If anyone can figure out how to send Jane back to 1949 to see MoMA’s exhibition of “Italian pictures,” which gave Wallace Stevens a bad case of ennui, please send instructions care of this comment box. I thought I would take the opportunity to point out that the museum seemed to be in a lull a month before their 20th-anniversary show “Modern Art in Your Life,” and the interregnum of September in New York—“covered with the dust and withering of summer”—seemed at least partly to account for his mood. However, there’s a little bit in his sour-lemon passage that seems worth teasing out…

Then, too, I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an excessively fashionable woman. At the Museum of Modern Art they cultivate the idea that everything is the nuts: the stairs, the plants on the landings, the curtains in the windows, where there are any windows, the arrangement of the walls. After about an hour of it you say the hell with it.

Wallace Stevens usually takes a beating for his tastes—the teas he imported through the Depression, the manse in Connecticut—but the totalizing grip of fashion on art seems to have made him surly. If I’m reading his sentences above correctly, he’s going off on the hyper-aestheticization we associate with high-end design culture ("professional modernism"), which in the 00's, and for all I know, forever, overlaps completely with high-end consumer culture. After a decade in New York’s orbit, I’m surly about it too, just as T.J. Clark is squeamish (if not surly) about that photo above, from Cecil Beaton’s spread in the March, 1951 issue of Vogue. Is Modernism just for the rich? Are sculptures by Black Mountain artists best viewed from the interior lobbies of corporate Class-A buildings? “Is all this really high thinking?” [Harrumph] O Jane, what do you have against train rides? I might trade a month of anything for a week on the Transiberian with Blaise, wouldn’t you?
Funny to think of Wallace Stevens and his reaction to MoMA’s totalizing aestheticization. At the beginning of his essay on Jackson Pollock, “Unhappy Consciousness,” Clark observes that haute bourgeois artists craved the qualities of aristocratic art—“rage for order,” he says (hm!), or “coldness, brightness, lordliness, and nonchalance.” That it is almost impossible for bourgeois artists to sustain that nonchalance is interesting. Hence trains: we have a hard time falling asleep on horseback.
… when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.
(Kasimir Malevich, with Eleusinian lilies)

Originally Published: December 17th, 2007

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. December 17, 2007

    Hmm, I'm not sure I quite track the reasoning here. Who spoke against train rides?
    One must be rather careful about backdating ideas. I wouldn't dispute that MoMA basically has become a tomb and a mood, both for sale. But that's the point exactly: it wasn't that at mid-century. It was still a museum of the present: an incredible present when the pivot of modernism had suddenly, with the arrival of War exiles, shifted to New York – one of the truly world-historical explosions of art. That is what homeboy walked out on.
    T.J. Clark (hey, where'd you come across his work?) of course loves Pollock, and loves Stevens (I trust you know that the book with the two AbEx chapters is titled after a Stevens line). Buf if he was squeamish about the above photo (which hasn't much to do with MoMA 1949 anyway), it was about the lifestyling of radical art, which is actually not the same as abjuring museums. I don't believe you actually think he would've walked out of MoMA '49 after an hour.
    Clark – by his own testimony – did have an anti-museum phase, which he understood to mean burning that shit down*, not wandering away after a sour hour. Had Wallace proposed that, your argument would make more sense all 'round. But Clark's entire argument (title from Hegel! totalizing welcomed!) would imagine engaging the art as was available, and/or worrying the art for its role in producing exactly the life in which one could feel superior to it within minutes and walk off. One can't dragoon him thence into valorizing the guy who does just that, I don't think.
    * He would save one Manet, if I recall the story right.

