Revolutionising ‘Bird’s Custard Isle’
Revolutionising ‘Bird’s Custard Isle’
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter begins with an assertion that modernism might constitute not only the attempt to improve the quality of art, but also to improve the quality of art’s reception. It outlines the fundamental ideas that the subsequent chapters explore – that the introduction of modernist art in Britain was often accompanied by explanatory materials designed to elucidate and educate. It explores the concept of ‘taste’ in artistic reception and explores some of the philosophical and aesthetic legacy of that term, going on to suggest that the mediators of modernism – individuals, groups and organisations – helped to establish a taste for advanced aesthetics in Britain.
We kill what is best,
and on first insane acquaintance.1
This study was prompted by a throwaway comment on a radio show nine years ago. On Friday 22 October 2010, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an edition of the arts and culture programme Front Row.2 The programme was largely devoted to a then-and-now analysis of Young British Artists (YBAs)—the ways in which figures such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin had changed the course of visual art in Britain and brokered a new relationship between art and its publics. Though YBAs were hardly out of the news during the last years of the 1990s, academic interest in their work remained thin on the ground and they became newsworthy because of public and media outcry rather than artistic significance. To this end, the art critic Matthew Collings (while dismissing the work of YBAs as facile) argued that the reaction to the work of Hirst and Emin highlighted a more universal problem, which concerned the British attitude to the arts over the course of a century or so: ‘We’re in a period of democratization of art,’ Collings said, ‘but it will be a long time before everyone is able to […] comprehend the difficulties of art.’ Just how long has this period lasted, and is there any evidence that it might be coming to an end? And, perhaps more importantly, is a state of affairs in which everyone comprehends the difficulties of art an ideal that artists and critics have been—or indeed should be—striving towards? These are the fundamental questions that lie behind this study of artistic modernism in Britain. The difficulties that the British public have with ‘the artistic’ (and even such a neutral word such as this has mutated over the last century to define a specific kind of attitude to art that is centripetal, elitist and (p.2) does not make concessions to the man in the street) come, largely, from modernism. Many of the works of visual and literary experimentation canonised today as modernist interrogated and reflected upon precisely those difficulties of art in modern secular culture with which Collings believes the general public is still struggling. Modernism, in most narratives about the subject, concerns itself with exploring the nature, meaning and significance of expressive acts in a modern world of speed, technology and global free-market economy, through formal experimentation, shock and alienation. As a modernist scholar, indeed, one’s first encounter with its art and literature is attended by accounts of critical, public, even theological condemnation. Though there have been so many other iterations of the ‘artist versus society’ in Western aesthetic and literary history, the divide seems—at first glance—to be most unbridgeable in the work of those experimental writers and artists practising in the early decades of the 20th century.
As an art initially derided as chaff (or, even worse, as dangerously incendiary), modernists and their defenders were forced to operate as scorned outcasts, disapproved of by the media and gawked at by a herd-like public. ‘In the last twenty years,’ wrote Stephen Coleridge in 1925:
we have had one set of persons painting men and women with heads like lard bladders and limbs like German sausages; followed by another set of persons who have represented the human form as an agglomeration of parallelograms, rhombs and triangles. Gaping crowds of uneducated donkeys have crowded into the little esoteric galleries at a shilling a head where these impertinences have been exhibited. […] In Letters we have had the same eruption of uneducated nonsense […] Various collections of words, possessing neither rhyme, rhythm, nor prosody, are printed in lines of no particular length down the middle of pages in books with ‘Poetry’ inscribed on their backs and title pages, and these are hailed by the critics as something superior to all those discredited masters from Homer to Tennyson.3
Hounded by the arbiters of morality and decency—the ‘rabblement, placid and intensely moral’ as James Joyce called them—modernist writers and artists retreated to the margins and reflected on societal fragmentation, the creeping effect that mass literacy and cheap paperbacks had on reading culture and on the impossibility of showing anything but pretty pictures in galleries.4 Many of them died poor.
Their attitudes towards the general public ranged from aversion to downright exterminatory. Ezra Pound, writing on ‘The New Sculpture’ in 1914, (p.3) declared that the artist’s only recourse in defending his position against the world was ‘slaughter’—artists were all set to ‘take control’, the public would ‘do well to resent these “new” kinds of art’ and the avant gardiste ‘has no intention of trying to rule by general franchise’.5 The nascent authoritarian politics brewing in Pound’s language spilled over into a fully elaborated system in Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled (1926). For Lewis, the public do not really ask for, nor require, freedom: ‘Freedom postulates a relatively solitary life: and the majority of people are extremely gregarious […] They wish to pretend to be “free” once a week, or once a month. To be free would be an appalling prospect for them.’6 The mob needs, and wishes, to be ruled by a caste of philosopher-intellectuals, vigorous and potent leaders with no little of the übermensch about them. Within this dictatorship, the artist would prosper. And it was not too difficult to see how he would prosper, given that he ‘should be accommodated with conditions suitable to his maximum productivity [and…] relieved on the futile competition in all sorts of minor fields, so that his purest faculties could be free for the major tasks of intelligent creation’.7 This welfare system for the artist, at what must be the expense of the mob, often appears to be the guiding principle of a modernist polity. When faced with the real issues of the interwar years—mass unemployment and significant economic hardship—Pound reiterated that the artist was at the centre of his concerns, and that everyone else could go hang:
The unemployment problem that I have been faced with, for a quarter of a century, is not or has not been the unemployment of nine million or five million, or whatever […] It has been the problem of the unemployment of Gaudier-Brzeska, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis the painter, E.P. the present writer, and of twenty or thirty musicians, and fifty or more other makers in stone, in paint, in verbal composition.8
If this republic of the artist would disenfranchise the masses, then who precisely was modernist art and literature for? Richard Aldington, one of Pound’s co-contributors to Des Imagistes in 1914, drew a clear picture of the chasm between the general public and advanced art:
The conditions of modern popular art are so degrading that no man of determined or distinguished mind can possibly adopt them. ‘What the public wants’ are the stale ideas of twenty, or fifty, or even seventy years ago, ideas (p.4) which any man of talent rejects at once as banal […] The arts are now divided between popular charlatans and men of talent, who, of necessity, write, think and paint only for each other […]9
The creation of coteries of artistic production and consumption was necessary for the survival of a high culture untainted by the demands of the populace. For T. S. Eliot, writing as late as 1948, ham-fisted education of the public would lead to a disastrous dilution of culture:
in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmissible by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.10
With this very idea in mind, D. H. Lawrence did his best to stop the average reader from delving any further into Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) than the ‘Foreword’ on page one. ‘The generality of readers had better just leave it alone,’ Lawrence wrote. ‘I don’t intend my books for the generality of readers. I count it a mistake of our mistaken democracy, that every man who can read print is allowed to believe that he can read all that is printed. I count it a misfortune that serious books are exposed in the public market, like slaves exposed naked for sale.’11 Lawrence’s criticism of the general public would go far beyond their aesthetic sensibilities. Man, reduced to a mere automaton—worse, to a biological machine—by the brutalising capitalist drive towards efficiency, had no inner core through which to appreciate esoteric beauty and lacked the intellectual and imaginative capacity, for the most part, to change the conditions of his existence. The public had their own tastes—usually commercial, dictated by companies seeking to profit from pseudo-beauty—and the sphere of high art need not go near them. To this end, Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, the magazine that started to serialise James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1918, even carried the slogan ‘Making no compromise with the Public Taste’ under its title.
