Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Latin Mass: Modern vs. modernism

One of the themes I keep circling around here is what is really modern.

You might tell a story like this. Once upon a time, some people decided that they lived in a "modern" world because they lived in a world that had broken radically with the past. To live in this new world, they decided to make everything new, to create a new art and culture that was better suited to this new way of life than the old ways were.

Now comes the punchline: If you are interested in this new, modern culture they created, you can learn more about it by visiting a museum.

Something went deeply wrong. And the problem at every turn is, what is the measure of "modern" art?

It's weird that this even is a problem. Some modern but not "modern" art is incredibly popular. The Impressionists, for example. Also the Pre-Raphaelites. But if you pay close attention to people who argue about what should or should be considered "modern", they have serious misgiving about both groups. They are perfectly willing to admit the Impressionists but only as a phase that was passed through on the way to modernism. The millions of people who buy Impressionist calendars, placemats and other knick-knacks or who visit the Impressionist shrine at Giverny don't see it as the first step to something else. They see it as an end in itself. The Pre-Raphaelites, OTOH, the modernists don't even want to admit are modern. That art is seen as some weird throwback that, while pretty enough, has nothing to do with what it means to be really modern. Except for the millions upon millions of modern people who love this art.

Why this need to exclude so much of what is modern from "modernism"? What is really at work here?

I found an interesting example yesterday in The New Republic by a guy named Jed Perl who has the about as impeccable modernist credentials as you can imagine. He teaches at The New School and they write him up as follows:
Jed Perl, visiting professor of liberal studies, is the art critic for The New Republic. A former contributing editor at Vogue, Perl has written on contemporary art for a variety of publications, including Salmagundi, The New Criterion, The Partisan Review, The Threepenny Review, The New York Times Book Review, Elle, and Modern Painters, where he serves on the board of directors. Specializing in the history and development of post-1945 American art, he is also the author of Eyewitness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis (2000), Gallery Going: Four Seasons in the Art World (1991), Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I (1988), and the forthcoming New Art City: The Painters and Sculptors of Manhattan, 1950-1965. In addition, he teaches art history at Pratt Institute, the Philadelphia College of Art, and Parsons School of Design.
Now Mr. Perl is angry. He is angry that a pop artist like Art Spiegelman wants recognition from the art world and he is even angrier that he has gotten it. [Link fixed] But notice this, the paragraph below opens with "nobody is more obsessed with their high culture cred than pop culture mavens". Think about that and go read the above again. Wouldn't you say that Mr. Perl has amassed a fair amount of "high culture cred"? Too much, perhaps, for us to believe that this happened by accident?
Nobody is more obsessed with their high culture cred than the pop culture mavens. Art Spiegelman would seem to have achieved everything a media guy dreams of: a Pulitzer Prize; a show at the Museum of Modern Art; a retrospective that has traveled to the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne; a more-or-less open invitation at The New Yorker. And yet in the catalogue of “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix,” the retrospective now at the Jewish Museum in New York, Robert Storr, who used to be a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is quite cranky about curators who won’t embrace comics with sufficient enthusiasm, and predicts that “someday soon the citadels of culture will be forced to open their gates and let ‘the barbarians’ in.”
You might think, reading that, that modernists like Perl want to keep the barbarians out but modernism has been all too keen to let the barbarians in.  They are just particular about which barbarians they want.

Perl gives us a powerful hint of who the good barbarians are:
The very first wall text at the Jewish Museum informs you that Spiegelman “has torn down the barriers that until recently separated high culture from low.” What on earth is a legitimate museum doing promoting such a ridiculous claim? Hasn’t anybody at the Jewish Museum noticed that those barriers were shaken if not torn down more or less a century ago, by Picasso, Braque, Léger, Schwitters, Picabia, and Duchamp?
We can see that Perl himself is the one being ridiculous if we ask what "low culture" is supposed to mean here? Have you seen any graffiti homages to Braques? How many Leger posters do you see on university dorm-room walls? Leaving aside Picasso, where, outside of high culture, and very high high culture at that, do you hear of anyone else on that list?

The answer is that what he means by "low" is Picasso painting his mistress with a penis imprinted on her head, or Duchamp painting a mustache on The Mona Lisa and making a crude pun as the title of this "new work". Which is to say, Perl is willing to admit what is crass, vulgar and ugly into Art, provided, of course, that this crass, vulgar and ugly is the work of the right sort of people. What he isn't willing to admit is anything that is trying to be genuinely popular.

That is an extreme example, but it is something that characterizes all "modernism". The way the new liturgy was introduced is a good example of this. One option for introducing it would have been to simply make the Novus Ordo available alongside the existing Latin Mass. If proponents had been correct in their assertion that the new liturgy better served the real needs of the modern world better than the old, then people would have experimented with the new stuff, decided they liked it better and switched. But it didn't happen that way.

Which isn't to say that it might not have worked out that way if people had been given the chance. But they were never given the chance. The efforts that were made to suppress not just the old mass but a whole lot of "old Catholicism" were staggering. And I don't say this to condemn the rather vulgar way the people who did this behaved, although that condemnation is richly deserved, but rather to point out something else. The problem is that they weren't sure the Novus Ordo would sell. They didn't trust the people to make the right choice, so they forced it on them. They mistrusted popular opinion every bit as much Jed Perl doesn't trust it.

1 comment:

  1. This is true, but you can't be surprised can you, this is what the Church does or did. Prior to Vatican II lay Catholics were discouraged--if not forbidden--to read the Bible for fear that they wouldn't interpret it "correctly." I went to a primarily Protestant graduate school and the other students there could quote Scripture by chapter and verse having read it with their families since childhood. I felt woefully inadequate at the time, and still trying to catch up.