Not The New World Order III Twilight of the Avant Garde
It was Debussy, often considered an initiator of musical Modernism, who described the work of Wagner as ‘a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn’.
Yet, perhaps the era of High Modernism itself is best understood as a stormy, livid sunset mistaken for a new age. Perhaps the period from the Eighteen Nineties into the Inter-war years, was not an era of renewal or re-birth. Perhaps it may be characterised more accurately as a final fling, or a last gasp, or the feverish death-throes of the ‘modernist’ world-view. A world-view that had been evolving since the mid-eighteenth century but which had been dealt a crippling, if not lethal, blow by The Hell of Verdun and the poison gas of Ypres.
But what is meant by Modernity? Modernity, a transitional phase of socio-cultural change, is used here in a broader sense than the term ‘Modernism’ which denotes a specific cultural formation. In the era of Modernity the lineage of metaphysics from Plato to Kant and beyond is unmasked as ideology while history itself is exposed as a grandiose narrative of salvation serving only the interests of power brokers and the ruling caste. The world enters a critical borderline state as the brittle dogmatism of traditional culture fractures and a new condition, driven by technological advance and impersonal evolutionary forces, emerges.
As the prophetic Axial Religions of deliverance lose their potency tradition finds itself under siege while at the same time the ‘modern’ world is experienced as a state of uncertainty, a turbulent state of fluctuation and of competing pseudo-realities. Shocking new possibilities are glimpsed; development appears to accelerate while the mundane life of the individual is experienced as uncanny. The tropism of ‘culture’ oscillates between complimentary scenarios – nostalgia for lost unity or innocence and the traumas of separation and self-awareness. Perhaps the nostalgia for unity is misplaced for, as modern research shows, even intra-uterine life is agonistic. Perhaps there is no redemption from separation – perhaps there is no redemption of any kind. These are some of the more disturbing factors conditioning our understanding of the contemporary, or modern, world.
Part One – From Avant-Garde to Kitsch
There occur unexpected solutions of continuity, sudden holes in space and time. – Joseph Conrad
If the Franco-Prussian War can be called the first ‘modern’ military conflict, Helmuth Von Moltke (1800-1891), the victorious general whose strategic thinking took into account the use of railways, the defensive potential of new weapons and the importance of sea power, may well count as one of the initiators of Modernism. But, here the term ‘Modernism’ is used in a rather loose sense. Opponents of social evolution and democratic politics have also used the term ‘Modernism’ in a similarly broad, if derogatory, sense, adding further to the confusion and ambiguity of usage surrounding the term. ‘Modernism’, is often shorthand for ‘the Modern World’ or such features of Modernity considered inimical to the beleaguered traditional order. Fascism, in a sense the most ‘modern’ of political ideologies, has its roots in this reactionary Anti-Modernism (the line runs from de Maistre to Hitler via Carl Schmitt), which is why the dictators of the nineteen thirties saw Modern Art as ‘degenerate’.
To help clarify the present thesis the term ‘Modern’ (with prefixes such as ‘Pre’ or ‘Post’) is used as a simple chronological device with minimal ideological, or aesthetic, significance. The term ‘Post-Modern’ is, therefore, distinguished from Postmodernism, a specific, mid-twentieth century, philosophical/critical movement (a synthesis of Post-Structuralism and Post-Marxism) that emerged in France from the debacle of the Evenements of 1968. Efforts will be made to distinguish the diverse, sometimes contradictory, strands of cultural development that can be subsumed under these fuzzy, often overlapping classificatory categories. For instance, one may distinguish between Postmodern Philosophy and the loose chronological category of the Post-Modern Period. One may draw further distinctions between ‘postmodern’ art, ‘postmodern’ architecture’ and independent manifestations of the ‘postmodern’ in other fields, like politics, literature and fashion, where there are as many differences as similarities. One can also include such cryptic possibilities as disguised Anti-Modernism cloaked in ‘Postmodernist’ terminology. The prefixes ‘Pre’ and ‘Palaeo’ (‘early’ or ‘formative’) are used interchangeably throughout.
In the West the artistic culture of Modernity has evolved in three distinct phases separate from but related to the history of science and the economics of modern capitalism (as defined by Weber). The formative, first, or Pre-Modernist or Palaeo-Modern artistic phase, lasted from approximately the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, from around 1750 to 1850. The second or Modern Age phase (the time of ‘the Modern Breakthrough’ properly so-called) lasted from approximately the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, from around 1850 to 1950. The final phase, a phase called, for the sake of convenience, the Post-Modern phase, began in the post-war era and continues, if only in residual form, into the present twenty-first century. This most recent phase is now inaugurating a further even more disquieting trans-historical era: the era of ‘Hyper-Culture’. The first phase culminated in the age of revolutions, including both the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789-1804. The ‘revolutionary’ world-view of this period conditioned an ‘avant-garde’, quasi-militaristic, combative definition of Modern Art as forward looking, ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ in character and outlook. The term avant-garde (‘advance guard’) originated in the socialist writings of Saint-Simon and his followers around 1825. It was also the title of an anarchist periodical edited by Kropotkin between 1872 and1878.
Subsequent revolutionary events or moments have conditioned the historical perspective of Modernity, including the Year of Revolutions in Europe (1848-1849), the Paris Commune of 1871, the Mexican Revolution (1911) and the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The 1848 Revolutions not only affected France but also other European countries including Prussia, Austria, Italy, Germany and Hungary. The erratic trajectory of ‘revolutionary’ and ‘anarchist’ cultural change was buffeted by a number of international crises and politico-economic upheavals. The first of these conflicts were the Napoleonic Wars of the Empire period (1804-1815) ended by the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). In historical sequence followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the First World War of 1914-1918 (ended by the Treaty of Versailles with various other agreements between 1919 and 1920), the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Second World War (1939-1945). Finally, the Indo-China/Vietnam War, (1957-1975), has been termed the ‘first post-modern war’.
When considering the evolution of cultural Modernism and its dissipation, or more accurately, its roller-coaster progress towards an accelerated, secular ‘Hyper-Culture’, this broad pattern of turbulence, stretching from the American Revolution to the Fall of Saigon, must be taken into consideration. It has been apparent that ‘revolutionary’ art and literature often coincides with ‘revolutionary’ events. Blake’s Prophetic Books including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) and the early work of Coleridge coincided with the American and French Revolutions. It was this era that also saw the emergence of an evolving secular feminist sensibility in the works of such ‘Amazons of the pen’ as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges among others. Similarly it may be possible to associate the radical poetics of Arthur Rimbaud and the anarchic tone of Les Chants de Maldoror with the period of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Avant-garde artists saw themselves as invading unknown territory, forging the future, fighting the entrenched, reactionary interests of tradition, the academy and the respectable middle classes in the much the same way as the Communards and other hard-core political activists of the time.
However, it may well be that one of the defining features of an emerging Post-Axial Mass Hyper-Culture is not only the dilution of the Puritan economic ‘ethic’, but also a sense that, in the aesthetic sphere at least, the ‘revolutionary’ impulse is exhausted: in Soviet Russia the public preferred Hollywood movies to experimental films. In any case, all officialdom, including the officialdom of revolution, dislikes disruptive aesthetics and will always amplify the propaganda role of artistic activity while seeking to suppress the work of artists who contradict the ‘party line’.
In the post-war period the adversarial, revolutionary theme has become attached, firstly to the anti-colonial struggle and the mythology of imperial decline and secondly, to a broader cultural anarchism. In a post-colonial world the notion of revolution soon becomes confused and tarnished. Anti-colonial movements become mired in political corruption and other consequences of poor governance perpetrated by elite regimes bankrolled by international aid. Elsewhere the subaltern masses fall victim to all-encompassing, reactionary exercises in enforced social engineering and ‘cultural revolution’, as in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or, historically, during the Revolutionary Terror of 1792-1794. The association of ‘revolution’ with principle of freedom seems tenuous at best, non-existent at worse.
Despite appearances, uprisings and revolutions are rarely ‘for’ anything. In fact a revolution is more often ‘against’ something, as the American Revolution was triggered by a specific kind of taxation deemed unjust by the colonists. Freedom is notoriously difficult to define, therefore it is equally difficult to promote, except in the context of its opposite – as the diminution of tyranny. When oppression, the persistent force of un-freedom, is diminished ‘freedom’ may be said to increase or gain ground, but that is all – the essence or ‘real’ nature of freedom remains elusive and the subject of abstruse philosophical debate of little interest to ‘ordinary’ people.
Today, a continuing Post-Modern cultural anarchism, suffused with the cyberpunk ethos of William Gibson’s SF novel Neuromancer (1984), is associated with emerging and converging technologies such as the Internet (1980), mobile phone networks (1985), consumer digital video (1990), the Sony Playstation (1994) and other elements of The Digital Revolution. Based in ‘cyberspace’, this Post-Modern Net Generation ‘hacktivist’ Web Warrior revolution is driven by a revival of an anti-capitalist, techno-anarchist, apocalyptic counter-culture. A sub-culture derived from b movies, video games, graphic novels and underground comix as exemplified by the post-punk style, themes and anarcho-romantic ‘attitude’ of V for Vendetta (1982), Tank Girl (1988) or Barb Wire (1994). Harking back to ideas found in polemics such as William Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution (1970) it may be that this mode of anarchism, ‘the technoculture trope of the nineties’ (Sirius) is already a nostalgic retro-trip. It may be just an ironic manipulation of past styles, the hothouse fantasy of trendy academics chasing The Next Big Thing, or a recreational drug – a riotous lifestyle melodrama acted out to disguise the dissolution of all utopias in a flux of seductive sell-out strategies. As Baudrillard indicates, it may well be that the rhetoric of avant-garde engagement has been deflated forever by a cultural shift driven by an ever-expanding process of ‘merchandising’ – the advanced capitalist assimilation of all ‘serious’ art into a schema of commodification and neutralisation.
Aspects of the Palaeo-Modern Era
Before 1789 the cultural climate of the Pre-Modern or ‘Palaeo-Modern’ era was characterised by an osmotic interchange between the apparently antithetical poles or tendencies of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. The former was partly a reaction against the Baroque/Rococo mannerisms of previous generations, and partly inspired by a cult of antiquity. In the mid-eighteenth century after the discoveries at Pompeii and, especially Herculaneum, ‘antique’ style became fashionable. The trend was established and endorsed by publications such as the monumental compilation Le Antichita di Ercolano Esposte (1755-1792) sponsored by King Carlo III of Naples. However, despite its obvious nostalgia for a classical past this cult of antiquity contained within itself a certain strangely ‘modern’ element.
Epitomised by the work of Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), John Flaxman (1755-1826), and Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Neo-Classicism, as a form of expression, belonged to the aristocracy and the cultural elite. Its stylistic modes varied from the aesthetic purity of Canova’s ‘Cupid and Psyche’ (1793) to weird, anachronistic amalgams of ‘Etruscan’ or ‘Egyptian’ elements. In the engravings of Venetian architect Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778), depicting both the diversity and grandeur of Roman monuments, there is an element of dark fantasy; a bizarre, personal, subjective mannerism realised most completely in the macabre series of plates Carceri d’Invenzzione (1745). In many of Piranesi’s interior and exterior views of ancient buildings diminutive humans are dwarfed by the crumbling, overgrown monuments that surround them: the landscape is cluttered by the debris of a bygone age. Scholars, idle tourists and intrepid explorers roam among vaulted remains that seem more like the topography of the unconscious than a dispassionate catalogue of antiquities. In Piranesi the stereotypical ‘nobility’ of classic style is eroded by the grotesque. In the illuminations of William Blake (1757-1827) the fantasies of Neo-Classicism entered the realm of the visionary, energised by an unruly spirit of rebellion, driven by a compulsion to challenge accepted categories of the ‘real’.
