Modern Times


Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times was a vision looking backwards upon the Industrial Revolution. One of its major effects as a work of art was to help create a mythology of the machine. At the same time it glanced with the blurred vision of all prophecy toward the future, sketching out some of the sardonic possibilities for the spiritual fate of humanity. No wonder Chaplin was felt to be so relevant--a quality that firmly underlies his uninterrupted popularity. Now, when Chaplin is no longer relevant (not, at least, in the same old ways) it is perhaps only fitting that he and his work should be raised to the level of mythology in their turn.

Our modern times are electric or electronic. Handy, newly-relevant catechisms have been prepared by Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Duchamp and John Lennon. In effect, there is a whole new pantheon of gods, new rosters of champions and heroes, new lists of martyrs. In this crowd Chaplin ranks as an older god, thoroughly mythologized into something he never was--and, like many old gods, a sentimental favorite despite his decreasing marginal relevance to the times of a new modernity.

Looking backwards to Chaplin we easily discover the intervening years to be full of realities achieved that are far more dire and dramatic than any prophesied by the most dismal doom-sayers, from Oswald Spengler all the way back to the 6th century B.C. Zoroaster. Who could have imagined Auschwitz, or Dresden in its details, or Hiroshima in its horror, and Nagasaki in its needlessness? Yet all of this some master historian may soon describe as nothing but the logical, if not inevitable consequences following from those very mechanical hypotheses that also made Chaplin's dark and droll visions possible. Chaplin's comic peak came long enough before the end of the mechanical age so that the funny side of his coin could land uppermost more often than not.

Left to right: Lenny Bruce, Jean Shepherd, Mort Sahl, W.C. Fields

Left to right: Lenny Bruce, Jean Shepherd, Mort Sahl, W.C. Fields

There are no more Chaplins. Modern times are now too complex, at once too gross and too subtle, to be counted out in the coin of such comedy. The terms are so different that professional funny men are almost automatically excluded from contention in the realm of relevance. Lenny Bruce, Jean Shepherd and Mort Sahl are among the few who have come close to creating anything comparable to Chaplin or the great W. C. Fields; for their humor, as with their illustrious predecessors, remains only upon great sufferance. However, now the sufferance and the suffering have worn that humor very thin indeed. They killed Lenny, without even having to battle an ACLU defense attorney to do it. Shepherd bounces around, defending himself as an old radio pro. Mort Sahl has become at least serious enough to work for free as an investigator in the office of Jim Garrison, who is surely one of the new heroes--as one of the few men with enough courage and high enough dedication to the pursuit of truth to have continued, as New Orleans District Attorney and against immensely repressive forces, his investigation into the assassination of our President, John F. Kennedy. How do you make jokes about that?

This, of course, nowhere indicates that comedy is dead. As Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl used to, in their own different styles, Jean Shepherd also struck those chords of deep cosmic wit and funny wonder over WOR A-M and F-M in New York, the Big Apple. Shepherd's is a fine madness, redolent with art and style and steered by a sense of humor such as may be the first or may be the last line of defense against realities in a world, it seems to many, gone truly insane.

As one heritage of nineteenth century historical and cultural relativism, we have secured for ourselves a rich pluralistic view of the past and the present combined. It is only very recently--within the last dozen years or so, since the first large-scale cultural manifestations of the electric-electronic revolution, such as TV or rock and roll--that this pluralism has become reflected in the structure of specific works of art, in the configuration of various media, and in the relations between these media in terms of our total cultural frame of reference. The electric revolution began to take firm hold at the beginning of the twentieth century, challenging the established mechanically-conditioned ways of seeing/thinking with radically different ways of thinking conditioned by total involvement and newly liberated, multi-sensorial perception. Through the history of art and literature, as well as through the history of technology, we can trace the inspirations and the background of this revolution. Such studies properly belong in the world of academia, even though most professor types will probably not be convinced of their necessity or significance until long after most of the first-hand evidence has been the people dead and the works of art destroyed. However, there are certain advantages to other people who are alive and intellectually well in the world today, that can be drawn from even the most casual look at the nature of our own modern times, and why they are so very different from Chaplin's in 1936.

Our concept of ourselves in current historical time today is something like at least a three-layer cake. On the bottom we have the distant past, on top of which lies the recent past--the division between the two coming, as Marshall McLuhan suggests with his own good reasons, at the time of Gutenberg's invention of a practical movable type, almost exactly 500 years before Chaplin, ca. 1436. Art historians may want to place the key events somewhat earlier and locate them in Florence; historians of literature and those intrigued by the philosophy of history may side with fans of Pe­trarch to cite beginnings of a radical shift in man's Weltanschauung  almost a century earlier. No matter for the moment. The recent past, approximately the last 500 years, has provided us with the conceptual and methodological equipment with which to resuscitate the distant past before it.

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise for the Bapistry of the Florence Cathedral

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise for the Bapistry of the Florence Cathedral

One of these concepts was the idea of history itself, which had faded since antiquity, but was reformulated by Petrarch and by Boccaccio after him. Later, the sculptor Ghiberti, after working on the Gates of Paradise for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, himself wrote a work of major historical sig­nificance, I Comentarii, which was also one of the first histories of art. But surely McLuhan has a strong point in citing Gutenberg as a cultural turning-point, despite all the charges of techno­logical determinism that might be offered by way of qualifying his method and criticizing his conclusions. After McLuhan, at any rate, it would seem quite useless to go back to the notion that the Indus­trial Revolution did not start with Gutenberg, however one may resolve the importance of that in characterizing the history of the half-millenium since then. And as for the top, third layer of our cake conceit, we could start with Ben Franklin, or with Edison, or conveniently, right at the turn of the century.

America's first Hydrogen Bomb, nick-named "Mike", exploded at Enewietok in 1952.

