- 1 See for instance Jean-Michel Ganteau, Christine Reynier, eds., Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth (...)
1Judging by the number of conferences that have been devoted to the issue of artists’ commitments over the last few years,1 commitment is definitely drawing critical attention and is questioning the evolution of the function and value of literature and art between 1880 and 1940. The conference held at the University of Burgundy in October 2013 to discuss the nature and various shifts in artistic and literary commitments from the late-Victorian period to the Second World War may appear as a belated contribution to a growing body of studies, articles, and monographs devoted to the topic. However, as conference convenors we wanted to explore the diversity of those commitments. More precisely, we aimed at circumscribing some of the contexts and modalities of observable moves, modifications or transmogrifications operated in the status of artists and artworks in the times of massive and sometimes abrupt change characterising the last two centuries such as the continuation of industrialization and the attendant transformation of (what we perceive as) nature; political change towards liberal democracy; the redefinitions of gender in parallel to processes of individualization, and the democratization of both art and education, all of which gave rise to different, sometimes heterogeneous forms of commitment. As Marcel Gauchet has shown, not only is modern art inscribed within history, it is also a major component of the recognition of history and historicity of the social fabric which took place in the nineteenth century (Gauchet 2005). Modern art should in fact be described as an art “seized by history”, imbued with historicity as opposed to contemporary times where the link between art and historical creation seems to have been partly severed.
- 2 In their Modernism: Keywords, Oxford: John Wiley and Sons, 2014, Melba Cuby-Deane, Adam Hammond and (...)
2We also hoped to question the currently accepted discourse on literary periodisation, as well as complicate the so-called break between late Victorian and early modernist artistic outputs, again, in keeping with recent studies (Prettejohn 2002; Leighton 2007).2 If that break has been recently shown to be partial, it remains that literary and art history are not a series of smooth transitions and that much work remains to be done to have a fairer understanding of artistic evolutions.
- 3 So far no monograph or collection of essays has dwelt on the etymology of substantives and verbs re (...)
3Indeed, the very labels used to describe the decades between 1880 and 1910—Aesthetic, Decadent, proto or early Modernist—testify to an on-going debate about the value of art and literature in Anglo-American societies. Such a debate is also silently indebted to the different meanings of commitment explored in the introductory article on the semantics of the verb “commit”. Wondering “whether … speakers of the languages in question, have in mind roughly the same ideas when they use words which dictionaries give as equivalents of English commitment”, H. Daniels shows that they usually do not and that commitment has come to designate various artistic practices, lifestyles and styles of art as well as different ways of engagement with communities, institutions and society.3
4Therefore, the following essays aim at finer definitions of engagement by highlighting some of its forms for canonical and non-canonical writers—from W. Morris to H. MacDiarmid through Edward Carpenter, Mina Loy and Oscar Wilde—in response to social, political as well as personal change, and seeing it as both an ethical and political stance. Addressing the vexed fin de siècle issue of the gap between art and life, most of the essays explore how those responses materialised in works or in unconventional lives, and how the relationship between art and life remained an open question for some Modernists. Discussing the nature of those writers’ commitments and addressing the range of interpretations they have produced, all essays provide a convincing, although necessarily limited, overview of artistic ways of involvement.
- 4 Xavier Giudicelli also provides a list of the editions of The Soul of Man under Socialism.
5In modern times perhaps more than in other periods, to discuss commitment is also to discuss the complex, complicated and sometimes confused relationship between art and politics, two spheres which underwent two parallel processes of autonomy (Gauchet’s “autonomisation” as opposed to heteronomy, Gauchet 1983) among specific modalities and embedded within distinct institutions. How did writers position themselves in increasingly fragmented and professionalised fields vis-à-vis an increasingly professionalised and bureaucratic sphere with different levels of legitimacy and for an increasingly heterogeneous public? Xavier Giudicelli’s essay on Oscar Wilde is a case in point showing the shifting definitions of politics in his discussion of the afterlives of ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’. Wilde’s 1891 periodical essay in the Fortnightly Review has elicited different responses ranging from reading its paradoxical vindication of individualism and anti-authoritarian stance as an anarchist manifesto to including it in the 1990s sexual politics agenda. At that time, the personal was still being equated to the political, both being “queered” by J. Dollimore and others to counter the rampant reactionary politics within British and American universities. By discussing the publishing history and numerous translations of “The Soul of Man” including their paratext,4 Xavier Giudicelli also reminds us that the political is subjected to various definitions, but also to various readings, translations and circulations, as was the case throughout the 20th century. Translations of Wilde in post-Mussolinian Italy or in Franco’s Spain testify both to the enduring political dimension of the text and to the political dimension of translation.
