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Five Faces of Modernity by Matei Calinescu

Five Faces of Modernity (original 1987; edition 1987)

by Matei Calinescu

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1561110,079 (3.85)1
Title:Five Faces of Modernity
Authors:Matei Calinescu
Info:Duke University Press (1987), Edition: 2nd, Paperback
Tags:cultural studies, art criticism, literary criticism, modernism

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Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism by Matei Calinescu (1987)



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Calinescu enunciates the main argument of his book clearly and succinctly at the end of his brief introduction to Five Faces: “aesthetic modernity should be understood as a crisis concept involved in a threefold dialectical opposition to tradition, to the modernity of bourgeois civilization (with its ideals of rationality, utility, progress), and, finally, to itself, insofar as it perceives itself as a new tradition or form of authority” (10). The “faces” mentioned in his title—modernity, avant-garde, decadence, kitsch, and postmodernism—relate to each other like the faces of a die, each exposing a different aspect of aesthetic modernity.

I was recommended this book a long time ago as one of the best, most thorough presentations of ideas like “modernity” and “the avant-garde,” and the recommendation was a good one. Calinescu’s methodology involves tracing the usage of these words throughout history in order to understand how they acquired the meanings that we attribute to them today. His first chapter on modernity, for example, opens with a synthesis of centuries-long debates regarding who was superior, the ancients or the moderns. It was through these debates that, by the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the word “modern” began to be widely used to describe art and literature in a positive light (in Shakespeare, as Calinescu points out, “modern” is still used as a synonym for “commonplace” or “trite”). Debates about modern art quickly key into some of the paradoxes of the idea of modernity, most notably in Baudelaire, who picks up on how the modern artist must simultaneously embrace modern life and abhor it, yearning to reconnect with a past from which he or she is radically and irrevocably separated. This sentiment of crisis is intensified in the avant-garde art of the 19th and 20th centuries, which furthermore addresses the problematic relation between art and politics: should avant-garde art be subordinated to revolutionary politics, or should it assert its autonomy with respect to politics? Throughout the first two chapters Calinescu proceeds chronologically, showing how different meanings accrued to the terms “modernity” and “avant-garde” over time, before presenting a fascinating study of the idea of decadence, a condemnatory portrait of kitsch, and a final essay concerning how the burgeoning (in the 1980s) idea of postmodernity has affected our understanding of modernity and modern art.

I enjoyed the fact that he devotes a lot of time to Spanish-American modernismo in the book’s opening chapter, tracing how the term was used by artists and critics from the late-19th century forward. Latin American artists and poets are often ignored (or briefly alluded to, at best) in studies of modernism, despite the fact that modernismo was the first major artistic movement to use the word “modernism” to describe itself. Calinescu provides a thorough, careful study of how this term was used in Latin America and Spain, demonstrating a deep familiarity with artistic and academic discourse regarding modernismo and its legacy.

I also enjoyed his chapter on kitsch, although I found his views on kitsch as “pseudo-art” to be highly disagreeable. He’s writing at the dawn of cultural studies as a new disciplinary paradigm that operates a broad-based (and highly compelling) critique of the perspective that he espouses in this chapter, and when I read this chapter, I felt like I understood much better why the cultural studies revolution was so necessary. His basic standpoint is that kitsch is “false art,” and, to give you a taste of his stance on the issue, here is a series of questions he formulates regarding the essential falsehood of kitsch:

“if the relationship between kitsch and falsehood is admitted, how can this relationship account for the widespread view that kitsch is just a synonym for ‘bad taste’? And then what is bad taste? Is kitsch as bad taste to be discussed mostly in aesthetic terms or should it rather be conceived sociologically as a kind of ideological diversion? And, viewed as falsehood and diversion, does not kitsch also demand to be considered ethically? And, if the ethical approach is justified, can one not go further and conceive of kitsch theologically, as a manifestation of sin to be blamed, ultimately, on the influence of the devil?” (233).

As you can see, Calinescu’s guiding questions escalate quickly, ending with the possibility that kitsch may in fact be the mark of the devil’s influence on humankind. He concludes by saying that these questions have all been raised by others, but “the trouble is that, up to a certain point, they are all relevant” (233). In other words, the above paragraph constitutes an extreme formulation of the stakes regarding kitsch that does not do justice to Calinescu’s subtler analysis, but it does a good job of communicating the fact that he sees kitsch as a dangerous, evil thing. “After all, in today’s world no one is safe from kitsch” (262), he writes in the chapter’s concluding paragraph (he sounds like a police officer talking to kids about drugs), although he also recognizes that maybe the enjoyment of kitsch pseudo-art will have positive effects after all, since it might constitute “a necessary step on the path toward an ever elusive goal of fully authentic aesthetic experience. After seeing many reproduced or fake Rembrandts, a viewer may ultimately be receptive to the experience of coming upon the real painting of a Dutch master” (262). So in a strange way, kitsch might end up bringing the ignorant masses who have been duped by its falsehood around to the authentic experience of art.

I’ve dwelled on the kitsch example because it illustrates that this is not the kind of book you read in 2016 in order to be fully won over by Calinescu’s arguments. He doesn’t anticipate major shifts in cultural theory, and this gives him a certain tone-deafness not only regarding kitsch, but also, among other things, regarding the impact that theorists like Foucault, Deleuze, and Althusser would have on the late-20th century study of culture (he dismisses them as “trendy”). You have to read Five Faces with a mind to its historical context, but if you can forgive Calinescu his shortcomings with respect to later developments in his field that he definitely did not see coming, this book is really helpful due to its thorough genealogical investigation of some of the central aspects of aesthetic modernity. I have a much better understanding of the avant-garde, decadence, and kitsch, and of modern art and literature in general. ( )
  msjohns615 | Apr 13, 2016 |
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Duke University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Duke University Press.

Editions: 0822307677, 082230726X

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