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Review: The Edwardians and Birth of Now: The Menace of the Masses  (John Carey BBC4)

Gerry Fitzpatrick

12 May 2007

Two series of note recently broadcast on the BBC took a rare look at the subject of ideology and the influence of reactionary ideas in society. The BBC2 series ‘The Trap: What Happened To Our Freedom’ will be dealt with in a separate review. 

This lecture The Menace of The Masses was given by Oxford professor John Carey as part of the BBC4 series the Edwardians and The Birth of Now. Carey’s subject was on class perceptions of culture and I suspect that many who would have liked to have watched didn’t, as they were put off by the series promo which took as its theme the gluttony of the Edwardian upper middle classes. That aversion is not surprising as we also have had a glut of programmes about food – programmes about ideology being hardly ever commissioned never mind aired nowadays. 

So it was a rare surprise to see John Carey sum up the thesis of his book ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’ (1995) as part of this series. There were two main strands to his account of the influence of reactionary ideas in the years before the First World War. The first was on intellectual notions of culture. The second strand was on eugenics movement and population control. 

Both, as Carey has indicated, were brought into being as a response to the urban expansion of the working classes in the industrialised world of the 19th century. The key issue of the first of these accounts being what we now call ‘the uses of literacy’. Where once it had been a common liberal and reforming cause to promote literacy among the poor, now bourgeois opinion began to shift in the direction of protecting culture from the ‘uncultured’ urban masses. After preparing this background Carey then shifts his focus to the very small group who had simply given up the idea that traditionally understood meanings (Carey gives the work of the novelist Arnold Bennett as an example), were what culture was about at all - these were the modernists. 

A Rather Dry Truth

He asserts the rather dry truth that these artists – Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Wymdam Lewis, W.B Yeats T.S. Elliot, Arnold Schoenberg and James Joyce by the first decade of the 20th Century thought that art and music should be ‘obscure and difficult’. He gives no details, simply saying that the unseen hand of the great Russian mystagogue Madam Balvatsky was responsible for giving people strange notions like artistic abstraction. It’s true that some like Kandinsky, Mondrian and W.B. Yeats took Madam Balvatsky seriously, but Carey’s approach does have a fatalistic ring to it here: Once we had artists who produced good meaningful stuff and now we have these very odd people who began by posing in sack cloth and ashes and who now dominate the meaning of today’s culture… It’s an understandable position for an unhappy liberal Oxford professor to have, but not much use to those seeking a deeper understanding of the politics of culture and Modernism. For what Carey is doing here is simply accounting for the appearance of modernism only in terms of a prejudice against something (like the novels of Arnold Bennet) which in turn produces a preference for something more ‘difficult and obscure’ (like the music of Arnold Schoenberg). This simply doesn't go near the question of the social production of art and ideology and how particular class and social relations of power are necessary conditions for not only the appearance of Modernist art as an historical phenomenon but also its themes.

A Marxist Account of the Origins of Modernism

The great German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) devoted the last years of his life to this very subject. Most academics (even those who consider themselves enlightened) ignore his account, so we shouldn’t really be surprised that Carey does the same. So let’s not neglect the opportunity to mention it here

“The poet's taste guides him in his choice of words. But the choice is made only among words which have not already been coined by the object itself - that is, which have not been included in its process of production.
In point of fact, the theory of l' art pour l' art assumed decisive importance around 1852, at a time when the bourgeoisie sought to take its 'cause' from the hands of the writers and the poets. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx recollects this moment, when 'the extra-parliamentary masses of the bourgeoisie. . . through the brutal abuse of their own press', called upon Napoleon 'to destroy their speaking and writing segment, their politicians and literati, so that they might confidently pursue their private affairs under the protection of a strong and untrammelled government'. At the end of this development may be found Mallarme and the theory of poisie pure. There the cause of his own class has become so far removed from the poet that the problem of a literature without an object becomes the centre of discussion. This discussion takes place not least in Mallarme's poems, which revolve about blanc, absence, silence, vide”.
      (Walter Benjamin, ‘Taste’ from ‘Paris Capital of The 19th Century’. see below) 

Benjamin took the environs of Paris as a kind of laboratory of Modernism. He gives an explanation of how the problem arose for bourgeois art or as he says trying to make art ‘without an object’. An art that has as its subject, the problem of not having a subject, can only be expected to be difficult. So the art and the artist tend to recount a sense of loss, or as Martha Rosler has said in relation to domestic and imperial control of culture – a sense of ‘loss of mastery’.