6Reception is also politically inflected: discussing the reception of Futurism and Vorticism in the politics section of British newspapers between 1913 and 1916, Oriane Marre shows that both movements elicited antagonistic responses within the Labour party which in turn dramatically changed with the outbreak of the war. From being seen as undeniably foreign and disruptive, avant-garde art became fully integrated within the political combat, although some Conservatives remained unconvinced by its social and political value. Epstein’s Mother and Child was accordingly seen as the expression of a decaying family structure only made more fragile by the war.
7Even steeped in the most blatant nationalism, commitments began to have a strong internationalist or cosmopolitan component from the late 1890s onwards (Berman 2012), whether in Britain or in the U.S. as the country shifted from international isolationism to overseas expansion. Indeed, commitments also interrogate nation and internationalism as Céline Mansanti demonstrates by exploring how several modernist groups in the U.S. vindicated settling in avant-gardist Europe or chose to embrace the freedom from tradition offered by America for creating new artworks. The American cultural map was redefined by aesthetic and political discussions which in turn fostered different identities and a novel sense of belonging.
8We have not restricted commitment to openly political creeds or opinions, but have privileged essays investigating the writers’ manner of taking political stances through aesthetic choices including some apparent or proclaimed refusals of political preoccupations. If the thesis of Aestheticism’s detachment from political purposes no longer has currency, although it still hovers in our approach of the movement, the engagement of artists with social or political issues is far from being clear cut and limpid: another form of engagement may be more muted and therefore harder to circumscribe, as is the case with Walter Pater’s portrayal of Lacedaemon in 1892. Despite its ancient and rather scholarly topic, that rarely discussed text, later included in Plato and Platonism (1893), is steeped in late-Victorian Britain politics and more specifically in educational issues, weaving pedagogy and politics together by wondering about the conditions of the perfect city, or “Beata Urbs”. Significantly, Pater’s text with its (apparent) emphasis on the order and sanity of ancient Greece has sometimes been seen as one of the harbingers of similar concerns materialising in twentieth-century totalitarian Europe.
9Arguably Modernism tends to complicate the picture of the diversity of artistic engagements in times when the nature of politics changed. Regardless of how one conceives of the complex links between history, politics and art, groups of artists or writers, and individuals continued to respond to the imperative, or sometimes more simply, to the task of engagement with the world, with society, with life and with others. If Mina Loy appears as a case in point for modernist unconventional living and proclivities, from her liaison with Italian Futurists to her attraction towards Fascism, she also asserted the radical singularity of women, Margaret Gillespie contends. Echoing Wilde’s defence of individualism, and implicitly opening afresh a late-nineteenth-century debate pitting so-called “New Women” against their opponents, Loy’s personal, aesthetic and political stances show how gender complicates the usual dichotomies of art vs politics, or personal vs political. Moreover her trajectory demonstrates how individualistic choices uneasily translate in totalitarian times. By contrast, Hugh MacDiarmid’s openly political stance and nationalist poetry from the 1920s onwards started by confronting otherness, as Béatrice Duchâteau convincingly argues, only to stumble on the absence of reality to sustain and validate such an encounter. Such an experience fuelled his desire to reclaim it through a paradoxical proximity to the ideal, or “to create a new ideal reality and a new other thanks to poetry and violence” (Duchâteau).
