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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…

I have been thinking a lot about transgressive women. There are so many ways to be transgressive, and I have my personal stylistic favorites. Much of my thinking has been triggered by reading a friend’s new book, Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Ulrich. She has highlighted the lives of three women who did not buy the company line—Christine de Pizan (15th century), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (19th century) and Virginia Woolf (20th century.) But her introduction also chronicles many women–and groups of women–who have made her now famous line a slogan (originally taken from one of her scholarly articles and popularized through ad hoc brandishings on T-shirts, bumper stickers and bags.) Some of these groups, like the Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, Mississippi, approach being outrageous and out of control as a hobby, all the while living lives that look, on the surface, to be quite conventional.

Laurel points out that, for some women, there is something very seductive about transgressive behavior. That was me, even as a small child. But my predilection is for a more understated subversiveness rather than the excessive, high drama, in your face version. So Madonna’s high visibility transgressiveness is less compelling to me than the simmering iconoclasm of Sinead O’Connor. (When I heard Sinead perform a few weeks ago, it was clear that her fierce “I’ll do it my way, take it or leave it” energy is still very strong.)

Installation by Ana Mendieta

Or the likes of artists like Ana Mendieta and Lee Lozano. Mendieta’s untimely death stopped her extraordinary work in its prime, but Lozano was fierce all the way to the end. She undertook a boycott of the officiously superficial art world by refusing to speak to other women for one month in a conceptual piece that was intended as a way to improve communication with women. It lasted for thirty years.

Untitled, by Lee Lozano

And then of course there is the wonderful quote from poet Alice Notley, originally posted here on October 17th:

I’ve been trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me…To write vital poems, it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against…everything.

Moroccan calligraphy, 19th century (courtesy of BibliOdyssey)

I know many of you are regular readers of 3 Quarks Daily and the fascinating posts by Elatia Harris. But for anyone who may be a newcomer here, run, don’t walk your way to her latest foray into the extraordinary blog, BibliOdyssey.

In her words: “One of my guilty pleasures is visiting BibliOdyssey — there’s a gorgeous new post almost every other night — a site devoted to visual Materia Obscura. Be it 12th century sky maps, illuminated manuscripts, or the drawings of a ship’s artist on a voyage to the South Pacific in the early 1800’s, you can trust BibliOdyssey to yield up something fantastic that you haven’t already seen.”

When Elatia first told me about this site I was enchanted. How fitting to now find out that the very cool English design group Fuel has published a book based on these breathlessly beautiful images assembled by the mysterious blogmaster, Paul K. The introduction is by Dinos Chapman, one half of the Chapmans, art brothers extraordinaire. For those of you in Europe, you can buy the book right now through Fuel. According to Amazon, it will be a few more weeks before it is available in the US. You heard it here: It will be everybody’s favorite holiday gift, to get or to give.

Georg von Welling, 1719 (courtesy of BibliOdyssey)