Traditional And Modern

Showing the electors' arrival in Frankfurt due to the crowning of Joseph II as King of Rome, Goethe mentions the fact that among the most obedient and distinguished personalities some had ridden to Frankfurt "according to the old traditional custom," while others had gone by coach "in a fairly modern style." By its severe anachronism, this opposition has the advantage of tempering a gesture which is often too direct and sure of its success. The waters cannot be as smoothly separated as the Red Sea in the biblical legend, in order to allow us an easy passage to the continent, in the middle of the waves properly arranged on both sides.In 1764, the coach was a modern way of traveling and a hundred years later, one of Dostoievsky's characters was to call our century "a century of vice and railroad." Nothing would seem more natural than this passage of the once modern age into the obsolete, for it was replaced by a new novelty, a process that will go on forever: "ours" will become "theirs," the foregoers', who had traveled – o tempora! – by chariots, cars, archaic cosmic rackets!And as if only to mix up our thoughts, which are clearer on the technical ground, the character mentioned above calls the topic of the day, Hamlet's question, "to be or not to be," a contemporary, completely modern theme. This means that the waters are hard to separate, here more difficult than elsewhere, and the arts are among the most turbulent oceans that man has to master!Hamlet had been the topic of the day in "our century," meaning the 19th century, and from the top of a distant future, one will confirm the modernity of this theme in the 20th century, "their century," as well. Jan Kott names Shakespeare "our contemporary" – of a late or early era, it depends on the starting point –, but aren't we showing an unceasing tendency, a fully legitimate one, of considering Sophocles, Michelangelo, Bach or even Goethe as contemporary to us?! Our very introduction is a proof to that, an introduction which is in no way extravagant because, although we are no longer used to crowning kings and although we are not familiar with the great electors from the small German duchies, we have remained, and it will always be so, eternally grateful to the book that knew how to describe these things in such skilful images, along with many other deeds of an everlasting and yet ephemeral life. For Goethe the child, the feast that he described had an "endless charm"; in some way, the charm remained untouched: it's the teller's, therefore ours, it follows us in an existence that we consider modern.The relativity of the moment in a forever changing yet constant world had been sensed by the poet in a melancholy way: "The future and the past / Are two sides of a single part / The beginning is in the end / Who knows how to apprehend…" History is a useful lesson to every generation, whose duty is to recognize itself as a step on an endless climb, a link without which the chain would not be complete; it should not think of itself more or less than that, nor the diamond whose shaping took the world's effort, nor the casual product that could be overlooked without any damage. "Time passes, time comes, / All is old and new is all" is not necessarily a depressing philosophy, for it also means the untiring dialectic of life whose effect is all the more tonic. The immortality of its species also comforts the sad mortal man: man can survive himself, not in an illusionary or mystical way, but through his own feelings, thoughts, deeds and shared emotions. The work of art is one of the supreme testimonies of this continuity, in which the essential remains the same.The line "What is wave, like the wave passes" did not pass, and neither did the poem or the whole work of the one who wrote it. For us and for them, those who will follow, Eminescu, "our contemporary," will not cease to be a subject of meditation, a revealing example of metamorphosis.In order to be fruitful, the discussion about the modern spirit in art has to be included first of all in such a vast perspective of the human progress, a progress which is here less than anywhere else an exclusivist, limited, tyrannical and annihilating progress in its relation to the values of the past. On the contrary, it so happens that an artist's modernity increases by time, not just because he has not been fully understood and appreciated in his time, but simply because his sensitivity could fully melt into some future eras. Stendhal is a contemporary of our times more than he was of his. Did not the revolutionary waves bring back Schiller's dramas to the attention of the present, contrary to the verdict of some incorrigibly rigid critics?! Is the new echo of El Greco's paintings merely casual in other visionary, hallucinate times?! And is not Bach always being rediscovered because of the recent musical renewals that he had foreseen centuries ago and whose exaggerations he had fairly opposed?The genius continues to live an active life through posterity; being brought back to the proscenium, after having been temporarily forgotten backstage, he feels as if it were his duty to take part in the action, to tell his lines, to have a dialogue with the ones who follow him, Henry Moore would feel uncomfortable without Praxiteles, Michelangelo or Rodin, Brecht recognises himself in the old Chinese and Japanese theatre, Le Corbusier does not disregard the builders of the Egyptian monuments, the Greek temples or of the gothic cathedrals. The 20th century's appetite for the archaic motive, its obsession with re-interpreting the old myths of humankind pleads in favour of the dialectical blending of modernity and tradition.Joyce, Broch, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other visibly modern experimenters often go back to past millennia. Prometheus, Ulysses, Antigona, Oedipus – if we were only to quote a few examples of a single mythology – have become our contemporaries by being reviewed and recognised in many postures, sharing our joy and sorrow, inspiring us into manhood and wisdom.It is almost impossible to find a significant messenger of Romanian art, from the avant-garde of esthetical renewals, who did not bench before the old fountain of a thousand years, looking for the healing potion. Enescu, Brancusi, Tuculescu, Blaga, Arghezi, Sadoveanu can testify to that, a suggestive and precious testimony, impossible to disregard. The distinctive wish to innovate has never been more pragmatically correlated to the interest for foregoing values, and this ability of uniting the poles of history has also been visible among the distinctive features of the 20th century, somewhat distinctive in its connection to the aesthetics of past century, which seemed to be more equal to itself and less ostentatiously innovative and traditional. Or could it be the smoothness of the angles that preserved their sharpness from a hundred years ago? Anyway, the modern and biblical Kafka seems newer and older to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy of the WWI era, than had been Balzac to the France of the 1816-1848s!Regardless of such supplementary accents, real or not, the modern spirit remains an undeniable feature of the age that is given to us. Defining the present step into modernity has