Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
by Peter Gay
(Norton, $35)

Modernism was born in 1840s France and all but died in 1960s America, says cultural historian Peter Gay. Beginning with the poetry of Baudelaire and the nudes of Manet, the movement was distinguished in all fields by two common impulses. First among these, Gay says, was the “lure of heresy,” or the urge to shatter traditions. Second was “a principled self-scrutiny,” a commitment on the part of each artist to investigate subjectivity itself. The modernist mind-set created legends in some fields and drove audiences away in others. But the project, says Gay, required an elite audience. When Andy Warhol created a replica of a box of Brillo pads for a 1964 New York gallery show, he erased the boundaries between “serious and playful art.” Would-be modernists no longer had an arena to play in.

Despite all that’s already been written about Picasso and T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Igor Stravinsky, said Terry Teachout in Commentary, Gay’s 600-page survey is the first to attempt “a comprehensive chronicle” of modernism across all disciplines. It’s not an easy task. Gay deserves much credit merely for being able to write “almost as fluently” about music and dance as he does about literature and the visual arts. “For general readers looking to reacquaint themselves” with many of the crucial moments and figures of the period, said Kate Bolick in The Boston Globe, it will be a treat to do so in the company of an author who is so “winningly erudite.”

But Gay’s guided tour unfortunately “ends up leading nowhere,” said Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun. He fails to investigate how modernism may have “doomed” all artists since to a futile effort to re-create “the shock of the new.” Worse, his exploration of individualized “subjectivity” neither meshes with his first theme nor explains why modernists including Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun were attracted to authoritarianism. Somewhere along the way he should have figured out that the impulse linking both the foes and friends of liberty was the “idolatry of art.” Living in the so-called twilight of the idols, their “frail hope” was that art by itself could provide “a sufficient source of value for human life.”