Perhaps the most compelling feature of modernism is the rejection of tragedy. A disdain and unconsciousness of within the context of a rupture with history. Its hubris, a mark of identity and also the genesis of its own failure, a different dynamic of tragedy, but nonetheless a trajectory that collapses the “this time its different” synopsis. The central enemy of the modern ideal society, the socialist or capitalist utopia, artistically speaking is empathy and identification, happily ever after and the refusal of suffering, anguish and imperfection that makes up the drama of tragedy whether it be an Ayn Rand rugged individualism or a Brechtian New Man. By use of abstraction and distortion, modernist painters like Pollack or Koons sought to fragment and marginalize the sympathies of their viewers from this saccharine sentimentality that constituted bourgeois values.The Norman Rockwell world that Clement Greenberg targeted as kitsch. But society, and in particular, corporatism has chosen against the modernist vision, and even the more advanced avant garde art. Collectively, a choice has been established for the tragic view of life. For nostalgia. The question then is why?
That response may be a paradoxical one. A bumpy logic concludes that a tragic vision forms the only realistic form of true optimism, a meaningful basis of hope and progress. Even a persistant and stubborn search for love. The anguish, say of a 9-11 or ecological disaster, financial and economic collapse, tragedy, can only arise from stupendous loss and waste. Like the militant atheist- these losses presuppose, and confirm that there is something non-negligible and of importance to be lost. A valueless and trifling world cannot hold anything that would merit the time and trouble devoted to earnest mourning. The assumption then is that the world is meaningful, something to merit a naval gazing fixation, to expend intellectual masturbation over. There has to be a productivity of meaning. An industry and commercialization of meaning. Something worth branding.
The ironic aspect is that tragedy recycles itself. If our society can furnish, create, and develop products and individuals with such high value that their loss is considered tragic, then the world has the capacity to repeat the cycle. Why? Because the tragic represents an affirmation, a winning assertion to create an eternal spring, the attraction of enchantment to which we appear hostage, hostage to a form of infantilism and whose loss of context, no matter how contrived would be the cause of infinite suffering. Tragedy seems to affirm aspects quite dark, deeply shadowy, splendid, and awful; that is the seeming capacity of some individuals to suffer adequately, Eli Wiesel comes to mind, to give the accurate and precise emotional response, to tragic loss which underpins the meaningfulness in many lives. This talent seems god given to the believers, and it permits the notion of liberty and freedom in all its artificial and plastic grace to flourish with the luster and animation of glazed fruit.
from Donald Kuspit:It is noteworthy that Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine — all the peintres maudits — have been called sentimentalists, but if so they are not as cursed as they have been said to be. Sentimentality may seem like softness and naivet, but then the hardness and coldness of formalism suggests failed humanity. And prudery: what is more puritan than Malevichs anhedonic square? It is absence disguised as presence — a hollow godhead misrepresented as a cosmic essence. It has become an academic symbol of modernism, suggesting that it was never sacrosanct to begin with. But what is sentimentality? It signals the need for love — and both Chagall and Modigliani are among the few modern masters who admit to the need and attempt to represent love (not simply sexuality, as Picasso does), and who even manage to convey a loving attitude to the human subject (as Picasso rarely does) — however stymied the need, ironically by the needy sentimentalist himself.
The psychoanalyst Edgar Levenson defines sentimentality as an investment in emotion as an experience, rather than a transaction. The sentimentalist wishes to feel loving, to experience himself as a loving person, rather than to love someone. It is love in the intransitive state. The sentimentalist is a narcissist, as Levenson says, more interested in the sensation of loving than in actually loving someone in particular. Don Juan is a sentimentalist, unable to sustain a relationship with the women he has sex with, let alone to love them and care for them (like Picasso). If this is true, Chagall was never a sentimentalist, as his marriage to Bella indicates, but a true lover.
In contrast, Modigliani was a desperate Don Juan, reluctant to become involved in the complex interpersonal transaction that love is, although shortly before his death he was finally able to love a woman in all her particularity and be loved in return. Until then, he seemed to confuse sex and love, but I would contend, on the evidence of the intimacy that emanates from his portraits, he had great capacity for the reciprocity of love. But he clearly loved better in his art than he did in his life, if the issue of love is to unite tenderness and lust (and maybe tilt more toward the former than the latter) as Freud thought.
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