On the other hand, Romanticism – epitomised by the crepuscular work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) – was partly a style of revolt against Napoleonic tyranny and cultural imperialism, against ‘French’ or Enlightenment values. While, in the work of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Classicism became a favoured style of the Revolution with its republican ideology plagiarised from Plutarch, Romanticism never abandoned its volkisch roots, or its concern for mystical metaphysics and the ‘dark forces’ of the irrational. The darker side of Romanticism identified the artistic quest with dreams, the supernatural, superstition, the perceived innocence of children, animal energy, madness, music, and ‘the experience of limits’ generally. As disruptive outbursts, or explosions of energy, revolutions seemed, for some artists, essentially a ‘Romantic’ phenomenon. Alternatively, for many others, including the British, Classicism in architecture – from the Napoleonic Era to the Third Reich – symbolised the oppression of alien imperialism and undemocratic, expansionist revolutionary extremism. If European cities like Berlin and Paris were aggrandised and embellished by Classical monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate (1788-1791), Great Britain soon came to prefer the (quasi-Romantic) Gothic Revival and embraced the evangelical piety of Pugin.
This stylistic oscillation between the ‘romantic’ and the ‘classic’, and the ambiguous psychic symbolism of these apparently antithetical tendencies, remained a hallmark of Modernity for three centuries, and, it may be argued, remains significant even in the era of Post-Modernity. In the mid-1980s Charles Jencks defined postmodern art and architecture as ‘a new classicism’, replete with allegorical themes and motifs such as the ‘representation of order’ and the ‘lost Arcadia’. Exploring the origins of this sensibility he identified four strands of the new classicism. These comprise Metaphysical Classical with roots in the surrealist works of Magritte, Balthus and late De Chirico, and Narrative Classical incorporating ‘urban suggestive classical’ and ‘erotic classical’ with links to Pop Art. Allegorical Classical includes a form of ‘ideal realism’ and ‘contemporary allegory’ and, finally, a form of Realist Classical depicts ‘transcendental objects’ and explores a precise mode of Hyperrealism, as in the meticulous urban photo-realist paintings of Richard Estes and the forensic existentialism of Lucian Freud.
The Palaeo-Modern period also saw a re-birth of popular genre fiction and the rise of the Gothic novel, exemplified by Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Mary Shelley’s iconic Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1816). The title of the latter work, connecting the idea of ‘the modern’ with Promethean hubris seen by many to characterise the Faustian bargain of modern science with its disturbing ability to undermine traditional certainties, has entered the mythos of the age. The enduring ‘curse’ of Frankenstein pervades both the world of popular theatre and the world of popular protest. It is, of course, a simplistic error to view popular genres like Gothic as an ‘escape’ from the world. As both Breton and Baudrillard have noted in their different ways, the fantastic can reveal the latent character of a society or an historical era and help deflate the spirit of seriousness that sustains the aristocratic ethos of high caste cultural aspirations and the male prerogative. Considering the nature of Science Fiction, Baudrillard defined the genre as ‘an extrapolation from the irrational tendencies’ of day to day existence; a creative extrapolation realised ‘through the free exercise of narrative invention.’ Furthermore there is nothing ‘escapist’ about the realisation of fantasy in the actual world – quite the reverse, in fact.
The genres of fantasy, under various guises, have a long prehistory dating back to antiquity (Lucian, Seneca, Aeschylus). Some have found the origins of Horror in the Medieval Mystery Plays, in the Jacobean Revenge Tragedies or Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). However, in the Proto-Modern era the chief precursor may well be Daniel Defoe with such ambiguous works as ‘The Apparition of Mrs Veal’ (1706) a deadpan journalistic description of a ghostly visitation and his apocalyptic documentary account A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). After Walpole’s Otranto was published ‘fantasy’ proliferated, and has exhibited energetic waves of development up the present day, spawning numerous sub-genres, infiltrating all forms of media.
In retrospect it can be seen that ‘the fantastic’ is an important ingredient in an alternative tradition of cultural development that exists outside or beside the academic mainstream. The fantastic provides an outlet for unseen elements: psychic factors or properties that point to the uncanny and the unspoken – irony, satire, parody, burlesque, pastiche and anarchy. Fantasy incorporates or amplifies the absurd and other ontological anomalies – the grotesque, the bizarre, the comic, the macabre and the demonic. Similarly, as women’s writing (Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe) struggled to overcome the crushing restrictions of a mainly religious, patriarchal hegemony, Gothic melodramas provided an outlet for an exploration of quasi-feminist themes.
In the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), for example, Enlightenment values are continually subverted or disrupted by anomalous events and paranormal phenomena. Working to the Serapion Principle, Hoffmann produced tales depicting the bourgeois society of the middle Pre-Modern period shot through with irrational influences and incursions from parallel worlds, creating a suggestive mode of Romantic Hyperrealism. In his tale ‘Automata’ (1814) he explored the psychic factors that influence the human imagination when an emotionally vulnerable protagonist is confronted with a machine simulacrum of the human figure. His famous creation, Olimpia, the female automaton with ‘giant gleaming eyes’, from ‘Der Sandmann’ (1816), is as iconic as Baron Frankenstein or Count Dracula. In ‘Princess Brambilla’ (1820), naturalistic descriptions of the Roman Carnival are the backdrop for spiritual adventures in a parallel world and weirdly fluidic exchanges of personal identity.
The world of fantasy provides an interface between mass culture and the occult underground via supernatural tales (ghost stories) and macabre horror (demonology). Thus, fantasy facilitates the exploration of forbidden territory, cruelty, decadence and degeneracy, all forms of transgression, regression, reversion and cosmic nihilism. It is not coincidental that fantasies of heroic exploits, parallel histories and alternative worlds emerged and flourished in the mid-Modern period when the effects of secularisation, feminism and technological advance were making an unavoidable, disruptive impact on cultural patterns and social institutions. Fantasy, in the form of scientific romance (Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs), transformed itself into science fiction and overlapped with other contemporaneous popular genres such as crime stories, exotic adventure, pseudo-history and occult speculation. In the fullness of time, through film, television (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003), advertising and popular music, ‘the fantastic’ and the Gothic would annex the entire fashion industry and finally, the high street.
Any cultural ‘era’, isolated for analytical purposes from the flux of history, is merely a convenient snapshot containing within its purview a range of factors or tendencies competing for dominance. Such a discrete era may be labelled according to a perceived dominant element (‘paradigm’) while other evolving elements may comprise the residua of previous historical phases or the emerging trends of future eras. For example, if one significant element of the later ‘Post-Modern’ phase of Modernity might be the rise of the mass media it might also be observed that no such tendency comes ‘out of the blue’. It is always preceded by a lengthy gestation period of latency or ‘emergence’.
For example, the origins of the mass media may be discerned at the beginning of the Pre-Modern period. A time which saw the growth of newspapers and early forms of ‘optical’ entertainment like dioramas using large trompe l’oeil paintings illuminated by transparency (distant ancestor of 3D movies and the VR Headset) and the first European fashion and lifestyle magazines (circa 1770). Adorno and others have identified the early English novel pioneered by Richardson and Defoe as the first examples of a form of literature geared to the marketplace and linked closely to mass circulation newspapers, to the cult of sentiment and to popular journalism. For Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), more than any other author of the Palaeo-Modern era, it was Defoe who, with his disrespect for learned literature, with his scorn for ‘every refinement of style and artistic construction’, with his pursuit of ‘tell it like it is’ realism, created the climate of ‘popular culture’. This was soon to become a ‘mass culture’ of incorporation and assimilation moving out from the educated elite and its media empires, to sweep a vast ‘reserve army’ of outsiders into a duplicitous, manipulative sphere of coercive ‘fly on the wall’ participation, a sphere of ‘docudrama’ and Reality TV.
Heliography, the method of creating the first fixed images from a camera obscura (‘View from the Window at Le Gras’) was named by Niepce in 1826 at around the same time as the earliest use of the term ‘avant-garde’ by the Saint-Simonians. The first use of the term ‘photography’ was by Sir J Herschel in 1839 although the earliest stages of hyper-cultural transition, the fixing of the absolute visible (the concrete image) at the expense of historical myths and spiritual attitudes, had already begun. The World Exhibition of 1855 included, for the first time, a special section called ‘photography’ while the magazine Amateur Photographer was founded in 1884; an indication of the increasing popularity of this new pastime. But photography was not just a pastime it was also a new way of looking at the world. Photography appeared to blur the distinction between representation and actuality, forcing artists to develop new styles of painting (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism) seemingly immune to photographic influence.
That our contemporary, secularised mass media is now inseparable from various forms of recording technology and, especially the visual image (still or movie, analog or digital) is self-evident. Yet such technologies and cultural innovations find their origins in the pre-history of the modern world. One must agree with Walter Benjamin that it was the nineteenth century dioramas ‘which signalled a revolution in the relationship of art to technology’. Here we can discern the first signs of an emergent historical phenomenon that, by the nineteen fifties, would overthrow age-old aesthetic standards and compromise, or, at least, complicate, more recent ideas of ‘revolutionary’ art.
If the formative era of mass media reached its zenith at the opening of the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon (1905), subsequent waves of development have proved equally momentous. Fears about the insidious power of entertainment and advertising raised by Cultural Marxists like Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), or by popular social commentators such as Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957) have been further amplified in more recent times. Although the shared social concerns of both Cultural Marxists and anti-modernist Cultural Conservatives resurfaced in the mid-1970s, as can be seen by the popularity of such ‘explosive’ best-sellers as The Culture of Narcissism (1979) by historian Christopher Lasch, these worries have been heightened even further since the nineteen eighties. This is mainly caused by the emergence of global digital communications (the Internet, electronic financial markets) and associated methodologies such as Hypertext, invented in 1965 by computer scientist Ted Nelson who also coined the term ‘Hypermedia’. Anti-modernists find the Internet particularly threatening because, for the time being at least, its global reach, speed of access and decentralised architecture denies the possibility of assimilation into traditional power structures, hence the recurring outbursts of moral panic associated with access to deviant or subversive content or paranoid fears about the perceived deleterious effects of Social Networking. For disciples of Lasch and others the socio-cultural effects of global hyper-technology have amplified perennial conservative fears centred on the quasi-mythical theme of ‘lost innocence’ often defined as a continuing and specifically modern degradation of ‘spontaneous feeling’ and other emotive idealisations.
The evolutionary processes of cultural change are rendered complex by infinite socio-economic variations and geographic factors. Such complexity can cause cultural ‘time lag’ and related temporal phenomena such as resurgence or revival. For instance, due to the politics of the era French Romanticism found acceptance in its home country later than German or English. While the ‘Neo-Classicism’ of the eighteenth century is perceived as a revivalist phenomenon, it will be seen that, in the later part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century there were periodic revivals of ‘Neo-Romanticism’, in various guises, including forms of ‘Gothic’ which can be interpreted as the dark side of the Romantic movement. It has been argued that Modernism itself is, in essence, an extension of the Romantic impulse – an impulse viewed as intrinsic to the human condition.
Again, for obscure reasons, cultural tendencies may reach high points of ‘intensity’ or peak moments of heightened activity. The period in Europe between, say 1890 and 1914 may, for many, epitomise the apogee of ultra-Modernism. This was an era when all art forms and genres appeared to exhibit an inter-related set of crucial developments and continuities (Cubism, Futurism, ‘pure architecture’, ‘open field’ poetry, the interior monologue, Expressionist theatre, vers libre, Atonal Music, the Free Dance innovations of Loie Fuller and Ruth St Denis). To some observers it appeared that there was a clear trajectory of innovation from Canova’s ‘Three Graces’ (1817) via Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863) to Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ (1907). Having reached this evolutionary apex all subsequent developments must be characterised by a sense of diminution or of failing momentum. From such a ‘high point’ there is nowhere to go but down: Modernism, or the avant-garde inflexion of the Modernist trend, entered a long, slow, fade-out due to natural dissipation of energy and loss of motive power.
