cover image Modern Times, Modern Plaes

Modern Times, Modern Plaes

Peter Conrad, Conrad. Alfred A. Knopf, $40 (752pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40113-8

Examining art as evidence of the massive changes in human society during this most hectic of centuries rather than as a subject in itself, Conrad has organized this herculean project into thematic, almost free-standing essays. The nuclear bomb is for him the emblem, the ""equivocal triumph,"" of modernity, an age that both ""took the world to pieces"" scientifically and redefined suicide as a heroically defiant gesture. Conrad's narrative moves from European cultural capitals at their peaks to America after WWII, traveling eastward only at the book's end. When dealing with European modernist arts, Conrad is at his best, capturing elusive issues with apt phrasing and lucidity even when drawing on academic studies. Still, at times he opts for superficial, if provocative soundbytes, as the subject changes every few pages. This problem worsens as Conrad approaches the present: in a lazily dismissive paragraph, for instance, he trivializes a series of Cindy Sherman photographs as a ""woman rehearsing and exhausting our shared quota of cultural stereotypes."" Attending to jazz more closely also could only have benefited his discussion. Part of the trouble is that Conrad's tastes are unrepentantly highbrow, which ill serves an era of postmodern repetition and lowering standards. While attempting to understand what ""it has meant to be alive in the twentieth century,"" he uses the first-person plural throughout--suggesting a wistful fantasy that his elite reader represents all of humankind. But many aspects of the multifaceted modernity he describes don't exist even for many in the first world. Read as a sweeping intellectual autobiography, from the viewpoint of an idiosyncratic ""I,"" however, the book becomes a deeply compelling study, and a highly engaging feat of scholarship. (Mar.)