Monday, 12 November 2012

The Failures of Symbolism

Reading a host of recent reviews of exhibitions and publications all relating to Symbolism, I was reminded of a really uncomfortable experience. Years ago, when I was defending my dissertation proposal, one of the members of my committee told me that I “didn’t really understand Symbolism properly,” and that this failure would cause serious problems for the project.   This was exactly the kind of comment a young and insecure scholar really didn’t want at such a pivotal moment.  And as you might imagine, it also pissed me off to no end, because of course I had worked very, very hard to master the complexities of the topic.  The diffuse, peculiar, murky late 19th century movement in art and literature loosely defined as Symbolism played a considerable role in my thesis and research into turn-of-the-century American art. Because it appeared in America very differently than it did in Europe, I felt this scholar had missed my point entirely.   The question, as I saw it, was not whether I did or didn’t ‘get’ Symbolism, but whether Gilded Age Americans did or did not ‘get’ it. “What temerity and arrogance!” I thought, soothing my wounded pride.  “They are wrong.  Not me.”

Moreover, this scholar did not seem willing to acknowledge that the ‘failure’ to understand Symbolism was in fact a pervasive problem, even for this movement’s leading practitioners, some of whom, such as Stéphane Mallarmé, seem to have regarded it as a kind of massive game of interpretive hide-and-seek. But, given the person’s expertise in the history of 19th century art, the comment made me think—very hard—about the stakes of my potential failure in this regard.  Was I just fundamentally wrong, and was the problem truly one of my own failure to understand? Or was this more a matter of their failure to understand the nuances of a field that was not quite the same as their own? Or, yet again, was the observation the result of an equally awful prospect:  my utter failure to communicate my point? What was the underlying nature of this rather discomfiting, and potentially devastating mutual misapprehension?

That eventually led me (after a friend and a strong cocktail had helped me to settle down), to think about how in many ways the entire Symbolist movement is still widely regarded as a particular kind of failure. To many observers, Symbolist art is unforgivably weird and will always remain so, as demonstrated by the wide-ranging critical opinions concerning the work of Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler, whose work is currently on view at the Neue Galerie in New York. As Markus Verhagen observes, some believe mystifying art such as Hodler’s is the result of “the worst impulses of the Symbolist generation, exploring ill-defined metaphysical questions in canvases that have come to look hopelessly dated and affected.”  In a recent review concerning Hodler’s contemporary Edvard Munch, Thomas Micchelli terms the diversity of Symbolism a product of its “florid hokeyness.”   Yet others suggest Symbolist works may look ‘dated and affected’ because the art produced in the Symbolist spirit was meant to be confounding and very difficult—hard for viewers to encompass in a way that forced them to strive towards forms of knowledge beyond the facile scope of material reality, during a historical period of great anxiety propelled by rising commercialism and technocratic complexity. And just as scholars today seem to have considerable trouble coming to terms with Symbolism’s many manifestations and styles, there were also plenty of individuals, in Europe and America alike, who similarly tried, and perhaps often failed, to understand the intentionally vague, ambiguous or hermetic modes of thought governing the spirit of the movement.  Thus, my committee member and I were both wrong, and both right:  Failure was built into the system.

In fact, as I mulled the stakes of ‘failure’ over more deeply, I discovered another question:  isn’t such a ‘failure to understand’ any historical mode of thought, or movement, or object, or attitude, the kind of problem that provokes us in the first place?  Is such an instance of ‘failure’ as the one I investigate—that is, the way in which Americans at the turn of the century ‘failed’ to look at Symbolism the way their European peers did—merely an alternative way of conceptualizing the movement in their own terms, and thus not a ‘failure’ at all? The deeper reasons for this apparent error in comprehension turn out to be far more interesting than I had initially realized, mired as I was in a crisis of utter confusion, irritation and humiliation.

In the long run, as I worked through the many consequences of my ‘failure to understand,’ I followed more investigations, worked through anxiety, thought deeply and—at last—reached an acceptance of the fact that I investigate a historical period that will always offer up such instances of profound discomfort.   To wish it were otherwise would be to wish away that aspect of the problem that continues to inspire me, as much as it remains a challenge.  And ultimately the nature of this scholarly misapprehension granted me some really valuable opportunities for insight regarding the complex, often competing claims of what ‘Symbolism’ was attempting to do. I am sure I will continue to fail to understand it, but those moments are the ones I welcome in anticipation of the worthy surprises they will reveal.  Thus the many ‘Failures of Symbolism’ are in fact some of its signature virtues.

-Emily Gephart

1 comment:

  1. Symbolism is wonderfully undefinable. During my Master's thesis defense, I was told (by a @$#*$ Medievalist) that I didn't understand the sublime!