Modernism and the classical tradition
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This dissertation seeks to abolish the inherited cliché that the Modernist writers and artists rejected earlier art and literature, particularly that of the classical tradition. In fact, both literature and art of the early 20th century made widespread use of the inherited Greco-Roman tradition in a myriad of ways. Moreover, beginning after the First World War and maturing in the 1920s, a demonstrative Neoclassical “movement” appeared across different types of art and different nations. A neoclassical or classicizing style or form is inherently malleable, an empty signifier that can, through an artist or writer’s emphasis, point towards any number of meanings. This allowed a classical style to become widespread along with its seeming resiliency as the ordered, traditional bedrock of the West. In the 1930s, however, the fascist parties of Germany, France, and Italy began to appropriate the neoclassical as a state- or party-style because of the ease with which politics could be incorporated into a relatively vacant form. Their systematic use of the classical tradition in large part “tainted” classical subjects and styles, which allowed for the post-World War II institutionalization of the avant garde. I argue that texts which used the classical tradition could do so in four distinct manners—four types of classicism. Symbolic Classicism controls its classical material by using it only at the level of hollow icon which pregnantly gestures towards antiquity. Traditional Classicism, like an adaptation of a classical narrative particularly in drama, becomes completely dependent on its borrowings. Formal Classicism borrows an inherited, vacant form which can then be injected with Modernity. Finally, Synthetic Classicism necessitates a careful balancing of the classical material, not reducing it to symbolic meaning, but producing a novel narrative or mirroring-effect, that controls its various elements designed into a modern theme or objective.