How this century's artists have opened our eyes

On Monday, Dec. 21, 1908, the month-old Christian Science Monitor initiated an unsigned literary column with the boxed headline: ''What We Think of Books Sent Us for Review.'' An equally pointed introduction to the new feature announced: ''This department is unbiased, and commendatory and adverse criticisms will be published according to the editor's judgment of the book.''

Tucked into the first column, among ''The Cathedrals and Churches of Northern Italy'' and ''Arts and Crafts of the Middle Ages'' - the Christmas-gift books, presumably, of 1908 - there is a consideration of ''First and Last Things,'' a rather uncharacteristic piece of introspection by H. G. Wells.

The review begins with an observation that would not sound out of place today: ''Hundreds of books on psychology, impaired by the immature views of the authors, have been written as a result of the restiveness of the age.''

Wells, it appears, was an exception.

What the unnamed reviewer particularly responded to in Wells - what Wells was responding to in his daily life - was the uncertainty of ''facts.'' Wells wrote: ''At first I took the world of fact as being exactly as I perceived it. I believed my eyes. Seeing was believing, I thought. Still more did I believe my reasoning.'' But the obviously shaken Wells of ''First and Last Things'' had been forced to conclude: ''The senses seem surer than they are. The thinking mind seems clearer than it is and is more positive than it ought to be. The world of fact is not what it appears to be.''

In his bluff, impatient way Wells identified - as that first Monitor book reviewer also did - what was to become the destiny of the next 75 years: a revolution in perception.

Wells wrote novels without quite being an artist. He wrote science-fiction and popular science without really qualifying as a scientist. He wrote philosophy - and certainly he was no philosopher. But Wells was a little of all three, and he sensed, as few specialists did then (or since), that this deauthorization of the ''fact'' was linked in these three areas, and any other areas you could manage to think of in life.

Wells, a man far more comfortable with solid, conventional ideas of substance , declared almost with chagrin: ''I found I had to begin by being metaphysical.''

Whatever he meant by his italicized term, Wells was speaking for his era and for the era to come.

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset would call the end result of the revolution of perception the ''dis-realization of the world.'' That this was a joint venture of natural science and art was explicitly acknowledged by the Russian emigre artist Wassily Kandinsky, the father of Abstract Expressionism. About the time this newspaper was founded - three years after Einstein began ''dis-realizing'' the old certainties of time and space on the way to formulating his theory of relativity - Kandinsky wrote: ''The crumbling of the atom was to my soul like the crumbling of the whole world. . . . Everything became uncertain, tottering, and weak. I would not have been surprised if a stone had dissolved in the air in front of me.''

In 1908, after traveling in North Africa looking for he-didn't-know-what, Kandinsky settled down outside of Munich and described his revised perception of reality in his essay, ''Concerning the Spiritual in Art.'' In words that could have come from the pen of Wells, Kandinsky concluded: ''The world of fact is not . . . an external, rigid deed but an inner flexible one.''

The only question, he decided, was this: ''What should replace the object?'' - the solid apples and palaces and shepherds with sheep that had always provided the substance for the artists to represent.

The young Picasso, a chap never lacking in confidence, thought he had the answer. He boldly took the mandate of the modern artist to be ''our conception of what nature is not.''

In 1908, the year we are celebrating, Matisse half-humorously dubbed this new metaphysics of the palette ''Cubism.'' A Cubist takes it as his calling to ''fashion the real in the image of his mind,'' according to the definition by a Cubist of that time.

Nor, of course, was the disenfranchisement of the order of brute things restricted to the visual arts. In Vienna Arnold Schonberg, a painter of some distinction as well as a composer, did a self-portrait around 1908 - the year he composed his Second String Quartet, consummating his breakthrough into a whole other world of music. For the composers after Schonberg, atonality was the sound from beyond the looking glass.

The self-portrait expresses a degree of tension, even agony. Schonberg, like Wells, did not welcome the earth shaking beneath him. He had just lost his wife to another man who happened to be his best friend, and he seemed to have something of the same feeling of loss when he was dragged by his own ear toward the 12-tone scale. He described his disorientation thus: ''Personally I had the feeling I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water.''

Another composer, Pierre Boulez, summed up the torment, as well as the exaltation, of all these pioneers of perception: ''Our age is one of persistent, relentless, almost unbearable inquiry. . . . It cuts off all retreats and bans all sanctuaries - forsaking all memory to forge a perception without precedent.''

Simultaneously literature, in its fashion, began extending language to the service of something more than ''realism'' or ''naturalism.'' In 1908 James Joyce was at work on ''The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,'' starting to experiment with the process that William James termed the ''stream of consciousness.'' The old unities of place and time cracked and fragmented, the way they do in dreams. Words became the only firm objects - but then they began rolling themselves into Joycean puns or becoming pure sound: the music of irreducible vowels and consonants.

