Ian Pace

The political polyvalency of modernism

Stravinsky expressed great admiration for Mussolini when he met him in 1935. Image: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The late Sir Roger Scruton often pronounced in a harsh manner on modern architecture and modern music, perceiving in various work an assault on bourgeois culture and a break with tradition. Back in the 1950s, music critic and CIA agent Henry Pleasants (a station chief in Bonn) delivered if anything a more scathing view of the ‘agony’ of modern music, arguing that it had severed its connection with the idioms bequeathed by the human voice.

It might seem natural that opposition to the iconoclasm of artistic modernism would go hand-in-hand with a relatively conservative politics. Furthermore, knowledge of Nazi attacks on Entartete Kunst suggests a clear disjunction between far right politics and modernist art. Yet the reality is considerably more complex, and in an era in which promoters, curators, critics, academics and others are obsessed with eliciting and judging the underlying politics of all types of art, it is worth rethinking the association.

Mies van der Rohe attempted to gain Nazi support for the Bauhaus

Modernism came to fruition in Europe at the same time as the advent of mass education and literacy, democratising tendencies in Western societies, expanded industrialisation and the growth of major cities, as well the new imperialism associated with subjugation of parts of Africa and Asia. The term also gained currency due to its employment within Catholicism, whereby it was used primarily to denigrate aspects of urbanity, sophistication, cosmopolitanism and the adoption of technological and industrial life, leading to a denunciation by Pope Pius X in 1907.

Early modernists reacted to the new world in a variety of manners. Many adopted an ambivalent view towards a society that forced artists to be outsiders. Some retreated into a neo-aristocratic sensibility or denounced the ‘crowd’. Critics have argued that a range of modernists were especially hostile to the growth of ‘mass culture’ (in the form of popular music or theatre, newspapers, undemanding romantic novels, etc.),

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Written by
Ian Pace
Ian Pace is a pianist, musicologist and professor of music at City, University of London, but is writing here in a personal capacity. He was co-convenor of a 2022 conference on ‘Music and the University’ that took place at City.

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