However there is an apocalyptic slant to much talk about ‘the modern world’ and Modern Art. This ensures that almost any ‘era’ can be defined as an age of crisis, an ‘age of anxiety’, a time of the absolutely different, or an Age of the New (the New Novel, the New Drama, the New Woman) separated from the past by a vertiginous abyss. Perhaps, between the ‘Three Graces’ and ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’, there is no connecting thread of continuous development at all. Perhaps the difference between the two works reveals an unbridgeable gulf in sensibility – a disconcerting black hole in the fabric of ‘culture’, one of those ‘unexpected solutions of continuity’ identified by Joseph Conrad in his prescient terrorist novel The Secret Agent (1907). Perhaps it might be the case that an underlying indeterminacy ensures that both possibilities are viable, depending upon the analytical perspective of the observer.
Roland Barthes (1915-1980) isolated the mid-nineteenth century as the moment when a distinctively ‘modern’ tendency arose in European culture. In literature he notes a qualitative difference between the literary style (ecriture) of Balzac and that of Flaubert whose novel Madame Bovary caused controversy in 1857. For Barthes this transition in French literature from Balzac to Flaubert represents a Conradian sudden hole in space and time, une rupture essentielle. For art historians the transition from Romanticism to Realism in the works of Courbet and the theories of Champfleury may mark a similar rupture or divide in the fabric of cultural life.
Different chronological profiles can be ascribed to the historical phenomenon of Modernity. It has been said that both the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists are the true initiators of the New in art. For Georg Brandes, as for Andre Breton, the point of departure or the ‘modern breakthrough’ occurred in the 1870s, the period of the Franco-Prussian War. Alternatively, for Victorian sage John Ruskin (Modern Painters, 1843) the authentic voice of Modernity in painting was that of Turner, a master of turbulent atmosphere, a pioneer of English Romanticism, while, for more recent critics, such as John Richardson (1), ‘La Musique aux Tuileries’ (1862) by Manet may count as the first ‘truly modern’ painting because of its realism and sense of detachment. For historians of the theatre the modern era began with Ibsen’s plays A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1880). For cultural historian Roger Shattuck the modern era began with the death of Victor Hugo in 1885, and was actualised during la Belle Époque, between 1890 and 1914. For Shattuck the pre-eminent symbol of Modernism was the Eiffel Tower (1889) whereas, for Jacques Barzun (b.1907), writing in 1943, Modernity in ‘the contemporary sense’ dated from the Armistice of 1918. For other cultural historians the heyday of ‘the modern’ is the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age of Art Deco symbolised by the triumph of the moderne style at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderne. But, by 1960, or so Barzun claimed, the name ‘Modernism’ was beginning to sound rather archaic; it was ‘beginning to acquire the tone of the past’. It is certainly the case that some emerging features of ‘postmodernism’, or Post-Modernism, can be found in both the mainstream culture and the ‘counter-culture’ of the Sixties, even though its roots can be traced back at least as far as the Cabaret Voltaire (1916). Historian Arnold Toynbee, writing in the late thirties, dated the 'Post Modern Age' from the schism or cultural rupture of the First World War. It was the 1850s that saw not only the rise of Realism in both literature and painting, but also a new ‘heroism of modern life’. This vision of ‘the new’ was exemplified both by the aesthetics and poetry of Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857) and by the first stirrings of modern architecture in the prefabricated glass and steel of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851). It is, perhaps fitting that one of the most sensational scientific publications of the modern age, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, appeared in 1859 at the close of this mid-century watershed decade. Like the writings of Darwin, works by Flaubert, Courbet and Baudelaire attracted that particularly modern phenomenon – the cultural, literary or artistic scandal. It may be that the essential rupture in the edifice of ‘culture’ apparently caused by such ‘radical’ images as 'The Funeral at Ornans' (by Courbet, 1850), or by such ‘scandalous’ poetical works as Les Fleurs du Mal helps to create a climate of moral panic. A climate that is still with us, as may be judged from the hysterical media ‘outcry’ against plays like Sarah Kane’s brutalist ‘in yer face’ drama Blasted (1995), or the synthetic ‘fury’ directed at films such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996).
It is also typical of this ethos of manufactured scandal that a defender of the new may, in time, become an opponent of innovation – such was the career path of John Ruskin.
Ruskin, who championed Turner in the 1840s, attacked Whistler’s 'Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket' (1875) in 1877, much to his discredit – as readers of Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890) will no doubt agree. In an instance of Jungian enantiodroma, a champion of the ‘modern’ was transformed into a reactionary anti-modernist, who, insofar as he was unable to appreciate the new aesthetics of Impressionism or Whistler’s semi-symbolist, proto-abstractionist technique, soon appeared ridiculously ‘Victorian’ and ‘out of touch’. On the other hand Whistler’s notion that ‘painting was the poetry of sight’ and that subject matter has ‘nothing to do with harmony of sound or colour’ sounds prophetic, confirming his aesthetic radicalism.
The seeds of this cultural shift in values have always been part of the Modern project. They have been present from the earliest days of the Palaeo-Modern into the Nineteenth Century. This was period that saw alarming new descriptions of the human condition – derived not only from Darwin, but also from Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and sociologists such as Durkheim and Weber – exert a drastic influence on the socio-cultural climate. These new doctrines heralded a new culture, a culture ‘with no visible means of support’, no foundations and no centre; a culture that rejects the hegemony of any particular perspective, a culture without a ‘moral compass’. According to Durkheim, in a statement that sounds very similar to principles developed by Freud, ‘social life should be explained not by the conceptions of those who participate in it, but by profound causes which escape consciousness…’
This is the nightmare of the anti-modernists, of all those socio-political elements who, after the seismic shock of the proclamation of the Goddess of Reason (1793), metamorphosed from advocates of the counter-Reformation into counter-revolutionaries. Opponents would stigmatise the counter-revolution as anti-progressive and reactionary, but the anti-modernists – as defenders of the old order and the strong state, as opponents of mob rule and the machine age, as promoters of monarchic restoration, as ‘ultras’ or theocrates – would take up their position on the moral high ground. This wave of anti-modernism was represented in Victorian England by cultural commentators, those revered ‘sages’ or ‘prophets’, such as Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, who expended considerable effort trying to reconcile the horrors of the machine age with traditional moral precepts of the good and the beautiful and with notions of the just society.
In 1829 Pope Leo XII had forbidden vaccination against small pox; by 1864 the Vatican had consolidated its view on Modernism, and, in the Encyclical Quanta Cura (‘The Syllabus of Errors’), denounce all those features of the modern world to which it was implacably opposed. These included Socialism, Pantheism, Rationalism, Natural Ethics, Modern Liberalism and other matters of concern or threat to the hierarchy. The pontiff assured the faithful that he would never ‘reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism and modern civilisation.’ By 1910, two years after Adolf Loos, one of the pioneers of Pure Architecture, had, in a semi-satirical article, condemned all ornamentation as crime, Pope Pius X required all new priests to take an oath against Modernism, the Sacrorum Antistitum. This oath remained in place until 1967 and still defines the worldview of the priesthood even today.
Alongside this ‘official’ Anti-Modernism flourished the occult underground. This was a subculture that overlapped both ‘the fantastic’ and artistic bohemia. From Swedenborg (via Blake) to Theosophy (via Mondrian), occultism influenced the course of Modern Art in a subterranean way. The nineteenth century Occult Revival started in the Year of Revolutions (1848) with the Spiritualist ‘rappings’ at Hydesville in the USA. Subsequently this neo-spiritual, occult tendency manifest a number of developmental peaks, from the writings of Eliphas Levi in the late 1850s to the founding of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) in 1882 and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (1888). In France the Rose-Croix Kabbalstique (1888) of Guaita and Peledan was founded at the same time. Occult ideas such as universal analogy, the hidden geometry of reality, the meaning of symbols, sexual initiation, the astral plane, the Hermetic androgyny and the mediumistic dictation of spirit writing, permeated the avant-garde on various levels, providing an impetus for the development of Abstract Painting and, via Strindberg, artistic techniques of ‘automatism’.
If the revival of Hermetic philosophies and magical societies is interpreted as ‘flight from reason’ or a rejection of contemporary life, then the Occult Revival may be viewed as anti-modernist tendency (as in the case of W. B. Yeats). However many occultists (following the example of Levi) sought to reconcile Science and Religion and, by developing heretical strands of unorthodox thought, occupied an intermediate position between establishment anti-modernist reaction and radical, anarchic, pro-modernist trends (as in the case of Rimbaud). In the nineteen twenties the Surrealists sought to detach various aspects of occult thinking from traditional interpretations and quasi-mystical accretions in the pursuit of a revolutionary aesthetic of chance, automatism, mad love and ‘the marvellous’.
Tensions in Modernism
Clearly, from a chronological perspective, both ‘Modernism’ and ‘Anti-Modernism’ are symbiotic phenomena. Both are complimentary facets or features of the modern (contemporary) worldview and should be distinguished from the narrow or strict application of the term ‘Modernism’ in the various arts. The avant-garde may well be opposed to the social conservatism of Anti-Modernism and, furthermore, will usually be seen as ‘revolutionary’ in an anti-establishment sense. Even though disinterested artistic activity often strives to occupy an apolitical social space, when assimilated into the social system, art movements adopt political positions, even contradictory political positions. For example the Italian Futurists adhered to a right wing, pro-fascist position, while the Berlin Dadaists were aligned with Communism, as, for a time, were the Surrealists. Such alliances between artists and real revolutionaries are usually unsustainable, although Jacques-Louis David, an associate of Robespierre, may well count among the few artists to hold an influential position within a revolutionary regime. His ‘Death of Marat’ (1793) remains one of the truly iconic artworks of the Age of Revolution. Surrealism was based on the idea that all authentic creativity is intrinsically ‘revolutionary’ but Surrealists themselves strenuously rejected any attempt by political forces to constrain artistic activity thereby encouraging the view that politics is inherently reactionary. Late in the day, in 1938, they sought to establish a doctrine of an Independent Revolutionary Art opposed to both Fascist and Stalinist cultural tyranny.
Primitivism is a significant element of aesthetic Modernism and many ‘modern’ artists derived their ‘Modernism’ from a deep sense of disillusion with Modernity itself, seeking, like Gauguin in Tahiti, to reconnect with primordial and atavistic forces from the distant past, or to connect with remote non-Western cultures. Open to accusations of cultural imperialism, this search for ‘primitive’ and exotic sources of inspiration outside the narrow Western idea of tradition, pervades the radical arts of the High Modern era, including Expressionist theatre, music and dance (for example Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, 1913) and many works by Cubists, Dadaists and Surrealists. This fascination for ‘the primitive’ derives from an essential ambivalence in which apparently contradictory ‘old/new’ factors simultaneously coexist under the loose umbrella of Modernism.
When in August 1936, armed with a letter from the Ministry of Education, radical French poet, actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) arrived at the village of Norogachic in the Sierra Tarahumara, his idea was to gain insight into the cult of Peyote. His quest was to reconnect with the mythic universe of the ancient Maya-Toltec gods, for, as he later wrote, ‘our world has lost its magic’. Although Artaud did manage to participate in a native Indian ritual (his psychedelic ‘trip’ has resonated with the counter-culture ever since) it is clear that his quest was not in harmony with ‘modern’ ideas about the social situation of the indigenous people, and he encountered resistance from the local schoolteacher. In Mexico, ruled by the PNR (National Revolutionary Party), a ‘modern’ approach to ‘Indianization’ did not necessarily involve communion with the ‘hieroglyphs’ of ‘a mythical force whose grip can never be loosened’, although, it should be noted, Artaud’s ideas were welcomed in intellectual circles.