In 1908 poetry had long since begun dismembering its traditional structure: meter and rhyme. The French, perhaps because they were confronted by a tradition of the most meticulous and classicavPOder, could be the most radical of all. Here is Rimbaud, setting out z /o-realize'' with a vengeance: ''The Poet makes himself a visionary by a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses in order to arrive at the unknown.''

''Make it new!'' ordered the poet Ezra Pound, cheerleader of everything modern under the sun, and the revolution was truly on.

In the beginning there was something known as the avant-garde - tiny, beleaguered. How long ago that seems! The first forays into the public consciousness have the quality of legend.

The Armory Show, opening in New York on Feb. 17, 1913, was melodramatically but not inaccurately described as ''The Shot That Was Heard Around the World'' - leading to the destruction of ''the old rule and founding a revolutionary one.'' Originally conceived as an exhibition of the American avant-garde, plus ''a few radical things from abroad,'' the Armory Show evolved into the most comprehensive collection of contemporary art to be assembled.

The Monitor gave the occasion full play, running reproductions of Van Gogh and Matisse to illustrate the review. Our reviewer found the exhibition ''entertaining and stimulating,'' characterized by ''admirable daring'' - a ''challenge to the 'stand-patter.' '' But that was putting it mildly. One shaken chronicler described the happening on Lexington Avenue, staged under the pine-tree banner of the American Revolution, as ''a kind of riot.''

This phrase certainly suited the booing and hissing - the animallike resistance - that greeted the premiere in Paris on May 29 of the same year of Igor Stravinsky's ''The Rite of Spring.'' Derision was the Establishment's favored response to the modern. A disgruntled old-school listener sputtered into rhyme:

Who wrote this fiendish 'Rite of Spring,'

What right had he to write the thing

Against our helpless ears to play

Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang, bing? The honest citizens, assaulted by the bold colors and abstract shapes of the Armory Show and the savage rhythms of Stravinsky, were not mistaken to take this as more than an attack on their senses. In 1922 T.S. Eliot's ''The Waste Land,'' perhaps the most influential literary event of the past 75 years, was published, making clear that the ''dis-realization of the world'' inevitably involved values as well as atoms. In what could stand as the perfect modern double-entendre, Eliot wrote: ''Son of man, you know only a heap of broken images.''

Meanwhile, the mainstream flowed on. Traditional paintings were painted after the Armory Show. Traditional music was composed after ''The Rite of Spring.'' Traditional poetry was written after ''The Waste Land.'' But what had been seen had been seen, and those who had seen in the new way could not allow themselves, or the rest of the world, to forget.

The tributary of the modern had roiled into the mainstream, and the mainstream would never be the same again, though it might take a little time. After he visited the Armory Show, Charles Sheeler, the painter of those neat and austere cityscapes, said it took him nine years ''to bail out and make a new beginning.''

In fiction and theater, things moved even slower, but they moved. The most famous American novelist of the post-World War I generation, and the least arty of personalities - Ernest Hemingway - emerged, it should be noted, out of the salon of Gertrude Stein, with Ezra Pound as mentor. And though years would pass before Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett reached Broadway, the process leading to the ''Theater of Revolt'' and the ''Theater of the Absurd'' had already started in the '20s, back on the obscure stages of Europe's experimental workshops.

What began as a way of looking at ''fact,'' turned into an ideology - a politics of culture. One is inclined to make it an ism, like everything else - ''modernism,'' the blanket term to cover Cubism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism , Surrealism, and all the rest.

The eccentric French composer Erik Satie, who played piano in a Paris cafe and refused to conform even to the other nonconformists, resisted the inflated rhetoric of ''modernism.'' Satie made this his motto: Stop trying to be impressive.

On the whole, Monitor reviewers through the years have been Satie-ites - taking the long view and the international view, like their news colleagues - paying attention to the new, as the Wells reviewer did, as the Armory Show reviewer did, but avoiding the tempting trap of ardent parochialism. Rereading past Monitors, one must ask: Where else would Welsh folk festivals be reviewed annually, next to appraisals of the latest ism in New York art galleries? Where else would a regular feature titled ''More Than a Book,'' celebrating an essayist's most memorable reading in childhood or youth, take its place among reviews of the latest Saul Bellow or Graham Greene?

But the Satie-ites have not prevailed where ''modernism'' has been concerned. One can hardly exaggerate the polarizations caused by modern art and its final triumph. The booed and the hissed have been enshrined as this century's ultimate heroes - indeed, as high priests of a secular religion: Art. What pantheon of statesmen or philosophers or even natural scientists can command the reverence of mythic names like Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright?

By the end of World War II, the term ''culture vulture'' had to be invented to describe an appetite that promised - or threatened, depending on the viewpoint - to make art Big Business. The poet Peter Viereck imagined a Babbitt Jr., the son of Sinclair Lewis's old Philistine. Babbitt Jr., the new model of conformity, was in the forefront of the crowds making museum turnstiles whirl and bookstore cash registers ring up mass sales for paperbacks.

