Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art, of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable. . . .
One of the distinctive virtues of modernism
is that it leaves its questions echoing in the air long after the questioners themselves, and their answers, have left the scene.
This selection from a much-admired treatise on modern culture provides a generous threshold to the world of modern art. Here Marshall Berman looks back over five centuries of modernity, focusing on the nineteenth century, to show us that in fundamental ways the experience of modernity (modern life) then is the same as our own in the twenty-first century. We can learn a lot about our own lives from the first moderns we meet in this book. From their era to ours what remains fixed is change itself; like theirs, the foundations of our world – political, social, economic, and cultural – are in permanent flux. By comparing the thought of nineteenth-century European social philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Berman illuminates the vital interaction between modern experience and modern culture, between the conditions of constant change (generally understood then as “progress”), and art predicated on the incessant metamorphosis and contingency of modern life. The relationship between modernity and modernism is presented as “dialectical”: a key term in this reading and essential to our study of modern art. “The dialectic” carries a burden of meanings in modern intellectual history. As Berman uses it here, however, it simply defines the way opposing values such as permanence and change form a kind of unity – “a contradictory unity, a unity of disunity” – in which the identity of each depends upon that of the other. The great achievement of the modern artist, caught like the rest of us within these baffling contradictions, was to make them visible and dialectically resolved, composed, so to speak, in emblematic, and characteristically radical, works of art. To Berman, the foremost artists of the time were keenly self-aware and courageous ironists, romantic individuals who paradoxically opposed the very conditions of modern life from which they gained their purpose and energy. It is precisely in their failure to conform to the status quo that Berman’s modernist, Nietzsche’s “man of tomorrow . . . standing in opposition to his today," attained his or her highest aesthetic dignity. This posture of opposition to the way things are is called “avant-garde,” a modernist attitude defined in concrete art historical terms in the next reading by Linda Nochlin, The Invention of the Avant-Garde: France, 1830-1880. The exclusive masculinity of modern art and its historiography is analyzed and revised from a number of feminist perspectives in later essays and documents. Note that Berman does not present avant-garde modernism as the only stance taken by artists toward modern life. Generally speaking, artists assumed one of three social postures: 1) political opposition to, 2) autonomy from, or 3) compliance with the values of the powers-that-be: the middle-class and its institutions. The third group of academic modernists – successful establishment artists situated within the classical tradition – is considered in James Harding’s essay in this chapter, Artistes Pompiers. “Avant-garde” includes both the first category of politically adversarial modernists and those in the second category of autonomous artists who alienated themselves from middle-class conventions to discover the real experience – psychological, sensual, spiritual – of the modern individual. These distinctions will help us understand modern art if we keep in mind that the...