10Admittedly, the protection of land and nature leans more towards politics than towards art, but W. Morris’s and E. Carpenter’s defence of them within a capitalist economy materialised in specific aesthetic and political stances. Taking their cue from John Ruskin’s re-aestheticisation of nature vis-à-vis the grip of (political) economy, they engaged in devising and partly enacting extensive programs of radical collective transformation, supported by countless public addresses and essays, re-politicising nature from a different and radical perspective as well. Both artists-cum-essayists—Carpenter being more invested in green living than Morris still engaged in artistic creation—contributed to what Jacques Rancière has defined as a new “sharing of the sensible”, or a shared partition of the sensible around which communities pivot (Rancière 2004), precisely in times when such sensible world was being converted into a marketable one. Predicated on a strong and long-lasting moral engagement, the art and life of those “Ruskin’s heirs” or “green socialists” (Peter Gould) re-located nature within the aesthetic, ethical and political spheres. Such a move was ambiguous and was sometimes seen as “sentimental” or as utopian; it appeared as retrogressive in times when the “new” and the quest for newness were ubiquitous in intellectual debates. It can be construed as an attempt to re-locate processes of autonomy within the old untenable mould of the so-called organic society, but it also heralded militant and innovative lifestyles of the 1960s onwards usually labelled alternative.
- 5 M. Smith uses the expression to designate the American Renaissance (1870s-1910s).
11Such varied forms of commitment were not restricted to Britain: along Céline Mansanti’s exploration of the different manners American writers questioned, challenged and expanded the cultural identity of their country through personal and collective choices in the interwar period, we have chosen to include Marc Smith’s discussion of U.S. commitment as he analyses the influence of “neo-Classic”5 artist and art historian Kenyon Cox on U.S. art at the turn of the twentieth century. For Cox, American art should embrace tradition, while the later generation had a more ambivalent attitude towards the past and more specifically, the way it structures U.S. culture and politics. Dealing more especially with the seminal period between the late-nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century when the Federal State started to play a more important role in the art scene, both essays allow fruitful comparisons between forms of commitment in Britain and the U.S. framed as they were by different institutional policies and history. Both also stress that institutions stand at the other end of the spectrum of artistic production and that their importance rose concomitantly with that of the state. From the 1890s, and for the first time in the country’s history, federal, state and local governments commissioned large-scale art projects and monuments to national glorification, culminating in the 1930s federal project of becoming “the arch-author of the art projects” (Mansanti) in the stead of individual artists. Such involvement was concomitant to the development of a spate of private or semi-private groups, leagues, academies, invested with the task of defining and legitimizing artworks or artists, as was the case with Kenyon Cox—also a noted magazine contributor—and sometimes, with the task of providing an effective counterweight to the state. There also, change was marked and quite complex, involving redefinition of individuality and collectivism. For Cox, ‘[a]rt was society and the artist was its metonymy’ (Smith), a stance that became progressively untenable as art and politics increasingly became autonomous, separate spheres. New questions arose and all of the essays gathered here show that they elicited complex responses that we need to understand to assess more precisely artistic and literary history.
- 6 “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.” Walter Pater, “Conclusion”, The Re (...)
- 7 See Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars. Berkeley: (...)
12From British Aestheticism’s specific engagement not with politics but with an alternative politics, to the 1938 London gathering dynamically labelled “Writers Declare Against Fascism”, from Walter Pater’s defence and celebration of experience as a way of knowledge in his 1873 “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (Pater 1988, 152)6 to Walter Benjamin’s 1933 reassessment of the notion of experience (Benjamin 265), individual and collective commitment undoubtedly went through changes that are not always decipherable without the help of contextual elements.7 And once again, scholars need to engage with historical and social contexts, and, as is argued in what follows, with generational contexts.
13Arguably, generations are another parameter to be taken into account for a finer understanding of forms of commitments in the first half of the twentieth century. The succession of generations shaped by radically different historical and social contexts forcing artists to reconsider the potency of artistic expression, and sometimes the sheer possibility of any artistic creation, was indeed acknowledged as such by writers and artists. Simplistic as it may appear, the recognition of generational differences has also contributed to artistic and literary history with different degrees of explicitness. As it has enabled scholars to make valuable distinctions within the history of British modernisms and as it enabled British Modernists to assess their personal experience, it should be given its due importance, especially as the pace of generational replacements tends to gain momentum in globalised contemporary societies. For their part, some Modernists were keen to situate themselves as belonging to a distinctive generation, and not only with a view of differentiating themselves from Victorian times.
