Blame the Zeitgeist: Girls, Modernism, and Lena Horvath

Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham, Modernist?


Sometimes, when the weight of pop culture sits on my head like a palette of cinder blocks, I find it calming to get in touch with my high culture roots. So I went to see the MOMA exhibit “Inventing Abstraction: 1910 to 1925,” in part because it is the 100th anniversary of great Modernist works like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Armory Show in Manhattan that featured Gaugin’s Words of the Devil,  Matisse’s L’Atelier Rouge, and Marcell Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, as well as Grand Central Terminal, at the time the largest rail station in the world. Part of me wanted to revel in the bygone glory days of “serious” art. My head buzzing with happy premonitions of aesthetic satisfaction and locally sourced, artisanally roasted, whole bean Brooklyn coffee, I stopped at our iMac before I left home to read Jordan Mainzer’s critique of the HBO show Girls.  Blame it on the zeitgeist, but  as I  wandered through the museum’s sixth floor gallery, I couldn’t stop thinking about Girls

Why is Lena Dunham so popular? Do I like her because I am an oldish, white man? Or do I not like her for the same reason? Why won’t she leave me alone to commune with these dead, white Modern art masters? My interior voice complained shrilly, though my mouth was shut tight as a low-res photocopy of a Gary Shteyngart or Michel Houellebecq narrator. I found myself in front of Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere, transfixed by the spinning half-globe that creates an optical illusion of wheels within wheels, and the answer came to me.

True Moderns were very much in love with speed and novelty. An Italian Modern named Marinetti called his Modernism “Futurism” because it was so edgy. Marinetti happily declared that “we are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.” Similarly, Lena Dunham and her avatar Hannah Horvath (for Marinetti I will abbreviate this to Lena Horvath) has cycled predictably through the stations of celebrity (insider buzz, alterna-chic, Manicheism — where critics self-segregate into lovers and haters — and meta-criticism) in a little less than a year. The Nation blogger Michelle Dean complained that “there are thinkpieces about thinkpieces [on Lena Horvath] and now I suppose you could call this a thinkpiece about the general phenomenon of Internet thinkpieces about [Lena Horvath].” “The chattering classes,” in which Dean happily includes herself, “can’t stop writing about the damn thing.” From cutting edge to soul crushing critical ennui in ten months. Marinetti would be proud.

The great Moderns, as the MoMA show is at pains to point out, were relentless self-promoters and networkers. Picasso was the most photographed painter of the early 20th century. Kandinsky, like T. S. Eliot, is as famous for his art criticism as his artistic output. Stravinsky was friends with Picasso, and Schoenberg was friends with Kandinsky, and everyone was friends with Gertrude Stein. When Lena Horvath published her brief personal history “First Love” on the New Yorker blog last August, she maintained the great Modernist tradition of exploiting her personal fame to further her career in the service of increasing her personal fame, and so on.

The Moderns got their name because they opposed the classical idea that nature gives the artist reality, which the artist should copy as faithfully as possible. Leah Dickerman, MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction curator, argues that abstract Modernism’s critical breakthrough was realizing that art need not be tethered to the “real” world. For New York painter Arthur Dove (who painted his first totally abstract painting in 1910, perhaps before Kandinsky) the realistic world depicted in 19th century salon painting hid the true meaning of its subjects. “I would like to make something that is real in itself,” he wrote, “that does not remind anyone of any other thing, and that does not have to be explained — like the letter A, for instance.” Following this Modern innovation, Lena Horvath does not try to depict the “real” world. For example, there are no black people in her Brooklyn. Also, there is no feminism, realistic male characters, or real-world problems to be solved. Horvath’s world is an idealized world, cloaked in a hipster aesthetic reacting against previousidealizations of yuppie New York. It is, moreover, an intentional abstraction, not just because, as Lena Horvath’s defenders (like Emily Nusbaum and Ta-Nehisi Coates) argue, she is writing what she knows — she isn’t — but because Horvath’s intent is to create the most rarified form of self-referential art.