its own difficulties to overcome. Is it only because we share many experiences which lack unity of dimension and meaning, the axiological lack of structure, is it because we lack the global unifying clarity of a calm perspective of the "afterwards" and of the "outside," or is it because the present situation is somewhat different from other ages?!In the past editions, "la querelle des anciens et des modernes" had been relatively homogenous: in the argument between the romantics and the classicists, for example, the competitive parties were distinctly shaped, the participants' "colours" were easy to identify. Could this be merely a late illusion?! It does not look to be so, for the unifying matrix was dominating even the stylistic area back then. Later on, individualities and individualisations have grown to be more and more persistent and identifying the creative species they belonged to was a very hard thing to do. The artistic phenomenon, easy to classify in so many regards, has shown, on the other hand, more and more difficulties in disclosing its "class." But the establishment of modernity, not only from an impressionist perspective ("felt"), but fairly rigorous ("understood"), presumes not only the intuition of the specific differences, but especially circumscribing the proximal genre, therefore a scientific operation of classification, systematisation, totalisation.Confronting the work of art with the main coordinates of our century, one can perceive the "up to date" degree of its themes, subjects, ideas and ideals, the value of the creator's perspective on the world. Being reduced to this data, modernity remains a mere virtuality; its effective accomplishment presumes incorporation and transfiguration, therefore procedures, means, forms and formulas, an individual, artistic existence.The concept of modernity, like any other concept, means repeating; how can one indicate it at the level of unrepeatable artistic universes?!Camil Petrescu is modern, but so is the apparently traditional L. Rebreanu; Musil and Thomas Mann, Giacometti and Konenkov, Antonioni and Wajda, E. Ionescu and Peter Weiss express and shape the contemporary sensitivity. It has been said that the modern novel is essay-like; Camus confirms this opinion, as well as other French authors of non-novelistic novels, except for Faulkner and almost the entire North-American literature, by experimenting different formulas, never the less efficient. According to the followers of the Vienna school, Alban Berg and Anton Webern are considered to have rendered the world, through musical variations of incredible novelty, the first half of this century's spirituality in its antinomy! I agree, but is it not in Bartok's or Prokofiev's music that we recognise the same passionate century?!By generalising partial truths, aesthetic anti-dogmatism fails in categorical imperatives as less subtle and dogmatic. Modernity understood as an excessive sense of the tragic, as the necessary meta-tragic, does not seem a less unilateral vision than the one situated at the other pole. Contemporary artists are not all and in all circumstances fans of contents or procedures merely intellectual or just vital, only simple or only complicated, exclusively tonic or desperate. Modernity is not just existentialism or just theatre of the absurd, a condition for the development of abstract painting or of dodecaphonic compositions. Undoubted symptoms of the century, such experiences are signs of partial, particular processes easily located in time and space, historically, socially and ideologically motivated. The statement is banal, but we underline it opposing those tempted to overlook the forest for the trees. We use it again all the more persistently as it happens that the praise of imposing examples of the favorite species is doubled by the praise of the anemic and frail ones.The just sense of measure and the careful generalisations of the most diverse artistic manifestations happen to be replaced, in discussing modernity, by unilateral judgments and uniform exaltations. That is why it generates the opinion according to which contemporaneity would reclaim "fragments," not "entire works," "open," subjective testimonies and not established and objectified universes, "things" and not "heroes," etc; conclusions which do not lack a partial cover, but instead deviate from the authentic correspondences in the arts sphere.From here to restrictive exclamations such as "the literature of today cannot support characters!" there is only one step left. Artistic reality does not seem to entirely accept the numerous "anti" theories (anti-novel, anti-hero, anti-action, anti-conflict), whose extremist examples are soon being thrown into the archive of dusty brochures that hopelessly await their re-birth. Without acknowledging the reckless transmutation that one commits, one is often tempted to attribute the a priori existential condition of art to an a posteriori observation. The mechanism is elementary: an artist appears, we perceive his means of creation - and we declare them necessary for everybody! That is how the eulogy of Kafka, Joyce or, more recently, Beckett's disciples and imitators increases. There can be a very important artist, but that artist could never immortalise his particular way of being, and he usually does not even consider this possibility of hieratic self-coronation. His colleagues and followers will know how to gain from that author's modernity, preserving at the same time their own particular features.Aesthetic apriorism is also unadvisable because in our century, diverse and mobile as it is, surprises never cease to multiply. Modernity is less than ever lenient to a definition grounded on single experiences, on a single perspective, on a single historical period, on the artistic landscape of a single country. The aesthetic "map" of the century resembles a fan which has a wide opening and numerous sides. If we were only to talk about the penetration, due to the processes of revolutionary renewal, of some new people, of entire continents, the front page of social development, it would not be enough in order to observe the severe insufficiency of the limited and limitative perspectives. The diversity of the cultures called to speak their minds in the present development complicates the generalisations, but esthetics has never sought help in the "economy of thinking."We would not dare to call definitely modern an artistic form or formula, viewed separately, and much less would we dare to consider one of them as "not modern." How many unexpected renewals have distinguished themselves in the past decades and how many will occur from now on!Artistic resources are unlimited, therefore we should not hurry to say "there is only one way," and neither to proclaim limitative verdicts: "there is no way!" – there will eventually be a creator capable of overthrowing our abstract prognosis.Let us not give up in front of the unanswered questions.We lack neither dilemmas, nor faith. Later on, when other transformations will have occurred and other cities will have been built, people will remember the 20th century with great devotion, they will consider themselves fortunate to call the great artists of this revolutionary century their contemporaries!


by Ion Ianoşi