On the night of May 29, 1913, at the brand new Theatre of the Champs Elysees in the heart of Paris, the controversial dance company Ballets Russes staged the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The writer Jean Cocteau described the throng who attended: “The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd.” Another account spoke of the crowd being awash in “diamonds and fur.” Eventually the audience hushed and a lone bassoon began to play the plaintive notes of the ballet’s opening measures.
What happened next was later described by some as a “riot” and by others as “the greatest scandal” in the history of the arts. During the performance, objects were thrown at the stage. There was shouting and brandishing of canes. Top hats were pulled down over men’s heads. In the uproar, according to one report, one irate attendee challenged a defender of the ballet to a duel.
Historians have struggled to sort out the eyewitness accounts to determine just what incited this response. Was it the subject matter— an ancient pagan ritual? Or perhaps it was Stravinsky’s music, which was full of dissonance and driving, erotic beats. Maybe the dancers, dressed as primitives and cavorting about like savages, flouted the refined sensibilities of the Parisian crowd. No one is entirely sure.
But it’s a scene that’s become all too familiar to later generations: the debut of some piece of modern art that causes outrage and offence and, not infrequently, violence (or at least angry protests). One might say that this has become the recipe for success in the art world, that modern art lives by a sort of revolutionary ideology in which each new piece must spark outrage by shaming and destroying what has come before.
Make it new!
If you step back to take in the larger sweep of cultural history, a case could be made that modern art does not have an exclusive claim on revolutionary fervour. In every era there seems to be a movement from one dominant style to another, with advocates and practitioners of the new style reacting against and pushing away from what has come before. Examples abound. Take the shift from the squat, rounded arches of Romanesque architecture to the soaring pointed arches of the Gothic. Or the way the Mannerists, with their tortured, elongated human figures, were reacting against the symmetry and idealism of the High Renaissance. Or Romanticism’s stress on nature and organic form over against the Neoclassical fascination with machines and highly ordered, rational structures.
When people I know argue that revolutionas- methodology is the exclusive possession of modern art, I ask them to participate in a thought experiment focusing on the medieval era, a time we like to think was one of deep unity, piety, and traditionalism.
So just for a moment imagine you belong to the Romanesque Architects Club and you’ve been invited as a group to tour the first Gothic cathedral. You and your fellow architects are justly proud of your great Romanesque cathedrals, with their hallmark rounded arch—alluding to the grandeur of the mighty Roman Empire—and the dark, mystery-haunted spaces you’ve created (because rounded arches only permit small windows in your sacred spaces).
As you and your colleagues walk into that first Gothic cathedral you’re instantly blinded by the brilliant light let in by the huge vertical windows that the innovative engineering of the Gothic style makes possible. The next thing you notice is the pointed arches, which you all agree possess none of the stability and perfection of the rounded arch; they seem effeminate, weak, and yet also perhaps a little arrogant, pointing upward and overconfidently toward heaven. You all agree that this church is well-nigh sacrilegious, that it prevents worshippers from dwelling in the holy darkness of God’s mystery, and that it will give rise to a sort of spiritual hubris that will offend the Almighty and bring down his wrath on this wicked generation.
It’s a pretty plausible scenario, right? And yet, from our perspective in history, we generally imagine both medieval styles as being part of a larger unified culture. But that’s the thing: when you take the microscope to history, you see the cracks and fissures, the debates and dissensions.
So it would seem that artists, like the Olympian gods, have to kill—or at least banish— their forebears in order to rule in their own right.
But maybe, just maybe, our gut feeling that there are larger unities and continuities in the history of culture has something to be said for it. Maybe that hunch reflects an important part of the story. Let’s take out the microscope again and return to that scandalous night in May of 1913 when The Rite of Spring shocked Parisian high society.
Igor Stravinsky was a central player in the emergence of what came to be known as High Modernism, which flourished throughout the arts in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Like so many artistic styles before it, High Modernism emphasized a radical break with the past. In contrast to the late nineteenth century, when the arts— still under the powerful influence of
Romanticism—emphasized ideal beauty (albeit a wan and often decadent beauty), the Modernists were willing to confront the harsher truths of industrialization, the advance of technology, and the grimy everydayness of urban life in a mass society.