Dance pioneer Martha Graham disliked the term ‘modern’ and referred to her technique as ‘Contemporary Dance’ even though most analysts and cultural critics of dance history will subsume her works under the category ‘Modern Dance’, as distinct from ‘Classical Ballet’. As in the writings of Artaud, a fascination for the atavistic, for the hieratic and for the archetypal – the contradictory indicators of ‘radical’ Modern Art – pervades all Graham’s work. This is especially obvious in pieces such as Night Journey (1947), Clytemnestra (1958) and Alcestis (1960) performed in stark settings designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. It may be that this fascination for Primitivism appears ‘modern’ because it stands outside the comfort zone of Western urban middle-class attitudes. From other perspectives Primitivism may appear as Anti-Modernism or as a precursor to Post-Modernity.
In the 1920s, with the rise of a New Militarism and a new style Radical Right in many European countries, the mainly clerical Anti-Modernism of the previous century became a new Anti-Modernism promoted by militarist totalitarian dictatorships from Italy to Spain, from Japan to Lithuania, and from Germany to Greece. Occasionally these anti-modern formations or movements would inspire their own ‘modern’ artworks, like the novel In Stahlgewitten (Storm of Steel) by Ernst Junger, which celebrated the Schutzengrabengemeinschaft (‘community of the trenches’) and the euphoria and dehumanisation of battle. However, a New Militarist elite committed to concepts of racial purity, authoritarian dictatorship, and ‘total mobilisation’, found no difficulty in identifying almost all aspects of Modernism in the arts as symptoms of ‘degeneracy’. During the Nazi anti-modernist purges Hitler clearly identified all the main contemporary movements of the day – including Bauhaus design, Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism, not to mention musical Serialism and Jazz – as Kunstbolschewismus and, therefore, ‘degenerate’. The ambiguity of cultural phenomena such as Primitivism leads to the suggestion that the atavistic, ritualistic, blut und boden tendencies of the technocratic fascist state are themselves a case of the ‘modern’ incorporating ‘the primitive’ as a strategy of social solidarity.
This new anti-modernist onslaught had the potential to create tensions and conflicts among the avant-garde, many of whom (like Kurt Schwitters or Max Ernst) were in exile, and most of whom were firmly in the anti-fascist camp. For a time it seemed as though the newly formed Soviet Union which had inherited a vibrant radical modernist culture (The Moscow Art Theatre, Suprematism, Futurism, Rayonism, Constructivism) might stand as a haven of ‘progressive’, ‘experimental’ or ‘radical’ art. But the promulgation of the doctrine of Socialist Realism at the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers dispelled this naïve illusion. For a time, at least until the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, many chose to disregard the Stalinist terror but this stance soon became impossible to maintain as state tyranny and censorship became ever more blatant and oppressive.
For a Cultural Commissar, intent on enforcing a ‘proletarian’ art and literature, the Modernism of the recent European era was seen not as a flowering of cultural intensity but as a sign of the disintegration of bourgeois art. Such art was symptomatic of a state of cultural ‘decadence’ seen as the inevitable outcome of the collapse of the capitalist system and the rise of the ‘epoch of imperialism’. The features of decadent, capitalist art against which the Stalinists campaigned comprised factors such as ‘formalism’, ‘falseness’, ‘belligerent anti-realism’ and a ‘hostility to objective knowledge’. These categories are not very different from those characteristics of Modern Art vilified by the Nazis. Ironically, as George Orwell has pointed out, ‘objective knowledge’ is anathema to totalitarian ideologues who always try to control the writing of history and who, furthermore, are noted for weird interpretations of science and for irrational enthusiasms; for peculiar fads and fancies, like Horbiger’s World Ice Theory.
One reaction against Socialist Realism was exemplified by critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) who claimed that, far from being the tool of capitalist imperialism, the avant-garde functions to preserve authentic ‘culture’ from the depredations of capitalism. Operating from the perspective of the anti-Stalinist, anti-fascist, German Left, Greenberg described a dualistic struggle, not between ‘proletarian’ Communism and Western Decadence, but between the pure art of a progressive avant-garde and a rising tide of kitsch, a ‘gigantic apparition’ of low-brow ‘ersatz culture’ (2). For him the disparity was symbolised by a poem by T S Eliot on the one hand and a Tin Pan Alley song on the other. Here, in 1939, there was another chasm opening up, another rupture essentielle between, say a Braque painting and the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Ironically such an analysis is vulnerable to accusations of elitism at odds with Leftist aspirations, although it remains well within the parameters of nineteenth century Modernism.
Greenberg’s strictures against both Socialist Realism and Western mass culture (both of which he condemned as kitsch) are somewhat strident. They point to an underlying psychological dynamic, a puritanical anti-hedonist asceticism conforming to a Late Modernist conception of ‘great art’ as austere, ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’. These are characteristics that imply ‘authenticity’ and ‘significance’ but they also mask a desperate horror of the ephemeral typical of a residual sectarian salvationism derived from the notion that ‘appreciation’ of ‘difficult’ art is hard work and therefore spiritually improving. He describes the rising tide of kitsch as a global phenomenon of ‘debased’ synthetic art that threatens the very survival of culture itself. It is only the avant-garde that stands between the ‘cultivated spectator’ and this dire fate, for ‘the avant-garde forms the only living culture we now have…’ The avant-garde ‘lives’ because the avant-garde ‘moves’, always striving for the new, always developing more radical or sophisticated means of expression.
In avant-garde art the expression always matters more than what is expressed and it is this evolutionary imperative that accounts for the emergence of Abstract Art. It is an imperative that accounts for the difference between say ‘The Massacre at Chios’ (1824) by Delacroix and ‘Lavender Mist’ (1950) by Jackson Pollock, or in the literary sphere, between the style of Madame Bovary (1857) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Perhaps more significantly it may also apply to a perceived disparity of aesthetic values between, say, an avant-garde work like Picasso’s ‘Three Dancers’ (1925) and the full-on Art Deco hedonism of a Busby Berkeley movie such as Gold Diggers of 1935. But it was not just Hollywood that worried Greenberg. He listed magazine covers, illustrations, advertising, pulp fiction and tap dancing among the deadly sins of ‘virulent’ kitsch although it is difficult to see how many of these fit his definition of kitsch as ersatz culture that imitates the effects of ‘real’ culture. In part he was reacting to the eclipse of the severe ultra-Modernist style by the eclectic chic moderne decorative mode of the pre-war era. This was a period which cultivated speed, sexuality and mass entertainment as a counterpoint to the puritanical anti-decorative ideology espoused by the pioneers of International Modernism. Greenberg’s stance is somewhat similar to that of Theodor Adorno who, in a rather more rigorous analysis of capitalist cultural commodity fetishism, deplored the vulgarisation of ‘great’ music through the spread of ‘light’ arrangements of canonical works from the concert repertoire. ‘The tired businessman,’ claimed Adorno, equating mass culture with mass deception, ‘can clap arranged classics on the shoulder and fondle the progeny of their muse.’ Again, the deep cultural politics discerned behind the different styles of rhetoric of both leftist anti-capitalists and rightist cultural conservatives (like Lasch) displays an expected familial relationship. For both camps the modern world is bad news and the ‘narcissist society’ emerges from the ruins of traditional value systems. It may be worth noting that for Lasch the epitome a modern debasement was the avant-garde theatre, particularly the Theatre of the Absurd, seen as the embodiment of, or realisation of, ‘the barren world of the borderline’.
In fact, taken as a whole, the cultural outlook of Modernism displayed considerable ambivalence towards the expansion of mass society. For example, in 1894 English Decadent illustrator Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) published a short article titled ‘The Art of The Hoarding’ in the magazine New Review. He welcomed advertising as ‘an absolute necessity of modern life’ and celebrated a future London ‘resplendent with advertisements’ where ‘skysigns will trace their formal arabesque’ against leaden skies. ‘Beauty’, he declared, ‘has laid siege to the city, and telegraph wires shall no longer be the sole joy of our aesthetic perceptions.’ Beardsley, whose own controversial work was designed for mass circulation via printed media, was neither new nor alone in his positive approach to the emerging world of railways, grand hotels, cabarets, department stores, music halls, and ‘celebrity’ personalities like Sarah Bernhardt or Gabrielle Rejane. Some have seen the origins of the current cult of celebrity in the slick portraits of actresses painted by Reynolds, for example the well-known image of ‘Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse’ (1784), which emphasises the semi-mythic quality of such new media-generated demi-gods. One imagines that if he had been living in a later era an artist like Reynolds would be a staff photographer on a magazine such as Hello!
Again, Edouard Manet – whose paintings chronicled modern Paris, showing how urban culture was displaced from aristocratic patronage and high class salons to the street level sphere of journalism, café society and the café concert – had no hesitation in praising the democratic regime in the United States. He said ‘It produces men who have not only all the qualities of our old, French society but also an instinct for Modernity.’ It was, indeed, as Rimbaud also proclaimed, an ‘instinct for Modernity’ that was the true sign of the Modern Artist. This instinct was a trait identified by Baudelaire in his Salon of 1845 and his Salon of 1846 and explored, not only in his influential essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) but in his own poetry, in his Tableaux Parisiens.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) remains the sombre and saturnine guardian of the urban poem, the poem of poverty and anguished, fetishistic sexuality; all eulogies to the unique and epic beauties of contemporary fashion owe their existence to him. Only the Puritan will disagree with his assertion that the ‘transitory, fugitive element’ is the key to the modern world, a world ‘whose metamorphoses are so rapid’ – a key that must on no account be despised, or dispensed with. Yet it is this very accelerated pace of change (‘history on fast-forward’ to quote one media outlet) that induces such horror in the innocent bystander. This horror can be specifically called a kind of phobia – a phobia induced by the nature of change itself, a fear of the new, a terror of the modern and hatred of ‘progress’. We may call it Neo-Phobia. That Baudelaire discerned this ephemeral quality of Modernity in 1863 is remarkable, indeed almost prophetic, for it is this ‘acceleration’, this ‘fast-forward’ experience that now defines the Hyper-Modernity of the twenty-first century, overwhelming all other categories of cultural analysis.
By 1939, when Greenberg’s article was published, the ‘revolutionary’ avant-garde had suffered a catastrophic loss of momentum. It was a spent force and, as is evident from Greenberg’s attacks on so-called kitsch, had been reduced to fighting a losing rear-guard battle against commercialised Admass (a pejorative term coined by J. B. Priestley) society. Such are the complexities and dislocations that this diagnosis can only be made in retrospect, for Europe was soon engulfed in the fog of war and, for a few decades in the immediate aftermath of the conflict it seemed that the avant-garde impulse experienced a rejuvenation of sorts. Although Wyndham Lewis had announced the ‘death of abstract art’ in 1940, the idea of The Fall of Paris took hold – the transfer of the centre of cultural gravity from Europe to the United States seemed incontestable. In the visual arts, as well as other spheres, including theatre, music and dance, the innovations of the nineteen thirties were consolidated into another avant-garde scene. One thinks of the New York School, of Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting.
But in truth the arrival of Dada anti-art meant that the European line had fragmented as early as 1916, and the late flowering of American Neo-Modernist abstract painting shuddered to a halt with the Colour Field work of Newman and Rothko and petered out in the dead-end of Post-Painterly Abstraction. The cycle was completed in 1971 by the inauguration, or, rather, consecration, of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The inter-faith opening ceremony, sanctified by representatives of the priestly caste, confirmed what everybody knew, namely that Abstract Art was not a formalist experiment, or the ‘imitation of imitating’, but a spiritual, mystical exercise masquerading as the self-referential exploration of its own materiality.
