“Should not the unswerving modernists… come to the realization that there is nothing more wearisome or more barren than the most antiquated of all manias: the rage to be modern?” Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

In my visits to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, I generally sidestep the East Building, the portion devoted to modern art. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I would bet the majority of people are allergic to the idea of modern art, modern music, modernism in general. I stress the idea of those things. The modernist movement in the arts signaled “a radical break from the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression” (Encyclopedia Britannica), and for many people, modernism connotes art or music that substitutes ugliness for beauty, denies meaning in the universe, or destroys the idea of art itself. But is this the whole story?

Let’s start with definitions. “Modern” means “characteristic of the present or recent time.” Of course, all art is modern when it is happening. This is as true for Michelangelo as for Monet or Mondrian. But it wasn’t until the twentieth century that modern became an “ism” and artists became self-conscious about the need to pursue it. (G.K. Chesterton’s quip comes to mind: “Medieval people never worried about being medieval; and modern people do worry horribly about being modern.”)

In visual art modernism took the form of increasing abstraction, starting with cubism and ending in the paint drips of Jackson Pollock and color fields of Mark Rothko. Many artists forsook depicting the objective world around them in favor of their subjective mental states (e.g., surrealism) or arrangements of shapes and colors. It seemed as if the created world was there to be deconstructed—witness Picasso’s distorted human figures.

In the popular mind, artistic modernity is defined by the iconoclasts, those who insisted on making that “radical break” with tradition. They include the likes of composer Pierre Boulez, who insisted that musicians “cut the umbilical cord to the past,” and deconstructive provocateurs like Marcel Duchamp.

The sensationalism that feeds off such figures obscures the fact that a good deal of twentieth-century art and music was traditional in nature. Many painters and sculptors continued to depict recognizable things in a more or less realistic manner, unaffected by abstract trends: Edward Hopper, George Bellows, Grant Wood, and Andrew Wyeth, just to name several. Impressionism lasted well into the century, with representatives as late as the 1950s. These “modern realists” were not reactionary oddballs—much as they were often treated as such by the artistic establishment—but fine artists who documented their contemporary world, just as artists had done for centuries. What could be more modern than Hopper’s desolate city scenes or Bellows’ boxing pictures?

There is a lesser known story in twentieth-century art, of how World War I dealt a severe blow to progressive modernism. It was widely felt at that time that modernity had discredited itself in the carnage of the war. Accordingly, many artists turned to a more traditional and classical style of art. Picasso entered a neoclassical phase emulating Ingres and Raphael. Portrait artists like Meredith Frampton continued the tradition of realistic human modeling, often with a new geometric quality derived from Art Deco.

A similar “return to order” occurred in music, where a number of composers presented a counter-argument to Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal ideas. Foremost among them were Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Paul Hindemith in Germany. Hindemith’s neoclassical style extended Bach’s counterpoint to encompass more dissonant harmonies, always with a tonal starting and ending point. Like much of the music of Igor Stravinsky, it was a synthesis of the old and the new, one that was highly influential to young composers in both Europe and America. These composers used many of the resources of modern music, but still maintained the “umbilical chord to the past.”

The fact that music has to sound makes it by nature a more traditional art form than painting or sculpture. Many people live and work in ugly buildings without batting an eye; yet were they forced to listen to cacophonous music in those buildings, they would flee in droves. This is due, I think, to the more visceral impact that music has. Whatever experimental sounds they may throw at their listeners, composers will eventually fall back on forms and procedures that have been proven to sound well.

This is illustrated by the rise and fall of that most abstract form of music, twelve-tone serialism. Its rise paralleled the vogue for Abstract Expressionist painting after World War II. Just as visual artists arranged geometrical shapes, serial composers juggled twelve-tone rows. Among the most extreme proponents, the results were so arid and cerebral that the majority of listeners stopped listening, and the composers largely ended up writing for each other. By the end of the century, serial music had pretty well burnt itself out.

In his book Surprised by Beauty, a guide to the good in twentieth-century music, Robert R. Reilly declares that he has uncovered “the other twentieth century,” an alternative canon of modern music. But in fact this “other twentieth century” was very much the mainstream. The bulk of the music of the last century is tonal in the broad sense of the term and traditional in form. Even Arnold Schoenberg—who saw himself as a “conservative who was forced to become a radical”—once took a holiday from atonality and wrote a piece in G major (Suite in the Old Style).

Artistic history is too often presented in a one-sided way. In pursuit of an easy linear narrative, textbooks focus only on cutting-edge figures—those who “moved art forward” (even if they happened to be moving it off a cliff)—and sideline more traditional ones. The “revolutionary” and “shock the bourgeoisie” have all the cachet in our world. An artist who calmly adds to and extends a tradition will receive little fanfare. This is to the great detriment of our understanding and appreciation, as it leaves out a great deal from the history of art and gives us a distorted view of artistic creation and development.

None of this is to deny the destructive and nihilistic elements in modernism. But no period of art or culture is monolithic. Twentieth-century art was subject to a great variety of spiritual and philosophical influences. One can draw a clear line between the enfants terribles and those artists whose innovations built upon the past, maintained spiritual values, and aspired to permanent standards of truth and beauty. It is for us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Lovers” (1923) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

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