14A generational approach to literature is still necessary when dealing with eras when the very generations both began to be recognised as such and be given their due importance in shaping literary debates and history. If such recognition started in the 1890s, the real generational divide may not be between Aestheticism and Modernisms but within Modernisms, between the first and second generation. Such a divide between at least two periods in the development of modernist aesthetics can be easily identified here: the form of Modernism analysed in the essay on Vorticism by O. Marre or on Mina Loy by M. Gillespie, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, another later form of Modernism. The nature of this particular divide requires some development and what follows aims at suggesting a few guidelines, showing that the gap between the two generations of modernist artists that co-existed in the 1920s and 1930s was in fact a bigger than the divide we assign between the late Victorians and early modernist artists.
- 8 The magazine was a monthly launched in the 1930s. It was devoted to cultural issues and artistic ev (...)
15In 1946 the magazine Britain Today8 published an article entitled “The Future of the Novel?”, written by Rosamond Lehmann (Britain Today, n° 122, June 1946, p. 5 -11). The issue was a major preoccupation among artists and critics. As a reviewer for The Listener and The New Statesman and Nation, through the Thirties and Forties Lehmann had a good overview of the subject. The question mark displayed in the title certainly signals unprecedented anxiety, and the article may well be used as a guide to identify a number of changes affecting the artistic sphere. Lehmann distinguishes various attitudes towards the present. First, the attitude illustrated by E. M. Forster, then aged 67, declaring that he “[…] feels the impossibility of writing novels nowadays because there are no longer any settled homes in which to put characters” (Britain Today 8); then the attitude of authors such as Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Sitwell, William Plomer or Ivy Compton-Burnett, whom she characterizes as “escapists” because they write about the past, trying to reconstruct and retrieve their past lives; and finally the attitude of novelists like Henry Green or Elizabeth Bowen, who “succeed in coming to terms with the times” (Britain Today 7). What Lehmann defines as “the waste, brutality and disintegration of the times” (Britain Today 6) points to a crisis that can hardly be ignored in our approach to the texts of the period and particularly the texts of the younger authors of the 1920s and 1930s. Lehmann’s categorization opposes two generations: the first generation of Modernists, silenced by the experience of the Second World War, and the generation of their followers in turn separated into two groups: young authors writing either about the past or the present. Lehmann belongs to the younger generation and helps contemporary readers avoid errors of perspective and parallax inherent to any purely aesthetic approach to the novels of the period. The influence of the first modernist artists on their younger followers is undeniable, and the admiration of the latter for the former is even more so. But the depth and scope of their mutual understanding remains most questionable and forces the critic to change methods when addressing either generation, because the foundations of their respective conceptions of the status of art and its inscription in history were not and could not be the same.
16The short 20th century has indeed inspired many opposite interpretations of artists’ objectives and sense of commitment through art. In 1992, in his volume entitled The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey argued that the prominent figures of the first two decades of the 20th century had the radical project to keep masses at bay through a strategically oriented use of stylistic obscurity. Such vision, though debatable and somewhat extreme, finds support and exemplification in the more recent scholarly exploration of early modernist magazines and experimental reviews. Recent analyses have shown how early modernist magazines kept targeting small circles of rather highly educated readers versed in artistic novelty and subversive claims to new forms of expression. From Blast to The New Age, from The Egoist, to Desmond McCarthy’s Life and Letters, or T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, early modernist magazines have provided sufficient evidence to qualify the first forms of Modernism as elitist. Then, the plural form of the word, “modernisms”, introduced by Peter Nicholls (1995), opened a path towards a growingly complex approach to tendencies and periods, with new perspectives on so far unseen possible groupings and affiliated sensibilities, thus reshaping and restructuring the pre-modernist and modernist landscapes.
