I just received in the mail a copy of Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History. Like all his books, it is fabulously energetic and violently opinionated, and thus as a result irresistibly readable–you can open it almost at random and find gems. It also contains, as advertised, a categorical rejection of the modern movement in art, whose values and virtues Johnson denies virtually in toto (he does like Edward Hopper).
I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of clean-sweep rejectionism, in part because it speaks to a quirk in my own temperament. I vividly remember the thrill of guilty pleasure with which I read for the first time this oft-quoted passage from Evelyn Waugh’s 1957 novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:
His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz–everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the ‘thirties: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.
I don’t feel this way, but I think I know what it would feel like to feel this way, and I confess to finding it more than a little bit tempting. Since there is, after all, so much about the modern era that is worthy of loathing, why not simply loathe it all and be done with it? The problem is that I’ve never been able to reject the evidence of my senses, which tell me that Stravinsky was a great composer (usually) and Picasso a great painter (sometimes). For me, pretending otherwise would be a pose, and I don’t like poseurs.
It also helps that I have a good many interesting friends who are a good deal younger than I, and that insofar as possible I try not to waste their time telling them what things were like when I was their age. I feel the temptation to live in the past, but one can truly live only in the moment, and the last thing I want to do is end up like the pathetic narrator of “Hey Nineteen,” the Steely Dan song about a no-longer-young baby boomer who tries to tell his teenaged girlfriend about Aretha Franklin but discovers that “she don’t remember/The Queen of Soul,” subsequently realizing that “we got nothing in common/No, we can’t talk at all.” On the whole, I prefer to hear about the world they live in (though sometimes their stories make me shiver), and not infrequently they draw my attention to wonderful things about which I wouldn’t have known had I not been paying attention to what they had to say.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the world is full of rejectionists of various kinds–not so many as when I was younger, but still quite a few. I have a number of older musician friends who claim to hate all kinds of post-Sinatra pop music, for example, and I also get occasional letters from readers who want to know how I could possibly admire the music of Benjamin Britten or the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, or take a movie like Ghost World seriously. What nearly all these latter correspondents seem to have in common is that they really, truly don’t like any modern art, a position which puzzles me. Now, I freely admit to having problems with large tracts of the modern movement, and I long ago brought in guilty verdicts on atonal music and minimalist art, but at no time in my life has it ever occurred to me to dismiss all modernism as a snare and a delusion.
Are these anti-modernists poseurs? Some probably are, but I can’t imagine that many of them are merely playing at the old-fogy game. A greater number, I suspect, are rejecting something about which they know nothing, or at least not nearly enough to have an informed opinion. (H.L. Mencken was like that, as I explain in The Skeptic.)
Not knowing much about modernism, needless to say, is an affliction not limited to the ranks of the confirmed modernism-haters. Hanging on the walls of my apartment are works on paper by William Bailey, Nell Blaine, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Wolf Kahn, Alex Katz, John Marin, Fairfield Porter, and Neil Welliver, and I never cease to be amazed by the high percentage of my visitors who don’t recognize any of their names–though most of them do like the art, or at least claim to. I’d be interested in knowing whether the author of the following amazon.com customer review of Art: A New History is familiar with the work of any of the above-mentioned artists, all of whom are “modern” but only one of whom is an abstractionist in the conventional sense of the word:
This excellent, irreverent survey of art history is a breath of fresh air for those struggling artists and art historians who are dissenters from the contemporary art establishment. I hope that Johnson’s emphasis on training, technique, and realism will aid in the post-modern renaissance that is now quietly occuring, especially among younger artists who are burnt out on the stifling sameness of the arts community and want a return to classical training, beauty, and order in an arts climate that has for decades been inhospitable to those values.
But even after allowing for the effects of ignorance, there still remains a not insignificant residue of what I suppose must be called well-informed clean-sweep rejectionism, though I prefer to think of it as Pinfoldism. Paul Johnson is a prime example. He’s not even slightly ignorant (though judging by the index to Art: A New History, I suspect he doesn’t know as much as he should about the less radical forms of modern American art), and while I don’t know him personally, he doesn’t strike me as a poseur, either. He just doesn’t like modern art–modern visual art, that is, though my guess is that his rejectionism encompasses music and literature as well. I wouldn’t dream of arguing with him, either, since he seems perfectly happy to live without the fruits of the modern movement.
What’s more, Johnson’s rejectionism hasn’t stopped him from writing a good book. You don’t have to be right to be interesting. Insofar as possible, though, I’d rather be both.