The Arts and the Creation of Modernity
Katherine Giuffre




Symbolic Warfare in the Field of Culture

In 1907, Pablo Picasso was a twenty-five-year-old impoverished painter living in squalid conditions in Paris and working obsessively on a large painting of five nude women, the proto-Cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. After more than six months of intense labor, he was finally ready to unveil his groundbreaking masterwork to some of his closest friends and most important buyers.

It did not go well. Leo Stein, a collector whom Picasso was trying to woo, “brayed” (Richardson 2012, 45) with laughter at what he called “this horrible mess” (Richardson 2012, 6). The painter André Derain was even more horrified. “This can only end in suicide,” he said. “One day Picasso will be found hanging behind the Demoiselles” (Richardson 2012, 76). In response, Picasso turned the painting to face the wall of his studio and did not publicly show it again until 1916.

But Derain was wrong. Picasso died in 1973, at age ninety-one, from heart failure. And Les Demoiselles became one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century.


In the history of the arts, misjudgments such as Derain’s are common. Critics derided The Great Gatsby. Moby Dick was so unpopular that it effectively ended Herman Melville’s flourishing writing career. Few people bought Henry David Thoreau’s books in his lifetime, forcing him to take back the unsold copies from the publisher in order to save them from being destroyed. “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes,” he quipped, “over seven hundred of which I wrote myself” (Thoreau 2009, 232). And on and on.

It is not difficult to see why this would be so. Cultural productions—books, paintings, movies, music, and so on—that we today see as works of genius are often revered because they are revolutionary; they changed the way that we see the world around us and the way that we think about ourselves and others. Precisely because they are revolutionary, these works take time to understand and to appreciate. They burst subversively into our consciousness without warning or preparation. No wonder they are initially misunderstood.

But with some works, there is more to our reactions than just misunderstanding or incomprehension. There is also outrage. It is one thing to be left unmoved or indifferent to a piece of art—to shrug it off as not to one’s taste. It is another to be enraged by it—to feel a need to smash and destroy not only the work, but also the person who made it. In the history of culture, some works that we now consider to be classics were initially met not merely with uncomprehending indifference, but with everything from malicious gossip and character slurs to fisticuffs, book burnings, and pistols at dawn. That is, they were met with outrage.

The outrage did not arise because audiences and critics failed to understand these subversive works, but, instead, because they did. This book will look at some of the cultural productions—novels, paintings, poetry, music, and dance—now seen as classics but that caused outrage when they first appeared in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These works spoke to deep divides in the time and place of particular societies and ignited battles over some of the most sensitive points of social change. In doing so, they helped create the modern world.


All societies have members who deviate from the prevailing norms. As Durkheim argued in 1893, every society has deviants because every society needs deviants and creates the deviants it needs (through formal laws or otherwise). Punishing deviants helps a society solidify and makes known the acceptable boundaries of behavior in that society. By punishing those who disrupt the functioning of the interdependent parts of our social machine, we keep that machine running smoothly, mostly invisibly. Restitutive (civil) law, Durkheim argues, is meant to fix what breaks in the social system—to put right the malfunctioning pieces. But an older, more atavistic repressive law that predates restitutive law still survives. It is there to soothe the collective conscience that has been inflamed by deviant behavior, a collective conscience that is outraged over this attack on social solidarity, the foundation of social order. Without outrage at deviants, we don’t know who we are as a society.

This does not mean that the deviants are imaginary: they are very real. And their attack on the social order can be intentional and ferocious, happening sometimes with direct physical violence (as in political revolutions) and sometimes through more subtle, but just as challenging, cultural warfare. Deviance may be disruptive, but it can also be an important source of positive social change. But rather than directly attack the social world through its unjust laws or economic systems, cultural deviance instead attacks the hegemonic ideas that underlie those systems.