It was no coincidence that the Rothko Chapel, a structure that enshrined various ‘non-representational’ representations of the ‘absolute’ (some canvases arranged in triptych format), was based on the form of a Catholic Baptistry. Abstraction, which emerged on the fringes of the nineteenth century occult revival, had a clear Romantic lineage. Transposed via Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian into a Late Modern idiom, it was another symptom of that perennial yearning for the mystical, for the ineffable infinite, for the spiritual, typified by such Northern Romantic works as Runge’s Times of Day series (1803) and Friedrich’s ‘Capuchin Friar by The Sea’ (1809). As Wyndham Lewis observed, Abstraction was not super-real, it evoked the super-natural, and it marked the end of that era of perpetual revolution in the arts that had gained momentum after the upheavals of 1848 and 1870. The avant-garde had been outflanked, or out-manoeuvred, by a clerical counter-revolution, and upstaged by Pop Art and various mutations of Dada and Surrealism: movements Greenberg regarded as symptoms of the ‘debased’ ersatz art he had previously denounced as the mere ‘simulacra’ of ‘genuine’ culture.
Part Two – Couture and Anarchy
There are issues unfathomable to the observer: cesspools of destiny,
hidden links of fate, the template of existence – Paul Leppin
Loss or debasement of traditional values is the nightmare scenario of contemporary anti-modernists. Doubtless many defenders of ‘genuine’ culture sank into despair when, clad only in an itsy bitsy bikini, Britney Spears (b.1981) appeared on a recent edition of The Late Show to list the ‘Top Ten ways in which the world would be different’ if she were President. Indeed, the contents of this manifesto – including a proposal to establish a night-club on the Moon and a pledge to only invade ‘fun places’ – might encourage the view that ‘modern life’ is the product of an absurd, tacky pseudo-culture propagated by a louche ‘rockocracy’ of numbskull celebrities and wacky fashionistas. Of course, it may be that failing to see the joke is itself a symptom of cultural decline. As Andre Breton wrote, humour is the ‘paradoxical triumph of the pleasure principle over real conditions at a moment when they may be considered to be most unfavourable’ and, consequently, a potent line of defence, or mode of offence, against reactionary attitudes and encroaching banality. It is also the case that, like an unexpected wardrobe malfunction, or like a high kick from Charlotte Greenwood, human behaviour in the mass media is often strangely surreal in an inadvertent and unpredictable manner.
From a point of vantage in 1960, Jacques Barzun was able to map out the terrain of an emerging sensibility and to uncover some of its roots in the previous century. Taking a view that, in certain respects, echoed the fears of Greenberg, Barzun dissected the arts in the period just after the Second World War and identified two conditioning factors leading to a Neo-Romantic ‘rebirth of feeling’. Firstly he identified the emergence of a ‘near-nihilism’ among the Late Modern avant-garde and, secondly he condemned the socialising of culture as a by-product of the post-war welfare state settlement.
This ‘near-nihilism’, he claimed, took the form of artistic ‘Abolitionism’, an attitude of total rebellion against Western culture. The last gasp of Romantic revolt, it soon became a ‘creed’ and the ‘mark of the sensitive’ for Existentialists, Beat Poets and others. He observed that this total repudiation of art (The Death of Art) by leading innovators coincided with a ‘frittering away of high art through vulgarisation’, through the efforts of mass journalism and public institutions committed to the processing of ‘culture for all’. This processing of culture, involving an infinite task of ‘introducing and commenting on the classics’ and the introduction of mass-marketing methods into the artistic arena seemed to create a kind of developmental stasis as ‘genuine cultural change was again postponed’. Here we have arrived at the terminal phase of the avant-garde adventure embodied in a stance of total denial which, faintly echoing Baudelaire, Barzun reluctantly defined as ‘heroic’.
Also it evokes that ‘alternative tradition’ of the previous era. A tradition rooted in the work of some French Symbolists, in Decadent Aestheticism, in Futurism, in the Expressionists, in the Surrealists, in Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, in the novels of Celine, and in the work of proto-Absurdist writers like Jarry, Pirandello and Kafka. It is a tradition that hovers between the twin poles of decadent ennui and existential angst, before veering off into either Primitivism or the Absurd. A philosophical question lurks behind Barzun’s use of the term nihilism (or ‘near-nihilism’) to define his notion of Abolitionism. For, even if the tendency evaporates into a ‘void’ or a blank space, like the ocean chart in The Hunting of the Snark, it remains the case that the motivations of many Abolitionists (he cites Ginsberg) remained optimistically idealistic, even mystical and ‘affirmative’ of human values. So, the Abolitionist revolt against Western culture did not stem from a ‘pure’ or rigorous nihilism, which holds that existence is meaningless, that life itself has no elevated ‘purpose’ or moral imperative. Instead it moves toward a kind of transcendental vision of global multiculturalism which can look like a rejection of The West. The anomaly probably arises from the fact that Barzun is too vague, or all-inclusive, in his desire to subsume every tendency of the day under the label of Abolitionism. One cannot ascribe the same teleological status to Pollock’s ‘Lavender Mist’ (1950) or musique concrete, as to Genet’s The Balcony (1957) or Beckett’s Endgame (1957).
With some prescience Barzun seems to anticipate a later tendency of the post-nineteen seventies, namely The Blank Generation. ‘Success,’ for the Abolitionists he opined, ‘means to create a blank, a void…’ We will have reached a dead end, or ‘at least the outer edge of the known world.’ This cultural void is caused by the abolition of ‘oppressive things and intolerable memories’. It is the abolition of the baggage of Western culture, especially the culture of the nineteenth century and also the end point of an ‘alternative’ tradition. It seems a critical device encoded with subliminal messages of ‘escapism’ and neurotic megalomania appropriate to the world described in Less Than Zero (1985) by Brett Easton Ellis or Generation X – Tales for An Accelarated Culture (1991) by Douglas Coupland. The earlier ‘Blank Generation’ of Punk seems more ‘angry’ than truly ‘blank’ although many commentators decried the genre as ‘nihilistic’ and anti-social – but also, like Pop, there are definite cultural differences between US and UK Punk.
In hindsight it can be seen that the rise of the mass media during the pre-war years (cinema, sound recording, radio) culminating after 1945, in major advances such as colour TV (1951) and satellite relay (1962), provided the technological framework for a major watershed, or turning point, in popular culture. It was a revolution that transfigured the cultural sphere, assimilating the notion of ‘high culture’ into a broader entity. This would be a kind of meta-culture in which distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ ‘original’ and ‘un-original’, ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’, ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ dissolved forever into a limitless soup of do-it-yourself aesthetic values and anarchic, creative impulses. Far from being ‘frittered away’, from now on, in this mushroom cloud massenkultur, everything was going to be preserved and recorded. Everything was going to be re-recorded and transmitted, re-cycled and re-transmitted, copied and re-copied, because, as the saying has it: ‘nothing gets lost in cyberspace’ or, to quote Adorno: ‘mass culture is an organised mania for connecting everything with everything else’. This is the latent content of the near-nihilism that so disturbed Barzun, provoking his Neo-phobic diagnosis of the contemporary art scene.
Dada, Neo-Dada and Normality Malfunction
The cultural landscape is like a labyrinth, it is like ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ described in a short story by Borges. At every twist and turn there is a bifurcation, every tendency or movement of distinct character has its antecedents and precursors, its splinter groups and secessionists, its side effects, by-products and unforeseen consequences. With their fascination of urban life, show business and modern communications it is quite possible to identify Aubrey Beardsley and other late Victorian Decadents as precursors of Pop Art. Similarly Arthur Rimbaud, in the ‘Alchimie du Verbe’ section of Une Saison en Enfer recalled how he found the celebrated names of painting and modern poetry ‘laughable’. He preferred ‘stupid paintings’ or stage sets, ‘popular engravings’, old operas and ‘ridiculous refrains’, not to mention erotic books with bad spelling. Rimbaud has cult status in US Pop Culture thanks to celebrity endorsements from Jim Morrison and Patti Smith.
There is an anarchic tendency in Modernism that subverts ‘high art’ and ‘serious’ elevated Arnoldian notions of culture as ‘sweetness and light’, questioning ontological and epistemological certainties. Just occasionally it is possible to unmask the normative injunctions of repression embodied in the reactionary dogma of autonomous, transcendental values, that ‘spirit of seriousness’ (l’esprit de serieux) identified by Sartre as the antithesis of freedom. Like Bob Merrill’s 1954 hit for Rosemary Clooney, ‘Mambo Italiano’ (a grotesque Latin-pop hybrid inspired by Neapolitan cuisine) this anarchic tendency can be amplified by the incorporation of external, ‘alien’ or ‘exotic’ influences. Influences that contradict existing, traditional and academic representational conventions, offend middle-class Puritanism, inject an element of burlesque parody, or, more seriously, derail the validity of utopian ‘revolutionary’ alternatives.
For example, an important feature of Beardsley’s graphic work was the incorporation of Japanese design elements. The discovery of Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, by many Western artists was a prime factor in the establishment of a more ‘modern’ look to pictorial imagery. The austerity and simplicity of ‘traditional’ Japanese style pushed artists into a new approach, freeing them from nineteenth century academic conventions. For Beardsley, as explained by Linda Zatlin, the influence of Moronubu and Hokusai provided an escape route from both Classicism and Romantic Medievalism, allowing Aestheticism to challenge Victorian 'clutter’ and the domination of Ruskinian realism.
Beardsley’s described his new style as an art of ‘fantastic impressions, treated in the finest possible outline with patches of Black Blot.’ In his illustrations for Wilde’s Salome (1894), the exploitation of Japanese style, incorporating calligraphy and other unexpected approaches to format (the use of borders, fine line and general pictorial composition) created an overwhelmingly novel effect, a ‘perversion of the Victorian ideal’ (Zatlin). By these means Beardsley became a pioneer of Art Nouveau and changed the look of Western visual design forever. These elements of style, the ‘fantastic impressions’, the austere linearity, the problematic moral content, the non-Western influence were all ahead of their time, intimations of shifting cultural trends, a new twist to the idea of The Modern. Fantasy, claimed G S Kirk, ‘expresses itself in a strange dislocation of familiar and naturalistic connections and associations.’
In The Cubist Painters (1913) Apollinaire asserted that a new kind of art was capable of producing works of power not seen before, even fulfilling a new social function. To reinforce this idea he used the image of Bleriot’s aeroplane ‘carried in procession through the streets’ just as, in times gone by, a painting by Cimabue was ‘once paraded in public procession’. This was the conclusion of a short discussion on the work of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) described as an artist ‘liberated from aesthetic preoccupations’.
Barzun saw the Abolitionists as part of a reaction to the Second World War, but, in fact, an anarchic,‘near-nihilist’, anti-art tendency was gaining ground much earlier – perhaps the Richard Mutt Case of 1917 signalled another watershed in the relentless dissolution of the old order. One must certainly note the historical significance of the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting in favour of the Readymade. One must note also that Richard Mutt’s ‘Fountain’ still attracts enormous interest at Tate Modern and, as Patricia Roseberry observes, ‘anticipated by many decades the sort of art which receives general attention and provokes discussion’.
Clearly, Duchamp – whose iconoclastic spirit presided over many aspects of the post-war Neo-Dada scene, from Fluxus to Nouveau Realisme, from Kinetic Art and Op, to Conceptual Art – was the prime instigator of anti-art – he was, one might say, the anti-hero of anti-art.
By 1912 he had rejected the direction of the avant-garde Cubists which he found far too narrow, or to use his terminology, too 'retinal'. Duchamp realised that the self-reflexive materiality of abstract painting would, sooner or later, lead to dead end; a view that, as has already been mentioned, was later articulated by the Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis.
One of his responses to this situation was the innovation of the Readymade.
The Readymade, a precursor of Conceptualism, exemplifies two facets of estrangement: displacement and transgression. It was a mass-produced artefact chosen by the artist on the basis of neutrality. All of these objects, including, among others, the Bicycle Wheel (1913), the Bottle Dryer (1914), the Snow Shovel (‘In Advance of a Broken Arm’, 1915), Comb (1916), and the Urinal (‘Fountain’ signed ‘R. Mutt’, 1917) represented a radical shift away from the tenets of orthodox aesthetics. These anonymous objects, displaced from their utilitarian contexts, actualised on the physical plane a disconcerting element of Modernity – an element eventually identified as ‘surrealist’.
