How art confronts industrial capitalism and its directors, the bourgeoisie, has troubled the modern Western world ever since Théophile Gautier acted as cheerleader on the first night of Victor Hugo’s Ernani in 1830, causing a riot. Then, the fight was between the Romantics and the classicists, but from that day to this the progress of art has been characterized by a constant struggle between novelty and the established, outrage and affirmation, the elite and the popular. Art stands in an ambiguous relationship to capitalism, especially to democratic capitalism—prey, it seems, to a series of impossible contradictions.

It is these—or some of them—that Peter Wollen explores.footnote To engage with Raiding the Icebox is exhilarating. Wollen’s lightly carried erudition seems to belong to an earlier epoch, before the professionalization of the intellectual led to the construction of a dismaying language of criticism, notable for its ugly opacity. His elegant prose opens the door in the friendliest way into the capacious cupboard of his mind—a mind filled with all manner of unexpected and fascinating trouvailles.

However, unlike Andy Warhol, who, in Wollen’s account, wanted to include everything, refusing artistic selection altogether, Wollen’s juxtapositions are selective, yet aim to add up to a counter-history of twentieth-century art. The six essays that go to make up the book present paradigmatic moments in its evolution: the pre-First World War ‘orientalism’ of the Ballets Russes and the dress designer Paul Poiret; silent (American) cinema as an analogue of Fordism; Jackson Pollock; the Situationists; the Russian artists Komar and Melamid; and the relationship of tourism and art in the Third World.

As a counter-history of modernism these choices have all the charm of that aspect of avantgarde art which seizes upon objets trouvés, the disregarded rubbish of life, used bus tickets and so on, what Freud called ‘the refuse of the phenomenal world’, in order to bring it to the front rank of meaning. As in a ‘classic’ detective story apparently trivial incidents and objects which seem arbitrary are to be grasped like a thread that leads to the centre of the labyrinth. Alison Light in Forever England footnote1 suggested that Agatha Christie’s novels are full of modernist irony, and a similar irony plays across the surface of Wollen’s brilliant essays as he demonstrates similarities and connections by means of startling juxtapositions.

I found particularly fascinating his account of Komar and Melamid, whose own works, according to his analysis, condense every possible irony in the relationship between Soviet and post-Soviet art and Western art and capitalism. Coming from the Russian situation in which their parodies of ‘official’ Soviet (and pre-revolutionary Russian) art could immediately be understood as politically serious, they found themselves, in the postmodern New York art scene, in danger of dwindling into postmodern kitsch. For them, ‘socialist realism might be kitsch but it was kitsch that carried the weight of fifty years of Russian history, and its reworking can hardly be dismissed superficially as comedy. . .[but] New York’s. . .insatiable search for the new. . .ran completely counter to the fundamentally historical nature of their project’.footnote2 Their work, in Wollen’s analysis, acts as a hinge joining Western capitalist with East European art, and from their work he is able to move to the insight that: ‘both Western modernism and Russian Stalinism were projects that demanded a denial of the past, a constant movement towards an ideal future. But the past cannot be denied. Like the repressed it always returns, and when it is foreclosed. . .it returns in the form of madness’.footnote3

In Wollen’s artistic universe, however, everything is pregnant with its opposite. Modernism’s other is everywhere. One of the sharpest ironies of the modernist avantgarde was that so many of its practitioners were at one and the same time dedicated to ‘difficult’ art—stretching its boundaries almost impossibly in the direction of obscurity and/or assaults on received notions of beauty and appropriateness—and fascinated by popular art and mass culture: a Braque or Picasso collage, Schoenberg’s incorporation of ‘Du Lieber Augustin’ into one of his compositions.

After the First World War orientalism was displaced by Americanism as the cutting edge of the modern—its cinema, architecture and jazz took Europe by storm. Indeed jazz, as Le Corbusier was aware, could represent if not orientalism certainly the exotic and ‘primitive’, but also and simultaneously the American culture of the machine, thus contriving to constitute itself as both modernism and its other. In the ussr Americanism even became a utopianism—and Wollen has interesting things to say about the incorporation of Fordism into Stalinist productivism. The New Man was equally at home on the tractor and the assembly line, part of the move in 1930s socialism from revolution to technicism. Indeed, in his grim reading of Gramsci, even sexuality becomes assimilated to the assembly line—by contrast with Aldous Huxley’s critique of Fordism in Brave New World, in which the family is the site of that which escapes the scientistic technological nightmare. Wollen might well have mentioned also the ‘utopian’ fantasy of the British Communist scientist, J.D. Bernal, who collapsed communism completely into scientific progress. In his world of the future human beings have become brains in bubble cars, the recalcitrant body and presumably sexuality eliminated altogether (an outcome rather at odds with Bernal’s own lifestyle).footnote4