Thursday, June 17, 2010

Modernism: discrediting the object in a picture by Jeanne Taylor (1937)

Jeanne Taylor, an accomplished artist totally unknown to fame, was about 22 when she made this playfully cubist picture of a farm near Scandia, Mn. in the summer of 1937, and gave it to her dear friend, my mother, who was then 37. It looks a little childish, as if she had been thinking of me and my sister when she painted it (I was six and my sister was not yet three) and perhaps she was.  I like to think so: "Here," she seems to be saying, "is how you can take ordinary things and make them interesting and beautiful using, simple lines and colors, and almost no perspective at all. You don't have to make them look true to life (whatever that means)." She didn't really expect us to take all this in; it would be years before we were able to understand what she was looking for in her art and life: liberation—from cliches, artificial codes, official conventions about what is or is not art in the representation of reality: a condition of complete simplicity.

That was the message of modernist art—as it was the message of Whitman's and, later, Rimbaud's poetry, and as we now know it comes with a price: that condition of complete simplicity costs not less than everything. For once you start simplifying your art or your life or your politics, where do you stop? Some conventions are deep and powerful, like manners, honesty, integrity, the making and keeping of promises. It really means something to be a person whose word can be trusted. Consider the structure of constitutional government and the rule of law, so basic to modernity: these are high on the list of the conventions we live by, and were achieved, in England, America, the Scandinavian countries after heroic struggles against despotic kings and against the odds. The 20th century, the century of total war and unspeakable abominations came very close to obliterating all of this.  A century of rapid climate change could easily finish the job that Fascism and Marxism nearly accomplished.


  1. Dadu Piers,

    I don't know enough to understand, but I am intrigued by the 2nd paragraph. Are you saying that the inevitable end of simplification is the undermining or rules, conventions, and basic courtesies? Isn't it "simpler" to live by the established rules, than to live in a society where there is no agreement, no contract among individuals--where one is constantly having to decipher others' intentions, to watch one's back? In Taylor's painting, the colors appear to highlight, bring into view, the LINES and SHAPES and RELATIONS among the objects.

  2. Dear Anonymous, I'm delighted to hear from you. These are good questions. There is nothing simple about living by the rules—which may be why you put those quote marks around the word 'simpler.' A world where there are no rules (you couldn't call it a society because all societies have rules) wouldn't be a human world; it would be bestial, and simple: eat or be eaten. In Modernist art, each artist makes up his own rules, for how art should be done. Modernism is rooted in the romantic revolutions of the 19th century. Many social and esthetic conventions were thrown out as mere cliches. To be free meant freedom from conventional notions of behavior and rules of art.

    What would a condition of complete simplicity entail? As I say, once you start throwing out conventions as nothing but cliches where do you stop? Wouldn't a condition of complete simplicity cost not less than everything? (I am quoting here from a poem by T. S. Eliot—or maybe it's by Frost.)