A SINGULAR MODERNITY: ESSAY ON THE ONTOLOGY OF THE PRESENT
Verso, 2002, p. 199
Yet the late modernists took that modern vision of the artist who is more than a mere artist as their model: and here we meet the paradoxes of repetition, which, as has so often been said, can never take place in any first time, but is always second when it first happens. I can try to say this another way by suggesting that the situation of the first or classical modernists can never be repeated since they themselves already exist. The classical modernists came into a world without models (or at best with religious and prophetic ones), a world without any pre-existing social role to fill. For they did not for the most part wish to become professional artists in any standard nineteenth-century sense of the métier and the apprenticeship. Nor did they wish to endorse a system of artistic genres in which the task of the artist is simply to replicate a given form and to supply new examples of it (with whatever distinctive twist). These first moderns seeks support in patronage wherever possible, rather than in the market; and for the learning of the métier, they substitute fantasmatic images of the supreme works of the past, such as Dante’s Commedia. Their freedoms are utterly blind and groping; they know no identifiable public (‘I write for myself and strangers,’ Gertrude Stein famously said). And in the absence of any determinate social status or function — they are neither artists in the conventional sense nor intellectuals — they borrow all kinds of windy notions of genius and inspiration from the Romantic era, and surround themselves as much as possible with disciples who endorse these private languages and offer a simulacrum of the new Utopian community.