- Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism's Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe
Much of the scholarship on the cultural history of Europe in the modern era has struggled with the question of whether modernism, the artistic and intellectual movement that blossomed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, was "for" or "against" modernity, the rapid and radical transformation of the social, economic, and physical landscapes of Western Europe in the industrial era. Scholars who emphasize the oppositional aspect have pointed to, for instance, the antibourgeois attitude of many modernists, informed by their disillusionment with political and economic progress of their times. Others have noted some modernists' embracing of the brave new world that has risen after the demise of the stultifying old regime, as seen in the futurists' celebration of the great, powerful machines of the era as symbols of the great transformations of the times. Recent works on the issue tend to take a nuanced view of modernism's relationship with modernity that go beyond the simplistic "for" or "against," as one that is wracked with anxiety and ambivalence, of great excitement accompanied by profound uncertainty.
Walter L. Adamson, an expert on Italian modernism whose previous works were on the avant-garde in Florence and on Antonio Gramsci, makes an important contribution to the debate in his superb and highly informative book Embattled Avant-Gardes, which examines in detail various modernist responses to one particular aspect of modernity, namely the rise of mass commodity culture, especially as it relates to the arts. The choice of this topic for a further understanding the nature of modernism is not an arbitrary one, as he demonstrates that for many thinkers on the subject, including Walter Benjamin, commodity culture was the decisive issue that informed their attitudes and ideas on modernity and the place of artists and intellectuals in it. In the first chapter on the various nineteenth-century reactions to commodity culture, by figures such as John Ruskin, William Morris, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, and others, Adamson shows that worries about the cheapening of aesthetic value through the mass production, advertisement, and consumption of artistic goods led many to advocate the autonomy of high art and the creation of a cultural elite through the establishment of "religions of art." In addition to incisive analyses of such ideas by individual figures, Adamson points to the paradoxical and sometimes even hypocritical fact that it was often the very aspects of modernity they were criticizing, including the rise of mass markets [End Page 304] and audience, that made it possible for them to create and disseminate their works under the new social and economic conditions.
The bulk of the book, however, deals with figures, starting with F. T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Wassily Kandinsky in the first part, who did not advocate a complete disengagement with commodity culture, but sought creative and original solutions to the problem of art and ideas in the modern era. In the second part of the work, Adamson shows that the effort became all the more urgent and necessary in the post–World War I period, when the political and economic difficulties of the times made the idea of the autonomy of high art seem ridiculously utopian, compelling many major modernists to make alliances with established industrial and political forces (e.g., the figures of the "design modernism," including Walter Gropius, Theo van Doesburg, and Le Corbusier with industrial corporations; the futurist Marinetti with Italian fascists; and the surrealist André Breton with French communists). Given the multiplicity of their views, reactions, and strategies in dealing with mass culture, the word "resistance" in the subtitle of the book may appear inappropriate as it seems to denote a starkly oppositional attitude to commodity culture that applies only to the ideas of the earlier autonomy-of-high-art figures.
In the course of the book, however, Adamson clearly demonstrates that while most of the later figures, starting from Marinetti, acknowledged that commodity culture in modern society was something that all socially engaged artists...