Modernism and Its Media: Between Old and New

Mellon Vertical Seminar

Washington University | Fall 2012

Seminar Directors: Vince Sherry | Lutz Koepnick

Seminar Time: Tuesdays 3 -5:30 pm | Location: Ridgley 321.

Description | Weekly Schedule












Project Description


If the suffix in modernismÓ attributes an ideology or self-consciousness to oneÕs experience of being Òmodern,Ó the appropriation by artists of a specifically new and characteristically modern set of media in the early twentieth century will provide a suitable context and ground for the work of this seminar, which seeks to analyze the developing understandings of aesthetic modernism in its flourishing time. And while new media such as radio and cinema and the developing technologies of photography and the phonograph provided areas of artistic invention on their own, an equally important aspect of this advance is the powerful impact these new and enhanced technologies had on the practice of the traditional media of literature, painting, and music. It is of course the challenge that these novel technologies precipitated in the understanding of traditional artistic conventions that defines the kinds of cultural crisis that modernism takes as its enabling moment: these innovations provided a dramatic indication that a demonstrably ÒnewÓ set of conditions existed for the practice and experience of art. Accordingly, this seminar will examine the activity and attitudes of artists in the new or developing media and it will graph the interaction of these new possibilities of aesthetic experience with the sometimes resisting, sometimes reciprocating energies of writers, visual artists and musicians. It is an openness to this watershed moment and a participation in its defining crises that we may take as the establishing and identifying mark of the ÒmodernistÓ artist—not a specific or predictable set of textual, chromatic, or acoustic practices but, rather, an attitude or temperament that registers with especial acuteness the energy of change. Our materials will combine primary and secondary resources, including the artistic work being done in both new and old media and the statements of polemical attacks and values that accompany these practices, all of which will be put in perspective through our collateral readings of the most important and relevant work of modernist scholarship.


A key emphasis in the understanding of this subject and the organization of its issues as well as our syllabus is the material basis of the aesthetic experience of modernist art and, concomitantly, the insistence on the sensory specificity of each of its media. One of the identifiably radical gestures in aesthetic modernism is the extrapolation and exaggeration of the material bases of aesthetic experience, which (instead of some putative set of references that are external to the work of art) tend to center the action of artist and reader or viewer or listener. Painting turned modernist, in this critical account, when painters abandoned representation and focused anew on the sheer materiality of paint and brushstroke; poets became modernist when their attention veered toward nothing other than the sounds or visual appearance of the individual word; photography and film defined themselves as modernist through their effort to pursue compositional principles in terms of a pure play of shadow and light; and musician entered the era of aesthetic modernism when they aspired to concentrate primarily on the acoustical properties of individual sounds and noises and in so doing challenged traditional harmonic and chromatic principles. The advances of the new media of sight—photography and, before the Òtalkies,Ó cinema—and sound—radio and the phonograph—worked each on its own and separately to isolate and radicalize the primary sense of each art, and so these new media locate an area of aesthetic pioneering that provides at once an example of aesthetic newness and a test and challenge for the other arts of the century whose newness was being defined by these new artistic emphases. Thus we will follow the processes by which artists and critics respond, variously, to these defining provocations. For some, the investigation of medium specificity offered the key to aesthetic autonomy in the modern age, and they worked either to exaggerate the primary sense or combine the senses potential to a range or plenum of aesthetic experience in a work of art. Other critics and modernist practitioners embraced such reflexive gestures of sensory self-consciousness as part of a much larger program of addressing and recalibrating the presumed separation and autonomization of sensory perception in the modern age. In each of these cases, however, the modernist attitude was unthinkable without oneÕs eagerness to explore a mediumÕs particular logic of expression and put this to work in the material condition of representation specific to it. The motives, presumptions, implications and consequences of this activity will provide the wider framework of analysis and discussion in our seminar.


The aim of our vertical seminar is twofold. On one hand, we will be addressing the ways in which modernism constituted itself around issues of medium specificity, in particular with regard to literature, painting, music, photography, and film. On the other hand, our seminar will discuss various junctures within the history of aesthetic modernism at which visual artists, writers, and musicians either sought to transgress the confines of their respective media or –polemically, radically—tried to mobilize their medium against others. The role of artistic media in aesthetic modernism, we will find, was always precarious and contingent. It was deeply embattled, and in order to track modernismÕs battle over the meaning of older and newer media in all its diversity, we will discuss how advocates of newer media such as film tried to denigrate the users of older media such the literature as backward and un-modern; how practitioners of older media confronted new media as vehicles of voided substance and mere distractions; and how highly ambitious artists sought to re-integrate various media of expression into new synthetic wholes and thus hoped to resolve the very dialectic of old and new. In pursuing these aims we will be providing a range of content that draws on the special resources of the two seminar leaders, which feature separately and together the Anglo-American and pan-European compasses of aesthetic modernism. The critical perspectives and materials are decisively transatlantic; they are meant to help us examine similarities and crucial differences in how modernist artists in Europe and North America approached the logic of their respective media and coupled their approaches to larger aesthetic, social, or political agendas.


