In Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life, Lisa Siraganian deftly draws connections between the ontology of the modernist object and the political implications of modernist conceptions of autonomy in order to illuminate the central role of liberalism in the generation and development of modernist aesthetics. More specifically, Modernism’s Other Work unveils the links between the political and the aesthetic through its revelation of a peculiarly modernist understanding of the artwork’s autonomy—one that has been occluded by both new critical and Frankfurt school discourses. Rather than relying on calcified theories of autonomy, Siraganian attends closely to the ways modernists themselves conceived of it, and for this reason her illuminating elaboration of the political ramifications of modernist autonomy is an invaluable contribution to the field.
In order to appreciate what the artwork’s autonomy meant to modernists, Siraganian shifts our attention from the relation between art object and referent to the relation between art object and beholder. This is because modernist writers and artists were preoccupied with the question of the artwork’s freedom from its spectators and readers and not with the artwork’s freedom from the world. Understood specifically as a matter of the artwork’s meaning, Siraganian argues, aesthetic autonomy had—and continues to have—deeply political implications. As she writes, “the reader’s or viewer’s relation to the art object became a way to envision the political subject’s ideal relation to a changing, rejuvenated, but essentially liberal state at a time when the discourse of threatened autonomy pervaded both high and mass culture” (4). Modernism’s famed aesthetic experimentation hence stands revealed as experimentation with the possibility for political autonomy under liberalism.
As it identifies two opposing ways to conceive of the artwork’s relation to its spectator/reader, Modernism’s Other Work reveals a critical debt to Michael Fried’s influential Art and Object-hood (1998). While Siraganian focuses her study exclusively on post-1900 literature and visual art, like Fried she traces a history in which the desire to detach the artwork from the spectator/reader shifts significantly in the 1960s to a contrary desire: to incorporate the spectator/reader into the artwork. Siraganian represents the first position by turning to Gertrude Stein and Wyndham [End Page 857] Lewis, both of whom attempt to detach the meaning of the artwork from its beholder and thus to ensure the autonomy of the artwork’s meaning. Here, readers will not want to miss Siraganian’s masterful reading of Lewis’s The Childermass, a work of fiction that satirizes the effects of audience incorporation by allowing its bumbling anti-heroes to destroy a painting by literally walking into it. As they stamp out a figure in the painting closely associated with Thomas Paine, The Childermass reveals the extent to which an aesthetic of incorporation destroys aesthetic and political representation alike.
In contrast to Stein and Lewis, the poetry of Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka undermine the autonomy of the artwork’s meaning by actively incorporating the reader. Where Olson’s poetry was committed to providing representation for politically underrepresented immigrant populations, Baraka’s incorporation of the reader serves the Black nationalist cause he came to embrace. Between these two poles, Siraganian studies the political and aesthetic compromises of William Carlos Williams and mid-century modernists William Gaddis and Elizabeth Bishop. Yet whether they seek to detach the meaning of the artwork from its spectator/reader, to incorporate the spectator into the object, or negotiate some combination of the two, all of these writers express their view of political liberalism as they work through the relation between artwork and audience. Hence, while clearly indebted to Fried, Modernism’s Other Work turns specifically to that which his work evades: the political implications of the spectator’s detachment from, or incorporation into, the artwork.
The persuasiveness of Siraganian’s argument and the richness of her readings of individual texts are enhanced by the central trope of Modernism’s Other Work: the breath. Her introduction begins with...