One of the earliest and most controversial statements of the Modernist sensibility was the painting by Pablo Picasso titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The five women depicted in the painting appear quite different from the nymphs and goddesses of late nineteenth-century salon art (such as that practiced by William-Adolphe Bouguereau). Instead of being represented as alluring, idealized figures, Picasso’s women—prostitutes, as it happens—are depicted in bold, frontal, almost confrontational poses. These women don’t recline, inviting a voyeuristic gaze; instead, they proposition us directly, with a frank sexuality that is unmistakable. They are painted in an aggressive, linear fashion, flattened and without dimensionality, and a couple of them have strangely distorted faces, including a couple who seem to be wearing primitive African masks.
Created in 1907 but not exhibited until 1916, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may not have instigated a scandal, but it was immediately recognized as something of an artistic statement. Seen alongside The Rite of Spring one immediately notices a similar interest in the pagan and the primitive. For many, including those of sincere Christian faith, the fascination with paganism on the part of the Modernists seemed prima facie evidence of a movement that rejected the religious heritage of Western culture.
That’s a plausible interpretation on the surface, but a case can be made that the Modernists were up to something a bit more profound and perhaps in a certain sense traditional. One of the aspects of late nineteenth- century culture the Modernists were reacting against was a type of religiosity that had become almost entirely conventional, more an accoutrement of a respectable bourgeois lifestyle than a powerful, transformative encounter with the divine. Picasso and Stravinsky were hardly alone in this. The early poetry of T.S. Eliot looked to Eastern religions, including both Hinduism and Buddhism, to recapture both the mystical ecstasy and holy dread of human experiences of the transcendent. D.H. Lawrence was writing novels during these years that sought to discover in sexuality something of the sacred.
In the aftermath of World War I, which devastated Europe and left a traumatized generation to try to make sense of wide-scale destruction and mass slaughter, Modernism’s penchant for realism began to resonate more powerfully with a broad cross-section of the public. Eliot’s use in his poetry of fragmentary phrases and obscure allusions chimed with the broken fragments of a supposedly sophisticated culture that had very nearly destroyed itself.
Of course, in any quick sketch like this there is the danger of generalization, of leaving out inconvenient facts. So let’s grant that in the High Modernist era there were many schools of art that did, in fact, take a more purely revolutionary approach in their manifestoes and public statements. It’s easy to find various movements like Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism where the notion of revolution is bound up with the destruction of the past and the quasi-Marxist belief that art can usher in a utopian society and perhaps engineer an altered human nature. That doesn’t drain these movements of value; often artists create more truly than they speak. But it does acknowledge that “revolutionary chic” is ingrained in much of modern art.
Revolutionary Routes to Tradition
But here’s an irrefutable fact. Some of the key Modernists went on not only to aver their profound belief in Christianity but also to articulate their undying loyalty to the canon of Western classics and to the religious and philosophical underpinnings of that tradition. Take Stravinsky, for example. As his music came to be more widely known and he spoke publicly about his artistic vision, people learned that his favourite composer was none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Even one of the hallmarks of Stravinsky’s Modernism—his use of dissonance to indicate darkness and stress—was eventually seen as continuing a compositional technique that had been employed by the likes of Bach and Mozart.
Stravinsky would go on to promote his own understanding of traditionalism in art.
Tradition is entirely different from habit, even from an excellent habit, since habit is by definition an unconscious acquisition and tends to become mechanical, whereas tradition results from a conscious and deliberate acceptance. A real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present. . . . Far from implying the repetition of what has been, tradition presupposes the reality of what endures. It appears as an heirloom, a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit before passing it on to one’s descendants.
It might be objected here that “habit” can be understood as a good thing in certain contexts, but it’s clear from Stravinsky’s statement that he is speaking of what has become rote and stale. For those of a theological frame of mind, it might even be said that one of the consequences of the Fall is that the outward forms of culture are always in danger of becoming habitual in this bad sense: lazy and repetitive, losing the “spirit” in an increasingly hardened “letter” of an artistic style.
One might say that the need to find new forms, forms capable of capturing the spirit within the circumstances of time and place, is an inherently incarnational act: the attempt to incarnate what is perennially true in a form that speaks to the world we live in now. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says: “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17 NIV).
