Tag Archives: modernism

reading history: censorship lessons

This is a true story:

In my youth I didn’t “get” cubism. It was fine and all, not my favorite because the abstraction often left me feeling a little overwhelmed in a way that was boring (as opposed to the sensory overload of something more post modern where the cacophony of colors and textures starts to feel like it’s moving at the speed of my own millennial anxiety). Picasso felt like a “great man” myth; a justification for some shift in european ideals, a way to insure and assure the tastes and investments of the elite.

But I wanted to get it. My best friend was really into Hemingway at the time, and we would spend afternoons out on the water with him explaining to me what Tortilla Flats (the name of a local restaurant) was about. I wasn’t going to read Hemingway, it felt too macho and too punishing.

“Midnight in Paris” came out around this time (the last Woody Allen movie I would ever watch), as well. I was very impressed by the pitch perfect inclusion of Owen Wilson in that film as the most irritating white guy. I particularly enjoyed Adrian Brody’s Dalí, and Corey Stoll’s Hemingway (“Have you ever wrestled a tiger???”). Most importantly it really introduced me to the figure of Gertrude Stein. I had heard her name and sort of-kind of knew a bit about her, but I was deeply and intensely interested in this titanic dyke of modernism. The woman that Picasso and Hemingway sought to impress, who held the moment and the movement in her salons and her hands and her words.

Vintage’s “The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein”

I bought a copy of Vintage’s “Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein” from Symposium Books, back when they still had a storefront on Thayer Street in Providence. (At the same time I added Anaïs Nin to my “to read” list, and began my shallow but impassioned affair with James Joyce.)

Now, I didn’t really enjoy the writing of Gertrude Stein. I didn’t “get” it either, but she, at least, was using a medium which I had an easier time parsing than that of the painters. Her sentences were long, convoluted, often purposefully devoid of proper signifiers and disconnected from traditional structures of meaning.

I spent a lot of time just reading one word after another and hoping that I would make sense at some point. (It didn’t, entirely, but…)

Then I said to myself this time it will be different and I began. I did not begin again I just began. […] Naturally I would begin again. I would begin again I would naturally begin. I did naturally begin. This brings me to a great deal that has been begun.”

—Gertrude Stein. p. 518-9.

It was while reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that i realized two incredibly important things.

First, through Stein’s descriptions of the unease people felt looking at the works of Picasso and Matisse, the abrupt confrontation with a painting that demanded something from them, I had managed to really feel and understand, for the first time, why Picasso’s paintings were so important and significant in the evolution of art into the modern period.

Second, Gertrude Stein was a horrific chauvinist, exactly as inclined to dismiss the woman who shared her life in the same manner that the men around her dismissed their own female companions, lovers, and muses.

Indeed, the very title of Stein’s “autobiography” is redolent with this particular form of femme focused misogyny. After all, why should Gertrude retain the right to speak for Alice in such a manner when she could just as easily and just as well tell the story through her own person and presence which already figures (and presumably informs) the narrative? I made it about half-way through what was included of the novel in my volume of Stein’s works and then decided I’d had enough of the impenetrability, the disregard for female and feminine agency (Gertrude having aligned herself firmly with the masculine/male energy and expression of her male contemporaries), and historical time period which I found curious at best and sort of irritatingly self-involved at worst.

Stein herself was a disappointment, and largely confirmed my distaste for the masculinist and chauvinist writing of the time period (I still look with grave suspicion and distaste on anyone who eagerly explains to me how Hemingway has informed their writing practice), and—with the exception of a persistent interest in “The Rhinoceros” and the Modernist application of “plasticity” to literary material—I moved on to the somehow less galling, if no less obnoxious, male chauvinism of the Beat poets.

Why am I telling you this story? Why does it matter that at 15 or 16 I read some literary fiction didn’t like it very much? In a sense, it doesn’t. The process of my personal intellectual development and edification, auto-didactic as it has been in many ways, isn’t of exceptional interest to you, who may not know me. It probably isn’t of great interest to a number of people who do know me, either. But we find ourselves in the strange moment where it seems that the impressive oversight in the American, or perhaps even English-speaking, educational realm has come to a head (one hydra head of many, ever ready to split again into new horrific fractions upon its emancipation from the body of our cultural nightmare) in the form of fantastic re-imaginings of the intention, impact, and reception of—in particular, abstract—art during the interwar period.

I offer this brief excursion into my own past to try and get to a greater point about how we come to understand history and culture and literature and art as a cumulative and interconnected process. I was willing to believe those people who told me that Picasso’s artwork was “revolutionary” in some capacity, a break with the previous sensibilities of aesthetic value, but that much was obvious by comparing Cubism to its representational forebears and contemporaries. What I wasn’t able to grasp without help, was the emotional and affective aspect of that rupture with tradition. It was not possible to access that information via a history of Picasso’s work, or an analysis of the impact of Cubism, not at the start. Anything written after Picasso’s inclusion in the Western canon was established serves merely as justification, post facto, of that inclusion.

Stein gave me something else: she gave me the immediacy of a semi-synchronous description of Picasso’s artwork, the process he underwent in bringing his vision to life, the socio-cultural factors he and the other modernist painters were responding to, the uncertainty of the times everyone was living in. And, perhaps most importantly, a look directly into the face of the conservative reaction and rejection of something new, something they felt was out of place, out of line, out of joint, their desire to shuffle it out of sight and return to the placidity of the values with which they were most familiar and most comfortable.

