Unleashed from the Exemplar

The Fate of Narrative in Modern Art

by James Matthew Wilson

So successful was the advent of modern poetic, musical and visual art in disrupting the critical vocabulary that we have all but lost the means to account for how art actually works. So blinding was its revolutionary blast that we sometimes fail to distinguish the various courses these arts took during the modernist period and often assume modern art effected more radical changes than it did. Abstraction in painting, dissonance and atonality in music, and free verse in poetry stand of a piece, historically, insofar as they denote the singular attributes of modernist art, but their evident formal differences signify very different relations to what I argue is the exemplar all art imitates—narrative. Most critics of modernism have long contended that it sacrificed narrative in favor of some kind of rarefied formalism, but what has been less fully appreciated is that such sacrifice was imperfect at best and deluded at worst. Modernist artworks, especially at the thought-silencing extremes of abstraction, have themselves become characters in the story of art, no more “liberated” from the conditions of time and narrative than their predecessors. This is a detour in the historical practice of art, the classical understanding of the fine arts as poesis, the making of plots.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the visual, musical and poetic arts each suffered related but distinct revolutions. Arnold Schoenberg introduced atonality, or serialism, as a new musical vocabulary to replace melody. Much less radically, Igor Stravinsky composed several ballets with clashing, dissonant tones. Visual artists, including Pablo Picasso and Wyndham Lewis, experimented with Cubist and other techniques that attempted to represent formal qualities abstracted from the lush profusion of everyday appearance. This led to painting and sculpture of pure form, which ceased to derive evidently from forms found in nature. Finally, beginning with the late work of the French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé but only becoming a trend with the British and American Imagists, poets partly abandoned the formal practices of versification to experiment in so-called vers libre.
These three revolts violate long-established conventions of melody, representation and prosody. But their meaning and consequences are various. Atonality arose from a tension between felt emotion and musical vocabulary. Melody frustrated Schoenberg’s desire to express particular feelings, and so he deconstructed tonality and recombined its building blocks. As the more moderate dissonance of Stravinsky suggests, such a revolt made more, rather than less, evident the reliance of music upon narrative. Schoenberg’s atonality derived from a Romantic autobiography of the heart and nerves. Stravinsky’s dissonance continued the developments of Wagner’s leitmotiv, subordinating sound itself to the action and character-developing impetus of the opera and ballet. Early modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats appreciated Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) because of the music’s docile conformity to a narrative of endless, ritualized cycles. Disruptive formal techniques highlighted a narrative form that departed from the melodramatic stock material of historical opera and ballet, thus making possible the modern representation of the tragic nature of human existence. Melodramas may tell “immortal” tales of tragic love, but ritual and repetition demonstrate that apparent change is epiphenomenal to permanent patterns or archetypes.
Free verse served a related purpose for poetry. The first significant instances, found in the Imagist poems of T.E. Hulme, H.D. and Ezra Pound, dispensed with versification (save for the residual and meaninglessly staggered line-break) to increase the density and intensity of poetic language. On the one hand, this intensification excluded essential aspects of narrative, such as exposition, plot and development. On the other, the resultant lyrical fragments represented piercing, isolated moments of observation and emotion that only become intelligible if one provides for them a character’s voice and dramatic context. When such practices were just getting off the ground, Pound confided to William Carlos Williams that he thought of his poems as the most fevered morsels broken off from dramatic monologues.1 The radicalization of free verse in The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos did nothing to further this; indeed, the patterns of fragments in both allow the reader to construct a clear, ritualized and circular narrative, akin to that of Stravinsky’s Rite. A circular and ritualized narrative is distinct from a linear one. The linear emphasizes the unexpected and the consequential; the circular foregrounds significance through predictability—but in either case, narrative remains.
The odd-man-out among the modern arts may be the visual forms. The early modes of abstraction, such as Cubism, at most lessened the usual dependence on narrative as a source of subject matter for representation.2 But early abstraction set the stage for a radicalization severing visual form tout court from any narrative origin, and this radicalization became the main tradition of modern visual art. By the 1950s, poetry’s fragmentation had made its narrative contents almost unintelligible (see, for instance, the scribbling of Charles Olson), but narrative nevertheless endured.3 In contrast, the Abstract Expressionism of the same period seems—but only seems—to have escaped all trace of representation, much less reference to a narrative beyond itself.
One may grant readily that no modernist art escaped narrative, not even the visual arts, but demur that such an escape has little to do with the heart of the matter. What, then, did these different modernists attempt? The answer, in a word, is “silence.” To the extent that modernist poets followed the French Symbolists, they sought not merely to break powerful emotion away from its occasion, but to break poetic language away from discourse, from prose. The hard-boiled reticence of the best Imagist poetry tries to convey strong emotion sensuously embodied but entirely independent of quotidian life. It takes a formal difference—verse and prose—and makes it an ontological one: prose speaks of timetables and railway schedules, poetry simply exists like an overpowering and atemporal feeling. This feeling did not derive from any chronicle or story and did not die away, but possessed a kind of permanence. It was “news that stays news,” in Pound’s characteristic phrase.
The antecedent to pure abstraction in the visual arts came, perhaps inevitably, in the form of the critic. T.E. Hulme suggested that modern poetry would be a phenomenon narrowly anticipating the advertising age—quick, short and ephemeral—whereas modern visual art would take on a classical, fossilized hardness.4 Hulme’s critique of humanism, based on a novel understanding of original sin, led him to argue that human beings were inexorably bound to the unstable and ever-passing realm of biological life. Modern sculpture, with its severe geometries, would serve as a sane reminder that the true realm of the permanent is that of religion and ideas. The partial-abstraction of such sculpture revealed the permanent lines of reality, set beyond hope of human attainment. Human life is short, ideas are permanent, and only sculpture crafted according to what Hulme dubbed the “classicist” sensibility mediated between these realities. The stiff forms of the ancient Egyptians, archaic Greeks and Hulme’s contemporary Jacob Epstein all expressed this modern “classical” attitude, tempering sensuous natural detail with the mathematical simplicities Hulme identified with permanence.5 The ambition was not to abstract visual art from narrative directly, but rather to abstract it from the temporal conditions that make narrative possible. During the same period, Clive Bell would advance an even more severe and ultimately more influential theory in Art (1914):