Cultural warfare is about the disruption of hegemony at the level of the symbol. Think of a safety pin in the cheek of a London punk circa 1977, a 1920s flapper eschewing a corset, or a national flag being set on fire. These disruptions point out the ideologies that underlie the symbols—the usual (perhaps hegemonic) connection between the signifier and the signified. An important part of hegemonic control is that those being oppressed accept their own oppression, seeing it as right, normal, and natural. Hegemony is powerful because it is unquestioned, for the most part. Raymond Williams explains:

Hegemony . . . is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of our living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values. . . . It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives. It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense a “culture,” but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes. (Williams 1977, 110)

But as Williams also points out, that unquestioning acceptance of “the way things are” is never total: it must be fought for and reproduced on a continuing basis, responding to anti-hegemonic challenges and neutralizing critiques:

A lived hegemony is always a process. . . . [I]t does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own. . . . In this active process the hegemonic has to be seen as more than the simple transmission of an (unchanging) dominance. On the contrary, any hegemonic process must be especially alert and responsive to the alternatives and opposition which question or threaten its dominance. (Williams 1977, 112)

The concept of power implies resistance, and hegemonic power is no different from other kinds of power. As John Clarke and coauthors note: “Hegemony, then, is not universal and ‘given’ to the continuing rule of a particular class. It has to be won, worked for, reproduced, sustained. Hegemony is, as Gramsci said, a ‘moving equilibrium,’ containing ‘relations of forces favourable or unfavorable to this or that tendency.’ . . . The idea of ‘permanent class hegemony,’ or of ‘permanent incorporation’ must be ditched” (Clarke et al. 1976, 40–41; italics in original).

In their analysis of post-war British youth subcultures, Stuart Hall and his colleagues focused on the myriad cultural forms that members of subordinated groups used to resist the normalizing of their oppression: “Negotiation, resistance, struggle: the relations between a subordinate and a dominant culture, wherever they fall within this spectrum, are always intensely active, always oppositional, in a structural sense (even when this opposition is latent, or experienced simply as the normal state of affairs—what Gouldner called ‘normalised repression’). Their outcome is not given but made” (Clarke et al. 1976, 44; italics in original).

This struggle can occur in the field of culture at the level of signification, at the point of breaking the unquestioned connection between signifier and signified. Of the youth subcultures of post–World War II Britain, Dick Hebdige writes that

the challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed obliquely, in style. The objections are lodged, the contradictions displayed . . . at the profoundly superficial level of appearances: that is, at the level of signs. . . . The struggle between different discourses, different definitions and meanings within ideology is therefore always, at the same time, a struggle within signification: a struggle for possession of the sign which extends to even the most mundane areas of everyday life. (Hebdige 1979, 17)

Through style, subordinate groups can bring to light the hidden assumptions that form the basis of their oppression.

In other words, “symbolic warfare” uses symbols as weapons in a struggle over the foundational ideas, norms, values, and beliefs of a society. It is warfare fought in the arena of culture. These struggles are no less powerful for the fact that they appear to be over such trivial matters: the rhyme scheme of a poem, the finish of an oil painting, or a blue note. These are keys to a larger issue: the questioning of (and, therefore, bringing into consciousness of) the hegemonic ideas embedded in cultural forms. To question hegemonic ideas is in itself to weaken their power to oppress.

This has political implications. Murray Edelman argues that owing to its power to create new categories of thought and to highlight previously overlooked aspects of social life, art “can intrude upon passive acceptance of conventional ideas and banal responses to political clichés. For that reason art can help foster a reflective public that is less inclined to think and act in a herd spirit or according to cues and dictates provided be a privileged oligarchy” (1995, 143–144). The normalization that is so important for the functioning of hegemony is exposed as a fabrication. The disruption of the social order by subversive artists is an attack on society, and it is perceived as such. It causes outrage, Edelman argues:

At any historical period the most widely promulgated and accepted perceptions reflect and reinforce the dominant social relationships. . . . Material conditions and striking events render people susceptible to new ways of building reality, but artists must provide the categories, the premises, the modes of seeing, and the cognitive pathways. . . . So art lays the basis for the developments we conventionally see as political: voting, lobbying, participating; supporting, obstructing, or ignoring political causes. (Edelman 1995, 63)