Something, like the letter A, that doesn’t have to be explained (or is too complicated to explain simply) becomes a transcendent abstraction, which is precisely both Arthur Dove and Lena Horvath’s goal. For Dove, abstraction has a Platonic quality: the letter A may once have been a pictogram of a cow, but after millennia of semiotic erosion it has become a transcendent figure, immediately recognizable and simultaneously opaque. It is a pure form, like pi or the golden ratio. For Horvath, the nexus of reality TV, academic theorizing, confessional memoir, the profusion of educated opinionators (like me) who can publish their thoughts for free on the internet, and Millennial (“white,” “hipster”)  irony have opened a cultural space (a “discursive site”) that allows Lena Horvath both to claim her real/fictional identity as Girls’s source of authority and to claim that identity as a plausible denial of responsibility. (Lena Horvath isn’t me; I’m Lena Horvath!) Personhood is a Platonic abstraction for Lena Horvath.

The Moderns were also fans of primitivism, the artistic philosophy that prescribes artlessness as a method to obtain unmediated emotional content. Just as Lena Horvath has freed personhood from the suffocating strictures of Realism, she has also freed her aesthetic from the stuffy, old rules of establishment TV critics. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody accused Lena Horvath of “a conspicuous awkwardness that suggests a straining for style.” But that criticism misses the point. Horvath’s explicit references to Godard and twentieth century avant-gardism signal that she is consciously doing away with technical proficiency as a director in order to reveal the visceral, “real” life obscured by a conformist formalism. Claiming Godard as a model from the very first title of the very first episode, Girls makes an overt claim to “high” Modern art while employing elements of melodrama, pop culture and improvisation to make the final product look “raw” and untutored.

Of course, primitivism is often cited as an example of European cultural imperialism, appropriating the stories and lives of black people and recontextualizing them as white stories for white audiences. But that story is too cut-and-dried in our present American context. It is true that Lena Horvath can never know what it is like to be a black person, and it is also true that New York is the archetypal “urban” setting — the home of Bebop, Hip hop, and the Harlem Shake. To understand Lena Horvath’s primitivism, however, we must acknowledge that she is that creature popularly reviled and celebrated by the chattering classes: the hipster. As the chronicle of the 21st century hipster pointed out in a sociological study from 2010, hipsters are a multi-generational phenomenon that is “explicitly defined by the desire of a white avant-garde to disaffiliate itself from whiteness.” Jack Kerouac, KC from the Sunshine Band and Justin Timberlake are all, in this sense, hipsters because they draw their artistic inspiration from the African-American strain of American culture. But an equally important facet of 21st century hipsterdom, particularly in Brooklyn, is its debt to Romanticism.

Modernist primitivism is an avant garde retooling of the Romantics’ idealization of nature. Romanticism believes that the creative individual in her natural state is better than the individual corrupted by society and its rules. Slow food, retro technologies (like fixed-gear bikes), moral environmentalism that is nostalgic for nature only seen on TV (like polar bears), and empathy with the lower echelons of society are characteristic of hipster Romanticism. The word in contemporary critical jargon for this constellation of qualities is “authenticity.” Hipsters crave authenticity of experience, and Lena Horvath tells us the authenticity of their experience is the subject matter of Girls. Because the hipsters’ obsession with authenticity is usually expressed by nerdy, pseudo-scientific fanaticism (e.g. Brooklyn barbeque chefs discussing the precise method to cook the perfect brisket and / or a TV show that references Godard), it draws withering criticism from hipster haters, who argue that hipsters are either naive hypocrites who don’t realize it is impossible to empathize with authenticity (see “Lena Horvath can never know what it’s like to be black” above), or they are cynical hypocrites who only pretend to love authenticity from the safe, insular artifice of their protected pseudo-urban enclaves (see Stuff White People Like).