It is easy to see, even in such a brief and obviously selective tour, why the products of artistic modernism alienated a wider viewing and reading public and seemed to make no effort to court approval or comprehension (p.5) on a wide scale. And one critical tradition, represented best perhaps by John Carey’s The Intellectuals and The Masses (1992), has sought to show, exhaustively, how modernism scorned the people. Yet, and here is perhaps the most succinct argument for a book such as this one, modernism quite quickly became part of the middlebrow taste. More than that, it began to be valorised and valued, aesthetically and financially, more highly than the products of nearly any other historical period, not just by elites, but also by mainstream culture. John Xiros Cooper has influentially argued that modernism’s complicated relationship with its markets actually led, over the course of the 20th century, to the development of emancipated, capitalist, cultural communities that characterise developed society today, and that ‘the culture intrinsic to market society […] spread from the avant-garde enclave to society at large, transforming, in its course, the everyday lives of the very philistine masses the early modernists haughtily kept at arm’s length’.12 Consequently, the modernist artefact (artistic, literary or otherwise) has been drawn closer to mainstream culture by becoming central to what constitutes the tasteful. Cooper goes on to say that the reclamation of subversive artistic energies by a hegemonic mainstream is a fact that colours all post-Enlightenment Western culture: ‘The history of the last two centuries shows us again and again how the aesthetic as a primal source of value, no matter how radically disjunctive and oppositional it seems, can be absorbed over time by the dominant economic orthodoxy and recuperated as a sustaining pillar of the very system it was invented to oppose.’13 In this sense, late capitalist culture is the offspring of an early 20th-century avant-garde abstracted from its political energies: ‘The playfulness of the postmodern, the penchant everywhere for parody and pastiche, the pervasiveness of irony, the telescoping of history into simulacra of the past, like the theme park and the heritage industry, are the result of the spreading of the word of modernism without any of its original meanings and moods to weigh it down.’14
If we follow this argument to its end, then it was entirely unintentional that high-modernist art and literature ended up colonising mass public taste—in fact, the early 20th-century avant-garde would have been horrified by its own commodification and its consumerist and capitalist reification. But we need to be a little careful in separating two different effects here, and (p.6) we need to be doubly careful of reducing modernism to a narrow pastiche of itself as entirely anti-democratic and oligarchic. While it is undoubtedly true, as Cooper argues, that modernism did not intend to court this kind of legacy, then it is not necessarily true to say that it rejected any public legacy at all. In fact, many of its promoters, brokers and mediators sought not to elide and avoid the public but to connect with it and modify its opinions and tastes—in short, they were involved not only in trying to improve the quality of art, but also the quality of art’s reception. The intentions of these arbiters of taste were multiple. Often the aim was to make money. More often, however, it was their belief that, despite an adversarial relationship with the public, a wide and deep engagement with art and its difficulties was the basis of a sound and harmonious culture. Modernism, characterised so often by its focus inward towards the revitalisation of form, was also involved in re-engaging its audiences with art through an appeal to its cultural, national and political importance—as social commentary, as decoration and as a vessel for individual and cultural betterment. It did this by radically opposing the normative standards of a reactionary establishment and the aestheticist and decadent betrayal of art into the hands of a haughty, overly refined elite.
Recent criticism has gone some way to deconstruct the still oft-cited notion of modernism’s abjuration of its publics and markets and has drawn critical attention away from the philosophies and actions of artists and writers to a reception history of their products. Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism began a process of seeking modernism’s material contexts, and this has been enhanced and continued by the work of Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen M. Watt, and by Edward P. Comentale.15 Jonathan Rose has even suggested that modernism was, essentially, goal-oriented towards financial success.16 With this body of work in mind, I want to develop an understanding of the mediation and promotion of modernism (foreign, as well as home-grown) in Britain by thinking about the propagation of a taste for its aesthetics in the public arena. This book is about the actions of individuals and groups who took possession of largely unpalatable, often European, avant-garde aesthetics and spread the word. Modernism’s legacy (p.7) in Britain may not be the one it wanted—socially or aesthetically—but many of its agents and actors intended to transform the public perception of art and, by so doing, ameliorate British culture. We may yet be waiting (with Matthew Collings) to see if it succeeded.
There is some difficulty in erecting the improvement of public taste as a cornerstone of modernist philosophy and practice. For one, taste has a troubling heritage as a term associated with 19th-century aesthetic profligacy and decadence. As most socio-cultural histories of the 19th century have it, the concern for social reform in Victorian cultural commentary gave way slowly to a new interest in aestheticist ideas, whose original robustly socialist character (in the guild socialism of the Arts and Crafts movement, for example) mutated into the disinterested and rarefied discourse of decadence. Bringing the masses into the orbit of art was, of course, the aim of many a Victorian reformer. The greatest sages of the 19th century—William Morris, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, in particular—in different ways and for different reasons sought to bring about what amounted to an education in taste, because they believed that a better knowledge, understanding and appreciation for what we might broadly call the aesthetic would be beneficial for the spiritual, philosophical and moral well-being of the social body. However, the shifting sands of cultural and class relations scuppered their plans. Marxist narratives of cultural development in the industrial age site the disintegration of culture into elite and popular forms precisely in the mid-Victorian period. The advent of widespread literacy, the creation of wider cultural markets predicated on economic mobility and power, new distribution networks made possible through new technologies in publication, reproduction and dissemination—all were significant contributions towards mass culture marked by a monetisation of artistic products that was unprecedented in history. Pulp fiction and mass reproductions of paintings and sculptures flooded markets and standardisation all but killed off the artisan. Morris deplored the mass-produced—it was the ‘hypocrisy, flunkeyism, and careless selfishness’ of art that expressed ‘the very worst side of our character both national and personal’.17 Ruskin asked his readers to scan their own living rooms and analyse the ‘perfectnesses’ contained therein as evidence of ‘slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, (p.8) or helot Greek’.18 Arnold was equally melancholic about this state of affairs. Culture and Anarchy, conceived in the wake of the Hyde Park Riots in 1866, bemoaned the difficulties that lay ahead in cultivating an aesthetically arid middle class: the middle classes, remaining as they are now, with their narrow, harsh, unintelligent, and unattractive spirit and culture, will almost certainly fail to mould or assimilate the masses below them. Worryingly, if the middle classes retreated further into philistinism, the results would be socially calamitous. If they could not lead by cultural example, he warned, society would be in danger of falling into anarchy.19
Ironically, given their broadly socialist philosophy of art, it was Ruskin, Morris and Arnold who paved the way for a later aestheticist retreat to coteries and cliques. Ruskin’s sage-like personality, in particular, was the archetype of the powerful, individual arbiter of taste whose opinions were highly subjective and reliant on a deep knowledge of a history of the arts. T. S. Eliot blamed Arnold for the excesses of Walter Pater.20 By the time of Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), which proclaimed the sovereignty of the aesthete and a firm belief in good taste enriched by exposure to classical forms, appreciation and discernment had fully withdrawn from the everyday life of the masses. The logical endpoint for this retreat was an insipid aesthetic couched in the languid language of decadence. Pater was old hat by 1910, harking back to an already outmoded Romantic genre of art writing where the critic possessed a discerning sensitivity and pontificated from an ivory tower. It all smacked of aristocratic dilettantism and decadent vampirism. Roger Fry bemoaned such vampires in ‘Art and Socialism’: ‘As the prostitute professes to sell love, so these gentlemen professed to sell beauty […] They adopted the name and something of the manner of artists; they intercepted not only the money, but the titles and fame and glory which were intended for those whom they had supplanted.’21