Those Who Will Loose

This sense of loss coupled with threat from the masses is the subject of Carey’s next line of enquiry. Here he makes a more substantial argument but which is even more fatalistic.  Quoting the influence of the eugenics movement on the ideas of Bernard Shaw, Yeats, H.G Wells, Wyndam Lewis and D.H Lawrence he draws a straight line to Hitler and the extermination camps. The views expressed are clearly revolting. The most chilling are from Lawrence where he says in a letter to a friend that if he had his way he would build a place like the Crystal Palace into which he would hoard the lower orders of society to be done away with. Carey simply offers a collection of similar quotes to that of Lawrence, no distinctions are made between how a writer like Shaw saw Hitler (who thought that people should not be alarmed by the new German Chancellor) and the Wyndam Lewis (who saw Hitler as a true saviour). 

Hitler was in some sense the apotheosis of the eugenics movement, but it would however be wrong to give the impression that ideas of racial and natural superiority of the imperial elites and their enterprise had not already lead to war and mass death, as they had done in India, Africa and Ireland, were millions had died in famines or that mass exterminations had not already begun, as they had in German south west Africa and the Belgian Congo. 

The Imperial Way At Home and Abroad

This programme should really be seen in conjunction with the programme on the imperial approach to indigenous populations, which was broadcast recently on the BBC which showed how social Darwinist notions and other Victorian ideas of biological and racial superiority, combined with the creed of  market orientated morality, contributed to millions of deaths in the Indian famines. Crops were grown for export and not domestic consumption which meant that the traditional setting aside of grain for times of famine was abandoned and actively discouraged, as all labour was to be placed in the service of ‘liberal’ imperial economics. It made the point that those who could not resist modern imperial society it was hoped would ‘simply die out’. And as we have seen those who did resist were to be exterminated. 

What the reactionary cultural modernists and purveyors of cultural despair were doing was simply importing this foreign imperial approach (also laced with a hefty dose of social Darwinism) into the domestic cultural sphere – where the socio-cultural threat was now seen as coming from the various industrial proletariats. Certainly Wyndam Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, T.E. Hulme and the later W.B.Yeats fall into this category.

Taking Against Your ‘Own’ Side

It would also be very wrong to give the impression that there was no political opposition to this new barbarism from artists. Mark Twain publicly denounced Leopold and his 'Congo Free State’ as did Arthur Conan Doyle who became involved with Roger Casements' movement to stop the destruction in the Congo.  And Casement could serve as the case in point; he had begun in the imperial service and firmly believed in Britain's civilizing mission in Africa. Those like the Tory historian Neil Ferguson who asserts that Britain's Liberal imperium did a lot of good in the world, are loathe to admit that it was Casement's in-depth report of 1903 on the exploitation of the Congo - the first human rights report of its kind - that not only challenged Leopold’s sham ‘anti-slavery' credentials but also lead Casement to see through Britain's 'liberal' imperialism. This became all the more obvious to Casement as his report was censored and played down, simply because the British Foreign Office (who had commissioned it) did not wish to put the Belgium government on the spot, as Belgium had just become an ally of Britain. 

The Masses in 1900-1914 – What Was Being Done?

As for the activities of the masses themselves these are not even mentioned by Carey – not even in passing. So we have no sense here of what it was these people were doing that was threatening bourgeois dominance. So what was being done?  The basic facts are that in the years in question 1900 - 1914 mass demonstrations took place all over Europe to oppose the military build up and the drive to war. These actions and the massive fight to extend the franchise to workers and women, intensified after the Russian Revolution of 1905. Worker and civil rights organisations were at that time united in the case for reform. After 1911 a clearer split developed between large reformist organisation and revolutionary organisations. What happened in Ireland was very much an illustration of what was to come, with a split in the country between new pro-imperial organisations (the Ulster Volunteer Force) and anti-imperial organisation (Irish Volunteers and the Citizens Army) – a similar split later of course becoming pronounced in Italy and Germany. In truth war fever was begat by appealing to the very thing the reactionary modernists were no longer interested in – common humanity. True – the appeals to fight to ‘Save Our Women’ were based on reports of German atrocities, but it was this that motivated working men and women to joining the war effort and not because they wished to be spiritual and technical superbeings eager to take part in violent social cleansing, like the modernists Wyndam Lewis, Apollnaire, and Marinetti. 

The Distinctions Between Traditional And Difficult Art

Carey makes a very rough distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘difficult’ art but this does not always mean that the work produced was ‘esoteric’ or reactionary. The case in point here being Picasso’s collages. From around 1909 Picasso began a series of works that used unusual materials. Some are of objects, some approximate objects; some disrupt our perceptions of objects. An important number are full of political and ironic comment. Picasso was very much an anarchist at this time and a number of his works were sardonically disruptive of social and artistic perception. So in ‘A Glass and Bottle of Suze’ of 1912 we have a table and a wine glass, cuttings from newspapers on the table which, when read, turn out to be war reports from the Balkans and of the mass anti-war demonstrations. But Modernist critics simply reject the idea that this work was meant to be political and claim that Picasso’s only aim here was purely artistic. This method of art criticism or what is properly known now as Modernist Art Criticism we can also trace to the beginning of to these early years of the 20th century. The articles and books produced by Clive Bell and Roger Fry in England, Maurice Denis in France and Willhiem Worringer in Germany became hugely influential on art criticism and later on how art history was taught.

