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Trevor Harris (ed.), Art, Politics and Society in Britain (1880–1914): Aspects of Modernity and Modernism

Neil Davie
p. 199-202
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Trevor Harris (ed.), Art, Politics and Society in Britain (1880–1914): Aspects of Modernity and Modernism. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009. 143 p. ISBN-10: 1443813648/ ISBN-13: 978-1443813648.

Texte intégral

1Trevor Harris makes the point in his preface to this collection of essays on the interconnections between art, politics and society in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain that the significance of “modernity” and “modernism” “can only be usefully explored if one admits and explores the contradictions, and even paradoxes that they generate” (viii). The eight essays in this collection, which grew out of a conference on the same theme held at the University of Tours in 2008, provide ample confirmation for this assertion. The book is divided into two parts, dealing, respectively, with art and the modern, and modernism and politics. The slightly longer first part contains essays on modernism and the Avant-Garde in London and Paris, 1900–14 (David Cottington), William Morris (Trevor Harris), the Arts and Crafts Movement (Isabelle Cases) and the “individualistic socialism” of Edward Carpenter and Oscar Wilde (Magali Fleurot). In part two, we can find chapters on British anarchism (Constance Bantman), the “crisis of modernity” in the work of political scientist Graham Wallas (Arnaud Page), and finally a discussion of British foreign policy relating to the “Eastern Question” during the years 1876–96 (Stéphanie Prévost).

2These seven chapters are preceded by a general discussion of modernity and modernism in this period by distinguished imperial historian Professor John M. MacKenzie, based on his keynote speech from the original conference. His survey of aesthetic developments in these years, and the complex, and yes, often paradoxical, relationships between art, politics and socio-economic change is a masterpiece of closely-reasoned argument which should be required reading for intellectual, cultural and art historians as well as literary specialists working on this period. He teases out the various meanings of “modern”, “modernity” and “modernism”, and interestingly notes that the modernist movement is “. . . a phenomenon which is both entirely dependent on modernity, and is yet a reaction to it. . . . If the modern represents the age of the machine, the modernist (apart from in architecture) represents an artistic urge to escape the paradigms of realism and linearity, the rational and the concrete, that go with the modern” (5).

3That flight from industrial modernity was not confined to the modernists of course, and one of the fascinating aspects of this collection is the way in which it reveals how an appeal to the values of the past—whether in aesthetics or politics—was a common feature of British debates during the two decades either side of 1900. It is an interesting thought that William Morris’s appeal to the “healthy barbarism” of the early Middle Ages (as discussed in Trevor Harris’s thought-provoking chapter) was, at least in the British case, as important a response to modernity as the Bauhaus movement or the stream of consciousness novel. The influence of medievalism could even be felt in debates on foreign policy, as Stéphanie Prévost shows in the book’s final chapter, with calls in some quarters for a “new crusade” against the Turks in the wake of atrocities in Bulgaria and Armenia.

4As a number of the contributors (MacKenzie, Cases, Bantman, Page) are at pains to point out, however, it is not particularly helpful to see the period in terms of Manichean or Whiggish contrasts between modernists and anti- or pre-modernists, or again between collectivists and individualists. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is the way in which it provides many interesting insights into how competing artistic and political movements fed off each other. Isabelle Cases’s discussion of the Arts and Crafts movement, which usefully complements the chapter on Morris, is a case in point. Particularly in the second, post-Morris, phase of the movement, she argues, there were both intellectual and personal contacts between the Arts and Crafts school and continental modernism. Even Bauhaus-style architects, she suggests, were aware of, and drew inspiration from, some of the principles championed by the Gothic revivalists. The studies in this book also reveal how minority positions might find their way into mainstream discourse in unexpected ways. Thus, as Magali Fleurot points out, Edward Carpenter earned mocking condemnation from George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) for his rejection of State socialism, but fruit-juice drinking, sandal-wearing, pacifist socialists like Carpenter would continue to influence progressive politics in Britain for the remainder of the century. Similarly, in one of the book’s strongest chapters, Constance Bantman argues that while British anarchism was clearly at odds with the general evolution of the British Labour and socialist movement in these years, and its plans for utopian rural communities represented in some ways a throwback to Owenite or even Digger precedents, its advocacy of bottom-up trade union organisation would prove influential and helps explain the widespread industrial unrest in Britain on the eve of the First World War.

5Anarchism, or rather the perception of it in mainstream political culture, also provides an intriguing insight into some of the fears thrown up by modernity. The anonymity of modern industrial society was felt to throw a worrying veil (or perhaps cloak would be a more appropriate metaphor in the circumstances?) over the activities of subversive immigrants and newly-radicalised workers, prepared to import “the visionary violence of Continental Socialism” (as one contemporary put it) into England. To make matters worse, anarchists were widely—and falsely—believed to be in possession of highly-advanced bomb-making technology; just part of wider fears about the potentially destructive effects of scientific progress. Fears of a different kind from this period can be seen in Arnaud Page’s study of the work of pioneering political scientist and sometime Fabian, Graham Wallas. Page shows how Walla’s interest in applying sociological and psychological techniques to the study of politics reflected a pessimistic concern that political emotions, instincts and impulses might be exploited by unscrupulous politicians through the skilful use of propaganda. In both chapters, we can see how modernity raised profound concerns about the impact of new economic and political structures.

6As often in multi-authored collections of this kind, the reader is left to make connections for him or herself between the different chapters and consider how they fit into the overarching framework presented by Professor MacKenzie at the beginning. Certain authors have clearly paid more attention than others to situating their work in the context of the overall problématique of the book. Thus, David Cottington’s chapter on modernism and the Avant-Garde in London and Paris together with Stéphanie Prévost’s study of the Eastern Question, while fine stand-alone pieces, sit a little awkwardly in this collection, being linked only tangentially to the wider questions we have discussed. Perhaps a general conclusion drawing together the various strands explored in the individual chapters would have been useful in this respect, together with a consolidated bibliography for those wishing to continue reading on these themes. But these are minor quibbles. Taken as a whole, Art, Politics and Society in Britain (1880–1914): Aspects of Modernity and Modernism offers a stimulating insight into a wide range of artistic, intellectual, and political debates at the heart of British society in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. As such, it will be of considerable interest to both civilisation and literary scholars working on this period.

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Neil Davie, « Trevor Harris (ed.), Art, Politics and Society in Britain (1880–1914): Aspects of Modernity and Modernism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 199-202.

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Neil Davie, « Trevor Harris (ed.), Art, Politics and Society in Britain (1880–1914): Aspects of Modernity and Modernism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 73 Printemps | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2015, consulté le 29 juin 2017. URL :

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