Do artists have an obligation to avoid realism in a (post)modern world?

18 Oct

Gabriel Josipovici’s new book, What Ever Happened to Modernism, offers a harsh critique of realism in contemporary fiction, arguing that to produce a realist work in the modern world is produce a work that obscures the, for lack of a better word, reality of that world. The job of the modernist novel (or painting, or musical piece, etc.), according to Josipovici, is to recognize and reflect the fact that traditional artistic conventions, ones based on a hierarchical and religious society, simply no longer work in a secularized, decentralized and overwhelmingly fragmented industrialized world.

Nothing new here. Any English major will have studied the transition from realism to modernism in literature and the resulting disruption and fragmentation of the traditional linear narrative. But Josipovici’s main concern is how well this form of pure modernism has survived in literature. For Josipovici, Morrison, Roth, and Rushdie, among others, fail to carry on this morally necessary movement, falling instead backward into unreality and sheer fantasy. In doing so, he believes they do a disservice to their craft, and one not merely of artistic but of ethical proportions.

I’ve yet to read the book myself, but some insightful reviews in The Millions and The Wall Street Journal brought to mind longheld anxieties about the ways in which modernism and its demands constrict the ways in which an artist is allowed to produce. Ben Hamilton at The Millions articulates my concern excellently when he summarizes Josipovici: “Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on.”

Josipovici laments the shattering of order and belief that accompanied modernity, arguing, as Eric Ormsby of The Wall Street Journal puts it, that “[f]or the Modernist sensibility… serenity is no longer possible; truth, if it can be glimpsed at all, is invariably agitated.” As such, he believes attempts at producing this serenity through fiction must be abandoned altogether.

I don’t disagree that the development of modernism was an important and necessary one, that our society and ourselves needed more complex artistic structures through which to accurately express itself. But I am uneasy about the assertion that any instance whatsoever of what Josipovici terms “realism,” or “tradition,” or, I suppose one could say, attempting to recreate a truthful and realistic world through art, is somehow ethically abhorrent.

In a world as atomized and banal as ours, we have little fodder or material from which to draw. Modernism, in a way, is almost solipsism. When we each exist in our own little individualized worlds, detached from notions of patriotism, nationalism, religion, or even ancestry, what’s left? If we can’t draw upon the past at all, our only option is to continue to deconstruct ourselves into oblivion. Modernism’s old hat now; postmodernism is heading in that direction fast. We’re only continuing down the road paved with the arrival of modernity. If we continue this practice of deeming all past practices as entirely unacceptable, we will ultimately be left with nothing at all.

I often feel my desire to write fiction extinguished by a poverty of material, and approaches, from which to work. Everything I can manage to come up feels used, cliche, or contrived. And that includes modernist approaches to modernist content. I don’t need Josipovici to tell me it’s an artistic sin to sometimes move “backward” in my craft — this attitude is one deeply woven into contemporary literary culture. But I’m starting to question that attitude more than ever.

What if, sometimes, the most aesthetically pleasing presentation of material is a realist one? What if, in a given instance, a linear narrative serves a plot best? Of course, this opens up a whole other Keatsian argument about whether the purpose of art is to produce beauty or truth and if and whether those two things are in fact each other or related to each other etc. etc. etc. I don’t know want to go there right now, but I do want to quote Ormsby again: “Mr. Josipovici is harsh on realism in fiction—he thinks it a dangerous illusion—and yet we still respond to fictional replications of the world, not only in its inmost contradictions but in the sheer sensual beauty of its surfaces. We still take pleasure in make-believe and in the telling of tales, even tall ones, if only because they tell us something true about ourselves, a truth that perhaps we can grasp through no other medium.”

And hey, why not drop into the past to produce artistically here and then? After all, isn’t modernism supposed to be all about the breaking down of linear time to begin with?


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