- The Difficulties of Modernism
After more than thirty years of continuing Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, and postmodernist demystification of modernism and its critical companion, New Criticism, Leonard Diepeveen's book The Difficulties of Modernism returns to the earliest and most persistent attack voiced against modernist art: its difficulty. In comparison with the ideologically motivated, often radical polemics against the supposedly elitist, self-serving, and hegemonic attitudes of modernist artists and their New Critical apologists, Diepeveen's critique of modernism seems mild. On the surface, he merely objects to the excesses of modernist difficulty and to the reductiveness of considering complexity and obscurity the primary, if not the only, criteria in determining what can be accepted as high art. However, his rebuttal of the modernist creed that art must be difficult goes beyond previous critiques that difficulty excludes certain groups of artists or registers of aesthetic expression. Diepeveen points to the ways that the triumph of modernism and its aesthetics of difficulty greatly diminished the impact of high art and ultimately turned against the assumptions and aims of modernism itself. The mystique of difficulty alienated all but the most professional public, narrowed the scope of aesthetic experience, imposed a canon on the basis of "in-crowd" criteria, and, often via implausibly "difficult readings," forced even seemingly simple art (Diepeveen's examples are Robert Frost and Willa Cather) into a modernist mold. [End Page 624] As a result, the modernist aesthetics of difficulty became a dogma to such a degree that it paradoxically turned its own transgressions, disruptions, and inconsistencies into the most conventional and expected artistic and critical approaches of the twentieth century.
While Diepeveen's diagnosis of artistic and critical developments is convincing, his call for more diversity and openness in judging modern literary and artistic forms is barely original and remains vague. He rightly guards himself against suggesting that "high culture ought to return to simplicity" (243), but, unlike many contemporary artists and thinkers, he does not take up the challenge of seriously searching for alternatives. He admits that his argument is modest, but the claim of his book, clearly stated in the preface, is not. Irritated by the automatic manner in which difficulty is still taken as the key measure of all art, he explicitly sets himself the task of defamiliarizing difficulty. It remains unclear whether Diepeveen uses this modernist catchword derived from the Russian formalists' concept ostranenie—literally, "rendering strange," and the most plausible common denominator of most defenses of modernist difficulty—with deliberate irony. Be that as it may, the verb appropriately if overdramatically describes the successful parts of his study, at the same time pointing to its limitations.
The texture of The Difficulties of Modernism consists of interweaving empirical historical research, conceptual definition, and theoretical argument. The force of these dimensions in the study is uneven. At the historical level, Diepeveen's achievement is impressive. Drawing from fifteen hundred documents about the role of difficulty in the culture wars of the early twentieth century, his account fulfills its aim of creating "a tellable narrative" (xiv). Diepeveen's reconstruction of the discussions about difficulty in the first decades of the twentieth century and his rich collection of anecdotes and quotes by both skeptics and defenders of modernist difficulty—some handsomely displayed in gray squares—make for the liveliest parts of the book. The first chapter and the narrative passages throughout the text vividly illustrate that the difficulty of modern art was an urgent issue in many circles and provoked a crisis in the relationship between high art and its public.
The affective manifestations of this crisis, the emotive reactions to incomprehension in aesthetic experiences in general, and an attempt to define and conceptualize difficulty in the light of such spontaneous responses constitute the second step in Diepeveen's endeavor. He emphasizes that difficulty is not an inherent characteristic of a work of art but an affect-based "reading protocol" (i.e., a codified and/or imposed reading process; 244) and a socially determined parameter. His insistence on the affective dimension of difficulty, on its propensity to provoke the...