However, the extreme limitation of this approach to art history has at long last been recognised. So to say now that these and a number of other modernist artists were expressing class and cultural interests is not such a controversial point to make as it would have been say twenty five years ago. Then, the majority of radical thought on culture took all modernism to be ‘revolutionary’. 

The Social Function of The Avant Garde Under Capitalism

In recent times a lot of excellent work has been done on the social function of the avant garde as the ‘research and development end’ of post 1900 bourgeois culture. The highest value both historical and monetary is placed on modernist works as commodities (since the late 1980s Japanese security houses have been using them as protection against future stock market falls).  They are endlessly reproduced and displayed as the last word in high taste. True not many read Joyce but countless writers have been influenced by him and take him for granted. As for the difficult and ‘incomprehensible’ music of Arnold Schoenberg; his musical ideas were carried wholesale into Hollywood and used in B movies to suggest that something horrible is about to happen. 

Trying To Save Modernism From the Masses and Kitsch: A Marxist Morality Tale 

In 1939 this tendency of modernism to become the bourgeois culture was surveyed by the American Trotskyist critic Clement Greenberg, who bemoaned the fact that there was now a ‘market’ for modernism were once few had any interest or notion of the significance or value of ‘difficult’ poetry, now it is taught in the universities. Greenberg thought that a new American avant garde could help save ‘what culture we have right now’ and counteract Stalinist and NAZI propaganda which he saw as a version of ‘kitsch’ (mass produced bad taste for the docile masses) and he called for a new abstract a-political modernism, this was the beginning of American Abstract Expressionist movement. A movement that was to become the very thing that Greenberg claimed it couldn’t – a propaganda weapon of the (U.S.) government. A movement which also ushered in the biggest glut of pretentious artistic kitsch in human history, as countless demobbed GI’s under the GI bill went back to college and tried to be ‘action painters’. 

The great modernist writer on aesthetics Theodore Adorno observed that even in the motels of America of the 1950s there were now examples of this abstract art on the walls. Who could say that people who stayed in these motels found these abstract works ‘difficult’, when they more than likely saw it as a ubiquitous part of modern life? 

Traditional and Modernist Ways Of Looking At The World 

Carey in his book takes up the case of H.G Wells where he gives the evidence ‘for and against’. He makes the point quite well that the ideas of social cleansing and reform outlined above could exist in one mind. But the case could also be made for Joyce or Picasso who as modernists also identified with struggling humanity. What happened to that influence in their work can be seen best in front of Guernica, now at last in Madrid, and heard at specialist readings of Finnegan’s Wake in Dublin where human existence has assumed the shape of a nightmare, haunted by the dark comic forms of political allegory. 

Modernism and Modernists Today 

Carey is right that modernist ideas of one hundred years ago are still dominant as those who hold them offer us different versions of the blankness and bleakness. But this constant emphasis on the obscure and the austere as the place were only true meaning can exist, has led to a very healthy counter reaction in our contemporary masses. The public may indeed go to the exhibition to see what the hype was about. And since many modernists today say very loudly that their art is of no consequence and should be treated as ephemera, then it not surprising that that is how people see it. Which is not to say they can have a talent to annoy - they do and probably most annoying for a Marxist is the idea that the ‘alienation’ of the modernist artist can stand for everyone’s alienation, not to mention the very annoying fact that they want their ephemera to be preserved and for people to pay a very high price for it!

There is a much needed observation that Carey also neglects to add to the process of history and modernity on these works (and I don’t just mean buying a Kandinsky print at a street market or Mondrian shopping bag after visiting an exhibition). Lawrence’s work here is our best example. Lawrence of course could not have been more wrong about the working masses - people who he had painfully left behind (he was born into a poor mining family). He would never have dreamed that any of these people, who he wished to see the end of, would want to see a book of his un-banned and then eagerly devour its contents, not to mention regularly watch films based on his books in the 1960s and 1970s. Carey when speaking of today makes no mention of these types of advances, for these dialectics of modernity and modernism are contrary to his fatalistic approach.  Countless millions have read and enjoyed the modernist classics and if they don’t follow the meaning they like to hear from someone who does – like John Carey, television professor and critic.



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