America's first Hydrogen Bomb, nick-named "Mike", exploded at Enewietok in 1952.

Almost before the electric age was beginning to be recognized for what it was people began to talk of the atomic age. For electricity or electronics' J. J. Thompton, trinity's William Gilbert, there is atomic Albert Einstein. For the appearance of the first electric light, there is the Alamogordo test blast (secret), and then the two bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. And the nuclear age began with the H-bomb at Enewietok--exploded in November, 1952, but only finally announced in February, 1954. The conventional rifle, with its line-of-sight and directional, sequential pattern is fully in accord with the mechanical concepts of history, and our whole logical, lineal, fragmented and sequential culture built upon the printed word. But atomic weapons are so different in scale and effect as to be utterly distinct from conventional weapons of warfare, inclu­ding even the blockbusters (1000-pound bombs) dropped during the Second World War. The A-bombs, and even moreso the H-bombs, are instant and total in effect, transmuting elements, and through radiation extending their impact far beyond the limits of vision or hearing, indeed modifying the long-term total environment of the world. Such a pattern of effect is paralleled by rock and roll--the first artistic phenomenon that has become truly international, and through satellite transmission, instantaneous. This is, of course, McLuhan's characterization of the new electric revolution, whatever we may wish to call it. And it includes color TV, pro football, open net stockings, and all the rest, including freakouts and psychedelic drugs.


When our electric age was taking hold, in the early part of the twentieth century, it was still possible to think of the pres­ent in historical terms, i.e. as one age that was succeeding, in its proper time, those ages preceding it. The idea of being "modern" is itself closely tied in with concerns of historicity. Petrarch's concept of modernity as contained in his poem Africa of 1325, rises in contrast to the "dark ages" that intervened between the present and the golden times of ancient civilization. Jose Ortega y Gasset writes of the nineteenth century that called itself "modern," that is to say, final, definitive, "in whose presence all the rest is mere preterite, humble preparation and aspiration towards this present." (Revolt of the Masses, Unwin Books, London, 1961, p. 25.) In this sense of the term that he analyzes, "modern" becomes associated with new fashions that arise over against the past, expressing "a consciousness of a new life, superior to the old one, and at the same time an imperative call to be at the height of one's time. For the 'modern' man, not to be 'modern' means to fill below the historic level." Writing originally in 1930, Ortega brilliantly notes a shift in this attitude toward modernity, together with the intuitive realization "that there are no such epochs, definitive, assured, crystallized forever," with their "incredible narrowing down and shutting out of the field of vision." Seeing in this "the essential difference between our time and that which has just passed away," he understands that it is the linearity that is being rejected together with that gloomy faith in modern culture or road of progress that is "rather a kind of elastic prison which stretches on without ever setting us free." Snapping the idea of sequence so necessary for "modernity," is for him like "having es­caped from a hermetically sealed enclosure, of having regained freedom, of coming out once again under the stars into the world of reality,..where everything is possible." Only he doesn't call it the electric revolution.

If everything is possible from the past and we live in a time of true pluralism in art (subject, style and content) then there can be no more concept of "modernity" still operative in what had become, by the 1930s, a conventional sense. If it means anything now, the concept paralleling earlier modernity would have to contain precisely those ideas of pluralism, and a non-hieratic multiplicity of styles or subjects--aspects of the instant, total, mosaic structure--i.e. the very ideas that countered and undermined what "modern" used to mean, based as it was on setting the present time apart from previous times, which receded from it lineally back into the past. Of course patterns of collective thought do not change that easily, and there are ways in which this older notion of modernity has been perpetuated. Perhaps the closest of these applications of the modern to our experience of art occurs in the sense of fashion, fad or mode. There are still strong pressures to make us feel so superior to the fashions of ten or twelve years ago--whether in art, clothing or language--that to continue to display interest in them is, in many cases, automatic disqualifi­cation to being hip, swinging or in. But even on this level, more and more variants and alternatives are possible. The style revivals come closer and closer upon each other's heels. There was Carol Channing and the Charleston revival centering on the 1920s; now there is a focus upon the 1930s following Bonnie and Clyde. But in the middle 1460s there was also the Camp comeback of the 1890s and Art Nouveau added to newly created alternatives of dress, for example, involving mini-skirts and boots, psychedelia, or leather quasi-sado-masochist garb. Not only is there more that is "in" at one and the same time--there is also less that is "out." Hence it becomes increasingly harder to define what is "in" as an exer­cise in applied modernity, with reference to the crest of the latest wave of taste, in an ocean supposedly composed of an orderly suc­cession of such waves. The water has become pretty choppy.

Such a world of mode or fashion in which more is possible has its parallels in the world of fine art, too. Ideas of an evolutionary history of art may have their sources in Ghiberti and Vasari of the Renaissance, but they were given substantial theoretical basis by analogy to biological development, especially in the nineteenth century work of Darwin and Spencer. Hence the pattern of earlier development--in terms of broader stylistic periods, "schools" centered in a nation's capital or in a master's atelier --begins to be understood in terms of "movements," especially with the Impression­ists from 1874 on. The idea of successive movements--each one more or less coherent in time, geography and personnel, as well as manifesting certain objective similarities of style in the art--can be conveniently applied to the history of late nineteenth and most of twentieth century art, up to and including Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s in America. It was to be expected that Pop Art at first presented itself in the guise of a movement, or was received that way.

But the second generation of Abstract Expressionist painting had already begun to function, not as a movement, but as a dispersed international style, an open mesh that would not be displaced by any succeeding style. Indeed, both Pop and Op art became more truly regarded as elements of fashion and taste in the attempts of lineally conditioned mentalities to maintain the idea of art as an index of modernity.

Kurt von Meier
Circa 1967