Monday, August 31, 2009

Forster's Howards End and Marx's The Communist Manifesto

Having read these two works concurrently, perhaps it was inevitable that I would see a relationship between them. Marx's claim that the "history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (473) seems especially true of the society of Howards End. Of course, what English novel does not deal with class on one level or another?
It seems to me that the Wilcoxes in Howards End represent an ascendant middle class (or bourgeoisie) that oppresses a growing lower class (a sort of proletariat), represented by the Basts. The former intellectual ruling class that the Schlegels represent has becomes obsolete, and ridiculous even, in the face of this middle class and its ruthless practicality. While the Mr. Wilcoxes of the increasingly industrializing city have completely lost touch of the personal and think only in terms of the laws of economics, the former ruling class is too concerned with ideals no longer applicable to the conditions of the society in which they are living to accomplish anything.
This plays out most tragically with the interaction between Helen and Leonard Bast. She, clinging to the ideal of justice in a society no longer concerned with justice, is ill-equipped to save Bast from the economic machine that has flattened him. He is at first unable to attain upward mobility because he has such long working hours that he cannot educate himself. When Helen and Margaret mistakenly try to help him with a tip from the impersonal, exploitative bourgeois Mr. Wilcox, he becomes utterly ruined financially. Because his work at the insurance company had been so specialized, he is unfit for working at a bank and loses his position. Helen further demoralizes him by trying to help him gain a position with Mr. Wilcox. Helen, unable to accomplish anything with her ideology, turns to her body as the last resource, making the failed mental unification of the ruling class and proletariat a physical one. Of course, this fails also. The shame derived from these experiences, drives Bast to permanent unemployment and then to death.
Considering the tragic nature of the collisions of these classes, it was disturbing to me that once Leonard dies, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes suddenly live together in harmony. Margaret marries Mr. Wilcox and Helen, pregnant with Leonard's child, lives with them. Is this supposed to be a class reconciliation? How does the senselessness of Leonard's death (a bookcase falls on him and causes a heart attack) lead to the idyllic existence Forster describes at the close of the novel? I guess Forster's solution to class strife is to remove oneself from the city where the economic mechanism operates—it seems to be the house itself that saves them. Still, it seems implausible. I had the same feeling upon reading Marx's solution to the problem and its outcome. For Marx, abolishing private property would destroy the bourgeoisie so that "we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (491). In both cases, the violence it takes to get out from under the economic machine would seem to make a peaceful existence impossible.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My critical introduction to Modernism was via Clement Greenberg, the author of the notorious article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." At the time I was an artist just beginning, and as seems to be pretty standard now for many artists, I started learning from the Moderns rather than from the Renaissance masters. In the sculpture I produced that year—when I was seventeen—my primary influences were works like Constantin Bancusi's Bird in Space and Marcel DuChamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase (incidentally, both of these were far too representational to have met Greenberg's narrow standards). Although my parents were very supportive of what I wished to do at the time, I suppose the reason I was attracted to Clement Greenberg's insistence that art represent only itself was due to the difficulty I had in trying to justify what I was doing. Of course, my unease was derivative, since, as Pericles Lewis implies, the raison d'ĂȘtre of art was a pressing concern for the Moderns (6-7). As an artist, it is very tempting to believe in what, as Lewis explains, Kant termed "the autonomy" of art (9). In other words, it is tempting to believe that art should exist for its own sake, especially if you happen to be the one making the art. And if you read Greenberg's mission statement for the avant-garde artist ("heroic" indeed, Dr. Reed), it becomes even more clear why an artist struggling with these questions would claim allegiance to someone as intolerant as Greenberg: "The avant-garde poet or artist tried in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms" (Greenberg 6). I know we are getting into blasphemous territory—I apologize. Nonetheless, if you are an artist of any kind, believing in and adopting such a mission is akin to being freed from the Platonic (Socratic?) contention that artists are "twice-removed," as Lewis puts it (6), from anything real. If you are an artist or writer, and you buy into the conventional Modern theory that an artist should and can create something that exists "on its own terms," then you suddenly feel that what you are doing is justifiable. You feel that you are breathing life into something with vitality, something the acolytes of Ezra Pound might call “New.” The irony is that to create something new, you have to create something that represents "nothing but itself" (Lewis 4). And my question is, is such a thing really possible? My artwork, though non-representational to a degree, clearly had antecedents in other artists' works (that is a nice way of saying that my work was painfully derivative); it also clearly references the human figure. The other problem, especially with the abstract painting of artists like Rothko, is that broad fields of color tend to signify emotions. And we human beings cannot claim to create emotions, as we are so often unwillingly and without warning at their mercy. Even works as underworked as the Malevich Lewis mentions (3) cannot represent only themselves: the blank canvas is immediately associated with other blank canvasses, not to mention the concept of the void, of blankness, of beginnings. Any anyway, is what any work of art, literary or otherwise, represents even up to the artist? If not, nothing can ever be non-representational, because the average viewer or reader will inevitably attempt interpretation even in instances when no meaning is intended.
With literature in particular, all of this becomes even stickier. I cannot fathom how a word can do anything but signify something else, despite what Sassure thought of as the "arbitrariness" of the link between "'the signifier' and 'the signified'" (qtd. in Lewis 10). The only writer who might have hit upon something close to such writing that I can think of would be Gertrude Stein, but then, I wouldn’t dare claim to have any great insight into Stein’s work. Furthermore, I doubt seriously that the critical community would be content to stop at saying that Stein meant to illustrate the above-mentioned arbitrariness and nothing else. Greenberg seemed to think that metafiction and stream-of-consciousness writing were the literary equivalents to avant-garde art (Greenberg 7), but I tend to apply what Lewis said of free verse to both forms, and to the latter especially—they were "undertaken in the name of mimesis" (5).
Because of these kinds of contradictions, I in short order abandoned the avant-garde and embraced kitsch, which also meant embracing the avant-garde art which has become kitsch (which is most of it). In fact, I think the formal simplicity of the avant-garde Modernists’ works made them particularly susceptible to mass production and mass commoditization, which was the very sort of thing they wished to avoid. Indeed, Modernists like Motherwell had quested to destroy “the century-long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting” and believed that the adoption of “large format” had accomplished this task (qtd. in Reed 3). Of course, they were wrong. I guess that Modern newness is impossible to sustain if not impossible in the first place.