Not long after that raucous premiere of The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky returned to a devout practice of his Russian Orthodox faith, including nearly daily church attendance. He would go on to compose such classic sacred works as his Symphony of Psalms and Requiem Canticles.
As a composer, Stravinsky was at his best using musical notes. It would take a writer with the literary skills of T.S. Eliot to articulate in eloquent language why Modernism could be understood not as a revolutionary rejection of the past but as a creative extension of it.
How to Fare Forward
It’s important to recall here that Eliot caused a good bit of scandal in his own day. After all, one of his most famous poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” begins with the disquieting lines:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
At a time when many poets were still describing sunsets with flowery words like “azure” and “cerulean,” Eliot asked his readers to see it like an inert body anesthetized on a hospital table. He would go on in works like The Waste Land to paint a picture of the modern era characterized by alienation, emotional paralysis, and despair.
Predictably, there were howls of derision in response to Eliot’s Modernist poetry, but thanks in part to his critical essays, many of which were recognized as literary gems, readers began to see the method in his madness.
The numerous allusions in his poems—references to other literary works or historical events from the broad sweep of Western history— were slowly understood as asking us to make connections we might not otherwise make. Similarly, some readers began to understand that Eliot’s use of fragmentary phases begged us to figure out where the fragment came from and what restoring it to the wholeness of its context might enable us to perceive.
To take a single example, consider this lone phrase in “Ash Wednesday”: “after this our exile.” It sits midway though the poem, forlorn, on a line by itself. In a poem about guilt and regret, those words might make you think: “Ah, Eliot’s reference to exile here is clearly an indication of modern alienation and solipsism.” And you’d be correct. But when you realize that this phrase comes from the ancient hymn to the Blessed Virgin known as the Salve Regina, you will find that the entire sentence is: “After this our exile, show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Suddenly our sense of the passage is given a whole new dimension: we recognize that the modern condition is precisely one of forgetfulness and that what has been forgotten is the remedy to our alienation: God’s saving love, made known in Christ, who entered the world through Mary’s “yes” to the One who would befriend us and bring us home from the exile of sin and isolation.
Eliot’s deep knowledge of literary tradition enabled him to perceive a pattern by which writers balanced novelty and tradition. He knew, for example, how poets like Shakespeare, Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others crafted language that was startlingly fresh when it first appeared but which contained a thread of continuity with the past. Shakespeare’s penchant for inventing new words by a clever use of a prefix (unsex, unreal) or by turning nouns into verbs (“he words me”) was frequently based on his interest in the etymologies of words, their ancient roots in Latin or Anglo-Saxon.
Eliot summed all this up in a magisterial essay titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It’s worth quoting the central passage at some length because it shines a powerful light on the way art is made and enters the tradition.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
In short, Eliot is saying, the arrival of the new work changes everything that has gone before it, because we are now able to see facets of the great works of the past through the prism of the new work itself. Artistic innovation is thus less like an act of revolutionary destruction and more like what a musical composer would call “theme and variations.”
Speaking of etymologies, here’s a fascinating one. The word “revolution” did not originally mean “violent overthrow of an existing institution or tradition” but rather something much simpler: “circular movement,” like a wheel turning, which every driver knows from “RPM,” meaning “revolutions per minute.”
So one way of thinking about true revolution is “things coming full circle.”
That’s precisely how Eliot and his Modernist innovators thought of their artworks: innovative and fresh enough to wake people out of their increasingly lazy and unimaginative ways of seeing the world, but rooted in tradition, in a civilizational order that preserved a great treasure house of knowledge and wisdom. Here is Eliot speaking of the church, but in terms that could easily be used of the arts: “But the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things: liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.”
G.K. Chesterton also said something apt here. He was discussing the word “reform,” which is much milder than “revolution” but which is also about change and has often been used as a smoke screen for revolutionary ideology.
“Reform,” he said, must ultimately mean “a return to form”—that is, we reform something not by simply replacing it but by going back to the purity and order that gave rise to it in the first place.
The metaphor of returning home from exile— of going on a journey through the vicissitudes of life and encountering the new in order to arrive where one began and appreciate it more deeply—held a powerful resonance for Eliot as for many other artists. As he wrote at the end of Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.