But if modernism was critical of these secluded, hedonistic groves where art and money were vice, could it be accused of doing something similar? For all its criticism of an anaemic aestheticism perched upon (p.9) high, modernism retreated inwards too, to a coterie culture of its own. ‘From the soirées at the Stein salon,’ John Xiros Cooper writes, ‘[…] or the gatherings of Bloomsbury at number 50 Gordon Square in London, or the “Ezra-versity” in Rapallo, Italy, the modernist avant-garde not only told itself the story of its own difference and superiority, but enacted it as well in the making of private communities.’22 Salon culture even metamorphosed into escapist fantasy: while D. H. Lawrence and S. S. Koteliansky’s ‘Rananim’, a planned utopian, selective community to be founded in Florida, is probably the most extreme example, Bloomsbury’s figural insularity, on the other hand, is the focus of nearly every biographical study of its key members.23 Yet, to dwell for a moment on Bloomsbury as the neatest modernist analogue to any late 19th-century ivory tower, the outward-facing rhetoric of many of its members—Roger Fry and Clive Bell in particular—was steeped in the democratisation of taste. More than any other artistic clique in Britain in the early 20th century, as I shall explore more fully in Chapter 2, Bloomsbury was involved in a relentless and increasingly market-driven self-fashioning founded largely on its own socially and aesthetically determined conception of good taste. Roger Fry’s view of Britain as ‘Bird’s Custard Isle’, conjuring up both the gaudiness of the British sense of colour and its preference for the most banal of tastes, is often used to demonstrate the fundamental disconnect between the high-minded Cambridge-educated group encircling Gordon Square and the public at large.24 Yet Fry’s desire, as a curator and as a (rather unsuccessful) businessman, was always the promotion of a democratic idea of taste, through what we might describe as a market capitalisation of a particular brand of avant-garde art. Virginia Woolf, in her biography of Fry, recalled his first instinct was always ‘to educate the taste of [the] public’, but characterises his slow-burning achievement with the promotion of Postimpressionism in Britain to have been as much of a stock-market success as an aesthetic one: ‘Shares in Cézanne have risen immeasurably since 1910. That family, who […] accumulated works by Matisse must today be envied even by millionaires.’25 Woolf, with some time travel, could (p.10) equally have been talking about Fry’s own design company, the Omega Workshops. Deemed largely a failure in its own time on aesthetic as well as financial grounds, it nevertheless has to be revisited by the critic of modernism today because of the increasing market price of Omega-ware in the last few decades. Fry abhorred the idea that taste could be bought, but was willing to provide to the public objets d’art that—literally—were ‘the last word’, as the header on the receipt, with little irony, would testify with a large Ω.26 Inherently contradictory though Fry’s public words and actions might have been, his actions still point to something different from the enshrinement of taste by those older aestheticist cliques.
For a start, Fry and many of his contemporaries began to sever—or at least redefine—the connections between art and old money, because taste, patronage and aristocratic values were still very closely connected in Britain. As Penny Sparke writes:
In the preindustrial context, when it was only the aristocracy that had the wherewithal to engage in the possession and display of artworks and luxury items in their interior settings, there was no need to add a qualifier to the term. In that context taste was a universally recognised, absolute value without a polarised set of meanings contained within it. [In fact, it was] ownership by the nobility that conferred status upon artworks, not the other way round.27
Artistic taste meant, for the group of people with the money to be able to patronise it, an attitude to art that privileged age-value above all else. As Roger Fry succinctly (and ironically) voiced it, ‘Show me a Rodin with patine of the fifteenth century, and I will buy it.’28 In Britain, the problem was that the traditional arbiters of good taste did not embrace modern work. Raymond Mortimer described this state of affairs best of all:
Here no millionaire seems able to care for a picture unless its painter is dead and buried. That our motor manufacturers and tobacco magnates remain so consistently Philistine may be attributed to their education. But how mysterious is that insensibility to contemporary art of those rich aristocrats who have been brought up among the masterpieces of English painting, yet remain blind to the modern heirs of Gainsborough and Constable. An aristocracy that has ceased to give its patronage to art is like a tart who has lost her looks: it may still be useful, but it has no right to be expensive.29
(p.11) But the problem was deeper than the aristocracy—politically and economically endowed plutocrats had an increasing power to shape tastes. Tied more closely to consumerist thinking, their aesthetic tastes were always tainted by finance and capitalist economy. ‘The aristocrat usually had taste,’ Fry opined. ‘The plutocrat frequently has not.’30 He called for a break with all of these kinds of patronage and a revision on more democratic lines:
It is not enough known that the patronage which really counts today is exercised by quite small and humble people. These people with a few hundreds a year exercise a genuine patronage by buying pictures at ten, twenty, or occasionally thirty pounds, with real insight and understanding […] The work of art is not for them […] a decorative backcloth to his stage, but an idol and an inspiration. Merely to increase the number and potency of these people would already accomplish much.31
For Clive Bell, too, the modernist coterie existed not with the support of the patron, but in his absence. Speaking of the Camden Town Group, the Friday Club and the London Club, Bell suggested that ‘[h]ere are men who take art seriously [because…] here are men who have no patron’.32 If standards of taste were to improve, the relations upon which art and patronage had existed for so long needed a radical overhaul. If art was always a commodity, it still had to resist commodification. Redefined against its old status as the ultimate decorative luxury item, and put into the hands of people for whom taste meant something different, it could be revitalised as positive, social good. It is a significant irony, and perhaps somewhat related to both John Xiros Cooper’s belief in the ‘unintentional’ commodification of the avant-garde and to Pierre Bourdieu’s description of ‘institutions of legitimation’ that enshrined ‘difficult’ art and turned it into ‘cultural capital’, that the products of modernism have been monetised and institutionalised more those of any other period.33 But such a thing should not be surprising. If many modernist artists resisted the reification of experimental aesthetics, plenty more were happy to emblazon them on a pot or a rug, and subsequent chapters focus on the tension between pure artistic creation and marketability.
There is a broader point to make here, though: that intellectualist interpretations of modernist aesthetics only tell half the story. As I explain (p.12) in this book, the relationship between artistic experimentation and market forces is more nuanced than it may first appear. Modernist culture fits very neatly with Bourdieu’s conception of ‘cultural nobility’.34 Modernist art seems to superficially depend on a cultural aristocracy for its production, consumption and appreciation. Small shows, short print runs, coterie aesthetics—these all point towards the centripetal impulse. The intellectualist history of modernist art—that avant-garde aesthetics in the early 20th century sought to exclude the majority—is undermined by Bourdieu’s sociological analysis. This intellectualist view, according to Bourdieu, holds that taste is somehow a naturally acquired faculty: ‘a work of art’, in this view, ‘has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded […] A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, without rhyme or reason.’35 Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural trends tends to oppose such a view, carving out a category of taste dependent not on inside knowledge of difficult aesthetics, but firmly rooted in fine gradations of social and economic class. Modernism’s encounter with its publics in Britain is best seen, therefore, as a series of encounters between forms and styles designed to resist reification and a marketplace conditioned to place high monetary value on things meant for the few.