For a discussion of aesthetics, it need be agreed only that forms arranged and combined according to certain unknown and mysterious laws do move us in a particular way, and that it is the business of an artist to so combine and arrange them that they shall move us. These moving combinations and arrangements I have called . . . “Significant Form.”6

Aesthetics as a philosophy itself becomes abstract and narrow. The concepts of representation or mimesis, according to Bell, become a matter of indifference. Hulme’s classicism sought to limit the appearance of time’s effects in the artwork; Bell eviscerates the artwork of every sort of content. Form alone remains. The effect of French Symbolism and modern art, as defined by Hulme and Bell, was to silence the natural act of interpretation that begins with and extends beyond narrative content. Modernist lyric poetry achieved this through concentration, the simplifying and unifying of the meaning of a poem on a single emotional effect. A good example is Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.”7 But Bell’s aesthetics enforces a much greater, more absolute silence. One can say nothing about the content of a painting that is not essentially a distortion of the painting qua painting. Form is significant, but what does is signify? What does it say? It says itself, like breath without words.
Despite some real similarities, developments in the theory of visual art are incommensurable with contemporaneous changes in the practice of music and poetry. Experiments in atonality and dissonance were readily adaptable to the opera, ballet and, eventually, the film score. They indeed contributed to the highlighting of character and narrative. The loss of real versification in poetry transformed it, but did nothing to uproot the lyric’s foundation in a narrative back-story. Pound wondered if a long Imagist poem would be possible, not because Imagistic free verse lacked narrative, but because its narratives were truncated. His Cantos nevertheless compose a long Imagist poem. It does not lack for narrative, but fragments, truncates and rearranges narrative elements in large patterns that defy easy comprehension. To understand the Cantos, one must reconstruct and assume a narrative behind them. Only the pure abstraction of visual art seems to dispense with narrative origins altogether during the modernist period.
We must acknowledge where these modernist projects eventually led. Serialism in music always had the potential to rarefy itself until the symphony seemed to lose all trace of narrative. Painting and sculpture’s movement toward abstraction continued unabated, until the rise of conceptual art in the 1960s and the lapse of serious formal experimentation thereafter. The later course of poetry is even more remarkable. Free verse did little to the narrative content of the art, and most free verse poems published today are sweet-and-sour little stories of personal experience. Only when self-described avant-garde and “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poets began to explore the subversion of language itself did formal practices seriously impinge upon content. Such poets used collage and fragmentation to disrupt the formation of words into language, in hopes of escaping the “capitalist” and “colonial” “prison house” of discourse per se. These poets use only two tropes: the representation of debased commercialized language and the liberated language of nonsense.
The devolutions of such poetry are frequently attributed to a much-earlier revolution than the modernist ones. Writers from Walter Pater to Erich Heller and Frank Kermode have studied the consequences of poetry losing its status as the highest of the fine arts to music. For Pater, all art aspired to the “condition of music.” Heller and Kermode decried it, though only the former saw this perversion of hierarchy occurring as early as the seventeenth century.8 But the very word poetry is a historical marker denoting the privileged status traditionally given to verse over all other art forms. Poesis, to the Greeks, meant making in general, the making of fine art in particular and the making of plots in verse above all.9 The careful ranking of different artforms may strike the modern intellect—haunted as it is with spirits of relativism, democracy and materialism—as absurd. Poetry was historically the highest of the arts not because of its formal properties (versification), but because it was linguistic and therefore capable of bearing narrative unmistakably and primarily. Aspiring to the condition of music means escaping from discursive, or discussible, content in favor of rarefied sensuous experience.
I would suggest that this escape is impossible, for several reasons. The French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur has argued convincingly that time and narrative alike are the very conditions of human life. Like Hulme’s statues, a person may seek to escape but will inevitably fail. Ricoeur suggests something even more profound: not only can we not escape those conditions, we cannot think outside of them. Thought and life alike resolve themselves in narrative terms.10 We might punctuate this phenomenological claim with an ideological one. Fredric Jameson has argued in Marxist terms that narratives may be false, but they are no less ineluctable.11 To speak of an end to “master narratives” is itself to articulate a narrative.