  2. December 17, 2007

    The paragraph from Stevens's letter, which I quote in my first post, was meant to denote a certain kind of cultural weariness. But you misunderstand it as a sweeping dismissal of MoMA; if you go back to the actual letter, and the letters before and after it, you can see that Stevens was specifically referring to a show of contemporary Italian paintings that seemed to be imitations of French paintings. He was not attacking the museum per se, and to call him "sort of a prick with reactionary tastes, fending off the shock of an extraordinary artistic moment" jumps the gun -- he wasn't looking at Pollock, or Albers, or de Kooning that day.
    The weariness, as I explain more fully (or not?) in my second post, seems tied not only to the Italian paintings but to the hyper-aestheticization of the museum space ("professional modernism").
    "...the above photo (which hasn't much to do with MoMA 1949 anyway)..."
    I'm making the point that it does -- that the photo spread in Vogue a year and a half after WS grumped "I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an excessively fashionable woman" is part of the same trend, the (life-)stylization of Modernism. That's why I "dragoon" Clark. I don't think I was saying Clark would valorize Stevens; I think I was saying that Clark talks about the way Modernism is effortlessly incorporated into high-end consumer lifestyles as ornament (he calls it the "bad dream" of Modernism). And I was saying that it's interesting that Stevens, whom we do associate with elite tastes, rejected this life-stylization -- but in so doing revealed that he is not the aristocrat we make him out to be. He was really a haute-bourgeois who couldn't quite sustain the decadence he dallied with.
    I guess I might make better sense if you re-read the first third of "Unhappy Consciousness" (duh, you think I don't know that's Hegel?) with its brief on Flaubert. Sorry if I packed too much into one post -- I'm tired.

  3. December 18, 2007

    Well, a last note from me on this topic; I think we're debating a series of points oblique to each other. I have certainly been unclear. You may have a problem with the dismissal of Stevens as an "aristocrat" with "elite tastes"; that was never anything I suggested, and not something I care about much as regards his magnificent poetry. So perhaps we're simply arguing different points, which produces unclarities. As I said, I rather think Stevens' judgment on that day was – not "aristocratic" – but dunderheaded, and reactionary in the literal sense: a judgment finally not on the art (or even the museum) but on himself.
    I still don't get the dragooning of Clark (though I do appreciate the comedy of assigning me, schoolmarm-style, to read the stuff I teach for a living). It seems to me that you suggest that Clark's ambivalent and dialectical verdict on the social and cultural situation of postwar avant-gardes serves as a kind of denunciation of mid-century modernist art, or even of its appreciation – which it isn't. But even that was not the source of debate, at least for me.
    The original dragooning, in your first post, was that of Stevens himself into a narrative of frozen or cyclical history (" confirm to oneself how uncannily history repeats itself. Or to realize maybe that it’s not history repeating itself, exactly, but our sentiments about history, our relation to it, that remains glumly constant), thus to gird your own ongoing (and legit) dissatisfactions with current avant-gardes – the debate that has magnetized much debate on this site lo these many weeks.
    So, if I can remake a central claim more clearly (and I do apologize for my own unclarities, which proliferate), it would be this: a weariness with the "aestheticization" of contemporary avant-gardes can scarcely be explained or justified via Stevens's sournesses, which were a painful misjudgment made in a different historical conjuncture, not a demonstration of any historical continuity or insightful account of the world of art around him. If his weary affect is familiar, that's a story about the limits of whether and how we think historical change, not a story about art.
    But let's take seriously Clark's doubt about postwar avant-gardes even running up toward the present. It can be found in kernel form in his back and forth with Perry Anderson's Origins of Postmodernity, an essay called origins of the present crisis. On at least one point, he and Anderson seem to have considerable agreement: the failure (and bourgeoisification and etc) of modernism that you invoke are founded on the failure of the aggressively political and negationist spirit both in the art and, uncoincidentally, in Western social life in general. And yet, per your own postings hereabout, I gather for you this fading of the political dimension from art (which is what "aestheticization" generally means, right?) would be a good thing? This perhaps locates, finally, the source of my confusion about your argument.

  4. December 18, 2007

    Jane: Autonomy doesn't equal aesthetization. As a bourgeois like Stevens (though not nearly so rich), it would seem to be my fate to champion the former, not the latter.

  5. December 18, 2007

    I resist the equation of personality types with social positions, but it seems right to say that Stevens was a haute bourgeois, not an aristocrat, however interested he remains in aristocratic tastes.
    Stevens elsewhere complained that the art and tastes of the Arensberg circle with whom he associated in the 1920s declined by the late 1940s into a relatively unintellectual pursuit of novelty for its own sake, producing neither new ways to see the rest of the world nor relatively durable works of art that could give pleasure (extend the imagination) in ways relatively independent of the context in which we encountered them. That is, "professional modernism" in Ange's sense, by the terms of Stevens' weary objections, gets rid of both the promised transformation of everyday life and the creation of autotelic, durable things. These were opposing currents in High Modernism, of course, but you can get rid of them both and still have an artworld-- an artworld that exhausts itself in pursuit of the next big trend simply because it's a trend: that is, an artworld indistinguishable from the pejorative sense of "fashion."

