The artist was a figure of great importance to the Modernist writer. One need only look through the literature of the time to see this. Hardly a book was written that didn’t include as at least a minor character an artist of some sort. In this time of waning faith in God, the figure of the man who creates, who makes order from chaos, was very tantalizing. The modern artist was seen as a trailblazer, standing at the vanguard of humanity and cutting away the undergrowth of the past to create a path to the future. This path wasn’t always pleasant — in fact it was often disturbing and frightening to the average human being — but it was a necessary step for the artist to explore that territory, so that the rest of humanity could follow.
However, the Modern period was also one of questioning absolutes, of distrusting the so-called “objective” viewpoint. Especially after World War I, this disillusionment ran deep in European and American culture. If this is the case, though, how can one even define what “the modern artist” is, much less analyze how that figure functions across multiple works of literature? That question is, perhaps, impossible to answer, but, if one makes a few assumptions at the start, one may at least attempt to define and analyze the figure of the modern artist. Many critics and philosophers of the time offered forth their beliefs about the modern artist and, based on these essays, particular literary figures can be looked at in terms of how well they live up to the ideal of that critic. More specifically, the respective merits of Charles Strickland in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence and Axel Olsen in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand as modern artists can be judged by the standards of the art…
…understand the nature of Modernism, this is a project which must be undertaken. The character is so pervasive and so emblematic of the intellectual struggles of that time that any attempt to understand the period without some sort of working definition of the figure would be shallow and nearly useless. The method of cross-referencing philosophers and critics with the literature of the time seems a sound one, and perhaps one way of more fully understanding the underpinnings of humanity during the Modern period.Works Cited
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1996.
Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1944.
Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1957.
Valery, Paul. Selected Writings of Paul Valery. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1950.