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BOOK REVIEW: "Modernism: The Strange Story of Art and Music in the Twentieth Century" by Max Ridgway

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BOOK REVIEW: Modernism: The Strange Story of Art and Music in the Twentieth Century by Max Ridgway (Amazon / CreateSpace) 2018

For the past several years I have been taking sitar lessons from a music professor from Alva, Oklahoma named Max Ridgway.

I have a love of classical Indian music, and the sitar in particular. As a fan of the Beatles and the music of the 1960’s and 70’s, I became increasingly interested in the use of the sitar in Western popular music (thanks to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, in particular) and eventually tried to learn to play the sitar myself. That’s where Max Ridgway comes in.

A former writer at Red Dirt Report was a student at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva and had taken guitar lessons from Ridgway. It was through her that I discovered her former professor – who teaches music and the humanities at NWOSU – has a jazz trio called the Max Ridgway Trio and also plays a sitar!

I was excited. I contacted the mild-mannered, deep-thinking Alva native and – after getting a sitar as a gift from my wife – began learning the basics in playing this complex, stringed instrument.

Little did I know that Ridgway was a writer as well. And this past summer he gave me a fascinating book about the art of the 20th century and the connections between creative human endeavors including painting, music, film and literature.

But Ridgway, a 1990 graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, while also holding a Masters degree in music from NWOSU, is clearly most interested in music, the “most abstractof all the arts … (c)onsisting as it does of nothing but sound … perceived by the mind through only one of the five senses.” But art seems to take center stage, and for good reason - the art of the 20th century is incredibly inventive, interesting and diverse and worth analyzing to this degree. Ridgway has done his homework.

And this is where Ridgway takes the reader, in his scholarly-yet-easy-to-read manner: highlighting the fact that “modernism” is simply a “self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression.”

And in the 20th century (essentially beginning in January 1901 with the death of Britain’s Queen Victoria) we witnessed “modernism” in spades. So, as the Victorian Age faded into history, a new technological age (the electric light, the automobile and so much more) coincided with the dawn of this new, innovative – and decidedly “modern” – century, which included the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Nietzche and Einstein, as a cornerstone of modernism’s introduction in the wider culture.

And so in that first decade of the 20th century, “modernism was propelled by a mood of excitement and confidence. Never had the possibilities for the future seemed brighter.”

And so with the rising interest in impressionistic art, including in the music of Debussy and the art of Monet, the formalism of the previous century was becoming a memory.

But while modernism embraced new ideas and new modes and ways of artistic expression, a certain “primitivism,” Ridgway explains, in the art of Picasso and Matisse and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the last example being one of primitivism for the subject matter (a human sacrifice in pre-Christian Russia), the use of Russian folk melodies and harmonies and rhythms that “evoke a sense of primitive power and violence.” A more recent example of this was highlighted in the series Strange Angel, where Rite of Spring is highlighted and played in 1930’s Los Angeles as “primitive” rituals and rites are embraced by followers of a belief system called Thelema.

also took root in the form of novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a commentary not only on colonial rule in Africa but “a Freudian journey into the true heart of darkness, a journey into the primitive depths of the self  …”) where Conrad seems to imply that despite “modernity,” there was a “mysterious power at work in what he deemed to be the primitive and he hinted that this same power also lay suppressed and dormant within modern man.” Indeed. Swiss psychoanalyst and peer of Freud, Carl G. Jung, would delve in that same direction over the first half of the 20th century.

And speaking of the Swiss, we have them to thank for the “anti-art” movement known as Dada, which sprang forth amidst the horrors of World War I. Perhaps a reaction to that conflict raging on the European continent (which the aforementioned Jung foresaw in dreams featuring Europe drowning in a flood of blood prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), a manifesto by leading Dadaists that the avant-garde art movement known as Dada “does not mean anything.”

Ridgway tells us about the struggles artists had in totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where official “censors” would ferret out “degenerate” art or art that threatened the State. We also learn more about the Cold War years in Europe, noting composers and luminaries including Germany’s Kalheinz Stockhausen and Theodor Adorno.

What I was most intrigued with, however, is Ridgway’s analysis and insight on Post-War America and artistic expression in those years, particularly surrealism and the artistic styles of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, for instance, and the CIA’s promotion of abstract expressionism in its cultural battle against Communist Russia. 

And as the 20th century marches on, Ridgway gives copious amounts of attention to notable American composer and music theorist, John Cage. Cage, who had an aversion to harmony, attributes his music and work to his immersion in Zen Buddhism, which he embraced beginning in 1946, and for the rest of his life (he died in 1992).

Cage would say, as Ridgway notes, that “the purpose of music was to allow sounds to be themselves and ‘in their being themselves to open the minds of the people who made them or listened to them to other possibilities than they had previously considered – to widen their experience, particularly to the making of value judgments.’” A value judgment, believed Cage, did not exist, except within the mind.

Final chapters include an overview of minimalism, British and American pop art (Andy Warhol) and post-modernism.

So, what to expect in coming years in the arts and humanities? Ridgway has some thoughtful ideas about that, and notes that at least when it comes to music, “the linear flow of time, at least where music and art are concerned, has ceased to exist, or at least, to be relevant.” This is due to the relative ease of access to all periods of art and music history via the Internet. He may be right!

Missing in Ridgway’s book, however, are an index and page numbers, both of which would have been useful. Despite that, Ridgway's approach and informed insights are worth reading and taking to heart.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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