Modernism and Race

For my final paper, I’ve been thinking a lot about why race is such a prevalent theme in modernism.  Other than the historical moment the movement found itself in, it makes sense that such a divisive social construct as race would be under a lot of scrutiny and redefinition by modernist writers.  However, in trying to break down how we had come to categorize human beings, modernists often turned to essentializing as a means to express the virtues of entire cultures and races of people.  Blatant racism is hateful, but well intentioned essentialism is reductive and neither convey the idea that race is truly a social construct.  We saw EM Forster grapple with this in A Passage to India in a very self conscious way and Stein handle it with not so much self consciousness in insisting that Four Saints have an all black cast.  Cunard’s a particularly strong example of this accidental hypocrisy where there seems to be a bit of a disconnect in her aims and her actually writings.  Undoubtedly, her ambitious project that became Negro stemmed from a genuine and admirable desire to show the ridiculousness of racial prejudice and explore the various experiences of black people throughout the world.  However, it is difficult to reconcile this with her blatant fetishization of black culture.  For Cunard, its not always possible to distinguish fetish from a kind of cultural appreciation or to know how aware of her privileged lens she was herself.
Still, it would be easy (and lazy) to see Negro as a sloppy collection of various medias that both fetishizes and victimizes blackness.  As Winkiel insists, Cunard was very conscious of the book’s structure and the pieces she decided to include in it.  By refusing to stick to a specific theme or natural flow in Negro, she creates a “‘refiguration of temporality’ that opens the present moment to its radical incompleteness, its ‘time out of joint”(Winkiel, 522) to reveal that black experiences had always existed and were not only given life by Western recognition.   More than that, it suggests that while much of the modern black experience was shaped by racism and tragedy inflicted by Europeans and Americans alike, there had long been many facets of black culture with a history and heritage independent of this narrative.
Despite the clear objective in Cunard’s ordering of the book, there has to be a deliberacy in her starting off Negro with Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression”.  It’s a smart choice because it evokes the importance of black self representation in the anthology.  While it appears that Hurston is really essentializing her own race, the essay is much more of a reclamation.  She destroys the idea that black culture is merely a product of failed white mimicry saying that “…the Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midsts of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use”(Negro, 28).  This notion refutes the silly notion that blackness is only a reflection of whiteness.  It demonstrates that blacks are products of their surroundings just as any one else is, that does not stem from a “feeling of inferiority”(Negro,28).  Hurston explains that the love of mimicry exists independently of whites as though it were an innate quality by describing a group of black children imitating various animals “for the love of it, not because he wishes to be like the one imitated”(Negro,29).  She handles “negro folkore” in the same manner saying it “is not a thing of the past.  It is still in the making”(Negro, 27) forcing the reader to realize that although many white readers may be learning of this genre for the first time it exists outside of modernity and will continue beyond it.  Cleverly, she ends her essay on “dialect”, an oft critiqued “trademark” of African American culture saying: “I am mentioning only the most general rules in dialect because there are so many quirks that belong only to certain localities that nothing less that a volume would be adequate”(Negro 31).  More than just a comment on various dialects, it hints that this tome will not be a large amassment of generalizations about black culture, but an assertion that race is an ever evolving concept with no one absolute identity.  Cunard appears to be in agreement in her choice in beginning the book with Hurston’s essay.  It suggest that “blackness” is not a static concept but one that is ever evolving with a past, present and future, meaning many different things to different people at any given time that transcends temporality.

Music as the Ideal Medium of Modernism

That music is particularly intriguing to various modernists is not surprising considering its inherent abstract quality, a trait that steadily gained value during this movement. One could argue that music can never absolutely represent anything other than itself because it lacks direct representation whereas visual art is its own subject matter and literature communicates ideas via a language that can be spoken and read. However, as Schoenberg points out, many people still expect that music must “summon up images of one sort or other” and if it does not then “the piece of music is misunderstood or worthless”(39). Of course music can have aspects that seem somewhat universal, such as specific sounds that evoke intensity or suggest melancholy for example. However, expecting that music on its own should convey a very specific subject matter devalues its profound ability to affect us in a different way than literature and visual art. I certainly agree with Schoenberg that music “ought perhaps remain incomprehensible and only perceptible” especially because language seems to continuously fall short of a true explanation of the medium’s essence. When one is willing to suspend their need for a singular interpretation, it is possible to see that an artwork may simply be about itself, which does not necessarily render it valueless.

This is not to say that all music cannot be inspired by a specific story, poem, historical event, etc. However, it is possible to create music (perhaps any work of art) without knowing what its “supposed” to be about beforehand, if ever. Schoenberg explains that he often does not know what the intended messages of his songs are until after he has completed them, as if his songs speak for themselves. In an anecdote he recalls reading poems that Shubert based certain songs of off of, long after being familiar with the composer’s works and not comprehending the poems themselves (40). I was immediately reminded of the many songs I heard on the radio as a child whose lyrics I completely made up. Years later, when I discovered the correct words, it did not alter the emotions that were evoked by the sound of the music or the voice of the singer when listening to them again. Like Schoenberg, learning the intended sentiment of the song did nothing for my understanding of them and that I had “grasped the content…perhaps even more profoundly than if I had clung to the surface of the mere thoughts expressed in words”(40). This so perfectly demonstrates the modernist notion that art can indeed be effective and important to the human experience without needing to present a singular, clear meaning.

However lyrics and poetry must not be completely discounted when considering music, as they certainly can play an important part. The modernist writer James Joyce saw his own work as being influenced by music, though not necessarily by specific pieces, but the art form itself.  In the excerpt from Joyce’s “Sirens”, he seems to be playing with the effect sounds can have based solely on their arrangement and structure.  Although this is often used in poetry, what is interesting is that most every line and “word” seems nonsensical.  However, when read aloud, it still has an effect on the listener despite its absence of a clear meaning, much like the effect of any piece of music.  Joyce seems to suggest that perhaps direct communication from the art to the audience is not necessary in order to conjure a legitimate emotional response.

Rigid expectations of art to have concrete meaning seem to spring from some anxiety that firstly art must represent something and also that its meaning must be evident simply by viewing, reading, or listening to it.   This also highlights the unease of society of the time and their difficulty of letting go of established order. However, in the wake of devastating warfare and the great paradigm shift that came with industrialization, many artists no longer accepted the direct and universal truths that had been held for so long.  So if there were any righteousness among the modernist artists, it is possible that they viewed themselves as ushering mankind into a better, more authentic understanding of life.  What’s more is they revealed that although the essence of an artwork may elude us, perhaps the value is in the not knowing and the continual questioning based on our perceptions making art much more engaging and crucial to humanity.