitude of objects passing before my eyes, I'm getting dizzy. Of all the things that strike me, there is none that holds my heart, yet all of them together disturb my feelings, so that I forget what I am and who I belong to. He reaffirms his commitment to his first love; yet even as he says it, he fears that "I don't know one day what I'm going to love the next." He longs desperately for something solid to cling to, yet "I see only phantoms that strike my eye, but disappear as soon as I try to grasp them."2 This atmosphere – of agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experiential possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul – is the atmosphere in which modern sensibility is born.
If we move forward a hundred years or so and try to identify the distinctive rhythms and timbres of nineteenth-century modernity, the first thing we will notice is the highly developed, differentiated and dynamic new landscape in which modern experience takes place. This is a landscape of steam engines, automatic factories, railroads, vast new industrial zones; of teeming cities that have grown overnight, often with dreadful human consequences; of daily newspapers, telegraphs, telephones and other mass media, communicating on an ever wider scale; of increasingly strong national states and multinational aggregations of capital; of mass social movements fighting these modernizations from above with their own modes of modernization from below; of an ever-expanding world market embracing all, capable of the most spectacular growth, capable of appalling waste and devastation, capable of everything except solidity and stability. The great modernists of the nineteenth century all attack this environment passionately, and strive to tear it down or explode it from within; yet all find themselves remarkably at home in it, alive to its possibilities, affirmative even in their radical negations, playful and ironic even in their moments of gravest seriousness and depth.
We can get a feeling for the complexity and richness of nineteenth-century modernism, and for the unities that infuse its diversity, if we listen briefly to two of its most distinctive voices: Nietzsche, who is generally perceived as a primary source of many of the modernisms of our time, and Marx, who is not ordinarily associated with any sort of modernism at all. [See excerpt from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in Chapter 11, and Marx’s “On the Bourgeoisie” in this chapter.]
Here is Marx, speaking in awkward but powerful English in London in 1856.3 "The so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents," he begins, "small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society. But they denounced the abyss. Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock." The ruling classes of the reactionary 1850s tell the world that all is solid again; but it is not clear if even they themselves believe it. In fact, Marx says, "the atmosphere in which we live weighs upon everyone with a 20,000-pound force, but do you feel it?" One of Marx's most urgent aims is to make people "feel it"; this is why his ideas are expressed in such intense and extravagant images – abysses, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, crushing gravitational force – images that will continue to resonate in our own century's modernist art and thought. Marx goes on: "There is one great fact, characteristic of this our nineteenth century, a fact which no party dares deny." The basic fact of modern life, as Marx experiences it, is that this life is radically contradictory at its base:
On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and stultifying human life into a material force. These miseries and mysteries fill many moderns with despair. Some would "get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts"; others will try to balance progress in industry with a neofeudal or neoabsolutist regression in politics. Marx, however, proclaims a paradigmatically modernist faith: "On our part, we do not mistake the shrewd spirit that continues to mark all these contradictions. We know that to work well . . . the new-fangled forces of society want only to be mastered by new-fangled men – and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself." Thus a class of "new men," men who are thoroughly modern, will be able to resolve the contradictions of modernity, to overcome
the crushing pressures, earthquakes, weird spells, personal and social abysses, in whose midst all modern men and women are forced to live. Having said this, Marx turns abruptly playful and connects his vision of the future with the past – with English folklore, with Shakespeare: "In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we recognize our brave friend Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution.”
Marx's writing is famous for its endings. But if we see him as a modernist, we will notice the dialectical motion that underlies and animates his thought, a motion that is open-ended, and that flows against the current of his own concepts and desires. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, we see that the revolutionary dynamism that will overthrow the modern bourgeoisie springs from that bourgeoisie's own deepest impulses and needs:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and with them the relations of production, and with them all the relations of society. . . . Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. This is probably the definitive vision of the modern environment, that environment which has brought forth an amazing plenitude of modernist movements, from Marx's time to our own. The vision unfolds:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face . . . the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.4 Thus the dialectical motion of modernity turns ironically against its prime movers, the bourgeoisie. But it may not stop turning there: after all, all modern movements are caught up in this ambience – including Marx's own. Suppose, as Marx supposes, that bourgeois forms decompose, and that a communist movement surges into power: what is to keep this new social form from sharing its predecessor's fate and melting down in the modern air? Marx understood this question and suggested some answers […] But one of the distinctive virtues of modernism is that it leaves its questions echoing in the air long after the questioners themselves, and their answers, have left the scene.
