Samuel Jay Keyser


On his book The Mental Life of Modernism: Why Poetry, Painting, and Music Changed at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of July 15, 2020

In a nutshell

I don’t believe in coincidences, at least not big ones. That’s why the sea change the sister arts of poetry, painting, and music underwent at the turn of the 20th century has always intrigued me. All of them veered off course at virtually the same time and in virtually the same way. To paraphrase Yul Brynner in The King and I, “It was a puzzlement.” It was as if a group of high achieving artists had met, mafia-style, in some non-disclosed location to plan mischief against the art world. It had all the hallmarks of a conspiracy. They would do something so radical, so scandalous that it would turn the art world on its head.

And they did.

In a remarkably short period of time poetry, painting, and music abandoned all that was tried and true. In the words of Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, 2002, pp. 409-10):

All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depiction gave way to freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and, in the $200,000 painting featured in the recent comedy Art, a blank white canvas… In poetry the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions.

Whether the change was for better or worse, I am much more interested in the nature of the change. Pinker describes it in terms of human nature, “Modernism certainly proceeded as if human nature had changed.” His allusion to human nature in understanding Modernism is right on target.

Every account that I know of views Modernism as a cultural phenomenon. Realism in painting (Vasari’s mimesis) was muscled aside by the invention of photography. Thus, the painter Paul Delaroche in 1839 is supposed to have declared upon seeing a daguerreotype, “From today, painting is dead.”

Other cultural explanations have been proposed. They range from the impact of the Industrial Revolution that led to the introduction of ordinary folk as subjects as in Jean-François Millet’s The Sower, The Gleaners, and the Potato Harvest to psycho-analytic accounts such as Kandel’s Freudian take on Déjeuner sur l’herbe. In music, Richard Taruskin, influenced by Ezra Pound, attributed Arnold Schoenberg’s innovations to “apocalyptic presentiments” at the end of the 19th century.

There is, however, another way to look at what happened. This book is an attempt to put that way on the table.  One can view works of art in terms of unconscious knowledge shared by the artist and the audience. Theorists talk about this knowledge in terms of rules. But they don’t mean rules like “Keep off the grass” or “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” The rules they (and I) have in mind are hypotheses about the character of that unconscious knowledge in terms of which artists do what they do. The artist uses this knowledge to create works of art. The audience uses it to enjoy works of art. The transaction is exactly like the one we are engaged in now. You understand what I write because we share a body of unconscious knowledge called the English language. This knowledge enables us to understand that this sentence backwards is not a product of our shared body of knowledge while it is perfectly intelligible in the other direction. Just now I used this unconscious knowledge to create this sentence—writer as artist. You used it to understand this sentence—reader as audience. Art is an extension of that kind of mental activity.

As many great artists have noted (Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot) there can be no art without rules (read ‘unconscious knowledge’). I would like to suggest that Modernism is the name given to what happened when shared rules were abandoned. It was as if artists had stopped speaking a common language and started using a variety of new ones, ones that audiences were forced to learn and keep up with. Between the time of Manet and Andy Warhol there were over 500 manifestoes of what constitutes a work of art, Dadaism being just one of them. Keeping up was no mean feat.