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Mia Fineman, art critic at Slate, employs a more dynamic approach to the slightly tired category of the book review. Her approach is to write an email to the author and then post the exchange. This can go back and forth several times, and the conversation that results is more multifaceted and provocative than one hand clapping, so to speak.

In Fineman’s exchange with the esteemed historian Peter Gay about his latest book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, some memorable ideas and questions surface. I’ve extracted a few below. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

What you come up with are two defining attributes, which you believe all Modernists share: first, the impulse to break rules and flaunt conventional sensibilities (which you call the “lure of heresy”), and second, “the commitment to a principled self-scrutiny, which entails an exploration of the self.” As you take us through the lives and work of many of Modernism’s most influential figures, it’s easy to see how some—like Baudelaire, Picasso, Le Corbusier, or John Cage—manifested both of these attributes.

Peter Gay:

By and large, Modernists presupposed a cultivated audience. And difficulty meant “high” art against “low” art. Marcel Duchamp’s more or less deliberate attempt to destroy art as such with his readymades, for example, shows that Modernist artists knew perfectly well that their audience would probably be limited. Duchamp, it seems to me, was contemptuous of, or indifferent to, “ordinary” viewers, whether in museums or at art dealers. He took above-average risks, and essentially looked for the elite audience to understand them. Artists like Duchamp split the public into three rankings: the vulgar masses (no real interest in art); the well-to-do middle-class (smaller than the vulgarians but still sizable, and not really, truly in love with art); and the elite (which comprehends the difficult art that avant-gardes present to the world without apologies or explanations).

More to come…