Despite this, not all acts of nonconformity provoke an intense response. Sometimes a purposely provocative cultural act invokes nothing more than a shrug or a blank stare. Culture is easy to dismiss as frivolous. In order to provoke a response of outrage, cultural acts must not only touch the sore point of the society at the time when that point is most vulnerable; they must also do so in a way that speaks in a language that is understood by the wider audience (even when that audience claims the cultural acts are incomprehensible). Cultural acts have the ability to interject questioning into ideas that had heretofore maintained their power by being unquestioned. Cultural productions are poised to do this precisely because they are so multifaceted, metaphorical, and easily dismissed. Raymond Williams notes: “The finite but significant openness of many works of art, as signifying forms making possible but also requiring persistent and variable signifying responses, is then especially relevant” (1977, 114). That is, the openness to audience interpretation of works of art allows for a range of responses. Regarding novels, Wendy Griswold writes that “different literary meanings may be woven from the same literary symbols interacting with the concerns of distinct sets of readers insofar as these concerns highlight different aspects of a multivocal text” (1987, 1105). Unlike a manifesto, cultural productions can work at a level below conscious resistance. They slip in under the radar, masquerading as meaningless, defying easy interpretation, context dependent. However obliquely it is done, though, the disruption to the hegemonic chain between signifier and signified must be felt if it is to provoke outrage.

Analyzing the example of punk’s use of symbols in the 1970s—bondage gear, ransom-note typefaces, desecrated Union Jacks—Hebdige argues that the symbolic assault on the hegemonic norms of the times caused outrage because it spoke so clearly and understandably (if metaphorically) about the chaos Britons were feeling and fearing:

The punks appropriated the rhetoric of crisis which had filled the airwaves and the editorials throughout the period and translated it into tangible (and visible) terms. . . . The various stylistic ensembles adopted by the punks were undoubtedly expressive of genuine aggression, frustration and anxiety. But these statements, no matter how strangely constructed, were cast in a language which was generally available—a language which was current. . . . In order to communicate disorder, the appropriate language must first be selected, even if it is to be subverted. For punk to be dismissed as chaos, it had first to “make sense” as noise. (Hebdige 1979, 87–88)

Punk symbols made sense as “noise”: the disruption of the hegemonic connection between signifier and signified. The symbols of chaos were understandable to everyone, provoking outrage in those observers most invested in maintaining the hegemonic order. Does a “safety pin” signify “safety” or, instead, “danger” when it pierces a young punk’s cheek?

When people experience a cultural object, read a book, for example, a societal tenor—a set of presuppositions, concerns, problems and associations held by a particular group in a particular historical and institutional context—interacts with the cultural vehicle, the symbols and characteristics of the cultural object at hand. The presuppositions generated by the tenor select, highlight, and suppress characteristics of the vehicle; the manifest and latent meanings of the vehicle trigger, organize, evoke, reflect, and seem to comment on attributes of the tenor. The more powerful the cultural object constituting the vehicle, the more aspects of the societal tenor it will seem to address. (Griswold 1987, 112)

It is only by understanding the social context within which the outrage occurs that we can begin to answer the question “Why?” What nerve did the cultural producers of the modernizing West touch—sometimes unwittingly—that led to such vociferous reactions to their art?

There was a symbiotic relationship between the artists and the society. Each affected the other. Artists responded to and exposed the tensions in the world around them, and their art pushed those tensions further. When reviewers suggested that the Brontë sisters were fallen women (discussed in Chapter 2), for example, or when Berthe Morisot was denounced as a whore during an auction of Impressionist paintings (Chapter 3), those reactions were telling, indicating a profound social tension about women’s role in the society and fears about the changes that role was undergoing. The particular incidents discussed in this book were battles in a larger war: a revolutionary war in which art was playing a role by not just reflecting society but also by changing society, by breaking down the unquestioned state of hegemonic ideas. These battles were so fiercely fought—more fiercely than they seem on the surface to merit—because they were important. They were important because they actively engaged the tensions, cleavages, and breaking points in the societies around them. To understand the battles and the ferocity with which they were fought, we have to understand the social context in which they occurred. And that context in which the cultural warfare occurred was one of profound uncertainty and change.