Pleasure Wars

Peter Gay, Author
Peter Gay, Author W. W. Norton & Company $29.95 (324p) ISBN 978-0-393-04570-3
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
The fifth and final volume in his acclaimed series, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, revises our understanding of Victorian high culture and the birth of modernism. In Gay's analysis, ""bourgeoisphobes"" like Flaubert, Marx, William Morris and Balzac nurtured the myth of a uniformly materialistic Victorian middle class--a colorless lot with no inkling of the inner life. A corollary of this partisan myth, asserts the author, is that avant-garde artists fought a dominant, conventional bourgeoisie. On the contrary, argues Gay, who keeps psychoanalytic theory to a minimum in this volume, Victorian middle-class taste, though generally cautious and conservative, often embraced the innovative and experimental; the bourgeois canons detested by artistic rebels were not immutable--in fact, the avant-garde survived by changing the taste of the paying public. Gay focuses on the pivotal role of the bourgeois dealers, patrons, critics and collectors who, far from forswearing the unconventional, championed modernist taste. Urban angst, patronage and democratization of culture, he finds, made possible the explosion of modernist styles that led to Rimbaud, Kandinsky, Picasso and Debussy. Gay's magisterial survey challenges and enlightens. Photos not seen by PW. (Jan.)
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