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  • Make It New
  • Jed Rasula (bio)

No one knew what exactly was in the making; nobody could have said whether it was to be a new art, a new humanity, a new morality, or perhaps a reshuffling of society. So everyone said what he pleased about it.

—Robert Musil1

My epigraph, from a chapter in The Man without Qualities titled “Cultural Revolution,” has an equivocal tone that would appear to be lacking in Ezra Pound’s exhortation “Make It New.” Of the three terms, new seems concrete and unambiguous. The verb is forceful (action verbs were an idée fixe for Pound). But what is “it”? Squeezed between make and new, those brawny avatars, it would be ludicrous to suppose some veiled reference to aura or star power of the sort that made flapper and film star Clara Bow the “‘It’ girl” on the strength of pulp novelist Elinor Glyn’s thesis in It (1927). One would more sensibly take it to be an artwork, given Pound’s avocation. But considering the ubiquity of references to this famous phrase, it’s surprising to realize that Make It New was not published until 1934, when Pound was immersed in politics and economics. In Canto LIII, he commemorated the Chinese emperor Tching Tang [Ch’êng T’ang], founder of the Shang Dynasty in the eighteenth century, who in Pound’s account “wrote MAKE IT NEW / on his bath tub / Day by day make it new.”2 In this context, the it in question concerns statecraft. Pound’s—or Tching Tang’s—adage has populated countless accounts of modernism, and it may be the most frequently repeated quip of the early twentieth century. It’s succinct, memorable, and relevant. But it’s also slightly anachronistic, for the steady drumbeat of The New preceded Make It New by several decades—during which Pound himself [End Page 713] contributed to the polyrhythm of its allure. With the migratory tenacity of a virus, this adjective fertilized the avant-garde wherever it landed. In what follows, I trace its persistence without being overly scrupulous in distinguishing one movement from another, for it seems to me there’s something to be learned from a signifier for difference that could be so widely adopted that the differences spread beyond distinction or accountability. It’s as if the new was the very model of Gertrude Stein’s carafe or “blind glass” in Tender Buttons, “a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”3

Before reviewing the spectrum of exhortations, it’s best to set some outer limits (the inner limits charted here date roughly from 1912 to 1934). In 1895, Paul Gauguin invited August Strindberg to write the preface for an exhibition catalogue. The Swede had keenly felt the power of Gauguin’s canvases (“I saw on the walls of your studio an uproar of sunlit pictures, which pursued me in my sleep”), and though he turned down the invitation, Strindberg conceded: “I am beginning to feel an immense need for becoming savage and creating a new world.”4 Two years later Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, addressing “The Mission of the Artist,” concluded: “The work of art will reveal the perception of a new order in things.”5 Despite the burgeoning appearance of art nouveau, reference to the “new” as validation was not widespread at that point. Nearly fifty years later the exiled German Surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen published “The New Image” in his magazine DYN in 1942, in which he affirmed the definitive crossing over (as if on some aesthetic Aleutian Strait) of representational art into the domain of pure abstraction. For Hodler and Paalen alike, the new was a term for the unforeseen—and even the unforeseeable.

But what about the intervening decades? References were numerous, and not necessarily uncoordinated. The new generation was a predictable reference, but generations were a familiar way of specifying historical difference since Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir if not earlier. This difference, the new clearly underway by 1912, was felt to be decisive. The new spirit...


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