The one self-evident effect of the modernist revolution is that art appreciation has become an activity both intellectual and elitist.
Pound, for instance, has no popular following, but one cannot swing a cat in any discussion of literary modernism in the last 100 years without hitting Pound.
The 100-year-old gulf between art for the people and art for elites is widening, not shrinking. Think of a relatively short while ago, with a writer like Poe, (you guessed correctly, didn’t you?) when the gulf hardly existed!
Art for the masses lives in the movies, TV, and (with less frequency) the novel. Students in the universities can elect to skip literature and the fine arts completely. Those few who do care for literature go into creative writing. Movies, when they are not ‘torture porn,’ are typically comic books brought to life. The cleverest writers are those in TV comedy: sexual inuendo awash in sentimentality, reflecting, to a certain extent, real life, the entertainment concoction of the mainstream. Novels are mainly written to become movies. Ineffective political propaganda fills an artsy niche.
Both the artistic and intellectual self is withering since intellectualism has been taken from the well-rounded person and handed over to the narrow eccentrics who are fit to survive in the realm of museum rank and critically acclaimed art bequeathed by the modernist revolution.
How did manifesto-ism narrow artistic endeavor so quickly? How did a handful of unknown writers, painters, and collectors during the Great War era triumph so completely in a couple of generations? If we look at Pound’s success we see the answer: one-tenth, so-so art, nine-tenths, patronage. Pound’s art has had a neglible effect on the world, but the Zeitgeist of the Pound era was patronage, and in the post-WW II Writing Program era, modernism extended its miraculous push directly onto the academic track.
The Bloomsbury aristocrats who practiced free sex, and funded Modernism, were Great War hawks and doves when Hitler was on the march. Later, when they weren’t founding the Whitney art musems or Marxist magazines, they were agents for the KGB, or drug use advocates during the 1960s. The modernist patrons were very well connected with each other and with the Zeitgeist. Hollywood threw money at Aldous Huxley, who didn’t produce much as a screenwriter, but he was a Huxley, and sought after among that set. A blind, coddled, sadistic, aristocrat, Huxley was one of the Zeitgeist elites who slithered from one superstitious fad to another from Bloomsbury to Los Angeles.
The transition from the Pound era to the Program era can be glimpsed in Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks’ ‘Understanding Poetry’ textbook which greeted millions of GI Bill students back from defeating Hitler with little chapters rapturously fawning over ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ by Pound’s friend, Williams, and ‘In A Station in the Metro’ by Pound himself, next to a chapter reprinting Aldous Huxley’s mocking and acerbic put-down of Poe.
Huxley calls Poe “vulgar.” This by a man who wrote poetry like this, anthologized by H.D.’s husband Richard Aldington:
“God’s in His Heaven: He never issues/(Wise man!) to visit this world of ours./Unchecked the cancer gnaws our tissues,/Stops to lick chops then again devours.
Beauty for some provides escape,/Who gains a happiness in eyeing/The gorgeous buttocks of the ape/Or Autumn sunsets exquisitely dying.”
from “Ninth Philosopher’s Song” Aldous Huxley
Huxley must have felt proud to be so clever in a world-weary, English aristocrat way, comparing “the gorgeous buttocks of the ape” to “Autumn sunsets exquisitely dying.”
For Huxley, we can be sure that he really did find an ape’s buttocks gorgeous.
But “Ulalume,” by Poe, is “vulgar,” and Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, the American wing of Pound’s Modernist triumph, were anxious to share this wisdom with the oncoming rush of students in post-war America.