At the moment SD have an open publication policy. We carry the letter below, but dissociate ourselves from any idea that D H Lawerence’s views on the extermination of the ‘lower orders’ were anything other than reactionary. (Editor)
Correspondence: Review of ‘The Edwardians and Birth of Now’ – a reader responds
14 July 2007
It was good to see the article about the John Carey programme. It was quite enlightening about his prejudices. Sadly I think the author of the piece jumps to castigate modernism too quickly because he exhibits a sympathy for some of the pet arguments used to consign modernism to the past, a sort of triumphing of a fake idea of community over alienation, associated as an effect of modernism that doesn’t really make sense beyond any reason other than prejudice.
These critics seem to see a worrying void whenever they stare into modernism. I would say it’s only a void. That is all. Modernism is partly a reaction to the “death of god.” It is a glorious testament to the human capability to create something amazingly novel, often austere, rather haughty; an attempt to ditch the moribund ideological messages of earlier forms. Modernism is an aesthetic reaction to bombast about man’s place in the universe. Instead, it attempts to attain a new testament to describe the human spirit without rhetoric. It attempts to reveal part of us and it makes us see an important quality of being human and that is a kind of heartbreaking sobriety/sensitivity. It is an expression of humans striving for the highest below the strange and constant terror that there is nothing paying attention.
But modernism, if it displays the void, celebrates the fact that we are capable of living with it and on the edge of it. The art of the twentieth century is a revolt of the individual against the 19th century’s grotesque and fake ideas of team spirit which were surely the origin of 20th century barbarism. The true modernist impulse that I’m attempting to describe lay completely outside this.
An essential component was that modernism was anti war just like Christianity claimed to be, although dodgier things may able to be connected to its name such as futurism. Modernism is in essence not about action of any sort whatsoever. This is one of its essential characteristics and that’s why it’s a sitting duck for socialists to criticise it. Unfortunately their criticism is completely reactionary because rather than putting forward anything new in place of it, it is saying that modernism was a terrible conceited mistake and not a product of history on the conscious artist - always bourgeois of course.
Modernism is slammed because it is made by the bourgeoisie. It was made by the bourgeoisie because they were the only class capable of making high quality popular art. Modernism is not usually described as popular art but all the facts point to the fact that it was increasingly popular as the 20th century developed. Gerry Fitzpatrick admittedly refers to this in his apparently liberal minded article. In his gentle conclusion he says that lots of ordinary people wanted to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover, a classic example of damning with faint praise. Then comes a heartfelt plea to unhappy academics like Carey to explain to the masses what the heck it might be about. There really is little wrong with DH Lawrence saying that thousands of people should be exterminated in Crystal Palace. That is purely a futuristic science fiction type of idea. It is an example of what made the time so exhilarating for artists. Lawrence certainly wasn’t a political person. He wanted to essentially see the world with different eyes. This is a beautiful idea and how wonderful that we can forgive a statement such as the former!
Modernism is not a monstrosity of the modern. Look at it. Its beauty is touchingly fragile. It is the twilight devoid of colour in the face of impending death but still it asserts itself, rather like us?
There is a whole other argument in the realm of architecture about the problems of planning but this has nothing to do with aesthetics. The best modernism has an essential beauty which is undeniable. To deny it is reactionary. The proof of this is in the effect of such criticism - apologies for Prince Charles, and the effect is reactionary so there is undeniable proof. GF attempts an even more damaging thing. To mediocratise the value of fantastic art.
Critics may say they are criticising it in a social context but there is no need. They are using social arguments to damn something they dislike aesthetically. They are displaying bigotry and the writer of your piece is really trying to replace Carey’s castigation with a supposedly more sophisticated version of his own. If you can disprove this argument, good luck.