Letters: What was Modernism?


Dear Editor,

Patrick Zuk clearly wishes that modernism had never happened, and hence is unable to imagine that it might still be a living presence – hence the wishful thinking implied by the past tense in his title.

Adorno’s many failings have long since been weeded out by such critics as Max Paddison and Edward Said. However, these same authorities have also unearthed those features of Adorno’s thought that may still contribute to our understanding of modern music, culture, and society – a much more fruitful endeavour.

It is unclear to me why Mr Zuk believes in late 2004 that it is necessary to issue health-warnings about Schoenberg as if it were impossible to walk down the street without being waylaid by that composer’s fanatical defenders. Schoenberg has long since taken his place as a historical figure to be accepted or rejected independently of any claims he or his followers might have made several generations ago.

Mr Zuk describes Schoenberg’s ugly politico-religious ideology as if it were something unprecedented and exceptional. In fact, revisionist Zionism was systematised by Vladimir Jabotinsky in the 1920s and at present is the official ideology of Sharon’s Israel. But Mr Zuk tries to take a step further. Having quoted Martin Jay as reminding us that Adorno insisted on ‘the essential continuity between Wagner’s anti-Semitic, racist beliefs, …and his music’, Mr Zuk then wonders whether one could find similar continuities in the case of Schoenberg and hence, by implication, modernism itself. He then tells us that he is ‘personally of the opinion that Adorno’s critical method is fundamentally unsound’, decisively cutting the ground from beneath his own argument.

I believe that Schoenberg’s or Wagner’s greatness fully transcended their personal authoritarian and fascistic traits. The self that composes, writes, paints or sculpts is not necessarily the same self that makes a mess of everyday life. As for modernism, it’s not merely a thing of the past, but a living challenge which no contemporary artist can afford to ignore just as no physicist can pretend the Theory of Relativity never happened.

Raymond Deane
Dún Laoghaire
County Dublin

Published on 1 January 2005

Raymond Deane is a composer, pianist, author and activist. Together with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, he is a cultural ambassador of Music Harvest, an organisation seeking to create 'a platform for cultural events and dialogue between internationals and Palestinians...'.

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