The People, the Public and Populism: 1916 and 2016

By Rod Rosenquist

Having recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Modernist Cultures entitled ‘Modernism in Public’, Rod Rosenquist, Senior Lecturer in English, examines the relationship between cultural elites and the public response— focusing here on a comparative reading between the modernism of 1916 and the socio-cultural climate of 2016.

*Author’s note: this piece was written in the first few days of the new year, when there were little slivers of hope to cling to, like shards of shrapnel, hope that things might not be as bad as they seemed. The fact that they may well be worse than they then seemed (if Washington DC is still any indicator of the state of the world) should not, I hope, invalidate these reflections on the populism in 2016.

At last, the year 2016 is over. Now we must make sense of the legacy it has left. It was not a year for celebrity musicians and actors, for refugees or open borders, nor, most tellingly, for ‘political elites’. Instead, many might consider it a year of ‘the people’ — however ill-defined such an entity remains.

Throughout 2016, ‘the people’ repeatedly found ways to get involved in political debates. On the left, party politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn continually reaffirmed the appeal of the not-quite-establishment candidate, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds even when the mainstream party officials doubted their ability to lead. And of course when British voters were offered a choice on the European Union, with the leaders of the major political parties nearly all urging on the public that it was the sensible choice to remain, a majority voiced their independence from conventional wisdom, voting to leave. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, Nigel Farage celebrated a ‘victory for real people’ — thus relegating the 48% who voted ‘Remain’ as neither ‘the people’ nor entirely ‘real’. They were part of ‘the elite’, the out of touch.

Something similar was happening, about this time, in the USA. As Jan-Werner Müller has discussed, Donald Trump responded to early divisions and doubts within his own political party with the announcement in May 2016 that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything’ — in one tidy phrase uniting and dividing ‘the people’ into a public that counts and a public that does not. Somehow, Trump managed to turn the lack of political support for himself into a virtue, casting himself as ‘man of the people’ — and even when private conversations revealing his sexist or misogynistic attitudes were made public, a significant proportion of the public remained loyal supporters, deciding that the media, the political establishment, or the politically correct leftists could not be trusted.

Throughout 2016, while celebrity politicians like Trump, Farage and Corbyn, or celebrated catch phrases like Brexit, continued to command attention, it was the public supporting them, antagonising them, or being imagined by them that made this one of the more complex political year’s in recent memory. In the past, politicians have often been the subject of the conversation, and the public has been the object — but increasingly, the public has demanded to be the subject, even if that means — according to many experienced politicians — voters shooting themselves in the foot (just so long as no elite politician told them to do it).

A hundred years ago, modernist artists and thinkers were negotiating many of the same tensions. Rising literacy, an explosion in print media and the development of new technologies such as broadcast radio and cinema led to a battle between cultural elites and the masses, in which modernist writers and artists sought to engage or reject the will and whims of this vast and indistinct general public. And while many critics of the last twenty years have tried to revise the perception of a ‘Great Divide’ between modernism and mass culture, one thing is growing increasingly clear: the celebrated modernists remain the subject of this critical narrative and ‘the public’ has remained its object. While the New Modernist Studies has exposed the endeavours of modernist artists to bridge this divide and revealed modernism’s ‘public face’, ‘the public’ itself continues to be seen by current scholarship, often through modernist eyes, as a homogenised mass — like Wyndham Lewis’s ‘The Crowd’, there only for the artist to channel, to herd, to experiment with.

But just as with the people in 2016, the public of 1916 was not always so passive or ready to be shepherded.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso (1905–1906)

In 1916, for example, Gertrude Stein had a reputation as either a madwoman or an intellectual elite and avant-garde artist — best known for a work, Tender Buttons, so radical in its use of language and syntax that few early twentieth-century readers could make sense of it. Take this example:

 A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.

Released in a limited edition of 1000 copies, this group of prose poems might have served as the epitome of private artistic modernism — a work so disdainful of its public that it does not bother to make sense, and printed in insufficient quantities to be widely read beyond an exclusive club of culturally-literate users interested in extreme experimentation. But the public were not so easily excluded, as Leonard Diepeveen has shown: in fact, Tender Buttons was a highly discussed public work, reviewed by even the most provincial American newspapers, evaluated and debated (largely through second-hand representation) across the widest readership imaginable — even if most of these readers were baffled, annoyed or antagonistic.

Stein’s response in 1916 is fascinating. Her new group of prose poems took on the most public type of writing available, as signalled by the title of her experimental piece ‘Advertisements’. Though the public took far less notice of this work than Tender Buttons, Stein was hoping to remind her readers that even the language of marketing and sales was often nonsensical, obscure or free of basic syntactical rules — like this example, from a collection of her favourite ads, advertising Burma Shave cream:

Half a pound
For half a dollar
Isn’t that
A cheerful earful[1]

Stein appreciated the playful language, the rhythms of the phrases, regardless of the purpose or the sense. In a 1934 newspaper interview, Stein would go on to suggest a connection between her own highbrow writings and the mass culture of advertising language, objecting specifically to the journalists who found her work entirely unintelligible: ‘Anyone can understand if they do not try to understand […] We must get away from the highbrow complex. […] Why, the average advertisement is as unintelligent as anything I have ever written. No one says it is unintelligent. One accepts it!”[2]

Stein is not here rejecting such unintelligent writing. She was much more populist than that, and wanted her own work to be read openly, by everyone, even if no one managed or even wanted to ‘understand’. In fact, as I have shown by examining her correspondence with the editors of The Atlantic Monthly, she did not feel the need to be ‘understood’, resisting the overtures of those who wanted the ‘key’ or the ‘code’ that made her work intelligible.[3] She only wanted the public to experience her writing, the construction and the language, regardless of sense or purpose.