The metaphysical error of these otherwise rich claims lies in their locating the “categorical imperative” to narrate within the subjectivity of the person, rather than in the nature of reality as such. We are forced to think in terms of time not because of some condition of our consciousness, but simply because time is a reality. We can, after all, think in terms of non-temporal forms. We understand the effects of justice, for instance, in temporal, sensuous images, but we do not understand the term justice itself in that way. Time is not, therefore, coextensive with reality, although it clearly is coextensive with bodily existence. The inevitable reality of everything in time is a beginning and an end. This finitude of things makes them intrinsically dramatic. When we account for this drama, we give birth to narrative, and when we come to see the total form of a narrative, we have a story. Human life is a story, therefore, not because human beings think in terms of time, but because every human life has a birth and a death linked by a continuous series of events. Hulme’s theory of visual art reluctantly applauded the way in which art works could allow temporally bound, finite persons to contemplate eternal truths. Attempts to contemplate eternity do not awaken us to our existence in a prison of self-deception, as if time and narrative were narcotics. Rather we realize, so determinant is time of the shape of the reality we experience, that everything has as one cause of its metaphysical form (its being) a narrative form, a story (telos).
This metaphysical objection expresses itself practically in the nature of art. Until some ambiguous but definitely modern moment, poesis explicitly meant the making of fine art, and the making of fine art meant the reification of narrative. Every work of art represents a plot, even if it does not represent the complete plot. Narratives are ideal forms, exemplars, that take on flesh in art. A painting, a poem, an opera about the wanderings of Odysseus or the anger of Achilles is a concretion of the archetype. Even symphonic music, which seems without narrative, because of the emotion it expresses, originates in some kind of story. Many modernists argued perceptively that music expresses not the emotions per se of a narrative but the order of an often impassioned logic. Yet one still ends with the same conclusion. Because of our temporally bound intellection, we are in a particularly advantageous position to observe how the movements of logic have themselves a narrative form. Order is always the ordering of parts, and those parts—which may include simply the tones of a score—serve as characters. St. Augustine wrote of the distentio intrinsic to created time and human thought alike. Because, finally, music is inextricably temporal, it seems the exquisite medium for a particular kind of narrative, that of the intellect discovering the order of things and developing that order.
The modern revolutions did not exchange music for narrative. They rather radically shifted the position of narrative in relation to the art work. Goya’s painting of Christ cleansing the temple clearly derives from and represents an irreducible moment of a Gospel story. The narrative is internal to the work, informing it. A Mark Rothko canvas, because of its abstraction, clearly lacks such an internal narrative. But to see the canvas, that is, to have any experience of it at all, requires one to come to it with a certain story already in mind. Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists developed sophisticated rationales about the meaning of their paintings: we might approach the canvases not only with a story in mind, but with a particular story. The reader cries foul immediately: “This is the intentional fallacy. There is no ontological basis for such a narrative interpretation to be found in the painting itself.” That is partially true, and accounts for both the extreme limitation of nonrepresentational art and its appearance of opacity and inadequacy to much of its audience.12 But narrative has not vanished; it has merely become exogenous. Abstraction makes the individual art work a character within a larger narrative—one that informs, gives shape to, the work, but may offer the audience no ready access. In the same way that a single, stray phrase may connote an entire epic, a single abstract painting may connote a sprawling, complex and meaningful narrative. But in making that narrative exogenous to the art work—part of it but not assimilated within—modern art surrenders much of its variety and interest. Rather than bringing into vivid and ordered reification the stories all around us, the art works of exogenous narrative merely play a supporting role in those stories.
Rebellious modernists sought to escape narrative but succeeded only in rendering it exogenous. The techniques of atonality, free verse and abstraction that led to this “turning out” of narrative have done their work and seem good for little else. They are radical not in making possible the “new” in art, but in curtailing its depth and variety. Too often, they are like obstacles between our desire to understand our own existence and the narratives that make such understanding possible.


1. Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907–1941 (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 3.
2. Some art historians do not consider Cubism as abstraction, because it remains representational. However, I would contend that Cubism is more truly abstract than nonrepresentational painting; it represents certain attributes found in nature, but abstracted and therefore distinct from their natural condition.
3. A counter-example would be the works of Gertrude Stein. The most influential of English-language modernists, Eliot and Pound, thought her work signaled something other than the future of art: the end of civilization.
4. Hulme’s “A Lecture on Modern Poetry” suggests the short shelf-life of modern poetry, arguing that poets need no longer quest after formal perfection, but only a general rough-cut effect. See The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 56. The apparent contradiction in his theories stems in part from the swift development of his thinking over an abruptly ended career.
5. Hulme’s metaphysics of discontinuity is fully expressed in “A Notebook,” Collected Writings, pp. 419–56. See also Hulme’s most influential essay, “Romanticism and Classicism,” Collected Writings, pp. 59–73.
6. Clive Bell, Art (London: Chatto Windus, 1914), p. 11.
7. Ezra Pound, Personae (New York: New Directions, 1990), p. 111.
8. See Walter Pater, The Renaissance (1873), Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (1952) and Frank Kermode, The Romantic Image (1957).
9. Jacques Maritain considers further implications in The Situation of Poetry (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), p. 37.
10. See Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
11. More precisely, he insists that we cannot escape “periodizing” history and that such periods are not concepts but narratives. See A Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2002), p. 94.
12. Algis Valiuna’s fine essay “The Spirit of Abstract Art” explores the narrative rationales that inform the works of the Abstract Expressionists, underlining their importance for interpretation and their inadequacy to make the paintings themselves interesting. See First Things (January 2006), pp. 28–33.

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 26, Number 1