Partaking of black humour, they also displayed an affinity with the displaced objects that featured in works of the Scuola Metafisica, paintings such as ‘The Evil Genius of a King’ (1915), ‘The Enigma of Fate’ (1914) and ‘The Disquieting Muses’ (1925) by Giorgio de Chirico, master of post-Classical alienation. This proto-surreal, disquieting element can be traced back to the art of previous phases, for example the ‘weird’ Classicism of Piranesi and Fuseli, or David’s ‘super-cool’, unfinished ‘Portrait of Madame Recamier’ (1800), all the more effective for its unfinished state.
Violating normal expectations, displaced objects occupying physical space in the ‘real’ world, outside the picture frame, Readymades represented another ‘radical’ aesthetic rupture soon to become the basis of Dada. Like Duchamp, Dada (established in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich) also dissociated itself from both the ‘official’ avant-garde and the overarching moral (religious) narrative of social respectability and pernicious bourgeois complacency seen as a cause of the First World War. In a diary entry dated June 16, 1916, Hugo ‘the Magic Bishop’ Ball referred to the Dada enterprise in terms of theatrical entertainment: ‘the ideals and culture of art as a program for a variety show’. Performances at the cabaret involved Bruitist Music, Simultaneous Poetry and Cubist Dancing. Huelsenbeck, another Dadaist, said ‘the liberating deed plays a most important role in the history of the time.’
Dada publications were produced in a suitably ‘radical’ manner that still seems fresh today, incorporating extreme typography, startling photographs, montage, collage, overprinting, disrupted reading order and a close intermixing of word and text just like a Web Page. This explicit rejection of the official avant-garde by Dada, and later by the Surrealists, can be seen, in hindsight, as an early stage of a ‘Post-Modernist’ sensibility. For the Dadaists and their friends, like Duchamp and Picabia, conventional or established Modernism was closely allied to, if not identical with, a failed, once revolutionary ‘avant-garde’. But this was now a pseudo-radical avant-garde because it had become ‘official’. It was internationally accepted by the cultural elite and consequently assimilated into the global art market system.
This official avant-garde could no longer drive change – change required total demolition – Dada was the first stage of this new Post-Vanguard era, the precursor to various aspects of historical Post-Modernism because it had moved beyond the prevailing normative definition of Modernity in the arts. As a phenomenon Dada was the cultural equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction or defaut de fonctionnement de garde-robe – it was a ‘normality malfunction’, it was a breakdown of accepted standards, and it was a violation of the prevailing order. Dada and Surrealism were Post-Modern, because they superseded Modernism as a radical movement and preceded Barzun’s Abolitionism and subsequent developments such as Pop. It was a continuation of Duchamp’s rejection of Cubism, confirming the idea of an alternative, divergent lineage distinct from Late Modernism. Tristan Tzara went further and claimed that Dada had nothing at all to do with Modernism.
It was the Neo-Dada Pop Artists of a later period who became the post-war advocates of this new era, this emergent meta-culture. Far from seeing consumer society as a nightmare of cultural degeneracy, the London Independent Group (IG) formed in 1952, set out to ‘plunder the popular arts’ with, according to Richard Hamilton, the strangely archaic objective, of recovering ‘imagery which is a ‘rightful inheritance’. Curiously this was seen as a way of protecting the ‘ancient purpose’ or Primitive role of the artist. On the other hand, for Edward Lucie-Smith, Pop was about ‘the tone and urgency of the modern megalopolis’ an attempt to forge an art of ‘majority living’ for ‘men penned in cities and cut off from nature.’ By coincidence it was also in 1952 that researchers ‘rediscovered’ the earliest known heliographic image, Niepce’s ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, hidden in a family attic.
For the guru of British Pop, Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990), Greenberg’s type of cultural politics was redundant and ‘fatally prejudiced’. Alloway revelled in the anti-academic style and iconography of the ‘mass arts’, seeing the pejorative use of a term like kitsch symptomatic of an outmoded view. He looked at the art world and saw the collapse of an intellectual elite fixated on upper class ideas and ‘pastoral’ representational conventions; an elite who could no longer set aesthetic standards or ‘dominate all aspects of art’, as had been the case in the past. Furthermore it was an elite that had assimilated for its own purposes the traditional agenda of the avant-garde, which was now a diluted and spent force, a ubiquitous, corporate International Style. There were anodyne abstract paintings in every boardroom and office lobby. The grand narrative of stylistic internationalism had become dissociated from the popular base, a phenomenon apparent in all spheres and not just architecture and avant-garde art. In music for example, Schoenberg’s ambition that composers of all nationalities would move towards the dodecaphonic method proved hollow. In terms of general cultural significance Derek Scott 4 is surely correct when he observes that ‘the 12 bar blues may be said to have greater cultural importance than the 12-note row’.
Mass produced ‘urban culture’ was to provide the raw material for different type of art. Fascinated by a world of movies, television, production lines, advertisements, fashion, pop music and science fiction, the IG simply accepted all this as ‘fact’ – as a tissue of signs, or as a form of information exchange. In popular art, asserted Alloway, there is a ‘continuum from data to fantasy’ and artists were engaged in a kind of meta-cultural anthropology. In this approach the Pop Artists were reflecting a new awareness of the ‘value’ of significance of popular culture, a tendency anticipated by Orwell, now reflected in the worlds of intellectual critics like Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes. Between 1954 and 1964 Barthes wrote his series of articles eventually published as the collection Mythologies (1957). These short pieces analysed the ideological and phenomenological significance of artefacts and images such as ‘soap powders and detergents’, ‘plastic’, ‘ornamental cookery’, ‘The Jet Man’, the new Citroen DS and ‘The Face of Garbo’. In the new Pop world the notion of an autonomous, disinterested ‘fine art’ was completely rejected in favour of Space Age populism, seeming, in hindsight, to synchronise with official doctrines like ‘Atoms for Peace’ (1953).
By 1959 kinetic artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) had developed his metamecanique Meta-matic machines for ‘do-it-yourself abstract painting’. Meta-matics were portable, tripod or wheeled devices with co-ordinated drawing arms. ‘Meta-matic No 14’ was a hand-held drawing machine shown at the Art, Machine and Motion event (a typical Neo-Dada provocation) staged at the ICA in London. Operated by a girl in fishnets dressed as an usherette, the device produced numerous Abstract Expressionist works for distribution amongst the audience. Tinguely also developed the ‘Cyclomatic’ a pedal-powered version of the device constructed from welded scrap metal and bicycle wheels. At the event cyclists mounted the machine in turns competing to see who could produce a mile long abstract painting in the fastest time. Closely related to the ‘Cyclomatic’ was the ‘Cyclograveur’, a static pedal-powered device capable of drawing on a blackboard. Earlier in the same year Tinguely had shown his Meta-matics at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris at an event attended by Marcel Duchamp. This was the final fade-out of the revolutionary avant-garde, the negation of the art object in favour of informational media and delirious Cold War Space Race techno-fashion based on catsuits, PVC boots and body armour.
Hyper-Style and the Surreality of Now
With the emergence of a new science (Quantum Theory, the discovery of external galaxies, the detection of the ‘Holmdel Whisper’ in 1965) the uncanny and uncertain nature of a radical new worldview had become more and more difficult to ignore.
After the dissipation of pure Modernism and its mutation into an International Style, the continuing long-range globalization of ‘Modernity’ is now in the process of generating a heterodox super-modern Hyper-Culture. This Hyper-Culture, driven by an uncontrollable ‘accelerative thrust’ described in such commentaries as Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), is rapidly evolving, all pervasive and highly diverse even at its present primitive, meta-cultural stage.
Such an accelerated condition may have officially arrived – announced by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine (b.1947) in a speech at the Association France-Ameriques in February 1999. The minister observed that the term ‘Superpower’ was an outmoded Cold War word. The current international situation was defined by a shift from multi-polarism to uni-polarism and, in this new uni-polar world there was only one dominant, global power, or ‘Hyperpower’ – the USA.
A Hyperpower is a country or state dominant in all categories and dimensions, a power whose sphere of influence or hegemony, extends well beyond mere geo-politics, encompassing all forms of military outreach, technology, economics, and other, less tangible, factors including ‘attitudes, concepts, language and modes of life’. This was not exactly the New World Order demanded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988: the loss of ‘genuine’ culture together with the all-pervasive spread of an ersatz simulacrum of culture, are threatening tendencies frequently associated with Anti-Americanism. In some respects Anti-Modernism has become Anti-Americanism. Resistance to the Hyper-Culture of the ‘Hyperpower’ of the Post Cold War Era has become synonymous with a fear that ‘culture’ will become ‘Disneyfied’ that is to say Americanised. The fear that ‘traditional’ cultural life will be translated into ‘Hyperreality’ (a term coined by Umberto Eco), into a zone of existence where fact and fiction converge, is now widespread among paranoid anti-modernists. In this rhetorical scenario Hyperreality is a counterfeit, a media hallucination or ultra-capitalist theme park; it is a wax museum simulacrum populated by mutant cyborgs and pathological androids; it is a Hypermedia world of ‘toy cities’ dominated by rogue super-computers and Machiavellian commercial cartels.
This dystopian, vision is apparent in the techno-noir design and sociological back-stories of science fiction movies such as Alphaville (1965), the Alien Quadrilogy (1979-1997), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator and its sequels (1984-2003), Strange Days (1995), and (more recently) The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003). These films depict ‘ordinary’ humanity in conflict with intelligent machines, human Replicants or monstrous ‘biomechanoid’ monsters, offspring of Duchamp’s mechanomorph Bride of 1912. They are usually set against a backdrop of a ‘chaotic’ or post-apocalyptic world, exhibiting an amplified style of hyper-design as in The Fifth Element (1997) a semi-satirical SF showcase for the ‘ironic glamour’ fashion creations of Jean-Paul Gaultier. In this movie, by director Luc Besson, the Supreme Being of the French Revolution descends to Earth as an enigmatic, gun-toting but vulnerable alien Goddess of Hyper-style played by supermodel Milla Jovovich. One suspects that the ‘seagreen Incorruptible’, that ascetic deist, Robespierre, would have been suitably scandalised by such an impersonation. It puts one in mind of the personification of the Goddess of Reason (1793) by the actress Therese Momoro who may, in retrospect, qualify as the first ‘reality star’.
It should be said that humanity is probably a thousand years away from the realisation of a total Hyper-Culture singularity, which, by definition must be all pervasive and global in scope. In the meantime the conflict between Modernism and Anti-Modernism will continue. The conflict will escalate as traditions everywhere are exposed to the encroachments of an amplified global hyper-capitalism as rapacious as H. R. Giger’s biomechanoid xenomorphic ‘alien’. Despite inevitable crises this trend cannot be halted in its onward march towards a planetary post-national condition of total consumerism; a state of wall-to-wall disaster porn, celebutainment, infotainment, synthetic mysticism, frenetic commodification, histrionic gesture politics, soft news and therapeutic ‘funography’. Driven by hectic and irrational market forces this hyper-capitalism and its supporting architecture of the corporate-services complex, now presents a spectacle far removed from its originating Puritan ethic rooted in righteous salvation theology as expounded in the seventeenth century by the followers of Calvin and others. This is a nightmare only sketched out by Christopher Lasch when he railed against the post-modernist theatrical approach to existence, its ‘absurdist theatre of the self’; an affront to the decorum of those who – like the seventeenth century Protestant sectarians – characterise themselves as ‘in the world, not of the world’.
