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Modernism's Iconophobia and What it Did to Gender

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 5, Number 2, April 1998
pp. 47-75 | 10.1353/mod.1998.0028

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Modernism/Modernity 5.2 (1998) 47-75


Modernism's antagonism toward both mass culture and women is all too well known. Indeed, literary and cultural criticism has shown that, however strange and various, the formal innovations associated with modernism worked toward the single end of distinguishing authentic artistic expression from art which made itself accessible to ordinary consumers. In doing so, these same formal moves sought to remasculinize art. My own investigation into modernism's argument with popular realism must begin where many such inquiries end: Why modernists -- or anyone else for that matter -- should feel so compelled to disavow a relationship with mass culture is no more obvious to me than why they should exhibit such intense ambivalence toward women. I seriously doubt that fear of feminization could have motivated all those unconventionally gendered and uniquely talented individuals. Nor do I believe that such a socially acceptable phobia -- itself a product of the same middle-class culture they self-consciously rejected -- was what brought their various forms of creative energy together under one rather tight conceptual umbrella. Even if it could be shown that so many artists actually shared a single phobia, furthermore, we would still have no way of explaining why their specific expressions of contempt for the popular and conventional were able to redefine art for all of modern culture. Thus the modernist endeavor to remasculinize art should be seen as a means to another end, I believe, rather than the prime mover and final cause of this historical phenomenon. Only by redefining modernism's assault on conventional body images as an aesthetic strategy rather than its cultural objective, can we begin to consider the more interesting question of what modernism accomplished by its repeated disavowals of both mass culture and femininity.

To answer this question, I want to look closely at the change that English fiction and photography underwent during the last decade of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century, as these particular media acquired the status of high-culture art forms. My choice is strategic. Fiction and photography were arguably the first mass cultural media to cross over into the fine arts domain. Given that the first novels to do so were produced within a few short years of the first fine-art photographs, we might expect these media to have pursued parallel trajectories in developing the formal techniques that would place them among other modernist productions. We would be wrong. Yes, it is true that in order to transform popular culture into art, modernism consistently challenged the principle of realism that Victorian consumers brought to both fiction and photography, namely, the principle that one could know something by looking at it. This reliance on visual information presupposed the still more basic principle that a natural and necessary bond connected objects to their images. To make a long story short, modernism turned against the attempt on the part of realism to make the perfect copy, on grounds that such a copy obscured and, if sufficiently popular, would eventually replace the original in the public imagination. We all know what happened next. The fine arts rose to meet the challenge of establishing themselves as originals rather than copies of a thing, a school, or a tradition.

There is nevertheless reason to pause and consider the fact that authenticity would have been considerably more vexing for an author to achieve who was working in a popular genre like fiction, which had gained its cultural currency during the preceding century and a half by making references to rather ordinary kinds of information, including newspapers, advertisements and photographs. References to visual spectacles were the stock and trade of literary realism. And if fiction had to renounce its traditional subject matter in order to enter high culture, then how much more problematic the task for photography. Unlike fiction, photography was made of visual information and could in this sense be called the perfect copy. To the degree that a photograph's very existence as an image appeared to depend on objects and people outside the photographic frame, the medium itself argued for a one-to-one relationship between image and subject matter. If, as I am...

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