Peter Gay opens his survey of the culture of Modernism with a discussion of Baudelaire’s call to artists to draw their inspiration from contemporary urban realities, and closes it with some sort of ironic ne plus ultra, as Damien Hirst roars with laughter after a ‘pile of organised chaos representing the detritus of a painter’s studio’ that he presented as an installation is mistakenly swept into a bin bag by an innocent cleaner assuming it to be bona fide rubbish.
In between, Professor Gay travels through 150 years of the history of the visual arts, literature and music. It must have been an exhausting journey for this distinguished Yale-based chronicler of the Enlightenment and German intellectualism, now in his mid-eighties. Yet nothing fazes him: he confronts this maelstrom of artistic activity, much of it the product of extreme neurosis and persecution, with calmly measured lucidity and authoritative accuracy (the only significant errors I spotted were a confusion of Virginia Woolf’s The Years with The Waves and the entirely false notion that Wagner ‘ ultimately did not challenge traditional tonality’.)
The book is classically organised. An introduction attempts a definition and outlines the basic issues, followed by chapters on 19th-century founders and precursors (chiefly the Impressionists). The heart of the book deals with the first half of the 20th century: Picasso, Dada and Expressionism in the visual arts; Joyce, Kafka, T. S. Eliot in literature; Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the Ballets Russes in music; Corbusier and Lloyd Wright in architecture; Jarry, Strindberg and Griffith, Chaplin, Einstein and Welles in drama and the cinema.
Then follow studies of several maverick right-wingers — Eliot, Ives and Hamsun — and a consideration of the attitude of Nazi, Stalinist and fascistic regimes towards modernism. A section devoted to the post-war era covers Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Existentialism and Absurdism, with a coda appreciative of the genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Frank Gehry.