For many modernist artists, though, at an idealistic level at least, aesthetic taste was not capital-driven. It should rather be brought closer to its Kantian roots in perception and disinterested judgement. And the same desire is expressed by others than Fry and Bell. For Wyndham Lewis, ‘Taste is dead emotion.’ To be a productive force, ‘[t]aste should become deeper and exclusive: definitely a STRONGHOLD—a point and not a line’.36 But if Lewis critiqued the line that represents a fuzzy spectrum of appreciation, his redefined conception of taste, pulled to a point, is not a rejection but a reformulation. For Virginia Woolf, too, high art demanded a transformation—not an elimination—of taste:
When the middlebrows […] have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy—what are the things that middlebrows always buy? Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers, always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters; houses in what is called ‘the Georgian style’—but never anything (p.13) new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.37
Ezra Pound’s guides to the perplexed and uninitiated—in particular How to Read (1929) and Guide to Kulchur (1938)—may be laced with irony, but they hint at an attitude that embraces the sovereignty of the individual and point towards a democratic belief in man’s capacity to develop this kind of living taste. Filled with amorphous challenges to the reader, Pound employed what he calls the ‘ideogramic method’, by which means he attempts to present ‘one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the desensitized surface of the reader’s mind, onto a part that will register’.38 The aim of this method was to shake the reader out of the cosy slumber of easy judgements and appraisals to develop a new and more alert critical acumen. ‘Damn your taste,’ Pound later said, in much the same vein. ‘I would like if possible to sharpen your perception, after which your taste can take care of itself.’39 The results of such a sharpened perception were as much social and communal as they were individual. An improved national taste in Britain, one that had sloughed off its Victorian skin, would be for the financial and international benefit of the country as much as for its emotional well-being.
For Margaret Bulley, ‘a hundred years of industrialism of the wrong sort, with all its attendant evils, has so ruined taste that we have ceased to understand the difference between beauty and ugliness. When the history of our age is written it is easy to foresee the indictment to come.’40 Drawing on the halcyon days of mediaeval craftsmanship à la Ruskin, she asks us to:
[c]ontrast the position to-day. The mind of the people is largely shaped by an ultra-scientific outlook on life, by the crowding together of men in cities, the influence of a debased Press and cinema and a system of universal education as yet in its infancy. Teaching of art does little to free and stimulate inborn talent, and much to obscure it. Life is hard for the artist […] Without living tradition of hereditary craft to guide him he replaces intuition by theory. He becomes incapable of spontaneous reaction. We have nearly killed him.41
The benefits to a change in the conditions of art and its consumption in Britain would revitalise the nation’s aesthetic and financial life: ‘Though (p.14) the levels of production and appreciation have risen in recent years in this country and in America, they are still unduly low. With the support of educated taste manufacturers could confidently employ the best designers, and the right kind of handicrafts would flourish.’42 An editorial in the Burlington Magazine, too, stressed that the education and cultivation of public sensibility was vital to the success of the nation at home and abroad:
[W]e propose, for the moment, to deal with art, not as a noble or desirable thing for its own sake, but as a national asset. Have we all realized, for instance, how much France and Italy have profited in hard cash by the taste, consistency, and liberality of their patronage of art, compared with a country like the United States, where not one man in a thousand takes even a superficial interest in it? Their cities are visited by hosts of travellers and students from all parts of the world, whose board, lodging, and railway fares alone would amount to an enormous sum annually. To this must be added the huge sales of works of art which their national reputation enables them to effect. Equally important is the effect of an artistic tradition upon the applied arts, for taste enables manufacturers to find a ready market in a thousand places which good workmanship and material could never reach unaided.43
The United States, that behemoth of Victorian industry and commerce, was the epitome of aesthetic indifference. If Britain went down the same road, its financial as well as aesthetic life would suffer. Heightened individual perception, democratic diffusion of art and a radical revision of the terms under which it was to be consumed had the power to divert Britain from following this course, and many of these ideas found a mouthpiece in the form of modernism.
Reformulating the concept of taste by freeing it from decadence encouraged, at least theoretically, a more democratic relationship between art and its publics, and had the potential to produce tangible benefits for society as a whole. The problems of using taste as an organising principle, however, descend not just from its 19th-century inheritance, but from our disciplinary and critical use of the term today, in the study of 20th- and 21st-century art practices especially. It seems to be a word or a concept that we can do without. One of the problems, of course, is its ‘soft’ associations, all of which are opposed to the rhetoric around canonical—and usually masculine—avant-garde aesthetics. As Clement Greenberg puts it:
(p.15) Taste is a word that became compromised during the 19th century. It was in good standing in the 18th, when a philosopher like Kant, and English philosophers of aesthetics took for granted that that’s the faculty you exerted in experiencing art and experiencing anything aesthetically. And then in the 19th century it wore down into something that had to do with food, clothes, furniture, decoration, and so forth, and became very much compromised.44
Greenberg connects taste with the ephemeral world of fashion here. Immutable taste had been ‘compromised’ by 19th-century industrial and commercial culture. Moreover, Greenberg shows just how closely taste became aligned with the superficial. ‘Superficial’, as a category, connotes a thing both predominantly concerned with surface appearance and surplus to needs. It is a negative concept because its opposite, depth, is consistently privileged in Western society. Plato treated the world of things with disdain, calling it transient and deceptive, and theorising it as one mere shadowy instance of a world of permanent and unchanging forms located elsewhere. We have to strip away the layers of the onion, get rid of the surface noise and detritus so we can look for the general and the universal. Depth is where meaning, knowledge and understanding traditionally lie. And modernism and the avant-garde, right back to the canon-forming treatises of F. R. Leavis and Edmund Wilson, has been consistently associated in criticism with depth. It is hard and it is deep. It conveyed difficult and esoteric truths through challenging and demanding aesthetic forms. It scorned the surface and the superficial. As a result, the critical lexicon around it elides ‘taste’, as a category, altogether. The study of avant-garde literature and art has been dominated, to some extent, by the language of hard science and vigorous philosophy. Machinery, war, technology, extreme politics, power and order make up the modernist lexicon. And, as a result, many of the non-representational iterations of modernism put on display, or indeed read, in Britain, seemed to actively reject good taste all together—it was, rather, deemed more than anything else to be ugly and in bad taste. It was its contraventions of good taste that made it loathsome to its critics more than any other quality. My contention here, though, is that if we reflect on taste, we might be able to redeem it. Taste lies somewhere in the negotiation between a subjective, emotive psychology and an objective philosophy and sociology. It draws simultaneously from the emotive and intellectual spheres. It is private and public, individual and collective. It is formed both in that instant, gustatory moment of sensation and in the (p.16) longer, reflective act. It is, in short, utterly nebulous. It is a product of, but does not belong to, the aesthetic objects it defines, and it is produced amid shifting class relations and swirling social conditions. But, to go back briefly to first principles, we can reflect on Kant’s understanding of the term to demonstrate that two of the broad guiding principles of modernist aesthetics—a privileging of the individual as the site of valuable perceptive energy that can stand against the tyranny of social order and a rejection of realism as a representational trope—are both actually congruent with philosophical concepts of taste. Moreover, it might actually turn out to be a useful thing if we think about actual modernist aesthetics—and, remember, so far we have been mainly considering the public reception of art, not its inner workings—alongside concepts of the tasteful.
