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  • Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia by Stephen Eric Bronner
  • David Weir
Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia. Stephen Eric Bronner. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii + 190. $32.50 (cloth).

In Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia, Stephen Eric Bronner explores the political meaning of modernism and comes to the paradoxical conclusion implied by his title: modernists used utopian aesthetics to barricade themselves against political reality. Theirs was a revolution of the spirit, of the subject, of the way in which the world was experienced. Bronner doesn’t mention Walter Pater, but the famous conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) captures the sense of psychological liberation Bronner has in mind: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.”1 Indeed, Bronner’s book mostly defines “modernism” as the aesthetic expression of an expanded and intensified capacity for experience: “Modernism is not reducible to its artists, works, or intended purposes. The modernist ethos highlights experience in its immediacy and the constraints that tradition places upon it” (3).

If this ethos is political, it is political in a special sense, since prospective changes in social relations are predicated on aesthetic liberation: “The modernist avant-garde was focused on neither reform nor revolution. Its members experimented with multiplying experience, broadening the possibilities of perception, exploding the habitual, and transforming the way in which people relate to one another” (6). Modernism “sought to elicit an experience” that was “intensely individual to the point of being inexpressible” (16). Such intense individuality, however, coexisted with the wish for an ideal community of like-minded moderns who had experienced aesthetic transformation. Bronner says that the “new community” the “revolutionaries of the spirit” imagined “would have an anarchist flavor” (14). It makes sense to evoke anarchism because that particular ideology can accommodate individualists of radically different political persuasions.

That inclusiveness helps to account not only for the stylistically divergent varieties of modernism but also for an equally broad spectrum of ideological allegiances among the modernists themselves. What unifies modernism is a sense of shared opposition, on the left and the right, to liberal republicanism and the bourgeois institutions it spawned. Bronner’s excellent proof [End Page 131] of this claim is the list of contributors to the January–February 1892 issue of the journal La Société Nouvelle: Revue Internationale: “Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist; [Maurice] Barrès, the French conservative; Nietzsche, the German cultural anarchist with reactionary political tendencies; Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian literary bohemian; and William Morris, the English socialist” (13–14). The ideology of modernity, expressed politically through liberalism, economically through capitalism, aesthetically through realism, and socially through bourgeois institutions like marriage and the family, added up to humdrum conformism by the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, what modernists reacted to was the institutionalization of liberalism: the parliaments, the stock exchanges, the salons, the churches, the schools—all of these were institutions that encouraged cultural orthodoxy. As Bronner says, “opposing political wings of the modernist movement” took as their common enemy the Bildungsphilister or “cultural philistine,” a figure defined mostly by contrast with “the ‘new man’ who would supplant him” (7).

These two elements of Bronner’s analysis of modernism—its insistence that the world be experienced differently and its opposition to modernity as an impediment to that experience—are described and documented in the first two chapters of Modernism at the Barricades, “The Modernist Impulse” and “Modernism in Context.” Of the nine chapters that follow, three deal with expressionism in painting and music; one each with Futurism, surrealism, and the Russian avant-garde; one with the “modernists in power” (122) during the short-lived Bavarian Soviet; and one with modernist exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. A concluding chapter, “The Modernist Adventure: Political Reflections on a Cultural Legacy,” rounds out this brief but well-written book. As this overview shows, there appears to be no clear rationale for the order of the chapters. Nonetheless, the book does convey a strong sense of intellectual coherence. The chapter on the Bavarian Soviet, for example, maintains the focus on the utopian wish to renovate humanity, and it shows what happens when...


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