Some combination of my accidental concentration on the global history of genocide and systematized political mass violence (which always starts with censorship and (violent) exclusion of “undesirables”), and the love I carry for the outré, the perverse, everything pulpy and defiant of tradition, has meant that from the response to Picasso to the banning of Ulysses to the court case around Ginsberg’s Howl to the repeated attempts to shut down and limit access to queer art and literature online in the 90s, the 00s, the 10s, I return again and again to the question, not so much of what is “allowable” or “permissible” or “acceptable” in art and aesthetics, but why it is that every generation thinks that they are the ones who have discovered the “true” rules of Good Art?

In this case, history teaches us not so much where previous censorship fell short or failed to achieve some new horizon of enlightenment, but that every censorial iteration has been forced to admit defeat and then been castigated as—at best—foolish, or—with much greater frequency—as actively immoral, harmful, and destructive.

Time and again, those who emerge from history wreathed in the ever-fading light of timeless moral rectitude are not those who call for the abolition of this or that artistic or aesthetic mode, but those who speak, write, and interrogate that which they find morally, aesthetically, or intellectually impoverished, and who speak with clarity, passion, and fearlessness in favor of that which they believe to inspire to new heights and new horizons the breadth and wealth of the human spirit.

Week in Review 008

Reading:

  • Broken Stars by Ken Liu, ed.
  • Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore.
  • European Identity and Citizenship: between Modernity and postmodernity by Sanja Ivic

Listening…

  • The Magnus Archives

Watching:

Movies:

  • Plaire, Aimer, et Courir Vite (2018)
  • Le Livre D’Image (2018)

TV Shows:

  • AP Bio
  • Russian Doll
  • The Marvelous Ms Maisel
  • Deadly Class

I’m exhausted. I can’t believe it’s been only a week, possibly because the last few days have felt like an entire week just by themselves.


On Saturday, I had the absolutely unparalleled good fortune to meet Patton Oswalt. He was in Providence to perform a comedy show at the Veterans Memorial Theater, and he graciously accepted our invitation to visit the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council. I cannot thank him enough for taking the time to visit us, and it was such an absolute privilege to make his acquaintance in person.

We swapped reading recommendations. Mr. Oswalt suggested “WET PAIN” by Terence Taylor which can be found Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III co-edited by Tananarive Due and Brandon Massey. He said he learned of it from Ms. Due who, in addition to her work as an author and editor, executive produced Horror Noire: a history of Black horror (2019) which can be streamed online through Shudder. We discussed Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” briefly and so I recommended (as ever) Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.


The latter half of my Friday was spent pleasantly with a friend in Boston. We visited the MFA to see the Bauhaus exhibit. There is also an exhibit of Bauhaus works up at the Harvard museum, which we will hopefully have the opportunity visit.

This year is the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus School (1919). There are times I lament my passion for their particular modernist style, if only because it can seem conventional, bordering on the cliché. Nevertheless, the way Moholy-Nagy creates a sense of a three dimensional interaction and interrelation of objects in his abstract paintings will never cease to delight me. In one of the paintings of his they have on display, the transparency of the paint where two of his shapes overlap makes it seem—as my friend so eloquently phrased it—as if one were a fabric appliqué.

I was also quite taken with the Kandinsky pieces they had on display. It feels as though I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much white space his drawings contained, but I was. I could happily have spent all evening in front of his “Little World” pictures trying to figure out how he achieved such balance in an otherwise random-seeming distribution of elements.

Mostly, what I love about the Bauhaus is the way the work of these artists fills me with a sense of possibility. Every time I have the opportunity to steep myself in their abstract geometries, I can feel the edges of a new language pressing up against me. Movement and essence are made concrete, not something that can be pinned down, but something inherent which can be expressed with lines on a page.

(Other design movements which make me feel this way are Russian Constructivism and Punk/DIY collage.)


This week, I accidentally got into it on Twitter with the MAG fandom. Shockingly, 280 characters is not really enough space to adequately convey nuance and context. I found being accused by strangers on the internet of wanting to censor people or command moral authority to be extremely insulting.

I work in a front-facing position within a dedicated fan space, in a fandom defined by a serious controversy. My personal and professional experiences have lead me to believe that “fandom,” far from being a space insulated from disagreement and political and cultural debate, must be a place where people are able to engage critically with the mores, biases, personal and historical narratives, and other foundations and assumptions which are inherited from the original work or developed within the surrounding community.

I work at an organization dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes the only thing you can say in response to another fan’s interpretation is, “I disagree strongly – possibly to the point of considering your position to be harmful – and this is why.” Because it is only in that moment where we are part of the same community – as fans – that we can have this discussion as people who share in something bigger than ourselves.

But I don’t wish to linger on this topic; it is exhausting, unproductive, and has already claimed too much of my time.


Ideally, I’ll have a little something up this week about Broken Stars, the second collection of contemporary Chinese SF translated and edited by Ken Liu. I adored Invisible Planets, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. (Upon finishing it, I immediately bought two copies to give as gifts, and pre-ordered Broken Stars. I have also leant out my copy of the first collection so that the people in my life can share in its wonders.) Go read both of them!