Modernism is far easier to exemplify than to define


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’.)

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