Modern Art in the Common Culture

Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1996, 242 pp., ill. b. & w. & col.

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Thomas Crow’s most recent book reworks previously published articles into a sustained analysis of the provocative issue raised by his classic essay “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts”: “What is to be made of the continuing involvement between modernist art and the materials of low or mass culture?” (p. 3) Modernism and mass culture, Crow argues, are linked dialectically: each simultaneously undergirds and undoes the other. Modernism draws sustenance from mass culture, even though the latter denigrates the former. Moreover, by this process, modernism supports its opponent – serving, Crow famously says, as a “research and development arm of the culture industry.” (p. 35) In the other direction, by acting as a resource for modernism’s revitalization, mass culture sustains itself, since it draws inspiration from modernism. But it also encourages its own destruction, because mass culture’s elimination is a crucial part of modernism’s dream.

Modern Art in the Common Culture, however, goes beyond separating modernism’s successes (the work of Manet, Picasso, and Matta-Clark, for example) from the times when it embraced the enemy (such as the cynical work by “art stars” of the mid-1980s). The interchange between modernism and mass culture is motivated by modernism’s impulse to cast a critical eye at its own foundations, and Crow seeks to revitalize this project by showing that it remains viable. As Serge Guilbaut once suggested, until the interrogation of dominant cultures is no longer important, modernism will remain relevant. With Modern Art in the Common Culture, Crow clarifies and rejuvenates that relevance. C. R.