Friday, 19 August 2011

Not so modern times

One of the documents I’ve been translating recently speaks highly of an idea from a book published in 1943, declaring that it ‘prefigures’ a ‘modern concept’ in medicine.

Is it just me or is there a whiff of condescension here? A sense that we, modern people, have established some universal and deathless truths and it's just extraordinary how people from the past managed to get an inkling of the vision that only we, with our greater insight and the benefit of a few more years, have the capacity to encompass fully? 

There seem to be two fundamental delusions at work here.

The first is that the passage of time is synonymous with progress. In some respects it is, of course, but there are plenty of instances where things are a lot patchier than that. You want an example? Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush were both Republican Presidents of the United States. Call that progress?

The second is that what is ‘modern’ is also in some sense ‘conclusive’, the final word on any matter, the benchmark against which any other pronouncement must be measured. In other words, the modern view is the one that wraps it up and is proof to any further challenge or modification.

This is the thinking behind such terms as ‘Modern Art’. Even ‘postmodernism’ which contains the delightful paradox that to be really modern you have to move beyond it, nonetheless sets the ‘modern’ as its point of reference.

When I was still a child being dragged around art galleries – sorry, having my horizons expanded by being exposed to new aesthetic stimuli – I’d be amazed by, say, the Impressionists: wonderful paintings but so obviously not modern, not of our time. Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières was already eighty years old when I first saw it.  Modern art was something else.

Seurat: on older style of painting. But not by much
But time, as it inexorably does, rolled on. Take an iconic work of Modern Art, Matisse’s two Dance paintings: they’re over a century old now. Further in the past from us today than Seurat’s bathers were from me as a child.

Matisse: still modern a century on?
I’ve often wondered how we’d ever deal with this. At some stage, we need to decide that we really can’t keep calling these paintings ‘Modern’. New York’s ‘Museum of Modern Art’ is going to have to change name or shift its collection to, say, the Metropolitan to make place for something rather newer.

And as for us, the general public, we’re going to have to rethink how we use the word. We’ve got to stop thinking of it as a kind of culmination point and realise that it’s just a transition. Just like every previous moment of modernity. ‘Novelty, novelty,’ says Garance in Les Enfants du Paradis, ‘there’s nothing older in the world than novelty.’

Some day people may look back on our modern times with amusement at our quaintness, mixed perhaps with slightly condescending admiration.

‘They prefigured some quite modern ideas,’ they might say. ‘I mean – you can see the stirrings of awareness that wealth shouldn’t grant impunity from the law. And some voices were raised against corruption in public office. Who would have thought it, before the adoption of modern ideas?’


Anonymous said...

Hmm! interesting ideas here. I might say food for thought, or is that expression passé?


David Beeson said...

Vintage, surely, rather than passé.