Justin Wolf

She asked me, “How do you feel about it?” I balked, unsure of the question’s implications, trying carefully to retrace the conversational steps that led to this. We were seated at the bar, its fat lip serving as an ample armrest; both of our postures were more upright than the other patrons’, who all seemed to be keeling over, providing human umbrellas for their drinks. It was that kind of night. “What do you mean?” I replied. My friend saw fit to relay the question once more, for the third time, only this time in full: “Modernity. How do you feel about it?”

The artist Willem de Kooning was once asked to deliver a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in response to the prompt: “What Abstract Art Means to Me.” His explanation, I suppose it could be called, was exceptional. He opened by saying, “The first man who began to speak, whoever he was, must have intended it”; words both obvious and teeming with absurd nuance. De Kooning proceeded to run circles around his audience, stabbing at guesses, reaching for meaning, and at moments when he loosened the canonical reigns, without warning he would quickly tighten them once more, forcing his listeners to reach and speculate themselves on what abstract art meant to him. In his closing remarks, he quietly lamented his position and offered a cryptic anecdote as some form of alms: “If I do paint abstract art, that’s what abstract art means to me. I frankly do not understand the question.” Well, indeed.

An integral part of his answer involved a tale concerning a German vagabond living in Hoboken who comes into what could be called favorable circumstances. “He found a place in Hoboken where bread was sold a few days old – all kinds of bread: French bread, German bread, Italian bread, Dutch bread, American bread and particularly Russian black bread.” The man buys up his lot and then some, then he proceeds to “let it get good and hard” before crumpling it all up into tiny pieces, producing an international array of breads. He laid them out on his floor and “walked on it as on a soft carpet.” “I could never figure him out,” de Kooning conceded, “but now when I think of him, all that I can remember is that he had a very abstract look on his face.” I suppose, given a few minutes and another drink, I could have concocted such a response to my friend’s query, but my mind was operating in reverse, focusing not on my answer, but on the question itself.

How do you feel about Modernity? How do you feel about Modernity? See where I’m going with this? The question isn’t even a riddle; it’s a blueprint for one at best. Are my feelings positive or negative? Do I acknowledge its existence? The question simply breeds other questions, each one vaguer than the last.

Convenience is a moody thing, and by this I mean one is rarely prepared to extrapolate with sound judgment whether they want what’s behind Door A or B. Sometimes the matter is decided for you, say in the case of “paper or plastic?” (When was the last time you got paper by default?) My own struggle wasn’t phrased as such, but at its core, I was (possibly) being asked: “Modernity or post-Modernity?” or even “Modernity or pre-Modernity?” I know this now, because I’ve had time to look at and consider each door. William James once wrote, “Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A.” There are times, it would seem, when instincts are not to be trusted.

To my imaginary audience, may this little essay serve as my address to the Museum, and to every avant-garde German-bread man, in the hopes that I may pen a just homage to de Kooning.

I feel that Modernity is modern, which is to say, relevant, timely and present. It’s also somewhat self-defeating, since I have just established, in a roundabout way, that to even speak of Modernity (or pre- or post-) is a modern form of leisure, or perhaps a leisurely form of modernism, but most likely the former, because what greater form of leisure is there than stewing over an idea for the sake of self-improvement? The pundit and author Christopher Hitchens wrote that “‘... post-modernism’ [consists] in essence of the view that nothing would ever again happen for the first time.” Given this, an idea I happen to agree with, Modernity embraces the idea that something “new” is still possible, and is, at the very least, the fathomable notion of the “New”; the conviction that pure archaism is not mankind’s prevailing legacy. Hmm, I feel better already.

But maybe the question’s ramifications stretch beyond the confines of the bar. New is ugly. Why? Because no one has ever seen (or heard, touched or tasted) it before; that’s how new New is. Beautiful has precedent; so does Attractive, Distinguished and Captivating. If I look at a building or a dress or a sunset and any of the aforementioned come to mind, this occurs because I am accessing my conscious recesses for that very idea, for a reference point of what is beautiful or attractive, and so forth. So, it’s not modern, not utterly new. Even if something looks completely original and still, I think to myself: That’s beautiful, the thing in question isn’t New; it can only be a judicious imitation of something else, and a successful one at that, but nonetheless, not New. When Picasso unveiled his pre-Cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, his contemporaries rolled their eyes and immediately dismissed it. It was, technically speaking, in 1907 that is, Ugly. But even the average novice can guess how that story ends. The aesthetic of something like Avignon lacked any sort of antiquated legacy or clear direct link to its predecessors; it lacked any precedent that would preclude those skeptics from rolling their judgmental eyes. Well, I could go on forever, continuing to bore both you and me, quoting everyone from James to Hitchens to prove and disprove my point, so for brevity’s sake I’ll just return to the bar.

I looked down at my scotch on the rocks and began playing with one of the remaining ice cubes like it was a toy boat in the bathtub. A couple of Uhs and Wells escaped me before I could mentally form any follow-up wordage. They just floated away, and I was struck by a hot flash of nervousness; you know the kind—it feels like your stomach is reaching for your mouth, trying to fill it with words but nothing of substance comes out. I felt cheated. De Kooning probably had days, weeks to prepare his answer; I had seconds. In the end, the only answer I could muster was a defensive one: “That’s kind of a loaded question.” Where does one take the conversation, any conversation, from there? Yes, it is, that was the whole point, now answer it. I was never on the debate team, I never had that perfect one-line rebuttal for the playground bully, and no matter how much social theory I’ve read or how many grad school papers I’ve written, I sure as hell never prepared myself for an impromptu discussion on the finer points of Modernity, if and when such occasion arose—so I killed it.

But the query has lingered; this much should be obvious by now. I would have been more than pleased to receive the question in advance, via an e-mailed or even a text-messaged prompt, but as I said, convenience can be a moody beast. Everything, and I do mean everything, is begun with a specific intent. The first person ever to speak did so with intentions, just like the first person to ever walk or haggle over wares or build a floating vessel large enough to carry a man; these were all intentional moments that we must assume occurred at one point, for the very first time, and those present for these occasions most assuredly expressed the modern-day equivalent of texting “wtf”. (I wouldn’t mind knowing who the grandfather of abbreviation was.) But something New doesn’t make it Modern; believing that New can still happen, that’s Modern.

Lightning can strike twice, but that’s the wrong metaphor, because after it strikes for the first time, the second is just an imitation. From this point forward, whenever I choose to consider the definition of Modernity, I will think of my friend’s question.

I think your question is modern—oh dude, that’s totally what I should’ve said.

Justin Wolf recently completed his M.A. in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. He is the former editor of Canon Magazine, an online forum for interdisciplinary theory and research, and he is currently at work on his first book, a memoir about his experiences teaching in a juvenile prison in Boston, MA. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY.

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