This seems counter-intuitive. Modernism polarises because it demands to be judged outside concepts such as the tasteful. But, and this may be a rather irksome regression for the reader so far into the chapter, we need to examine the word itself if we are to progress. Taste has a long philosophical history and comes to us in the present with the burden of unwelcome baggage. Immanuel Kant’s treatise on taste lurks behind all the subsequent aestheticist and decadent sins of art. But revisiting it might allow us to reclaim something for modernism. Since Kant’s explication of its meaning in relation to the nascent field of aesthetics in the 18th century, the value of taste in critical discourse has actually been in a state of flux. For all of the sound reasoning about matters of taste expressed in The Critique of Judgement (1790), which rejected the studies of beauty and the sublime undertaken by British empiricist philosophers such as Edmund Burke and David Hume to focus on the ontological nature of aesthetic judgement itself, Kant could not really extract the term from the philosophical conundrum he called ‘the antinomy of taste’:
Thesis: The judgement of taste is not based upon concepts; for, if it were, it would be open to dispute (decision by means of proofs).
Antithesis: The judgement of taste is based on concepts; for otherwise, despite diversity of judgment, there could be no room even for contention in the matter (a claim to the necessary agreement of others with this judgment).45
In other words, for Kant (and I am collapsing one of the more complicated philosophical arguments into a few lines here), taste may actually lie beyond the traditional categories of subjective and objective knowledge, (p.17) resting on some rather different criteria. It is subjective, in a sense, but it is also non-relative. Aesthetic taste exists in a concrete way, but it depends on shared communities that define (in abstract ways) what constitutes it. Kant calls this the sensus communis:
[…] the name sensus communis is to be understood [as] the idea of a public sense, i.e. a faculty of judging which in its reflective act takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of everyone else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgment with the collective reason of mankind, and thereby avoid the illusion […] that would exert a prejudicial influence upon its judgment. This is accomplished by weighing the judgment, not so much with actual, as rather with the merely possible judgments of others, and putting ourselves in the position of everyone else […]. This, in turn, is effected by so far as possible leaving out the element of matter, i.e. sensation, in our general state of representational activity, and confining attention to the formal peculiarities of [the] general state of representational activity.46
There is a lot to tease out here. Kant requires us to be at least legion, if not positively schizophrenic, to possess taste, hearing the voices of imagined others that correct us in an endless cycle of mirroring and self-reflection. Aesthetic judgements, however idiosyncratic or individual they may be, enjoy collective consensus because they command a universal consent: ‘if we […] call the object beautiful, we believe we have a universal voice and lay claim to the agreement of everyone’.47 As Jukka Gronow ably notes, this Kantian ‘republic of taste’ is ‘rather allusive and elusive […] always keeping open the issue of whether or not it actually exists. This kind of consensus is definitely nothing but a cloud of community.’48 But, more positively for us here, Kant asks that we leave out issues of ‘matter’ in our judgements and focus on the ‘formal peculiarities’ of ‘representational activity’. We must leave our other sensations at the door and judge on shared formal aesthetics alone. Such a request chimes quite neatly with Clive Bell’s demand in Art (1914), by way of legitimising the aesthetic emotions that non-representational art evokes in us, that we base our judgements on what he called ‘significant form’. All great art, of all periods, possesses significant form:
There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s (p.18) frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne? Only one answer seems possible—significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call ‘Significant Form’.49
Significant form is, as Kant demanded of judgement back in 1790, supremely democratic. A studied knowledge of two thousand years of artistic developments is not needed for the layman to make an aesthetic judgement on a Picasso or a Mondrian. Aesthetic emotion, something far purer than other sensations the layman might normally express (‘this picture does not look like the things in the real world it is supposed to represent’), will be experienced by the viewer of even the most abstract or non-representational work by his going back to Kant’s demand that we leave everything else except ‘formal peculiarities’ at the door.
It is possible to work through Kant’s ideas further to bring them into an even closer rapprochement with the demands of modernist art. Kantian aesthetic judgements are, or should be, vectorless. They are not directed to a specific purpose and do not satisfy a utilitarian end. They are disinterested. ‘Everyone must allow’, Kant says, ‘that a judgment on the beautiful which is tinged with the slightest interest, is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste.’50 This Kantian disinterestedness lies behind all subsequent demands for the autonomy of art, and is familiar to students of modernism. For Theodor Adorno, ‘[i]nsofar as a social function may be predicated of works of art, it is the function of having no function’.51 Art, and judgements about it, modernism effectively professed, needs to demonstrate no connections with habitus (even though this is severely problematised by Bourdieu) if it is truly going to inhabit an autonomous realm. So modernism retreated to a self-referential language of form and to a non-representational mode to shrug off the demands of realism, so bound up was the term in bourgeois culture. This is a narrow path to tread: if art was not going to plumb the depths of solipsism and relativism it sank to at the fin de siècle, it needed to maintain a strong independence. By internalising the difficulties of its own production, it became self-aware—and thus could comment on the conditions of its own production in a more self-conscious way.
Stressing the autonomy of art, through esoteric representational techniques and an intense privileging of subjectivity, modernist experimentation (p.19) expressed this aesthetic disinterestedness through appeals to the individual rather than the collective. The individual mind was the site of battle between free thinking and dogmatic ideology. Win it over, by asking it to reassess the conditions of its existence, and art starts to serve a positive social end. To be victorious in this battle, art must reject realist representation outright. Oscar Wilde pointed to the disjuncture between advanced art and the public desire for realism in The Soul of Man under Socialism:
[…] it is to be noted that it is the fact that Art is this intense form of individualism that makes the public try to exercise over it an authority that is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible. It is not quite their fault. The public have always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.52
Neat aphorisms aside, the anarchist and libertarian Wilde recognises the danger for society if it embraces an art that reflects back ideology. Courting popular taste could never be a social good. For modernism to claim possession of a pure realm of art where ‘non-utilitarian values of aesthetic production’ reigned, it had to reject the dominant, realist mode of representation.53 Many of its most vehement critics assailed it on these terms. Georg Lukács objected to this rejection of realism because it did not allow the viewer or reader to see the unfolding of the historical process, but instead separated him from an understanding of his condition and only showed him that a relatively melancholic state of affairs persists where objectivity and rationalism were illusions. More recent work has problematised this position by showing that, far from being objective, the 19th-century belief in the transparency of observation—reflected in its art—was actually the product of more sinister forces of social control. Several commentators have drawn attention to the growing importance of technologies of seeing in modern culture.54 Jonathan Crary has exhaustively and intelligently (p.20) detailed the changes that the years before the beginning of the 20th century wrought upon modes of attention and observation, particularly around the subjective experience of art. For Crary, the ‘emphasis on the creative […] dimension of attentiveness of any given autonomous subject coincides with the historical emergence of increasingly powerful technologies and institutions that would determine and enforce externally the objects of attention for mass populations’, and through such institutions attention would be ‘conceived as an element of subjectivity to be externally shaped and controlled’.55 Crary is keen to separate this ‘imperative of a concentrated attentiveness within the disciplinary organisation of labor, education, and mass consumption’ from ‘an ideal of sustained attentiveness as a constituent element of a creative and free subjectivity’.56 Postimpressionist experimentation with perception and the visual field, which is the subject of Crary’s study, is one manifestation of such a separation, one designed to shock and destabilise bourgeois modes of seeing. In this sense, then, modernist aesthetics are a defence against the normative drives of social control, and their refusal of realist modes of representation are a way of contesting modernity. The Kantian disinterestedness of aesthetic taste can be understood, therefore, as the basis for an autonomous art whose rules and logic demand a separation from bourgeois culture. Taste has to be based on critical judgement and, though it can be used as a way of seeking communal betterment, it has to descend first from disinterested and formal principles. The non-representational aesthetics of modernism provided an art where the public could develop such judgements.
