One of the best parameters I've come across for the success of a great work of art is that it fills a human need that you never knew you had. No-one wakes up in the morning and decides that what they really need to listen to is a nine-minute fugue on a labyrinthine subject full of tritones, but this is exactly how the B minor Mass begins, and now that I know the work I can't imagine my life without it. Likewise, I think of that moment in the first movement of Walton's Symphony No. 1, that inexorable B-flat major train ride, where the motion of the music grinds to a total halt and the orchestra screams out a series of wrenching dissonances. On a first listen to the symphony, this moment is shocking and unexpected, but on later listens you realize that this is the inevitable culmination of everything that came before. These dissonances are not arbitrary, but written into the melodic contour of the themes of the symphony, and passing through them makes Walton's final blaze of major-key glory that much more exciting.
Unfortunately, this means that writing about art, and particularly modernist art, tends to be a game of trying to sell people a product they think they don't want. However many fanciful adjectives I use, I can't make you HEAR Walton's "wrenching dissonances"; I can only hope that my description makes you want to go out and listen to the symphony. These issues are uppermost in my mind right now because I've read two recent books in the past month which discuss modernism in the arts, finding one of them wonderful and enlightening and the other significantly flawed.
The wonderful and enlightening one, of course, is The Rest is Noise by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, and nothing I can possibly say can add or detract from the well-earned praise this book has received in all quarters. The flawed one is Peter Gay's Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, a survey of the modernist movement in all of the arts, from painting to literature to film. The ultimate difference, I think, is that Ross sets out to create a survey of twentieth-century music for non-specialists, with his role as advocate for an underappreciated repertoire; Gay sets out to explicate modernism for people who already know something about it, bringing out common concerns and underlying similarities. This means that Ross can jump wherever in the twentieth century he chooses and talk about any composer whose work he enjoys, while Gay is stuck trying to draw patterns and ends up leaving out, or slightly misrepresenting, artists who don't fit the thesis of his book. This creates unanticipated problems for Gay's narrative. Arguing that modernism is characterized by two characteristics, the desire to push the boundaries of the accepted (the "lure of heresy") and the exploration of subjective mental states, he has an easy time fitting in the French Impressionists and German Expressionists, but has difficulty encompassing philosophies like Stravinsky's Neoclassicism. This finally comes to a head when he discusses the choreography of Stravinsky's choreographer George Balanchine, attacked in his time for the machinelike precision and lack of human feeling in his ballets. Gay wriggles out of this apparent contradiction by saying that although his art did not apparently "explore subjective mental states", those who knew Balanchine testify to his genuine emotional warmth. No doubt, but this doesn't solve the problem, and from the slightly embarrassed quality of Gay's writing I think he knows it. Really, the essential flaw is Gay's attempt to characterize an entire, complex artistic movement with two points, which is the sort of thing you expect in a first-year university survey course. Ross's less structured, but ultimately more nuanced narrative seems to me to serve the artists better.
Another key difference is that Noise is simply much better proofread. As an incurable stickler for detail, I rarely read a book about twentieth-century composers without finding dubious assertions or misrepresentations of fact; in Ross's book, the most I can do is quibble with his statements about early use of birdsong in the music of Messiaen. Modernism, on the other hand, contains many mistakes of one kind or another, ranging from spelling errors (switching Monet and Manet) to irritating statements which show a lack of fact-checking (Gay writes that Pierrot lunaire did not quickly enter the repertoire of symphony orchestras, which seems sad until you realize that it is not an orchestral work) to full-out misreadings of key texts (Gay quotes Babbitt's essay "Who Cares if You Listen?" and interprets it as a composer's lament against lack of audience appreciation for modern music; in reality, of course, the essay's thesis is that composers should ignore the audience and write for each other). Finally, I simply cannot accept the book's treatment of T. S. Eliot's religious conversion. Gay obviously dislikes the Christian basis of Eliot's late works, and seems to tacitly blame the poet's acknowledged anti-Semitism on these beliefs, which I find unfair, but I am more bothered by the fact that Gay constantly refers to "High Anglicanism" with both words in capital letters. There is no such entity as the High Anglican Church: the differences between High Anglicans and other Anglicans have to do with liturgical practices and with the perceived relationship of the Church to Rome, and leave room for a variety of theological stances. To place the phrase in Capital Letters makes Anglo-Catholicism sound like some sort of homogeneous cult rather than a liturgical position within the Anglican Communion. Gay frequently bandies around semi-technical terms like "High Anglicanism" or, in the music chapter, "tonality", without explaining exactly what they mean, and in this case I am afraid he does so for the unworthy end of ascribing Eliot's more unsavoury character traits to a nebulous, poorly defined group.
I've been hard on Gay's book, and the one-sidedness of my critique is unfair; the task of explaining and cataloguing modernist art in all genres is a massive one, and I know of no other book that even attempts this task for a general audience. "Modernism" is close to the target, but it's far enough from the ideal that some brilliant polymath writer of the future may well come up with book that better accomplishes the same task. After all, few readers can match Gay's knowledge of the arts; I could keep up with him in literature and music, follow with some difficulty in painting and film, and found myself in totally unknown territory in sculpture, architecture, and dance. I probably learned less from Ross's book in this objective sense; I already knew about all of the composers, and many of the works, that he discussed, but enjoyed his fresh insights and evocative writing.
What have we learned today?
1) Writing about art is hard.
2) Always check your facts.
3) Don't be too anxious to fit your facts into an overly rigid framework.