  6. December 19, 2007
     Henry Gould

    The art world has changed radically since those days - now we have surveillance cameras in every museum, so that whenever an aristocratic, haute-bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, lumpen proletariat or WeeGee-bum poet walks out the door, we can note the time-length of visit, the galleries (even particular artworks!) viewed, and track their post-visit movements - instantaneously. We don't have to wait for the publication of their posthumous collected letters. This information is useful in placing poets in their proper niche on the scale of political/aesthetic evaluation, and furthers detailed discussion of the minutiae of every conceivable topic of interest to contemporary litterateurs and connoisseurs of every conceivable social background and outlook. We all love Wally Stevens, but if he were living today, he would probably be buying up velvet Elvis paintings from some truckstop outside El Paso, not getting his picture taken by security guards in the Metropolis.

  7. December 19, 2007

    No, Steve, I wouldn't want to belabor the point about social positions either (but I do find the characterization of "aristocratic" art interesting, especially as concerns its nonchalance. Also, for a certain type of reader and Harriet commenter, even poetry in perfectly turned sentences is some sort of sign of elitist decadence).
    My main point (which was actually an aside) in quoting from Stevens's letters (which you sent me back to, with your comment to Alicia!) was that they give me deja vu. It means something that the 30's, the 40's, evoked sentiments from Stevens that ring true to me today. It's like we still live in his world, digital aids aside.

  8. December 19, 2007

    Ange-- Having spent most of the past week with Stevens' late lyrics and letters, I absolutely agree that in many senses, though of course not all of them, we still live in his world.
    (As for "aristocratic" implications, isn't the diffference between "aristocratic" art in this sense and "haute bourgeois" art in the former's sense of sprezzatura, the sense that all these things were made or said without effort? Art which seems self-consciously aristocratic and bad-- e.g. Frederick Seidel-- seems careless, tossed-off, and boastful, while art which seems self-consciously haute bourgeois and bad seems overelaborate, too careful, labored.I find these categories easier to think about when I apply them to works of art I don't like.)

  9. December 19, 2007

    Dear Anonymous -- If you're looking for your comment, it can't be published without your name or a pseudonym. Could you re-post with -- ? Thanks!

  10. December 19, 2007
     Danielle Chapman

    Earlier today I encountered and commented on Ange's original post without reading this follow-up--which, it seems, has veered away pretty far from Stevens' letter. I read Stevens' quote just as Ange did, basically as a frustration with the pretentiousness of the MOMA's atmosphere, not its art. And Steve has further articulated that frustration (which, I imagine, most serious artists would share) as being with "an artworld indistinguishable from the pejorative sense of "fashion.""
    So, back to the original point: if Stevens was being "dunderheaded" and "reactionary" (and not simply fed up with fashion) could someone please tell me what was so brilliant about those Italian paintings that he was lamenting? Or even what, specifically, they were?

  11. December 19, 2007

    Dear Ange (and Steve), though as you say you don't wish to belabor social position, you did introduce it and mention it repeatedly, and I'm curious about the reasoning in use, which seems from here to periodically invert itself. To reduce the matter to a question: Did Stevens see what saw because he was "haute bourgeois" (or the like), or is he reckoned to be haute bourgeois because of what he saw?
    I trust that the answer can't be "neither," given that "it seems right to say" what class he was, is presented as important for understanding his position, etc. And I'm fine with that; I just wish to know the analytic in use.

  12. December 20, 2007

    "Did Stevens see what saw because he was "haute bourgeois" (or the like), or is he reckoned to be haute bourgeois because of what he saw?"
    If the reasoning periodically inverts itself (say where?) it may be because the correlation between an individual's class background and the style he expresses himself might be essentialized, and I'm trying hard to avoid that. However, some values get broadcast through styles, and it's interesting to talk about that. That's as far as I'll go.
    Does that answer your question? If not, rephrase?

  13. December 20, 2007
     Danielle Chapman

    Jane and Ange, I suppose it seems that I'm beating a dead horse by wanting to go back to the letter, but I find it absurd that Stevens' rather commonplace observation about decor and atmosphere has fomented this much hair splitting. Jane is so intent on waxing theoretical that she doesn't even care whether Stevens was referring to the wallpaper or the paintings. I suppose if it's all part of the essentialistic haute-bourgeois hegemony, there's no need for facts. But, in the meantime, this conversation become an example of exactly what Stevens was talking about when he complained about "the nuts."

