Decline to fall

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Eric Bolton says a book that insists the arts took a wrong turn with Modernism is seriously misguided. THE POLEMICS OF THE IMAGINATION By Peter Abbs, Skoob Books Pounds 8.95.

This is an oddly un-even book. Its claim to be a polemic arguing "for the poetic, the aesthetic and the spiritual: and the need for their profound recognition in our fast unravelling civilisation", sets the doom-laden tone of the book, but promises a coherence that, in the event, does not materialise.

The book consists of 13 essays and one interview transcript, written between 1979 and 1993, set in four sections: "Modernism and Post-Modernism", "The Nature of Aesthetic Education", "Autobiography as the Quest for Individuation"; and "Myth, Poetry and the Collective Imagination". There is a good deal of irritating repetition, as the essays have not been revised for the book. More seriously, neither the four sections, nor the separate essays hang together sufficiently to form either a coherent, persuasive argument, or a sustained polemic.

Abbs's central proposition appears to be that the arts matter in their own right because "they are an essential part of the existential quest for meaning and they keep sharp and subtle the tools needed for the task." Amen to that, but I have real misgivings when he goes on to claim that the arts went seriously astray with the rise of Modernism, and that, despite some signs of returning to the straight and narrow by the Post-Modernists, they remain fractured and remote from us, and from the serious business, great traditions and shared values of the arts and culture stretching back into antiquity.

These are serious and weighty allegations, demanding serious and weighty treatment. Unfortunately, they do not get that in these essays that waver uncertainly between polemic, serious analysis and debate. That uncertainty pervades the book. There is nothing wrong with good polemic, but by definition its intention is to be disputatious, to stop the reader in his tracks and cause him to pay attention. To do that effectively, good polemic has little or nothing to do with balanced analysis and reasoned argument, nor does it let awkward facts spoil a good case.

The polemic about Modernism is so outrageously narrowly based and selective that it is certain to stop readers in their tracks and infuriate many. Abbs implies that Modernism was driven by a kind of historical determinism, arrogance and elitism, dehumanising by market economies and technological advance, and a craving to be fashionable and up to date.

No doubt all those factors were, and are, at work in the arts, as elsewhere. But when was it ever very different? Market forces were at work in art and society in Renaissance Florence, snobbery and elitism in 18th centuryLondon, and most, if not all artists, in all art forms, have wrestled to a greater or lesser degree with fashion. Canaletto embraced it, asdid Dickens, and, for all artists, striking a balance between what sells and what is artistically worthwhile seems to have been a fairly constant concern, and a not wholly negative one at that.

Furthermore, Abbs appears to believe that everything could have been different if only the artists had behaved differently. In sustaining that belief he dismisses any notion that great, or even good, art must be of its time, as well as carry timeless, universal value and import. In fact, art's being of its time seems to be a significant feature of Abbs's demonology because apparently, it ties art to historical determinism and fashionable ideas.

Quite apart from the fact that ways of saying the same things quickly lose their force and rapidly become formulaic and predictable, it is because good art is close to life, that it has to reflect what is currently happening if it is to be felicitous, and taken seriously. Given all that, Gertrude Stein's famous utterance, "A rose is a rose is a rose" reflected the need to simplify the language and to write more directly and actively if the novel was to be revitalised. She couldn't do that but Hemingway and others could, and did. Musicians at the turn of the century did not decide, arbitrarily, to abandon tonality, it ran out on them: it had become too cosy and predictableto have any real force.

Similarly, Braque and Picasso did not "invent" Cubism for the hell of it.More recently, Doris Lessing in her novel The Golden Notebook makes the difficulties for the contemporary novelist of writing the "big, all-embracing novel" the form and substanceof the work itself.

Abbs claims that, as the 20th century progressed, art and artists became ever more frenetically and self-consciously iconoclastic. Can that really be said of Conrad, Hardy, Forster, Greene, Auden, McNeice, Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Dylan Thomas, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Seamus Heaney, let alone of many of the American, and European writers, painters and musicians of this century? Hardly any of the above feature in Abbs's analysis.

Those omissions are even more glaring in the book's final section, "Myth, Poetry and the Collective Imagination". To sustain his argument that poetry now is in dire straits and has lost sight of its social significance, Abbs uses The New Poetry published by Bloodaxe in 1993, Lawrence, Mandelstam, Milosz, Ted Hughes and R S Thomas. There are no references to other major poets of our time, except for a section on Tony Harrison which damns him with very faint praise. The whole section is ridiculously narrowly based and partial, given the author's claim that a systematic critique of current poetry is needed, and his implication that that is what he is about. Furthermore, when compared with Seamus Heaney's Oxford lectures on poetry in The Redress of Poetry and his Nobel Lecture "Crediting Poetry" it is mean-spirited and lightweight.

By far the most useful section of the book is "The Nature of Aesthetic Education". Here Abbs is on home-ground, and what he has to say about teaching the arts, and why, is soundly based, useful and perceptive. If more of the book could have been at that practical level I would have liked it better.

It might be that, when the devil appropriates the best tunes, whether the devil is Hitler, Stalin, Amin, big business, or the great multi-nationals and their ad-agencies, artists intent upon maintaining the great, moral traditions at the heart of serious art have little choice but to adopt atonality, dissonance, a determination to shock and iconoclastic attitudes towards received wisdom and conventional morality. Because the facts that art of any merit has to be, at least in part, of its time, and in expressing old truths in new ways will, at times, shock and disturb, are insufficiently dealt with, this book fails to convince either as an argument for the importance of the arts or as a satisfactory basis for revitalising the teaching of the arts in our schools.

Eric Bolton was until recently professor of teacher education at the Institute of Education, London

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