Perhaps contemporary capitalism with its towering urban financial centres based in ‘global cities’ linked by all-pervasive, transnational digital networks is itself the true Earthly ‘Hyperpower’. It may appear that the notion of the US as the only world hyperpower has given way to a ‘multipolar’ vision due to the influence of ‘emerging’ economies (like India and China), it is also the case that the present global economy is dominated by the strategic 'northern transatlantic system’. This Northern Atlantic concentration of economic processes is the centre of gravity for the global markets. It functions via a network of regulatory powers and structures derived from the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and European economic systems, encoded in the political and economic links between the EU countries and between the EU and North America.
Certainly, tower blocks and skyscrapers – steel and glass cathedrals of corporate finance descended from Paxton’s Crystal Palace, and perfected in Chicago – are among the most potent icons of the this new and fast developing world order, and the most visible manifestations of modernity. Like the towers of Brasilia (1958-1960), an entire mega-city built from scratch, they define the modern world from London to Tokyo, from Manhattan to Sao Paulo and to Singapore. For anti-modernists, including many on the political left, the ostentatious towers and neon signs of the contemporary city will always evoke, if only on a subconscious level, fables of human vanity, sybaritic luxury and moral decline. Such fables as the story of Atlantis, or The Tower of Babel, or the destruction of the Cities of the Plain still resonate with subliminal fear. This kind of moral horror is found in the reaction of Dostoyevsky to the Crystal Palace, which he defined in apocalyptic terms as a new ‘Baal’, a profane temple dedicated to materialism and a deathly stasis. More recently film director Martin Scorsese transposed and distilled these diffused fables of degeneracy into a three-hour epic picture celebrating ‘a lost era’ of ‘decadent’ Seventies glitz. A nostalgic and violent, movie with both Brenda Lee and the St Matthew Passion on the soundtrack, Casino (1996) is based on a symbolic Mafia-controlled gambling palace (or ‘morality car-wash’) in Las Vegas.
For some, like architect Eric Mendelsohn, the towers symbolised Utopia, for others they stand for the hubris of a materialistic Post-Axial hedonism that denies the value of salvation and negates the ascetic ideal of redemption. Undoubtedly this was the motivation behind the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 2001. The ‘post-nine-eleven scenario’ is an unfolding drama of global destiny, a conflict between Tradition and Modernity that typifies the present fractious and fractured state of the meta-culture. But it is a shallow, platitudinous ideological mannerism of the age to fall for the myth of Western Decadence, the idea that this rampant meta-culture is a case of toxic ‘Westernization’, or a form of Atlanticist, Euro-centric cultural imperialism. Historically it may be that the cultural formation called Modernity was a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and the economic ideology of Adam Smith. Perhaps the initial epicentre of this seismic shift can be located in Coalbrookdale, but it is not viable to assume that the multi-factorial globalization of Modernity, with its ‘transboundary spatialities’, labyrinthine ‘corporate-services complex’, and ‘multiscalar dynamics’ 4 can be pinned down to the simplistic post-colonial dogmas, geo-politics or class warfare.
In the spheres of Anglo-American and European post-war society in the early 1960s attacks on Modern Life and ‘permissiveness’ were launched from the Religious Right and aimed specifically at television. But one might cite a more thoroughgoing critique from a non-Western source. In 1967 novelist Yukio Mishima wrote Introduction to Hagakure (Hagakure Nyumon), also known as Mishima on Hagakure, in which he used his personal interpretation of the Samurai ethic as the basis for a critique of Japanese society. Mishima saw himself in almost Nietzschean terms as a Man of Action. However it might be said he developed a literary style indebted to Western aestheticism while in his own life and work he exemplified a form of cross-cultural hybridisation symptomatic of the global meta-culture of which he was an early and spectacular product.
In Hagakure Nyumon, we find some perennial criticisms of Modernity, where Modernity is seen as the damaging outcome of peacetime society and economic revival. In the period after the Second World War, claimed Mishima, social conditions reverted to a state of decadence also prevalent in earlier periods, or as he wrote: ‘The sight of today’s young men infatuated with the Cardin look is no novelty in Japanese history.’ In the Genroku Period, Jocho Yamamoto (1659-1719), the author of the Samurai code, Hagakure, contrasted the austerity of his ideal with the state of the world, with the ‘luxury of that age’, and the ‘sumptuous culture of merchants and townsmen.’ Mishima, a modern day Jocho, finds the same contrast of objectives and ideals in contemporary Japan. Among the modern problems he cites tendencies such as ‘the feminisation of the male’, a new elite of ‘expense account aristocrats’ partly caused by the tax system, and a celebrity culture of ‘lionised baseball players and television stars’. In addition Mishima draws attention to a general ‘compromise climate’, proposing a theory that conventional moralists will find difficult to accept: the kind of modern society described here suppresses the death impulse.
‘If your name means nothing to the world whether you live or die’, says the Hagakure, ‘it is better to live’. This option – ‘it is better to live’ – is for Mishima, the soft option, for ‘the way of the Samurai is death.’
The modern welfare state is based on the premise that it is better to live as long as possible, a premise that Mishima sees as a debased attitude to life. He suggests that the suppressed death impulse will nevertheless ‘explode’ and identified the controversy surrounding the renewal of the American Security Treaty (1960) as an example of a return of the repressed impulse for ‘resistance and death’. The young protestors, he observed, were not driven by ideology, ‘they were simply seeking a cause for which they would be willing to lay down their lives.’ Here Mishima founded his diagnosis, not on the usual shallow pseudo-politics of Anti-Americanism, instead he confronts us with a more disturbing prospect; a seething cauldron of repressed desires – the origin of those uncanny ‘normality malfunctions’ that subvert our complacency and sense of false security, leading to the kind of ‘explosive’ political actions that disrupt the post-Cold War era.
Yukio Mishima was a self-conscious outsider who set himself against the prevailing social order and rejected the trends of post-war literature. It is perhaps ironic that, since the time of Dior’s New Look (1947), as the twentieth century progressed, European haute couture faced a new era of international competition. With the rise of pret-a-porter and street style, it was forced to abandon its pre-eminent role. Against this background the social trends and fashion looks Mishima criticised have continued to evolve into a bewildering diversity of modes, proliferating in cultural space like a polka dot ‘infinity net’ by Yayoi Kusama.
The last two decades of the century witnessed a further growth of celebrity culture and, from Mexico to Tokyo, the emergence of ‘alternative’ or postmodern fashions, derived from global sources. In the decades following Tinguely’s ‘do it yourself’ abstract painting, the fashion industry assimilated the artistic avant-garde in a flagrant exercise of commodification. From the iconic ‘Mondrian Dress’ (1965) by Yves St Laurent, to the ‘Sistine Chapel Umbrella’ and the ‘Chuckling Mona Lisa Cushion’, (available in the Art Room Autumn Catalogue for 1996), high culture, the sphere of ‘serious’ art, has now been completely co-opted by the market and adapted to meet the requirements of international finance. The same applies to ‘radical’ politics, especially on the left: “I love Art Deco and Communist Graphics – they’re so bold”, Holly Fulton says about her current range of futuristic retro-graphic Art Deco Gone Pop styles. “And”, she enthuses, “I like to enhance the colours, make them larger than life”. To rail against this commodification is as productive as campaigning against the influence of Reality TV or Lads Mags on the ‘youth of today’. Furthermore it is not clear that this assimilation process is, as Cultural Marxists would have us believe, a devious totalitarian exercise in social manipulation although in many cases, media stereotypes undoubtedly serve reactionary interests.
The incorporation of Japanese style into the aesthetic practice of Western artists like Whistler and Beardsley was only the beginning of a long period of cultural interchange between Japan and the West. The Post-Modern era, from the Seventies on, has seen an increase in these cross-cultural influences, especially in the inter-linked spheres of pop music and fashion. One might also mention the Karaoke craze unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1971, followed by the arcade video game Space Invaders in 1978. Dating from 1973 when designer Kansai Yamomoto (b.1944) provided costumes for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour, the Japanese ‘look’, specifically Harajuku street style, has become a decisive factor in international fashion, contributing to the rise of uniquely contemporary ‘extreme’ (highly mannered) body-conscious fashion codes. While the up and coming yuppie class indulged in Futons and Japanese-inspired sofa-beds, for younger stylists, Thatcher-period neo-Japonisme was promoted by magazines such as The Face founded by editor Nick Logan in 1980.
Among the major influences in this new era was a cohort of Japanese hyper-designers including Kenzo ‘Jungle Jap’ Takada, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, and Issey Miyake with his Miyake Design Studio. Converging, or colliding, with the work of established Western postmodernists like Westwood, Gaultier, Mugler, McQueen and Versace, J-Pop super-stylists created a startling supranational fashion ‘look’ for first wave Hyper-Culture. In 2007 JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Agency, conscious of the sartorial needs of space tourists, sponsored the Hyper Space Couture Design Contest co-ordinated by Eri Matsui (b.1952), creator of the Zero-g Wedding Dress for Space Brides (2006). By 2008, a major exhibition called Japan! Culture + Hyper Culture opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington confirming the significance of Japanese super-style in the artistic arena, and the major influence of Japanese designers.
‘The hyperculture of Japan seeks to broaden the humanistic vision and the culture of creativity – it is culture accelerated’, explained the promotional blurb: ‘Many of Japan's contemporary artists have taken hyperculture to new levels, exploring its boundaries and fusing many genres into incredible examples of design, art, music, and technology’.
The Hyper-Culture look of today incorporates a bewildering range of postmodern influences downloaded from the prevailing meta-culture. These include Eurotrash, Bad Taste, Deconstruction, Conservative Chic, Glossy Grunge, Cool Britannia, the Gender Benders, Boho Chic, Heroine Chic, Geek Chic, Camp, Proactive Sportswear, Techno-Glam, Gaga Fashion and computer aesthetics. One might also mention various specifically ‘cute but strange’ Japanese influences derived from Harajuku and kawaii style; ‘Gothic & Lolita’, anime, manga, Hysteric Glamour, Robotopia robotics and cult movies. ‘It’s pop culture, but not always popular,’ noted one blogger.
Explaining the style of Japanese ‘Gothic & Lolita’ and Visual-kei music performance, Mariko Suzuki says the style combines elements from The Phantom of the Opera, Alice in Wonderland and Edgar Allan Poe, ‘with Alice Cooper on vocals and Beethoven on keyboards’. Like the cannibalistic aesthetic of Brazilian Tropicalia, Visual-kei appropriates ‘culture and periods in a mismatched way akin to the surreal logic of a dream, at a remove from the mundane.’ In J-Pop Goth, vampire Monster Culture meets London Bat Cave and hangs out with Marilyn Manson. In the streetwise confections of the Lolita look, Victorian doll’s house meets Versailles Rococo, Beatrix Potter meets the Marquise de Pompadour – the surreality of fashion discloses the ‘surreality of now’, for fashion is like film and ‘every film is a documentary, even the most poetic’ (Georges Franju).
In the postmodern world of techno-fashion where ‘authenticity has become an obsolete concept’ and gender differences blur in a perfumed haze, the surreality of now becomes the dominant cultural imperative, confounding anti-materialist accusations of uniformity and induced passivity with parody, burlesque and pastiche. Despite the widespread homogenisation of mass-produced products, the ‘uniformity’, or ‘tribal’ affinities, to be found among the sects and sub-sects of contemporary consumers and ‘fashionistas’ bears no relation whatsoever to the crushing conformity and abject passivity imposed by 'traditions' and social customs derived from earlier periods of history. Similarly most ‘great’ art of the past is now revealed as propaganda of an aristocratic or religious form, while most ‘great’ performances, past and present – musical or theatrical – are exposed as virtuoso renditions of banal, middlebrow material.
If freedom is the diminution of oppression, fashion energises the freethinking agent to act out lifestyle possibilities, to perform esoteric ceremonies of urban living, to exorcise anxieties and to promote the ‘democratic idolatry’ of the meta-culture. An idolatry that resonates with the most primal forms of human expression: the invention of jewellery preceded the development of cave painting, and predated the emergence of written language by almost one hundred thousand years. Now, in the multi-media maelstrom of the meta-culture, anyone can be a supermodel, anyone can dress like a girl from Dynasty, a guy from Miami Vice, or the Queen of the Borg, as played by Alice Krige in Star Trek First Contact (1996).