  14. December 20, 2007

    Danielle, I'm just trying to be the polite host here. I'm not sure either why this little bit from Stevens is such an important issue...

  15. December 20, 2007

    Well, we all have our confusions. I myself am puzzled about two things: one, why the suggestion that Stevens mighta been, you know, wrong (and that the MoMA '49, wallpaper and all, probably stands as an untenable analogy for contemporary poetry or art) arouses such spirited reaction; and two, why the terms of class and social theory (check the thread; it weren't me who introduced'em) seem suddenly so relevant, when the suggestion that class politics is a useful optic for the poetics of humans is in general so scrupulously avoided and even abjured around here,
    I mean it: sincerely curious about this.

  16. December 20, 2007
     Danielle Chapman

    Ange, you're a gracious hostess, and I'm sorry if I sounded like an obnoxious guest. But, to answer Jane, while I certainly don't think that Stevens was never wrong (his ideas about race were much more offensive than anything he ever said about the MOMA), I do find it distressing how quickly--especially in the blogosphere--a fact can get lost, or forgotten, or distorted in a haze of references. I was not reacting merely to the "optic" of class politics (though I do admit to feeling wearied by it), but the tendency to steer so quickly away from actuality (this "little bit from Stevens") into theory and even personality analysis. While, in this case, the actuality (Stevens' reaction to the Italian paintings) may be relatively insignificant, the practice of automatically fitting a writer's words or actions into one's own world view is not. Even if Stevens was a reactionary, there is no way to draw that conclusion from the quote that Ange posted.

  17. December 21, 2007

    Sign me still puzled. Danielle, you're completely right that the specifics of quotidian life ought not get lost in any discussion. The show, btw, included a major gathering of De Chirico, Modigliani, and some great Morandis among other things. Moreover, nothing stopped him from visiting the rest of the collection. Perhaps there is no larger significance to Stevens' act of judgment that day; we could certainly say that there was nothing to read into this, that there's no accounting for taste, and so on.
    But we didn't. And you'll note that – in the process of Ange's gracious hosting – it was she who launched the quite interesting polemic which endeavors to read quite a bit into Stevens' judgment (again raising my original question of whether the analogy drawn between the artworld of New York 1949 and this present moment is a plausible one). You'll note as well that it was Ange who introduced both the general category of class as explanation for specific tastes, and introduced matters of social theory (invoking Tim Clark). You'll also note that it was others of our semi-hosts who picked up the thread of class-as-explanation (Steve). I have no problem with these choices – am really interested in them in fact – but I'll thank you to be accurate about the vector of the polemic here, and who is invoking the class politics which weary you; and who is invoking the theory that you worry is obfuscating the real issues.
    Don: Rosenberg's question is an interesting one. People really seem to like it. The most common and silliest answer is that movements or schools are forms of branding and marketing; I think it's very hard to have lived in the US for long and not notice that the figure of the super-autonomous individual artist expressing untrammeled individual spirit all by [his, generally] lonesome is at least an equivalent (if not far more powerful) myth/marketing image. But also we should note that movements and social class are not concepts more than obliquely related; their only conceptual connection is that both are ways of looking from the perspective of a group or community rather than individual. Your question seems to assume that it's somehow obvious that the category of the individual comes first, and is later "negated" or "subsumed" or etc. That belief of course has no inherent truth; bodies may come before bridge clubs, but individuals (with operating consciousness and etc) don't in any way precede social formations. Me, I tend to think that the individual and the group (whether it be class, or family, or "movement") come into being dialectically – in describing either human lives or artistic making, I don't see how I could protect one from the claims of the other.

  18. December 21, 2007
     Henry Gould

    After long and arduous study of the life and works of Wallace Stevens, I have come to the conclusion that - generally speaking - Wallace Stevens really enjoyed visiting museums.
    I hope this clears up any remaining confusion or controversy swirling about this topic.