If the formation and cultivation of individual, disinterested taste was one of the professed aims of the promoters and mediators of modernism in Britain, then they were also alert to the possibility of achieving communal or collective good more directly. Encouraging individuals to see was one thing—a long-term goal, perhaps—but transforming the social sphere with more immediate effect was undoubtedly an ambition of some of the subjects of this study. To that end, the institutional, educational and social bases for modernist activity in Britain provided infrastructural support for the development of ideas and projects that applied the abstruse aesthetics (p.21) of art and design to more practical uses. If the mediators of modernism in Britain believed in the capacity for advanced art to democratise taste—a significant social change, but a nebulous one—then critics and educators such as Roger Fry, Herbert Read, Marion Richardson and others believed that direct, pragmatic action might achieve tangible real-world alterations to everyday life in Britain. It was with this egalitarian and ameliorative philosophy that a whole range of initiatives, groups, collectives and institutions were set up during the period 1910–51 to connect radical, often continental, aesthetics with tangible public and consumer action. In what follows, I explore some of these institutions—Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, projects such as The School Prints and Contemporary Lithographs that, along with changes to arts education policy, were directed at introducing schoolchildren to modern art, groups and initiatives such as the Design Industries Association and the Isokon building project—all of them with some professed aim to mediate modernism for better public reception.
The institutional basis of modernism has been the subject of a number of studies since Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism, a seminal intervention into the ways in which the modernist literary text sat in a reciprocal relationship with commodity culture. Recent work on the public encounter with literary and artistic modernism has helped to demonstrate modernism’s complicity with consumer culture, the marketplace and the public sphere, to the point where critical elaboration of modernist aesthetics has been indelibly marked by considerations of the socio-economics of production and consumption.57 Picking up on this thread, one of the stories that Insane Acquaintances tells is the gradual adaption and repackaging of avant-garde styles during the period 1910–51 that were so distasteful to the British public on first, insane, acquaintance. Postimpressionism, Surrealism, continental modernist architectural and interior design—all made their way quite quickly into the popular taste, in the home as much as in the museum or gallery. The real focus of the study is the ways in which this journey from first impression to lasting legacy took place. As such, I focus on individual mediators and, in turn, their role in the setting up or running of groups, collectives and schemes devoted to bridging the gap between (p.22) modern art and the public. The role of influential mediators of modernism in Britain in the reception and dissemination of avant-garde art, design and decoration has often been the subject of study. Even Rainey’s persuasive work finds that the power to advance a challenging aesthetic on the public lay more with moneyed, committed individuals than anyone else. On the continent, too, powerful brokers of modernism such as Ambrose Vollard or Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler have most often been seen as the drivers of the market for modernist art and a taste for its products.58 This study goes some way to complicating this ‘great man’ hypothesis about the adoption of modernist aesthetics in Britain. While the following chapters do indeed reflect on the individual vision of people such as Fry and Read—their belief that the social life of the nation was in no small way dependent upon its artistic tastes, and that only by changing the latter might some real-world difference be made—they also focus on the agency of institutions such as galleries and museums, groups and collectives and even government policy in effecting changes in the artistic tastes of the nation. Therefore I want to make the larger claim that agency for the cultivation and dissemination of a ‘taste’ for modernism in Britain is a complex field rather than one of hierarchical transmission from expert to public. Lisa Tickner claims that it ‘is a mistake to view British art simply as a pallid reflection of developments elsewhere’, and it is my intention in what follows to suggest that the adoption of continental avant-garde art in Britain was attended by a complex set of negotiations between individuals, groups and state actors.59 The display of avant-garde art, its marketing and commercialisation, and its take-up by individuals and groups devoted to the amelioration of British taste and standards of living in the years before the Festival of Britain in 1951 all took place in an arena in which modernism’s products were seen both as commodity and as symbolic and cultural capital.
So, though it may be easy to fall back with zest on that old lie that modernism—with its esoteric images, arcane and impenetrable narratives, and disturbing sounds—functioned to exclude swathes of the public from the echelons of high art and hence good taste, the converse might be equally true. Lawrence Rainey usefully summarises the old belief that ‘modernism, (p.23) poised at the cusp of th[e] transformation of the public sphere, responded with a tactical retreat’, and without a doubt, the centripetal impulse in modernism is a pronounced one, protectively securing a niche for itself away from the clamour of those defending public decency and aesthetic tradition.60 The products of modernism were alienating, bewildering and even hostile to their publics. But it is also true that much of modernist culture was public-facing, and if its reception was fraught with tension, that tension brokered a new relationship between art and its publics. A challenging artistic product demands a new kind of appreciation, one that the wider public had to acquire through a number of difficult and terse encounters. These encounters were to radically alter the public consumption of artistic culture, and such consumption helped to circumscribe and monetise an institutional space that still exists in 2020, securing the financial and cultural ‘value’ of modernist art, literature and performance a century later.
Insane Acquaintances explores initiatives to introduce children to modernist art, to drag the best avant-garde art to the four corners of Britain in travelling exhibitions and to bring modern design into the home. It rereads some of the events and ‘moments’ of modernism, charting the public debates and reception of experimental art to highlight changing notions of what constituted artistic culture and the role of the artist in society. It is primarily ordered around the case study, offering new archival research on some less-known individuals and ill-explored groups who helped to shape and publicise the contemporary art scene in the early decades of the 20th century, and reassessing the contribution that major movements—in particular Postimpressionism and Surrealism—made to changing public attitudes towards modern art. The methodology employed here is built around the study of moments. What follows is a series of synchronic studies that share common ground—histories of individual events and exhibitions and small-scale groups and movements. A full history of modernism’s engagement with and attempted transformation of its publics is unlikely to be written soon. The difficulty of charting the dissemination and mediation of artistic experimentation in wider cultural fields is at base an empirical one; what dataset could one possibly collect that wouldn’t be undermined by another equally valid set? How could we account for a national dissemination of avant-garde art, given modernism’s inherent disregard for borders? But what is Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction other than a synchronic study of French culture in the middle of the 20th century? Bourdieu claims that it is possible to harmonise (p.24) his vast array of cultural data into a set of axiomatic truths that hold about the way in which taste functions to differentiate individuals, groups and classes in capitalist economies. The profit Bourdieu finds in using such an apparatus is that his study can range widely over a heterogeneous cultural field. Building on such a model, Insane Acquaintances explores the ‘cultural formations’, to borrow Raymond Williams’s terminology, that grew up around modernist aesthetics in the period between the first Postimpressionist exhibition of 1910 and the Festival of Britain in 1951. Williams argues in The Politics of Modernism that the revolutionary potential of modernism was not carried in any programmatic or organised schema but rather that ‘relatively informal movements, schools, and campaigning tendencies […] carried a major part of our most important artistic and intellectual development’.61 This decentred, organic model for the development of modernist and avant-garde activity in Britain is an appealing one, given the activities both of groups that were born of momentary encounters between advanced art and the public and of movements and initiatives that took place outside the capital and were directed towards local, regional, provincial or civic change.
Ultimately, though, this book is full of only partial successes. The revolutionary changes imagined by those whose energy charged the events and initiatives discussed here were in many cases only incompletely effective and often short lived. Moreover, the legacies that groups and movements left were not always what their creators had intended. The democratisation of taste, so often proclaimed by the promoters and mediators of modernist art in Britain, was not always the most visible legacy of those movements and initiatives designed to introduce advanced art to the public. Undoubtedly, the educational and informational work undertaken by the main actors in this study helped to shape an understanding and appreciation for modernist experimentation that persisted deep into the 20th century, but the wider cultural and political changes envisaged by some of the more utopian modernist thinkers did not materialise. Many of the case studies that follow were small-batch, time-constrained and not really scalable, ripples and eddies that bubbled and dissipated: exhibitions opened and closed, and movements rode the crest of public opinion, then faded from view when the energies of their founders dissipated. This particular revolution of ‘Bird’s Custard Isle’ did not take place.