Acute Normality Malfunction
The editorial of the first issue of La Revolution Surealiste (1924) announced ‘Fashion will be discussed according to the gravitation of white letters on nocturnal flesh…’ reaffirming the age old link between fashion and fantasy, between couture and anarchy, between fetishism and the flesh of night. Surrealism claimed to be more than at art movement and, via Dada, assimilated the nihilist anti-art principle into a new dispensation, a new ontology, or even histology, of the real.
One of the most ‘revolutionary’ innovations was the Surrealist Object considered as ‘a precipitate of our desire’. The most spectacular of these, such as Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’ (1936) and the ‘Object (Breakfast in Fur)’ (1936) by Meret Oppenheim, are almost ‘object sculptures’, close to the assemblages pioneered by Dadaists such as Hausmann, or the Merz constructions of Schwitters. (Duchamp’s original readymade, the Bicycle Wheel, was mounted on a kitchen stool and therefore a kind of assemblage). However, for the Exposition Surrealiste d'Objets at the Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris (1936), Dali and Breton devised an extensive taxonomy of these displaced entities. Their list and exhibits included mathematical objects, natural objects, primitive objects, irrational objects, interpreted objects, incorporated objects, mobile objects, god-objects, scatological objects, ‘problematic and intriguing objects’, dream objects, perturbed objects, objects functioning symbolically, and other fetishes of psychic compulsion.
Breton was later to make other examples such as the poem-object, the song object and the phantom object. No doubt this latter species was related to Alberto Giacommeti’s sculpture ‘The Invisible Object’ (1935) which, together with his ‘Suspended Ball or the Hour of Traces’ (1930), performed a catalytic role in this Surrealist experiment. These psycho-physical entities shared a new kind of space with assemblages and installations, sculptural works, subversive furniture, ritual costumes and even shop window displays – a favourite Surrealist object was the mannequin, a humanoid figure related to automata and dolls. For Breton these crucial works exemplified the principle, first proposed by Eluard, of a ‘physics of poetry’, furthermore they occupied a multi-dimensional cultural space that overlapped with modern science. Again, some objects, for instance Bellmer’s Poupees (Dolls), are generic ciphers capable – like Hoffmann’s Olimpia, the madcap ‘musical sarcasm’ of Os Mutantes, or Haraway’s Cyborg thesis – of provoking moral meltdown in the mind of the spectator. They exert a compulsive fascination, a form of enchantment that seems to hold the key to certain libidinous obsessions intimating a profound fear of sexuality, especially of female sexuality.
In ‘Der Sandmann’, the student Nathaiel says of Professor Spalanzani’s mechanical daughter, his artificial bride-to-be, “Only in Olimpia’s love do I find myself." But his shocked friend speaks for others repulsed by the effect of this strange attraction, when he says: “We have come to find this Olympia quite uncanny; we would like to have nothing to do with her…”
These uncanny automata, and other surreal objects, reside in a fantastic sphere where science, magic and art converge. As Hal Foster explains, they expose ‘the desires and fears of the surrealist subject bound up with the uncanny and the death drive’. As in the case of Hoffmann’s Olimpia, these objects are heralds of a new imaginative post-moral order, a new politics of desire: for only in Objects do we find ourselves.
Much Surrealist political thinking from the pre-war era can be confined to the realm of nostalgia and cultural history. Yet, beneath the period impedimenta, the essential principles of the movement remain potent. With its demand for total freedom of expression, even the manifesto Towards A Free Revolutionary Art (1938), produced in the twilight years of the old avant-garde at the height of the Nazi and Stalinist anti-modernist purges, remains relevant to the situation today. For at the core of Surrealism is this one simple principle – freedom – or, to quote the First Manifesto: ‘Le seul mot de liberte est tout ce qui m’exalte encore’ (‘The mere word freedom is the only one that still excites me.’). Against traditional repressive institutions (family, country, religion) the Surrealist project deployed the imagination, its most powerful weapon, to dissolve or fracture the boundary between the imaginary and normative symbolism.
In order to transform the world Surrealists developed a number of ‘cardinal virtues’ such as convulsive beauty, black humour, mad love, dreams and the marvellous. In ‘Limits Not Frontiers of Surrealism’ (1937) Andre Breton identified five significant factors of the surrealist project at that time: Materialism, the Convergence of Paths, the Two Poles (of objective humour and objective chance), Automatism and the ‘fantastic’. These principles, or factors, were derived in part from Hegel, Marx and Freud, but their synthesis in the ontological innovation of ‘open realism’ provides us with a compelling vision for a continuing strategy of pro-active engagement with the meta-culture. ‘Convergence of Paths’ refers to a merger of hitherto discontinuous modes or ‘highways of great mental adventure’, including the latest scientific developments that, by fusion with Surrealist ‘open realism’ leads to a singularity, an acute normality malfunction, involving the ruin of the Cartesian-Kantian edifice. This is an outcome that ‘seriously disturbs the sensibility’ for, as Raymond Durgnat said, ‘the pang of beauty’ cannot be confused with ‘an idiot adoration of what’s seen’ rather, it is the ‘shock of tearing the veil.’
Certainly, the heyday of Surrealism in the Roaring Twenties coincided with the emergence of new scientific concepts that have indeed shattered comfortable, traditional interpretations of the human condition. In the Uncertainty Principle (1927) is to be found the ultimate manifestation of ‘open realism’ (realisme ouvert) for, whereas in the past, the basic building blocks of reality as described by natural philosophy fitted neatly together, now, the indeterminate nature of the actual relations between such qualities discloses a disturbing disconnection. Or, to describe the phenomenon more precisely, we have discovered, and/or observed, a ‘lack of commutativity between canonically conjugate qualities.’
When dealing with fundamental particles, this ‘lack of commutativity’ (Kragh), or lack of reciprocal interchange, conditions not only the relationship between position and momentum, but also the relationship between energy and time. So, in the quantum state it appears that normality malfunction is the ‘default mode’ of physical existence and this normality malfunction incarnates the surreality of now, the uncanny, or anarchic, discontinuity between familiar objects and our perceptions.
This is the ‘strange dislocation’ G. S. Kirk has identified as a chief factor in the ‘special kind of imagination’ defined as ‘fantasy’. It is the ‘phantasmagoric redefinition’ or ‘kingdom of the instantaneous’ generated by symbolic images as described by Angela Carter in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972). Normality malfunction, the breakdown of ‘commutativity’, is the catalyst of spontaneous autogenesis and the workings of objective chance; fundamental indeterminacy negates the logic of intentional cosmic creation triggering anxiety hysteria and moral panic. This apparent ‘malfunction’, or absolute divergence, has always characterised the Surrealist enterprise. By extension it also defines the main characteristics of the emerging ‘in-yer-face’ Hyper-Culture, a condition, or state, in which it has never been more problematic or uncertain to be human – a tangential condition of divergence from the historical norms of tradition in a denationalised world of ultra-complex communication networks. This is the ‘apotheosis of the interpenetration of human lives and the media' (Sirius); a ‘happening’ on The Planet of the Mutants staged in Rio by Os Mutantes (‘surrealism mixed with lysergic poetry madness’); an ‘organised mania for connecting everything to everything else’ (Adorno); an erroneous pan-global zone (or Interzone) state of augmented reality (AR), where ‘illusion is a revolutionary weapon’ (Burroughs) and where traditional values evaporate in moral meltdown (canned laughter).
The Convergence of Paths, in the epoch of the post-medium aesthetic and of autonomous cross-border digital data networks, may culminate in the evolutionary synthesis of the human and the non-human, of the animate and inanimate, of person and machine – a scary, uncanny, mutation with replaceable body parts. This era – the era of the human memory chip, of ‘eye-borg’ prosthetics, of hip-wriggling hot bots, of predatory insectoid micro-drones, of recreational rioting, of CG Synthespians and Neurocinematics, of techno-savvy toddlers, of ‘Frankenfoods’, of Taser-firing robot helicopters, of the silicon download, of Internet Crusaders, of driverless cars, of digital reality fused with fractal geometry – will witness a metamorphosis from meta-culture into Hyper-Culture. Hypermedia technology evolution has continued to accelerate, from the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon of 1905, to the twenty-five screen Brussels Kinepolis megaplex of 1988, to the Lakeside Shopping Centre multi-artist ‘goggle-free’ 3D hologram event featuring Pixie Lott (b.1991) of 2009. Consequently, the Hyper-Culture, the matrix of an ‘infernal desire machine’ indistinguishable from the ultra-diorama of virtual reality, may precipitate a transformation of the human condition. This transformation will create a state of cyber-visionary transmutation in a physical sense – a triumph of Technosurrealism, of custom car hyper-style and hybridisation over repressive identity politics – a singular union of opposites.
As Breton wrote in Crise de l'Objet (‘Crisis of the Object’), ‘Poets and artists meet with scholars at the heart of those ‘fields of force’ created in the imagination by the reconciliation of two different images.’ For, as mental capacities are augmented by bio-computing technologies, so the human body and its environment will also mutate into an entity part organic and part machine – the Cyborg Singularity prefigured by Hoyle and Elliot’s A for Andromeda (1961). Here, at this supreme point of all possible speculations, at the event horizon of the emerging global Hyper-Culture, cosmetic surgery, technosexuality and ‘body modification’ merge with neural computing, self-replicating nano-systems and artificial intelligence to neutralise the threat from militarised combat robots, malign wall-climbing automata and other self-propelled machines. Outrageously, ‘designer fashion’ will create the post-biological future, liberating a new transborder techno-politics of desire, finally signalling the end of ‘modernity’ as the term in currently understood, finally eliminating the bogus binary opposition between technology and ‘nature’ while old paradigms of nation and family slowly fade into oblivion.
Perhaps William S. Burroughs was correct when, in 1969, he defined freedom as the total elimination of past conditioning – freedom is attained as Outer Space merges with Inner Space. When claiming Outer Space as the Final Frontier of the dynamic imagination Burroughs appropriated a slogan from the old navigators – It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live. Like his contemporary Mishima, and like Nietzsche in a previous century, he exhorted us to reject the compromise society and the soft option. But, then, the politics of desire – always contradicting the aspirations of revolutionaries, continuing to engender the phenomenon Sarah Kane once defined as ‘the self perpetuating hysteria’ of journalistic reaction – can never accommodate the soft option.
The figure in Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting ‘The Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist’ (1817-1818) shows a lone observer, a cultural seismologist, standing on a lofty point of vantage, surveying recent cultural history. This solitary investigator embraces the fantastic and recognises that the landscape of human development cannot be represented as a neat historical map. Instead he (or she) sees how the ‘template of existence’ is characterised by both parallel evolution and convergent paths. How it is complicated by simultaneity, by acts of independent invention, by false correlations, by misrecognition, by ‘cognitive chaos’ and ‘culture wars’, by blurred lines and fuzzy spaces, by ‘cesspools of destiny, hidden links of fate’ (Leppin), by competing pseudo-realities and by sudden discontinuities. She (or he) recognises that avant-garde techniques are best understood as stylistic mannerisms while High Art’s ‘spirit of seriousness’ is nothing but a vestige of aristocratic privilege. He (and/or she) can see how incomplete data, fluctuating atmospheric anomalies and strange tricks of the light lead to erroneous interpretations of events.
Ironically she notes how other travellers, confused explorers, lost in a maze of valleys and pathless wastelands far below, misinterpret brilliant but transient outbursts of activity as hopeful, new dawns or ‘revolutionary’ new forms of aesthetic expression.
1 Hyslop (1969)
2 Harrison, Charles/Wood, Paul (1993)
3 Sassen (2007)
4 Sim (2002)
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