Accordingly, the syllabus for this seminar will include three parts, each of them comparing and contrasting the work of artists and theorists from either side of the Atlantic, all of them exploring modernism as a site of ongoing struggles over the autonomy of various media of artistic expression in face of the rise of modern mass culture and distraction. Part One will be concerned with a number of paradigmatic positions in writing, music, and the visual artist eager to explore medium specificity as a principal conduit to what it might mean to be both modernist and modern. Part Two will address key confrontations between various media in modernism (word vs. image; word vs. sound; image vs. sound; still image vs. moving image, etc.) in order to discuss the larger social and political dimensions of modernism quest for aesthetic autonomy and self-reflexivity. And Part Three investigates various attempts to synthesize media and sensory perceptions in aesthetic modernism, including the desire to create total work of arts and to find viable expressions for synesthetic experiences.


The seminar will be of interest for faculty and graduate students in departments and programs such as American Studies, Art History, Comparative Literatures, English, German, History, Music, and Romance Literatures. It involves two co-directors to provide participants with a broad and strong interdisciplinary scaffolding, which will enable us to address the historical and conceptual multiplicity of aesthetic modernism as well as to warrant sufficient expertise in our discussions of different media practices. Readings and discussions will frequently point to modernismÕs unique ability to speak to larger issues of aesthetic expressiveness and reception; the seminar might therefore also be of interest to students and faculty whose primary historical interest lies outside of early twentieth-century culture.



Weekly Schedule


Week 1 (8/28): Introduction


Week 2 (9/4): Modernism, Media, Speed


Week 3 (9/11): The Avant-garde and Its Manifestoes

á       Boccioni, "Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto"

á       Boccioni, ÒTechnical Manifesto of Futurist SculptureÓ

á       Breton, ÒSurrealist ManifestoÓ

á       BŸrger, Theory of the Avant-garde (sel)

á       Lewis et alii, Blast 1, ÒLong Live the Vortex!,Ó ÒManifestoÓ (Blasts, Blessings), ÒManifestoÓ (I-VII)

á       Malevich, "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism" 

á       Marinetti, "The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism" 

á       Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestoes, and the Avant-Gardes (sel)

á       Russolo, The Art of Noise


Week 4 (9/18): Photography | Film

á       Balasz, Visible Man (sel)

á       Kracauer, ÒPhotographyÓ (1927)

á       Kracauer, ÒPhotographyÓ (1960)

á       Moholy-Nagy, Painting Photography Film & Dynamic of a Metropolis


Week 5 (9/25): Film | Literature

á       Arnheim, ÒThe New LaocoonÓ

á       Skail, Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism ), 1-92.

á       Trotter, Cinema and Modernism, 1-85, 181-98.


Week 6-9 (10/2, 10/9, 10/16, 10/23): Literature and Other Media

á       literary readings, primary texts and commentary on media by Eliot, Woolf, Pound, Wyndham Lewis: author by author reference in commentary in subsequent chapters of Trotter and Skail. other European and American artists?


Week 6 (10/2): Joyce and Cinema


Week 7 (10/9): Woolf and Cinema


Week 8 (10/17): Eliot and Cinema

á       ÒThe Love Song of J. Alfred PrufrockÓ

á       The Waste Land (facsimile edition; the full text of the published poem, with the authorÕs notes, comes near the end of this file)

á       ÒThe Romantic Englishman, The Comic Spirit, and the Function of CriticismÓ

á       ÒEffie the Waif,Ó as excerpted from letters

á       Trotter, Cinema and Modernism, 125-58


Week 9 (10/25) Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams and Cinema

á       Pound, from Selected Poems, pp. 18-39;

á       Ezra Pound and The Visual Arts, 98-99, 175-77.

á       H.D. from Collected Poems, as asterisked on reproduced pages; from The Cinema and The Classics, II Restraint, and III, The Mask and the Movietone.

á       Williams, from Collected Early Poems, Spring and All, 239-287.

á       McCabe, Cinematic Modernism, 32-161.


Week 10 (10/30): Empathy, Abstraction, and the Theatrical

á       Koss, Modernism after Wagner (xi-xix, 25-66, 67-95, 207-244)

á       Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927)

á       Fernand Leger, Ballet MŽcanique (1924)


Week 11 (11/6): Total Work of Art: Between Fascism, Stalinism, and Hollywood

á       Benjamin, ÒThe Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical ReproducibilityÓ (epilogue)

á       Groys, Stalinism as a Total Work of Art (sel)

á       Huyssen, ÒAdorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard WagnerÓ

á       Smith, The Total Work of Art (sel)


Week 12 (11/20): After Modernism?

á       Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies (1-18, 46-77, 253-323)

á       Greenberg, ÒAvant-garde and KitschÓ

á       Krauss, ÒSome Rotten Shoots from the Seeds of TimeÓ


Week 13 & 14 & 15 (11/27, 12/4, 12/11): Conclusion

á       Participant presentations @ 30 minutes each.

á       Seminar visit by Enda Duffy on 12/4/12