Yet this is to deny other legacies of modernism’s assault on public taste that were perhaps unimagined by the protagonists of this study. For one, (p.25) visual modernism undoubtedly found its place in British culture, though its full impact was delayed by both war and austerity. Looked at another way, the avant-garde activity that took place in Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War was just that—polemical, interventionist and confrontational work done at the vanguard of movements that necessarily laid the foundations for a more widespread take-up of a new artistic culture. The democratising, egalitarian impulse of modernism in Britain was bound over, perhaps, held in potential for a post-war world. For Herbert Read, writing at the end of the Second World War, modernism still had the potential to enact social change in Britain: ‘individuals in whom the spirit of modernism is embodied still survive, still work, still create […] When the cloud of war has passed, they will re-emerge eager to rebuild the shattered world.’62 Many of the principles that the artists, critics and mediators fought for—a greater public presence of modernist artistic culture, funding bodies for arts and culture that functioned democratically and a more fervent institutional and governmental belief in the transformative power of artistic and cultural innovation—did indeed take place in the first years after the end of hostilities in 1945. This belief in the power of modernist art to reform public taste and to shape a new future was firmly embedded, for instance, in the philosophy of the Festival of Britain in 1951, which Becky E. Conekin argues ‘set the broad parameters of a social democratic agenda for a new and modern Britain’.63 I return to think about the Festival of Britain as an endpoint of modernism’s social and cultural franchise in Britain in the concluding chapter here, but several of my case studies end with a look forward to the delayed achievements of the mediators and promoters of modernism in Britain. The educational policy changes driven, in part at least, by the experiments in arts teaching undertaken by Marion Richardson, the organisation of post-Second World War municipal and provincial galleries and collections based on the model of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), and the construction of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) out of the ashes of a short-lived British Surrealist moment—all can be claimed as legitimate victories for the lead characters in this book.
A different legacy of the varied activities that Insane Acquaintances charts was, of course, the reification of modernist styles into the marketable objects (p.26) of artistic culture that still persist today. If British Surrealism, for instance, demanded the disruption of a capitalist economy of art, its protagonists would balk at the prices now demanded for works by Conroy Maddox, Eileen Agar, Emmy Bridgwater and John Melville. Undoubtedly, the artistic and critical moment that is covered by this study did not result in the subversion of the capitalist economy around art but precisely its reverse; not the overthrow of a capitalist aesthetic economy but its reinforcement, and an institutional enshrinement of artistic modernism as a high-value good. In the case of the adaption of modernist architecture and design for the British interior, the result was not the democratisation of living space but rather the creation of valorised decorative schemes that could be packaged and sold. In the case of Postimpressionist, Surrealist or abstract art in Britain, the gradual reduction of artistic styles to decorative schema and eventually to pastiche and parody ultimately undoes some of the work that the original art objects did in the world. This point is an important one because the democratic impulse I return to repeatedly here demands an economic model for the arts somewhat antithetical to what actually emerged after 1945. The canonisation, and subsequent commercialisation, of Bloomsbury and its artistic styles—the subject of the second half of Chapter 2—is one example of this process. The egalitarian, democratic ideal enunciated by Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy and Clive Bell in so much criticism on modern art was a diminishment of the importance of education and class privilege in the arts, in favour of an appreciation that was innate rather than learned: response to colour, mood, line and tone is, certainly in Fry’s many essays on the subject, more important than art-historical learning. While the popular press made hay with the resulting debate around the first Postimpressionist exhibition in 1910, the more muted, positive critical response to the principles that underpinned the rationale for the exhibition was, as we shall see, directed towards these democratic ideals. Yet this democratising philosophy is not the most obvious outcome of the event. Art criticism has drawn around Postimpressionism a critical language that makes its aesthetics opaque, one effect of which has been to raise its main players—Manet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso—to artist-deities. More interestingly for our purpose here, the most visible result was the codification of a Bloomsbury identity: its principles of liberalism (economic, political and sexual), its coterie modes of production and consumption, and its aesthetic schema derived at least in part from its formation in the wake of the Postimpressionist moment in Britain, which emphasised bold use of line and colour, expressive and emotive techniques, and a decorative dimension. As Christopher Reed, Victoria Rosner and others have shown, (p.27) Bloomsbury group identity and Bloomsbury aesthetics are inseparable. Reed’s study Bloomsbury Rooms (2004) demonstrates the ways in which the decorative and visual objects of Bloomsbury elaborate lifestyle choices as much as artistic principles.64 Reversing the usual direction of aesthetic flow from gallery to home, Reed argues that Bloomsbury ‘made the conditions of domesticity its standard for modernity, projecting the values of home life outward onto the public realm in both its aesthetic and socio-political initiatives’.65
Of course, ‘Bloomsbury’ here in no way characterises the array of British modernist art and literature in the years after the ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ exhibition in December 1910, nor does the word itself adequately circumscribe the variety of creative outputs of the artists, writers and intellectuals at its core. Criticism of the activities of its members abounds during the period, and many of its most severe critics—Wyndham Lewis and Herbert Read, most notably—feature in this study. However, the aesthetics and the philosophy of the group persist as a synecdoche for modernism in the public imagination today. In fact, this study suggests that rather than being an idiosyncratic case, Bloomsbury and Postimpressionism are just one example of how a subculture or coterie defines itself against the masses—in the case of Bloomsbury this is an exclusive, insular social and aesthetic economy set firmly against the demands of the market—and by so doing, generates a desire for its products. Borrowing from the terminology that Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson brought to bear on the field of 20th-century cultural studies, I want to argue that one result of modernism’s encounter with the public in Britain was the creation of subcultural desire for its products. Though their work is directed towards the modes of resistance to hegemonic culture enacted by youth and outsider groups, Hall and Jefferson usefully theorise the strategies by which non-mainstream groups cultivate distinctive cultural spaces. For Hall and Jefferson, these subcultural spaces ‘cluster around particular locations […]; they explore “focal concerns” central to the inner life of the group […] They adopt and adapt material objects—goods and possessions—and reorganize them into distinctive “styles” which express the collectivity of (p.28) their being-as-a-group.’66 Thomas E. Crow, quoting Hall, suggests that modernist art movements also carved out niches that not only created axioms to define group activity but also helped condense these for external consumption.67 Undoubtedly, there is a class dimension to all of this, most pronounced perhaps in the case of Bloomsbury but present elsewhere in this study. It is the class politics of this privileged world of coterie production and consumption that lurks behind Raymond Williams’s extended critique of what he terms the ‘Bloomsbury Fraction’.68 For Williams, the talk of democracy and ‘social conscience’ in the public statements of those members, particularly Keynes and the Woolfs, only ever amounted to the consolidation of class lines, albeit showing ‘sympathy for the lower class as victims’.69 Though I have dwelt only on Bloomsbury—it is perhaps the most fraught with tensions around codifying and packaging an aesthetic designed, at least in part, to transform public taste—lots of what is bound up in the mediation of advanced or experimental aesthetics for wider audiences applies to many of the other movements and initiatives I explore here. From the class positions bound up in the design and marketing of tasteful, modernist decorative schema for the home, to the regional disparities exposed in the display of modern art, to the often hollow calls for a socialist revolution in the arts by the leading proponents of Surrealism in Britain, this study returns to the thorny issue of modernist art and class through its discussion of issues such as social mobility and access to the arts in the early 20th century.