17The issues of heritage and (or vs) legacies, and the issues of influence and canonisation underwent a few modifications. New terms were introduced or redefined and tested to meet new requirements of the critical gaze: “late modernism”, “inter modernism” gained currency through ground-breaking approaches by scholars like Michael Whitworth (2007), Marina MacKay and Lindsey Stonebridge (2007). The critical exploration of a growingly complex movement through the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s is no longer an outbreak. Critics are nowadays taking the full measure of changes that were operated over a period of two decades. Masses of unexploited archives are being unearthed by scholars, and bring forth predictable consequences: among the already voluminous corpus of modernist studies, many commonly accepted ideas are being undone, disproved or revised. What lies ahead is no less than a reconsideration of the place and exploitation of archives in the field of modernist studies and text analysis.
18The generation of late modernist authors, whom Lehmann belongs to, have currently been considered as weaker artists than their elders, from the moment of their emergence in the 1920s to a very recent period—a judgement they themselves ended up supporting, making it all the more difficult to overcome. Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, wrote a book of memoirs devoted to the circle of intellectuals around his family, and he significantly entitled it Elders and Betters (1995). Most of this younger generation referred to their elders as “the giants” or “titans” (Connolly 1965). Not only was their place in the modernist landscape obscured by their elders: it was soon eclipsed after the Second World War by yet another generation of authors, far more rebellious than they had been. Present-day modernist critique is still striving to define late modernism as a distinct moment in the context of twentieth-century artistic evolution.
19The authors of this specific generation—born at the turn of the 20th century—have undergone individual resurrection or recognition. One can think of Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen or Evelyn Waugh. But their collective, generational traits are yet to be listed and made sense of. This specific generation of artists is still nowadays too persistently associated to a less inventive form of Modernism and this estimation may have less to do with the value of late modernist artists than with the criteria through which their artworks have been considered from the outset. The admiration of the late modernist artists for the “giants” and “titans” was far from being reciprocated. Virginia Woolf privately considered Rosamond Lehmann as lightweight, and Lytton Strachey confessed that he did not understand the disenchantment elicited by Lehmann’s first novel (Holroyd 1994, 569). Late modernists were either misunderstood or under-estimated by their elders from the moment they emerged, and the artistic output of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNiece, William Plomer, John Lehmann, George Orwell, Anthony Powell, Elizabeth Bowen, Christopher Isherwood, or V.S. Pritchett is still today in a purgatory of unidentified, undefined collective identity despite the amount of essays and articles that they devoted to their own generational singularity, despite the unprecedented change they tried to impose on the figure of the artist. In the literary sphere, the consequence was a profound transformation of the world of publishing, a notable integration of the culture from below, and eventually a new definition of the reader.
- 9 The magazine New Writing founded by John Lehmann in 1936 was first hosted by The Bodley Head, then (...)
- 10 In 1941, the magazine stabilized with a circulation of 75,000 copies when Horizon (its closest comp (...)
20The cornerstone of such change was the new type of magazine that John Lehmann9 invented in 1936. Like some of his “elders and betters”, T. S. Eliot or Wyndham Lewis, Lehmann was an author and editor. But unlike his elders, he addressed a specific generational group instead of a cultural one. Far from targeting small circles or coteries, he tried to address a more socially comprehensive readership than that of the giants. His objective was to provide an outlet, not only for new talents to whom existing magazines proved inhospitable, but also to reach a new generation of readers, a specific age group whose sufferings stood beyond current social discourses. John Lehmann’s New Writing instantly met a whole generation’s expectations and the circulation of the magazine spoke for itself.10 Lehmann instigated a deep, vital brotherhood between contributors and readers, and this was made plain in the first pages of each issue: biographical notices of three or four lines would introduce the contributors as striving workers rather than inspired artists. The editorial policy promoted what Lehmann called “fictional reportage”, i.e. texts based on a substantial awareness of the sufferings of others in society across and beyond Europe, combined with the power of expression of literary creation. Lehmann believed in the mission of the poet and writer to express the tragic dimension of history experienced in the present.
21The biographical notices were soon supported by snapshots (rather than portraits) of authors, shown at work as militants or ordinary craftsmen. The reader of New Writing could see Malraux in his flying jacket, Maïakovski in front of posters with political slogans, Auden casually smoking and talking with friends. Authors were presented as companions, sharing the same cultural and historical reality. “Action” became a key word. Youth was the common attribute of all the contributors. New Writing was the magazine of one specific and particularly dismayed generation seeking its own future and consistency (rather than artistic identity) through engagement.