The revolution seemed to run away with the revolutionaries. Nothing was too ''far out,'' as the saying went, for the nouveaux connoisseurs. They were ready for novels without plots, for poetry that was the algebra of its metaphors, for music so pure it was silence, for dance that was running or walking but definitely not dance-dance. (''For a long time,'' Steve Reich remarked in an essay on dance in the '60s, ''one would go to the dance concert where no one dances, followed by the party where everyone dances.'')

The eyes of the generations adjusted to modern art have also been the eyes adjusted to the dissolve, the flashback, the zoom close-up of the motion picture. The popularity of film - the ''image-making machine,'' as the filmmaking poet Jean Cocteau called it in a revealing phrase - has made the mix-and-match multimedia event the choicest experiment of the modern artist out to exceed the latest excess, with a little help from the projector, the synthesizer, and everybody's new friend, the computer. The composer John Cage described the consumer's predicament - ''listening . . . looking, everything at once in order not to be run over.''

The irony of the modern movement has been noted by the art critic Harold Rosenberg. ''The ideals of innovation, experiment, dissent have been institutionalized and made official,'' he observed, bringing us to the supreme contradiction: the ''tradition of the new.'' We are so jaded with the same old new that we have had to concoct something - we're not sure what - called the ''post-modern.''

A Monitor critic summed up the dilemma: ''The golden age of the artist, is it not? No compulsory techniques to apply, no obligatory values to support; a large , doting, permissive public. Why, then, does the artist so regularly feel distrustful of himself and of the situation?''

At some point, like a tidal wave of chic, the ideology of the modern took over not only art but the rest of life. The whole world has ''gone modern.'' One looks up at the latest concrete-and-glass hotel and sees a facsimile signature of the Bauhaus. One snaps on a TV commerical and sees models out of Modigliani walking on a set inherited, second- or thirdhand, from German expressionist theater. Even a folk art like jazz has acquired a modern accent, adopting Ravel and Stravinksy, just as Ravel and Stravinsky adopted elements of jazz.

The influence can get personal. Since the '60s, people who have lived their lives without deliberate contact with anything they would call art have, nonetheless, dressed and contrived a life style after the fashion of the Bohemian.

What has it finally been about, this breakdown of the ''fact,'' this ''dis-realization of the world'' that fascinated and frightened Wells 75 years ago?

There has been a tendency to regard ''modernism'' as negative - a smashing of all existing structures.

Many, like Schonberg, have mourned the dismantling of the old order, even as they have felt impelled to watch and participate.

A number of historians have seen ''modernism'' as a fierce, defiant dance at the funeral of Western civilization. ''Dance to your boom-boom,'' French avant-gardistes cried. ''We are a furious wind . . . disaster, fire, decomposition.''

The novelist and art historian Andre Malraux spoke for a consensus when he judged ''modernism'' to be, at bottom, a ''challenge to Western optimism.''

The ''modernist,'' it was concluded, held up the mirror to his or her revision of nature, and everything cracked to pieces - including the mirror.

The capsule summary became William Butler Yeats's line: ''Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.''

Yet this conventional interpretation does justice neither to the 20th-century artist nor his times. Indeed, there may be a serious misreading here. The best, the most profound modern artists have understood, in the words of one Monitor reviewer, that ''freedom as freedom-from has not proved sufficient; to be out of prison is an adequate aim in life only for a man behind bars.'' The best, the most profound modern artists have come to view their mission as a search for order - an organization of the new ''facts,'' no longer ruling out continuity with the past. Speaking of Stravinsky's appetite for laws, the pianist Malcolm Troup saw the composer as a man probing all his life for a solid center - a ''Stravinskian rock'': the ''dwelling-place of a God.''

More than one modern borrowed the phrase of Sophocles as a tag line for the century: ''Whirl is kind.'' Eliot, tormented by the vortex of change he noted so brilliantly in his early poems, ended up writing with passion of a serene center where time and eternity meet: ''At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is.''

But if one had to pick a single spokesman to converse with Wells across the 75 years, it might not be a writer at all but the German painter Max Beckmann. Beckmann could have been addressing himself directly to Wells's ''metaphysics'' of the new ''fact'' when he wrote of the ''fourth dimension which my whole being is seeking.''

Just before World War II broke out, when Beckmann was a refugee in London and his world was as chaotic as a world could be, he delivered a lecture ''On My Painting.'' It can be read today as if composed in 1983 rather than 1938. For we are still in the middle of the journey, we and our modern (or post-modern) artists, and often we feel lost. Just at that moment of confusion and despair we are tempted to label ''modern,'' Beckmann, our contemporary, found himself able to say what artists of other times have been able to say: ''Do not let yourself be intimidated by the horror of the world. Everything is ordered and correct and must fulfill its destiny in order to attain perfection. Seek the path and you will attain increasing release from all that now seems to you sad and terrible.''

For all the experiments, it would seem, art has not gone too far. It has not gone far enough.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.