And yet, Romantic authenticity is really only an aesthetic pose for Lena Horvath. Her greatest Modernist forebear, the person whose acute understanding of the art world most resembles her own, is Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was perhaps the most well-connected artist of his time. He was a member of the Section d’Or, his older brother was an original organizer of the Salon d’Automne, and later, after he made the West Village his permanent home, he became Peggy Guggenheim’s confidant and art advisor. Duchamp’s greatest innovation in art was not a painting, a sculpture, a work, or a piece, however; Duchamp’s greatest achievement was in recognizing that the audience — not the artist — makes a work “art.” “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” he said at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in April, 1957. “The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

When Duchamp sent an old, decommissioned urinal titled “Fountain” to the Society of Independent Artists show in 1917 as his contribution, he smashed the last conceptual barrier between art and nature. Though some people then (and some people now) called this a cynical gambit, Duchamp’s point has been borne out by history: if you take any object whatsoever and put it in a museum, it becomes art. Wallace Stevens made the same point in his poem “Anecdote of the Jar”: when we organize the chaos of unmediated, lived reality around any artifact, we simultaneously create an author, an authority, a new higher order reality, a superior set of eyes through which to see the world. The artist creates an object that makes the world, and consequently we venerate its maker as we would a god.

Contra Matt Seitz and his ilk, what Lena Dunham the writer, actor, and producer does is of little or no significance in comparison to what Lena Horvath the star and author function does. The effects that Girls produces in the mind of a fragmented and indeterminate audience are neither genius nor banal in and of themselves. Moreover, the audience is itself a construct, which exists only in the rarified form of the influential reviewer or in the abstract space of demographic data created and collated by Nielsen. If you are pro-Lena Horvath, whatever the show does is genius, understated, overstated, intentionally bad, or unintentionally good. If you are contra-Lena Horvath, everything the show does is contrived and awful. The poor Horvath haters must feel like they live with Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in an alternate universe where the opposite of art is somehow elevated to genius. But that’s where they live, so they’ll just have to get used to it.

Lena Horvath’s claim to be “the voice of her generation” was calculated to produce cries of devotion and fits of apoplectic rage, and it succeeded, maybe beyond her expectations. But in fact, Lena Horvath is not the voice of her generation, or even the voice of a generation; Lena Horvath is the voice of generation, the voice of crowd-sourced buzz in all its terrifying, monolithic singularity. E pluribus unum. She is the first instance of an author, constituted through Internet media, hyped (positively and negatively) by a broad, diverse commentariat, who has gained enough critical mass in a brief enough period to deserve a place in future history books as an example of a watershed cultural moment. But wait! You say. Kim Kardashian is a bigger Internet star than Lena Horvath! Yes, but the discourse Kim creates is all gossip. Once she is no longer pretty, or rich, or outrageous, she will cease to exist. Lena Horvath lives between existence and oblivion in her very nature, and that will keep philosophers talking about her until the end of days.

Brian McGreevy tells us in his defense of Lena Horvath: “the film The Departed opens with Jack Nicholson saying, ‘I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.’ Dunham has achieved this and deserves proper respect for it.” She has done this, just as Duchamp did one century ago. But McGreevy implies that Lena Horvath’s existence outside the “reality based community” reflects some kind of personal merit, which in turn implies a person behind the persona, and I have shown that this is not the case. Rather, Lena Horvath is the most recent head on the hydra of permanent revolution, youth culture, abstraction for abstraction’s sake and the cult of The Now. That is, Lena Horvath is the latest, greatest exponent of Modernism. Her contribution has been to galvanize the social and technological revolutions of the past decade, and she will be remembered until all the ones and zeros encoded onto floating-gate, field effect transistors have been lost.

Will Kenton is a critic and teacher, and the founder of the theater site Cultural Capitol. His last piece for Frontier Psychiatrist was The 10 Best Off-Off Broadway Plays of 2012, culled from the 39 plays he saw last year. He lives, thinks, and writes in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

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