The reaction to the psychiatric testimony at the Hinckley trial, the ornamental design at the top of the AT&T Building of educated, capable men, first-, going up on Madison Avenue in New York, the Newsweek cover story on realism in art (the story inside the magazine, not the painting of the bare- breasted woman on the cover)--these are all signs of what I think is a large change in the way those who like to call themselves "thinking people" actually think about society.
In each case, they are turning their backs on arts and disciplines that can be called "Modern" and are, by implication anyway, looking favorably on traditions and ideas the Modern movements once called on us all to renounce.
Consider the Hinckley trial: have you heard anyone say that the conflicting psychiatric testimony has strengthened his faith that psychiatry is a rigorous scientific discipline? Or the AT&T Building: is there anyone who says any more that all buildings should be built in the International style, with no ornament, decoration or reference to history? Or the Newsweek story: does anyone still think it is a sign only of ignorance for people to prefer paintings that depict something they can recognize?
Only a few years ago, the Modern orthodoxies of Freudian psychiatry, International architecture and abstract art held us in thrall. Now suddenly their hold on us has loosened. How did the Modern tradition-- which is to say, the renunciation of tradition, the denial that we can learn anything worthwhile from the pre-Modern past--gain its hold, and how was it suddenly loosened?
Modern arts and disciplines had their beginnings in the Vienna and Paris of almost 100 years ago, at a time when artists and thinkers saw society itself as the great adversary. The old aristocracy was indifferent to Modern ideas, the bourgeoisie with its Victorian morality was scandalized, the masses with their attachment to old cultural and religious traditions were often actively hostile. Modernists were persecuted and often killed or oppressed by Hitler's regime and many fled to America for safety.
Here they continued to see themselves as fearless fighters against the enslavement of tradition and for revolutionary liberating ideas. In the 1940s and 1950s, they lived uncomfortably at the edge of an American society exuberant with unexpected affluence, clustered in tiny apartments on the Upper West Side of New York and in scattered university towns, with bookshelves mounted on brackets, an Eames chair or two, and flokati rugs. They drove beat-up Volkswagen beetles with blackwall tires and looked with condescension on American white bread and television programs.
But Middle America turned out to be much more hospitable than Mitteleuropa. The rapidly increasing number of college- educated and affluent Americans adooted Modern styles as masses of Europeans never did. Freudian psychiatrists fees are payable by federal government employees' health insurance; International School architects got virtually every major commission from major corporations; abstract artists are worried not about tolerance but about the burdens estate taxes may put on their heirs.
So there has been a withering away of the idea that the artist and thinker inevitably stand as adversaries to the larger society. Lip service is still given to this adversary idea, and it still shapes the thinking of many who regard themselves as especially enlightened.
But it lacks the force to animate every artist and thinker. Instead of defying pre-modern conventions and traditions, they now seem to be interested in them; and if they are ironic sometimes in their historic references, they are also sometimes respectful. The Modern idea demanded that we renounce hundreds of years of human tradition and experiences; now it is the Modern tradition itself that we seem to be renouncing, as we look with skepticism on the Hinckley trial psychiatrists and regard tolerantly the AT&T Building and realist paintings. In doing so, we are recognizing that there is no reason why thinking and creative people have to regard society as their adversary.