22New Writing marked the end of a certain vision of literature as a world of elitist, aesthetic experiments. The new generation of authors had not only been shattered by the changes operated by the First World War. They had also reached adulthood in the context of the Twenties, a decade of social and economic hardships. Lehmann was in his early twenties at the time of the Great Depression. The artists of his generation had all reached maturity in the context of the Spanish War and it was no hazard if New Writing was launched in 1936. Number 4, dated Autumn 1937, contained a fresh report, by Stephen Spender, of the Congress of writers in Valencia. A report full of emotions and personal impressions, with sentences heard there about “the duty of writers to be tormented”. The figure of the author was remodelled under the pressure of history and the expectations of a more and more politically conscious lower class. New Writing imposed the new figure of the writer (rather than poet or novelist) almost instantly, in its very first issues. The poet had to be a reporter, a chronicler, endorsing the pain of the ordinary man, stressing the historic dimension of events, and thus revealing the heroic dimension of voiceless, yet unrecorded sufferings. Decades later, one of Lehmann’s contributor, Roy Fuller, found an accurate formula to define New Writing’s editing line, speaking of “texts to be looked through rather than to be looked at” (Fuller in Lehmann 1957, 87).
- 11 John Lehmann, “The Armoured Writer”, Part 1, in New Writing and Daylight, London: The Hogarth Press (...)
23Virginia Woolf’s critical objections to Lehmann’s creeds in “The Leaning Tower” (Woolf 1972, 161-82) reveal the gap between the so-called canon-makers of Modernism and their followers, while Lehmann’s forgotten essays devoted to the figure of the writer11—which he published through the 1940s and 1950s—show how rapidly his generation was swept away and made almost undetectable in the records of literary history and in the current narrative of modernism.
24The changes operated on the figure of the author and the function of a magazine naturally brought about a radical change in the conception of the author-reader partnership. In her 1926 essay “How Should One Read a Book?” Virginia Woolf insisted on the responsibility of the reader as to the future of literature, but her conception of the reader’s faculty of judgement differs from Lehmann’s. The reader who bought any issue of New Writing was made to feel mentally and emotionally in the company of authors for whom art was a fundamental instrument to remove social and cultural barriers. This reader found himself in the company of young Chinese, Greek, French, Russian or South African authors. Translations were commissioned by Lehmann to introduce any new voice emerging worldwide into the pages of his magazine. Ordinary readers were invited to send manuscripts and New Writing published a number of such lifetime testimonies, especially during the Spanish Civil War.
- 12 See Trevor Tolley, British Literary Periodicals of WWII and Aftermath: A Critical History. Kemptvil (...)
25Lehmann’s conception of the reader as an open-minded member of a comprehensive community was made explicit and even advertised. All issues of New Writing started with a foreword in which Lehmann addressed the reader directly, explaining his choices, commenting upon current events, thus giving the reader a symbolic space that was reminiscent of the addressee’s space in the epistolary mode of communication. Lehmann’s regular contributors such as William Plomer, Roy Fuller, Stephen Spender or Christopher Isherwood did not believe in coteries or groups or parties in the way some writers of the previous generation did. They believed in a constantly moving web of people including authors and readers alike, as well as great models of the past. Shelley’s commitment in Greece was placed on equal footing with living examples of engagement like Malraux’s in Spain. And the magazine was not the only channel of popularization exploited by Lehmann and his friends: the BBC archives contain a significant portion of the archives and historical material of Late Modernism.12
26The lessons that are still to be derived nowadays from a magazine like New Writing exemplify one of the objectives at work in the following collection of essays: to reflect on the status of marginal corpuses and the way they could be de-marginalized to substantiate a more accurate account of the development of the figure of the artist/writer in the twentieth century.
27Providing examples, definitions and a range of methodological approaches upon commitments as they appear at the beginning of the 21st century, this collection underlines the persistence and relevance of previous commitments, therefore reflecting on transmission—another manner of commitment.