The importation, too, of mostly European schema—the Postimpressionists, the Cubists, the Surrealists and even some of the atelier or salon models for producing and consuming art that certainly originated on the continent—creates friction in the debates around avant-garde culture in Britain in the early 20th century. Many of the key figures in this study, and many ancillary ones too (Eliot and Lewis in particular), were in search of an authentically English or British modern aesthetic, one rooted in the tradition—in Eliot’s use of that term—of a national art. Though the modernist period is characterised by an increasing internationalism, and cross-border collaboration between artists and markets, so much of the (p.29) critical writing of the period on art and literature stresses the need to find an authentically national artistic response to the conditions of modernity. So many of the initial responses to movements such as Postimpressionism and Surrealism involve negotiating the ‘foreignness’ of the temperament and style of the artists and aesthetics. Underlying this, of course, is the well-rehearsed belief that a conflagration of authentically British avant-garde did not take place when the sparks of Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism were lit. Indeed, the partial successes I discuss here in this study nearly always provoke the same kinds of critical response: yes, European modernism is all well and good, but something home-grown needs to occur if British social and cultural life is to be touched by the artistic realm and shaped by its activities.
The Conclusion explores some of the ways in which modernism has institutional legacies and afterlives in Britain. To some extent, I argue, the successes of modernism’s promoters in Britain were less to do with the transformation of public taste than the establishment of a network of interconnected artistic and cultural public, quasi-governmental and private institutions dedicated to fostering artistic and cultural activity across Britain in the years surrounding the Second World War. Though this study does not offer an institutional history of this activity, being outside its scope, it is clear that many of the educational, exhibiting and design initiatives I discuss helped to foster interest in and support of post-war institutions such as the ICA, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI). If there is a success, then, in modernism’s revolutionising of British arts and culture, it lies here. Many histories of post-war avant-garde activity in Britain find the embryonic roots of their object of study in the activities of one of these institutions.70 What this study finds is that modernist enterprise in Britain during the first decades of the century helped to construct a scaffolding for what followed, and an institutional and financial framework for the post-war arts industry in Britain.
(1) Wols, Aphorisms and Pictures, trans. Peter Inch and Annie Fatet (Gillingham: Arc Press, 1971), 32.
(2) Matthew Collings, ‘Damien Hirst and the British Art Show 2010’, Front Row (22 October 2010), BBC Radio 4.
(3) Stephen Coleridge, [untitled], English Review (July 1925): 44–5; 44.
(4) ‘The Day of the Rabblement’, in James Joyce, The Critical Writings, ed. Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellman (New York: Viking, 1968), 70.
(5) Ezra Pound, ‘The New Sculpture’, The Egoist, 4, 1 (16 February 1914): 68.
(6) Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), 42.
(8) Ezra Pound, ‘Murder by Capital’, in William Cookson (ed.), The Selected Prose of Ezra Pound: 1909–1965 (New York: New Directions, 1973), 229.
(9) Richard Aldington, ‘Some Reflections on Ernest Dowson’, The Egoist, 2, 3 (1 March 1915): 37.
(10) T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 108.
(11) D. H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious (New York: Dover, 2005), 53.
(12) John Xiros Cooper, Modernism and the Culture of Market Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4.
(15) Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen M. Watt (eds), Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996); Edward P. Comentale, Modernism, Cultural Production and the British Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
(16) Jonathan Rose, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Broker: Banking on Modernism’, in Pamela L. Caughie (ed.), Disciplining Modernism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 182–96.
(17) William Morris, ‘Making the Best of It’, in The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris, vol. 22 (London: Longmans Green, 1910–15), 85.
(18) John Ruskin, Stones of Venice in The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), vol. 10, 93.
(19) Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 22.
(20) See T. S. Eliot, ‘Arnold and Pater’, in Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950), 346–57.
(21) Roger Fry, ‘Art and Socialism’, in J. B. Bullen (ed.), Vision and Design (New York: Dover, 1998), 41.
(23) See, for instance, Leon Edel, Bloomsbury: A House of Lions (London: Hogarth, 1979); S. P. Rosenbaum, Aspects of Bloomsbury: Studies in Modern English Literary and Intellectual History (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998); Jesse Wolfe, Bloomsbury, Modernism and the Invention of Intimacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
(24) Quoted in Quentin Bell, Bloomsbury Recalled (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 112.
(25) Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (New York: Hogarth Press 1940), 158, 159.
(27) Penny Sparke, ‘Taste and the Interior Designer’, in After Taste: Expanded Practice in Interior Design (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), 15.
(29) Raymond Mortimer, The Star (28 October 1939): n.p.
(32) Clive Bell, ‘Contemporary Art in England’, Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 31, 172 (July 1917): 33–7; 36.
(33) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 3, 5.
(36) Wyndham Lewis, ‘Life Has no Taste’, Blast, 2 (1914): 82.
(37) Virginia Woolf, ‘Middlebrow’, in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1974 ), 198.
(38) Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (New York: New Directions, 1970), 44.
(39) Quoted in Leonard Unger, T. S. Eliot, A Selected Critique (New York: Rinehart, 1948), 18.
(40) Margaret H. Bulley, Have You Good Taste? (London: Methuen, 1933), 2.
(43) ‘Art as a National Asset’, Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 5, 17 (August 1904): 429–30; 429.
(45) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 ), 166.
(48) Jukka Gronow, ‘The Social Function of Taste’, Acta Sociologica, 36, 2 (1993): 93.
(49) Clive Bell, Art (New York: Frederick Stokes and Company, 1914), 4.
(51) Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone, 1997), 227.
(52) Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose, ed. Linda Dowling (London: Penguin, 2001), 141.
(53) Mark Gluck, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 5.
(54) See, for instance, Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).
(55) Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 63.
(57) See, for instance, Michael C. Fitzgerald, Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-Century Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Rod Rosenquist, Modernism, the Market, and the Institution of the New (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Alissa G. Karl, Modernism and the Marketplace (London: Routledge, 2009); Carey James Mickalites, Modernism and Market Fantasy: British Fictions of Capital, 1910–1939 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
(58) Robert Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin de Siècle Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994) traces out the early development of these kinds of promoter-dealers of modern art, and their efforts to manufacture markets.
(59) Lisa Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 193.
(61) Raymond Williams, ‘Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism’, in The Politics of Modernism (London and New York: Verso, 1997 ), 174.
(62) Herbert Read, ‘Threshold of a New Age’, in J. R. R. Brumwell (ed.), This Changing World (London: Readers Union, 1945), 7–14; 12.
(63) Becky E. Conekin, The Autobiography of a Nation: The 1951 Festival of Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 4.
(64) See, for example, Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture and Domesticity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Victoria Rosner, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Jane Garrity, ‘Selling Culture to the “Civilized”: Bloomsbury, British Vogue, and the Marketing of National Identity’, Modernism/modernity, 6, 2 (April 1999): 29–48.
(66) Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain (London: Psychology Press, 1993), 180.
(67) Thomas E. Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1996), 84.
(68) Raymond Williams, ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’, in Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 2005 ), 148–70.
(70) See, for example, Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman (eds), Neo-Avant-Garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2011); Alexander Clement, Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture (Marlborough: The Crowood Press, 2011); Philip Rupprecht, British Musical Modernism: The Manchester Group and their Contemporaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).