  19. December 21, 2007
     Don Share

    Jane, my question doesn't imply at all that the individual comes first. I'm not of the School of Eliot, but I do agree with him, and with you, that the "individual" and "social formations" (what he calls "tradition," though the term is usually abused in his name) are in a dialectical - or, I'd argue, more accurately a constellational - relationship. My point is actually that the critiques alluded to here presume for polemical reasons that there's a kneejerk insistence on the "individual" at work today when this is a Romantic idea demolished by Eliot and others almost a century ago. I don't believe in either super-autonomy or schools, and can't see why one needs to do so. Therefore, the "claims" to which you allude mystify me, which is probably what they're for.
    Two illuminating books on this matter: Andrew Epstein's Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, which explores why poets manufacture "schools," even with uneasy results; and T.S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. by Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding, which attempts to eliminate the nonsense accumulated around the word "tradition" and around TSE's use of it back in 1919.

  20. December 21, 2007
     Don Share

    P.S. I suppose I have in mind a more nuanced understanding of “individual” than would be clear from the comment above. I'm sure not valorizing some monolithic bourgeois self. Here's Epstein's caricature: “The word 'individualism’ tends to conjure the image of a rugged American self, who sheds societal encumbrances and lights out for the Territory like Huck Finn to achieve a liberated, autonomous selfhood.” This bit of mythology about the individual has been programmatically linked “with such negative qualities as acquisitive materialism or crypto-capitalist greed, and indifference to others, reactionary conservatism or quietism, elitism, and an anti-democratic selfishness.” But surely by now we can all assume “individual” identity to mean something more complex and slippery; and nobody would deny that there’s a social character of the individual.

  21. December 22, 2007

    Always happy to find agreement with Don, whose previous ("P.S") post seems just right (for a useful complement to Epstein, I suggest Lytle Shaw's Poetics of Coterie).
    And while we're skewering caricatures, perhaps we could finally do away with the Red Scare version of modernist avant-gardes, groups, schools, and classes as borg-like entities with top-down programs bent on"subsuming" and "negating" otherwise autonomous artists: a canard which lacks accuracy or explanatory power (but does dovetail pleasantly with the rhetoric of deregulation).
    But I'm sure neither Don nor anyone else would want to lose all distinctions. We might certainly notice a difference, for example, between art that imagines social problematics and social change (and I'm not saying all art does this, or should) as happening within structures (for example, changed political or economic systems) or happening within the consciousness of individuals (a model of this is something like the end of Mean Girls, a fine film, when Lindsay Lohan simply decides to be a kinder, gentler prom queen, and the school's social conflict is resolved; you'll recognize this from any number of artworks, not just Hollywood pleasures). Anyway, that's a distinction I would want to maintain; it helps me think.

  22. December 22, 2007
     Don Share

    I should explain that Jane was responding in part above to a comment I asked to be unpublished; it contained whingeing about why the "radical negation of the category of individual creation" is so important in some quarters, and quoted Harold Rosenberg as explaining that the avant-garde must always be "subsuming individuals under movements..." I thought I'd gone over the deep end, quoting Rosenberg for gosh sake! I didn't mean for it to look like J. was responding to something invisible.

  23. January 1, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    I hesitated before deciding to leave a comment, and have as a result probably arrived at the party after everyone else has left. But I find myself quite bewildered by this conversation thread. I'm not sure how Stevens' very simple (and valid) point that the pursuit of artistic novelty had become a species of fashion (I love his phrase "professional modernism"), became the occasion for this series of disquisitions about class and whatnot (mostly "whatnot"). Why must people so often engage in free-association instead of reading?
    And as shouldn't need to be pointed out, Stevens was not a bourgeois, haute or otherwise. In Marx's definition, the bourgeoisie are those who own the means of production, and a haute-bourgeois would be what used to be called a rentier, someone who lives off the income of his properties and investments. Stevens had a job and a salary and an office he went to every day, though it's questionable how much actual work he did there, what with having his secretaries type up his poems. But even if he were an haunte-bourgeois, I'm not sure what that has to do with his opinions of modern art or of MOMA; not even Marx believed that class position determined one's aesthetic positions, and to believe in such a direct relationship would be reductionist in every sense. And I'm still not clear about what point Ange Mlinko intended to make in the first place

  24. January 3, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Forgive my typo. At one point, instead of writing "haute-bourgeois," I wrote "haunte-bourgeois," which I guess would be a bourgeois tormented by the spirits of his victims. An interesting image, that... It reminds me of Londo on Babylon 5, who later and to no one's benefit (including his own) becomes Centauri emperor, being told by a mage whose blessing he sought that he could hear millions calling out his name. "My followers?" "Your victims." That was a great show...