In the early years of the 20th Century, the arts entered a period of revolution. Enough of the escapism, the modernists said. Art must show modern life as it is. Only in that way can it offer real consolation. Ornament is crime, declared the architect Adolf Loos, and all those baroque facades that line the streets of Vienna, encrusted with meaningless knobs and curlicues, are so many denials of the world in which we live. They tell us that beauty belongs in a vanished past. In the face of this message, Loos set out to discover a purer beauty – beauty that belongs to modern life and also endorses it.
Loos’s contemporary Arnold Schoenberg rebelled against the late romantic music of which he was such a master, saying that tonal music had become banal, and that writing in the old way led to musical cliches. Schoenberg proceeded to reinvent the language of music, hoping to recover the purity and precision of Mozart or Bach. Eliot and Pound rebelled against the fairy-tale poetry of Housman and Walter De La Mare. The task of the poet, they insisted, was not to provide nostalgic dreams but to wake us up to reality. True poetry shows things as they are, and the poet’s frame of reference must be rebuilt in order to make this possible. The result will not be easy to understand. But, unlike the escapist poetry of the Victorians, it will be worth understanding.
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Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher
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In the attacks on the old ways of doing things one word in particular came into currency. That word was “kitsch”. Once introduced, the word stuck. Whatever you do, it mustn’t be kitsch. This became the first precept of the modernist artist in every medium. In a famous essay published in 1939, the American critic Clement Greenberg told his readers that there are only two possibilities available to the artist now. Either you belong to the avant-garde, challenging the old ways of figurative painting, or you produce kitsch. And the fear of kitsch is one reason for the compulsory offensiveness of so much art produced today. It doesn’t matter that your work is obscene, shocking, disturbing – as long as it isn’t kitsch.