Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia

Reviewed by John W.

Stephen Eric Bronner, Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2012)

One of the crucial features of Modernism is that artistic, literary, and intellectual producers began to see themselves as the vanguard of a completely new era in human history. Indeed, to be “avant-garde” meant that aesthetic production should be put to the purpose of reshaping social reality. This was part of the vanguardist sensibility that defined movements like Russian Futurism and French Surrealism.

Stephen Eric Bronner’s present book seeks to analyze the aesthetic and political ideologies that underlie the core of the modernist ethos. He draws not on the tradition of Marx but rather on the anarchistic lens of Nietzsche in order “to make clear the mistake in attempting any mechanical identification of radical cultural tastes with radical political commitments” (20). That is, rather than trying to integrate the varying strands of intellectual and political experiences that contribute to the project of Modernism, Bronner seeks to disentangle the individuality of modernist artistic value by enforcing what I would term the “utopia-gone-wrong fallacy,” as he demonstrates in the following passage:

Modernists saw themselves as revolutionaries of the spirit and harbingers of a new humanity…. If they embraced the notion of an Übermensch then, legitimately following Nietzsche, it would be a superman who liberated culture from its constraints…. But the modernist concern with individuality and a liberated form of everyday life threatened the demands for regimentation and conformity demanded by totalitarians once they were in power. It is no accident that Mussolini marginalized Marinetti in the twenties, that Joseph Goebbels included Nolde in the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937, or that Stalin drove Mayakovsky to his death…. Little men with little minds would have had the same philistine views about daring and expressive dancers like Mary Wigman and Martha Graham. Contemporary authoritarians still denounce modernism, and for good reason: they know what they have to fear. (14)

While it is well understood that modernist experimentation often conflicted with leftist politics, a fact which is addressed in Marxist criticism from Georg Lukács to Fredric Jameson, Bronner’s argument stems from blatant generalizations about the political functionality of revolutionary cultural form. That is, it assumes that “the aesthetic” is inherently political by virtue of its form and not as a consequence of the artist’s political commitment. In this sense, Bronner’s thesis represents the aestheticization of politics against which Walter Benjamin warns in his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Specifically, Bronner overlooks the intrinsic relationship between aesthetic innovation and radical political praxis that formed the basis of such movements as Dadaism, Russian Futurism, and Surrealism (and Italian Futurism to the right of the political spectrum), in favor of Nietzschean individualism and the charm of originality versus so-called institutionalized totalitarianism, a concept which Bronner not only fails to define, but also uses in a way that downgrades the politics of commitment and radical collectivity in order to bolster the ethics of artistic intellect and virtuosity, which he falsely yet conveniently equates with individualism. Bronner here refuses to see the legitimacy of avant-garde collectivity and political alignment that were crucial in the formation of the modernist ethos, as shown in the obsession with the manifesto-form, which he tellingly omits from his analysis.

Continuing with what can only be described as an attack on revolutionary politics, Bronner focuses on Georg Lukács’s supposed unwavering support of “Stalinist” dogmatism, another attempt by Bronner to legitimate and insulate the singularity of modernist individuality which he develops in chapter 2. For example, in what Bronner terms “the dictates of communist politics,” Socialist Realism is deemed “an uncritical cultural reflection of the terror-ridden ‘consolidation’ program within the Soviet Union.” Bronner fails to contextualize this accusation. His barefaced partiality toward avant-garde experimentation fails to recognize that Socialist Realism – the desire to utilize the art-object to draw attention to social reality and to change it – was a constituent part of the vanguardist ethos, notwithstanding the often crude form of “politicking” it purveyed. In this sense, Bronner’s argument that Socialist Realism represented the antithesis to avant-garde experimentalism because it was enshrined as party doctrine not only unjustly rehashes many of the knee-jerk typecasts of aesthetic commitment, but also greatly diminishes the crucial broadening of the dialectical parameters of aesthetic and political positioning within the totality of Modernism itself.