This brings us back to the populist success of Trump or the Brexit camp, leading to Oxford Dictionaries proclaiming the word of the year for 2016 to be ‘post-truth’. Post-truth politics suggests that it is more important to contemporary publics that one experiences a thing as true than that it is true. And though post-truth politics is often deceptive in purpose and abhorrent in effect, Stein’s 1916 ‘Advertisements’ finds her, one hundred years earlier, asking more innocent but related questions about language, commerce and literature. Stein’s experimental works, rather than pushing away the public, engage the public discourse of advertising — but without stopping to ask whether the material goods are as described, whether the language makes sense, or whether there is any truth in the description. One should not approach such work with intelligence, says Stein, but with an acceptance of the experience of the language, the music of the rhythms, the feel of ‘truth’ rather than the delivery of fact. In some ways, modernism was the first post-truth movement — not political, or deceitful, as it may be in 2016 — but focused on subjective experience rather than objective or material reality.

Fascinatingly, the advertising agencies picked up on Stein’s approach. As my recent article in Modernist Cultures on Stein and advertising reveals, Helen Woodward, one of the first female advertising executives in America, embraced the model of Stein’s writing. And a review of Stein’s writing career in 1934 went so far as to suggest she’d had more influence on advertising language than on literature, though the latter was starting to catch up to the former:

The influence of [Stein’s distinctive manner of writing] is only just upon the literary; but the debt owed it by modern advertising is incalculable, and since, sooner or later, even the literary become conscious of advertisements, it seems likely that in her lifetime she may find herself the mother of all living.[4]

Stein would have surely approved of such a review of her work, even if it shows distinct disdain for the literary culture of the time. She did not view herself as a highbrow or a literary elite, despite her enormous ego — she only wanted to appeal to a wide readership, to ‘real people’, and with her publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a runaway bestseller, she is a brilliant example of modernist populism.

This article on Stein and advertising culture is only one of seven on the two-way relationship between modernism and its various publics in a recent special issue of Modernist Cultures entitled ‘Modernism in Public’ (November 2016), co-edited by Alice Wood and myself. In our introduction, we set out an argument that modernism is just as often the object of the public’s view of modern life as the public are the object of the modernists’ subjective view.

As we say in that piece:

These seven articles pursue this version of modernism across a range of spaces in which modernism found a public: within the fashion pages of the Sunday supplements; across the advertising pages of high-circulation periodicals; into the glossy, smart magazines; on board the transatlantic ocean liner or on display in the smart-set parties; in the cheap, mass-reproducible linocut; within the urban landscape or the ordinary home; and into the public-private space of the bookshop. Many connections can be drawn — the physical spaces, the cultivation of taste, the appropriation of modernist discourse by mainstream media — but the one constant in these articles is an equal interest in the production and consumption of modernist ideas and aesthetics as they circulate between modernists and their publics. In surveying celebrity culture, fashion, mainstream magazines, and advertising amongst other cultural activities and spaces, the proposed articles all seek to reveal how modernism both sought to develop a public face in the twentieth century and encountered a public increasingly active in shaping its profile.[5]
Marianne Moore

Our introduction outlines how modernists sometimes mixed with the public, like Marianne Moore studying the pitching techniques of Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants in the early 1910s, or sought to bring the public to them, like Guido Bruno in 1916 finding sight-seeing busses stopping outside his artists’ garret in Greenwich Village. Though not all the articles in the special issue focus on 1916 or its parallels to 2016, each one raises the complex question of how elite cultures and the public sometimes clash, sometimes warily build on each other, and other times collaborate on mutually beneficent terms.

Rod Rosenquist, Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at The University of Northampton

Rod Rosenquist is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Northampton. He is author of Modernism, the Market and the Institution of the New (Cambridge 2009), co-editor with John Attridge of Incredible Modernism: Literature, Trust and Deception (Ashgate 2013), and co-editor of a ‘Modernism in Public’ special issue of Modernist Cultures. As part of a project on literary celebrity and modernist life writing, he has also published a number of recent articles in Comparative American Studies, Critical Survey and Genre.

[1] See Ulla E. Dydo, with William Rice, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2003), pp. 618–19.

[2] Interview in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1934. For full reference see Rod Rosenquist, ‘Copywriting Gertrude Stein: Advertising, Anonymity, Autobiography’, Modernist Cultures 11:3, pp. 331–350

[3] Ibid.

[4] This review, from the New Statesman and Nation in 1933, and several others like it are explored in detail in the article (Ibid).

[5] Rod Rosenquist and Alice Wood, ‘Introduction: Modernism in Public’, Modernist Cultures 11.3 (2016): 299–311, p. 310.

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