Culture Shock, 1913

My art department’s field trip this semester was to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the Chazen Art Museum. Like many museums, the Chazen’s permanent collection unfolds chronologically, progressing through art eras room-by-room, with the preponderance of work representing the modern and contemporary at the end of the tour in the biggest galleries. A funny thing happened as my class and I strolled through a millennium of art history; somewhere between the gilded altarpieces of the 13th century and the identity politics of the 1980’s, I realized that much of the impact of early modernism was lost on my students, and, for a while, on me as well.

I spent my college years an abiding supporter of reductive visual evangelists like Roger Fry, Adolf Loos, Clive Bell and others who set out to strip the western world of the ornament and excess of an outmoded academy. My students on the other hand grew up mostly without art as a significant influence in their lives. Yet they and I gravitated to the same works at the Chazen that afternoon: folksy melodramas by the pre-Raphaelites, John Steuart Curry’s hearty regionalism; Cossack-filled canvasses by 19th century Russian academics, and an exhibition that would have sent me running for Montmartre 20 years ago: “The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910.”

John Steuart Curry at the Chazen

After a century of steeping in insignificance, these outliers finally seemed strange enough to pass for contemporary. Next to the forgotten neoclassicism and bizarre watercolors of the early 20th century I considered the possibility that the modernist gospel – the Manet through Pollock narrative – might be a bit overdetermined, perhaps baked too long in the ivory towers of art history departments. Conspiring with my students, to whom Piet Mondrian paintings read as clumsy academic pranks, and for whom Andrew Wyeth is an unassailable visionary, I dwelled on the legitimacy of a history subordinated by the modernist narrative; the Kenyon Coxes, the Franz Xavier Winterhalters, and the Jules Bastien Lepages. And for a while, Fernand Leger’s work had never seemed so tired, and Thomas Hart Benton’s never so improbably contemporary.

A few weeks later, I attended a program in New York City called “Culture Shock 1913” at the Greene Space with some friends. It recounted the events that rocked the cultural world that year, including the Armory Show, Arnold Schoenberg’s first atonal symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade. MoMA curator Ann Temkin persuasively made the case for 1913 being the most pivotal cultural upheaval of the century; a time when civilization hung in the balance, its future up for grabs.

Igor Stravinsky

In terms of art I might have quibbled, but with the assist of music and literature, I was reminded of the reverberations and residue of that formal remodeling project. Listening to Erik Satie next to Stravinsky next to Schoenberg, and considering the formal inventions of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Picasso and Matisse started to laugh at me from their graves.

The question inevitably arises from such panel discussions as to what the next big thing in art will be. Are we doomed to languish in cyclical postmodern ennui, or does our ever-unfolding society always unpack a new paradigm at every dead end? Ms. Temkin was sure there would indeed be an “it” and “it” would be something birthed from technology and social media. Even with Picasso snickering, I had to wonder silently whether “it” might still be a wholesale reevaluation of the modernist project, dredging up an alternative history to coexist alongside the one we’ve taken for gospel.

On Monday, back in class, I decided to serve up some Rite of Spring to my students to gauge it’s impact. Before the music could even set in, one of them blurted, “it sounds like a soundtrack to an intense science fiction movie.”

“An old one?” I asked. “No one in the theaters now.” I agreed that it did, but pressed no further. They were squirming and ready to flee as freshmen do when class time is up.

Time for modernism

I looked up at the clock and confirmed that class was ending. Only as they scrambled out the door did the institutionalized simplicity of the clock strike me. “The stripped-down and reductive spawn of 1913, ” I thought. Twelve sans serif black numerals stark on an ornament-free white metal disk covered in curved Plexiglas. Vladimir Tatlin himself would be proud of the legacy. And modernism ticked along implacably as the students moseyed on.

We may all be moving past modernism, but its ghost haunts us whether or not we’ve been listening to it rattle its chains against the tile floor of the institution for the past 50 years.