If we move a quarter century ahead, to Nietzsche in the 1880s, we will find very different prejudices, allegiances and hopes, yet a surprisingly similar voice and feeling for modern life. For Nietzsche, as for Marx, the currents of modern history were ironic and dialectical: thus Christian ideals of the soul's integrity and the will to truth had come to explode Christianity itself. The results were the traumatic events that Nietzsche called "the death of God" and "the advent of nihilism." Modern mankind found itself in the midst of a great absence and emptiness of values and yet at the same time, a remarkable abundance of possibilities. Here, in Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1882), we find, just as we found in Marx, a world where everything is pregnant with its contrary:5
At these turning points in history there shows itself, juxtaposed and often entangled with one another, a magnificent, manifold, jungle-like growing and striving, a sort of tropical tempo in rivalry of development, and an enormous destruction and self-destruction, thanks to egoisms violently opposed to one another, exploding, battling each other for sun and light, unable to find any limitation, any check, any considerateness within the morality at their disposal. . . . Nothing but new "wherefores," no longer any communal formulas; a new allegiance of misunderstanding and mutual disrespect; decay, vice, and the most superior desires gruesomely bound up with one another, the genius of the race welling up over the cornucopias of good and ill; a fateful simultaneity of spring and autumn. . . . Again there is danger, the mother of morality – great danger – but this time displaced onto the individual, onto the nearest and dearest, onto the street, onto one's own child, one's own heart, one's own innermost secret recesses of wish and will. At times like these, "the individual dares to individuate himself." On the other hand, this daring individual desperately "needs a set of laws of his own, needs his own skills and wiles for self-preservation, self-heightening, self-awakening, self-liberation." The possibilities are at once glorious and ominous. "Our instincts can now run back in all sorts of directions; we ourselves are a kind of chaos." Modern man's sense of himself and his history "really amounts to an instinct for everything, a taste and tongue for everything." So many roads open up from this point. How are modern men and women to find the resources to cope with their "everything"? Nietzsche notes that there are plenty of "Little Jack Horners" around whose solution to the chaos of modern life is to try not to live at all: for them," 'Become mediocre' is the only morality that makes sense."
Another type of modern throws himself into parodies of the past: he "needs history because it is the storage closet where all the costumes are kept. He notices that none really fits him" – not primitive, not classical, not medieval, not Oriental – “so he keeps trying on more and more, unable to accept the fact that a modern man can never really look well-dressed," because no social role in modern times can ever be a perfect fit. Nietzsche's own stance toward the perils of modernity is to embrace them all with joy: "We moderns, we half-barbarians. We are in the midst of our bliss only when we are most in danger. The only stimulus that tickles us is the infinite, the immeasurable." And yet Nietzsche is not willing to live in the midst of this danger forever. As ardently as Marx, he asserts his faith in a new kind of man – “the man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow" – who, "standing in opposition to his today," will have the courage and imagination to "create new values" that modern men and women need to steer their way through the perilous infinities in which they live.
What is distinctive and remarkable about the voice that Marx and Nietzsche share is not only its breathless pace, its vibrant energy, its imaginative richness, but also its fast and drastic shifts in tone and inflection, its readiness to turn on itself, to question and negate all it has said, to transform itself into a great range of harmonic or dissonant voices, and to stretch itself beyond its capacities into an endlessly wider range, to express and grasp a world where everything is pregnant with its contrary and "all that is solid melts into air." This voice resonates at once with self-discovery and self-mockery, with self-delight and self-doubt. It is a voice that knows pain and dread, but believes in its power to come through. Grave danger is everywhere, and may strike at any moment, but not even the deepest wounds can stop the flow and overflow of its energy. It is ironic and contradictory, polyphonic and dialectical, denouncing modern life in the name of values that modernity itself has created, hoping – often against hope – that the modernities of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will heal the wounds that wreck the modern men and women of today. All the real modernists of the nineteenth century – spirits as diverse as Marx and Kierkegaard, Whitman and Ibsen, Baudelaire, Melville, Carlyle, Stirner, Rimbaud, Strindberg, Dostoevsky, and many more – speak in these rhythms and in this range. […]
1 Alcibiades (450?-404 bc) was an Athenian politician and general who changed allegiance three times during the Peloponnesian War (431–404).
1 Emile, ou De l’Éducation, 1762, in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Rousseau’s Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1959ff.). Volume IV. For Rousseau’s image of le tourbillon social, and how to survive in it, Book IV, page 551. On the volatile character of European society, and the revolutionary upheavals to come, Emile, I, 252; III, 468; IV, 507-08.
2 Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761, Part II, Letters 14 and 17. In Oeuvres Complètes, Volume II, 231-36, 255-56. […]
3 The passages quoted are from Sections 262, 223 and 224. Translations are by Marianne Cowan (1955; Gateway, 1967), pages 210-11, 146-50.
34 “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper” in Robert C. Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader [MER],2nd edition (Norton, 1978), 577-78.
45MER, 475-76. I have slightly altered the standard translation, which was made by Samuel Moore in 1888.