Modernist moments

In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell bases a great deal of his argument on the preposterous claim that modernism was triumphant and hegemonic in the late 20th century and falsely maintained that it was an adversarial stance (much the way social conservatives like Bell maintain a defensive stance today, despite the 2000 Bush coup, and the primacy of their noxious agenda everywhere). In some ways this resembles Thomas Frank’s co-optation argument in The Conquest of Cool. The rebellious pose was never really a threat to the system, but was the system itself, in its most flattering self-regard. But Frank’s target is the smug hipster who works as adman, not the marginalized artist like, say, Barnett Newman, who may have been praised to the skies by elitist critics but whose vision of art had about one millionth the impact The Beatles, for example, had on average Americans. Modernism was a preoccupation for elites, and the battles over its significance took place on college campuses and in unread journals, and it crept into the mainstream only to be dismissed as the prattle of the idle. Meanwhile, the mass culture that developed hand-in-hand with the apparatuses for making and distributing consumer goods and which reflects the implicit values of those apparatuses perfectly (get more, get it now!) insinuated itself everywhere through new media forms that modernism neglected. (Are there modernist web sites? Modernist rock bands?)

Bell wants to call the self-serving individualism a product of a pernicious modernist attitude that’s then imported into late capitalism rather than acknowledge that it’s a consequence of consumerism itself. The loss of anchoring values that Bell blames modernism for is actually the consequence of commodfication, which relativizes everything through the medium of exchange value. There was no council of self-appointed modernists infusing our culture with their irreligious nihilism, progenitors of the alleged Hollywood cultural elites that Bush-supporting bigots like to denounce. Putting self over community is the natural extension of the economic policies that reward selfishness and profit and recognize no other motives, and the self as ultimate arbiter leads inevitably to the kind of “relativism” that makes such things as gay marriage acceptable to a growing majority. If consumer capitalism is in any way liberating, though, it is through this process, promoting tolerance as the necessary corollary to the enshrined, unquestioned freedom of choice.

Bell insists on terming “the organization of social and aesthetic responses in terms of novelty, sensation, simultaneity, and impact” modernity instead of capitalism itself — capitalism thrives on those social conditions, creating what Bell calls “modernity.” The real problem lies in Bell using a label that others apply much differently in order to tar those other things with the same brush. He accuses modernism of cultivaing an emotional indulgence in the moment, but much modernism sought instead to dramatize alienation, to prohibit that sort of identification, the vicarious emotionality that characterizes popular culture, and has always served as the means of keeping pop culture apolitical, allowing it to serve its function of siphoning off general social discontent. The immediacy of modernist art should not be confused with a loss of aesthetic distance, which is a mark of sentimental art, art usually sympathetic with the status quo and playing on emotions, values and attitudes it can count on already being present in its audience. Modernist art, for better or for worse, tried to cultivate new emotions, vlaues and attitudes — this is why Bell condemns it universally. But these new attitudes were not the ones that caught on with the general public; the new attitudes that swept the public were those novelties brought on by technological innovations, which allowed admen to exploit the desire for convenience, increasingly defined as a freedom from the nuisance of other people. This brings on the decay in community that Bell decries, not modernism or irreligion. America has never been more religious — look at the praying president — but it is a self-centered religion, by and large, defined by the notion of having a personal, unmediated relation to God or Jesus, who is imagined to be “the kind of guy you could have a beer with.”

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2 thoughts on “Modernist moments

  1. romiustexis

    Your comment:

    Bell wants to call the self-serving individualism a product of a pernicious modernist attitude that’s then imported into late capitalism rather than acknowledge that it’s a consequence of consumerism itself. The loss of anchoring values that Bell blames modernism for is actually the consequence of commodfication, which relativizes everything through the medium of exchange value.

    That was exactly my reading of Bell as well. It is also a problem that many right wingers will learn to understand further when their policies of holding capitalism out as the end of history come to fruition.

    Reply
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