Let's face it: modernist life is rubbish

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The Independent Online

Is it possible that the 20th century was from start to finish tosh? Forget the wars, the murderous nationalisms brewed in the souls of common men, the even more murderous ideologies brewed in the souls of intellectuals, the mendacities, the invasions, the appropriations, the bombings, the camps, the refugees, the genocides, the casual slaughter not just of others but of our own, the betrayals of every idea worth living by (our fault, yes, for thinking we could live by ideas in the first place), the disappointments, the diseases, the astonishing technological advances which gave us I'm a Celebrity... and the wherewithal to rape by internet - forget all that. It's culture I'm thinking about, high culture, the stuff of modernist poets and painters. Is it possible that, viewed culturally, the 20th century was from start to finish tosh?

Is it possible that the 20th century was from start to finish tosh? Forget the wars, the murderous nationalisms brewed in the souls of common men, the even more murderous ideologies brewed in the souls of intellectuals, the mendacities, the invasions, the appropriations, the bombings, the camps, the refugees, the genocides, the casual slaughter not just of others but of our own, the betrayals of every idea worth living by (our fault, yes, for thinking we could live by ideas in the first place), the disappointments, the diseases, the astonishing technological advances which gave us I'm a Celebrity... and the wherewithal to rape by internet - forget all that. It's culture I'm thinking about, high culture, the stuff of modernist poets and painters. Is it possible that, viewed culturally, the 20th century was from start to finish tosh?

It's going to the Kirchner exhibition at the Royal Academy that has made me ask this question. I like Kirchner. Sometimes I believe I get German Expressionism; sometimes I don't - depends how disgusted I am feeling with my fellow men - but Kirchner I go on admiring. He isn't a towering 20th-century genius like Picasso, or even, to my mind, a near towering 20th-century genius like Beckmann or Dix. But that's precisely why I like him. He doesn't quite give the age what the age demanded. He has the decency to go ghostly on it, to let it swallow him at last. Whereas the towering geniuses won't let go, hanging on in the hope the age will expire before they do.

Such sycophantic exponents of the contemporary they are, too, such spaniels to their times, such tireless pleasers. Kirchner, finally, was neither pleased nor pleasing. He painted those women in the streets of Berlin wearing spears for feathers, drew himself into corners, a voyeur in the dark, fetishising breasts and gloves, and let the times bleed him of his vitality. Pity more don't learn from his example.

But all that said, it was in the act of entering his milieu that I felt the 20th century - my century, after all - suddenly turn ridiculous on me. Partly the fault of the gallery notes, I accept. Read notes on gallery walls and you wish you'd never been born. Everything so neat and understood. Every mystery solved. Every inconsistency ironed over. The age, the man: these the ideas in the air, those the painter's gifts, now behold them hand in hand. And all in that icy academician prose, mirthless, well schooled and well behaved, rendering precise that which was once tumultuous.

Remember the schoolmistress Miss Peecher in Our Mutual Friend? Schooled and schooling "in the light of the latest Gospel according to Monotony". Miss Peecher whose official residence was furnished with "little windows like the eyes in needles, and little doors like the covers of school-books", who "could write a little essay on any subject, exactly a slate long, beginning at the left-hand top of one side and ending at the right-hand bottom of the other, and the essay should be strictly according to rule". Is it she they call in to cobble the curator's notes whenever there's an exhibition in the offing? Probably not. She was buxom and shining, Miss Peecher, and the schoolmistresses who write the little essays we read on every gallery wall the length and breadth of this great art-loving nation are certainly not buxom, neither do they shine. Eaten away with ambition and intellectual obedience, they are, black of dress, pale of finger, gaunt of face, swallowers of light not emitters of it, whichever gender they happen to inhabit. But the spirit of Miss Peecher, if not the body, lives on, compressing everything you need to know into a slate-size essay.

Tough on the 20th century, I acknowledge, to blame it for the sins of Miss Peecher. It isn't the age that says of itself such things as "only by acting instinctively could one counteract the calculating material values that dominated modern society". And it certainly wasn't Kirchner who said of himself that he "regarded sex as a vital, liberating force".

But you can't blame Miss Peecher for all of this either. Even if we ignore the little essays, there, in Kirchner's chosen subject matter and preoccupations, are the same 20th-century clichés we encounter whenever we pay homage to modernism.

You know the ones. Nudism, Russian dance, Japanese theatre, exotic carvings showing African or South Sea Island influences, free love, free sex, more nudism, nudes in hats, nudes with dressed men, nudes with undressed men, nudes in hats with Russian dancers, can-can dancers either in a line or one at a time, either with pants or without, because the can-can originally blah blah, black women as symbols of primitive sexuality, drugs, alcohol, streetwalkers under phosphorescent lamps, courtesans in drawing rooms, infidelity, troilism, troilism involving girls a little younger than they ought to be, more nudism, jealousy as pick-me-up, jealousy as depressant, spiritualism, table rapping, table-rapping nudes, bathing, boys bathing, circuses - oh God, circuses! - nudes on horseback, clowns, the artist as clown, the artist as tragic clown...

Must I go on?

All just routine bohemianism of course, the attempt some of us feel bound to make in every age to break the mould, to live simultaneously within and without society. We do not hold with banking or politics so we embrace nudism and the Japanese theatre. I'm not against it. But we fool ourselves if we think vitalism of whatever sort is any less an orthodoxy than the ones it thumbs its nose at. No sooner do we fight authority than we create another version of it. Our fate: never to be free.

Already, three years into a new century, we are at it again, only this time our heroes in the struggle against "material values" and the imposition of governmental lies are Andrew Gilligan and the BBC. I'd prefer going nude bathing in a hat or gazing up at can-can dancers (with or without) myself. But that's just me. Either way, it's tosh, all of it.

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