Despite the real conflict between varying positions on aesthetic commitment and artistic experimentation in the 1930’s, Socialist Realism was often embraced by the international progressive community, since it grew out of class struggle and thus represented a direct means to “speak” to the revolutionary working class. A perusal of routine contributors to journals like Partisan Review and New Masses who utilized the proletarian literary model to one degree or another demonstrates this to some extent. And while it may be true that proletarianism was often riddled with didacticism and reductionist catch phrases, as a scholar who seeks to rethink the place of vanguardist aesthetics and politics in cultural history, Bronner’s rejection of proletarian realism sadly adds little in terms of scholarship to the ensuing debate about the historicity of radical aesthetics and its meaning in the contemporary moment. Rather, the predictability of Bronner’s argument here is that he simply echoes what critics since the 1950s have seen as a deliberate sabotage of the avant-garde by both the extreme Left and Right of the political spectrum, an indictment that has become normalized in academe, yet which in itself inhibits an expanded and necessary discussion of how aesthetic commitment evolved and its impact on intellectual engagement, particularly in our own time of crisis.

Expanding upon his attempt to isolate the modernist ethos as an external process outside of radical political ideology, Bronner proceeds in chapter 3 to analyze the radical experimentalism of Expressionism, a movement whose political context he does not properly explain. For Bronner, Expressionism conflicts with “the xenophobia of the Nazis and the ruthless cynicism and arbitrary dogmatism of the Stalinists,” a viewpoint which again conflates fascism and communism into mirroring extremes in order to isolate the rebellious individuality with which the modernists were seemingly preoccupied, although outside the realm of institutionalized politics. While some expressionists may have disdained social reality in favor of mysticism and romanticized individualism, Bronner neglects the work of expressionists like Käthe Kollwitz whose aesthetics displayed a working-class sensibility.

Chapter 4, which focuses on the correspondence between Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky, offers some thoughtful insights through a comparative analysis of the “radical vision” shared by the composer and the painter. According to Bronner’s thesis, both artists demonstrate the “permanent revolution of creativity” which is “pitted against the world of artistic conformity,” the latter signifying for Bronner any assimilation of radical politics and cultural reproduction. The chapter further demonstrates Bronner’s view of Modernism as an extension of aestheticism that has its roots in Nietzschean individuality, which is an interpretation that has some merit in light of a certain trend within the modernist ethos. Similarly, chapters 5 and 6 locate the “elective affinity” between the rise of Italian Fascism, Nazism, and the work of Tommaso Marinetti and Emil Nolde, respectively. Both artists were strongly dedicated to fascism, an aspect of the modernist ethos that was not uncommon. Again, despite the opportunity here to rethink a crucial aspect of this history, Bronner focuses on the individuality of each artist, thus unavoidably justifying their fascist inclinations, especially when it comes to Nolde, whose “self-proclaimed artistic nationalism and reactionary politics” is reduced to his desire “to engage in the revolutionary use of color” (87). What we can gather from the feeble analysis in these chapters is that Bronner deems radical politics an incidental element of the modernist ethos. This misconception stems from his separation of aesthetic and political intentionality.

The last chapters of Bronner’s work jump from one aspect of the modernist experiment to another, suggesting an abandonment of the analytical depth needed for reinterpreting this complex era of aesthetic and political transformation. While chapter 8 offers some insight into the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on avant-garde aesthetic reproduction, symbolized by the unrealized Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin, Bronner simply reiterates his platform that the subjective creativity of the modernists defied “Stalinist” dogmatism, a view which contradicts what many see as the collective nature of the project of avant-garde creation in the wake of the 1917 Revolution. In fact, Bronner glosses over the immense impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on cultural production (such as giving birth to the manifesto form which became instrumental in Modernism overall), and instead de-historicizes modernist aesthetics, detaching culture from revolutionary politics. Furthermore, in the last chapter, which is a brief reflection on the meaning of “the modern,” Bronner again conflates the hostility of Hitler and of Stalin to modernist “decadence,” regurgitating the simplistic dichotomy of left-to-right totalitarianism versus avant-garde originality. More generally, he purges the modernists’ artistic performativity of its connection to radical politics and to the defining prophecy of revolution.

In sum, Bronner reveals one strain of the modernist sensibility, but does so through the lens of apoliticality while using the rhetoric of anti-communism. The result is to obfuscate our own relation – past and present – to the dynamics and problematics of revolutionary history.

Reviewed by John W. Maerhofer, Ph.D. Independent Scholar Brooklyn, New York