Wyndham Lewis and the Philosophy of Art in Early Modernist Britain: Creating a Political Aesthetic

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This study offers a reconsideration of Wyndham Lewis’s work up to the 1930s, based on a wide-ranging engagement with theories of modernity and modernism, against a ‘background’ of Enlightenment thought. It discusses the philosophical, art historical and literary complexities of Lewis’s texts, and what they might mean for our understanding of their political orientation. Grounded in Lewis’s aporetic notion of Art, this study takes issue with those critics who attempt to close down these complexities, arguing that Lewis’s political statements are both symptomatic of an ‘avant-garde’ predicament based on his mediation of ideas found in thinkers like Kant and Nietzsche, and thus argumentatively inconclusive – at least up to his outright endorsement of fascism in the early 1930s. This book also connects up Lewis’s understanding of modernity as an era of rationalization and reification with crucial twentieth century dissident thinkers such as Heidegger and Adorno. Deconstructing the Art : : Life opposition announced in Blast 1 of 1914, this work examines how Lewis’s increasing attempts to prioritize visuality and the painter’s controlling eye admit an aesthetic Utopianism deriving from his early Wild Body stories. It is this aesthetic sensibility, even when inchoate, which proves troublesome to Lewis’s own increasing conflation of satire with a totalizing objectivity, and thus to those subsequent commentators on his politics whose own desire for critical mastery is part of the ‘problem’ of Enlightenment defined. In conclusion, this study extrapolate some key ideas in the direction of current doubts about, and ‘resolutions’ of, the ‘project’ of Enlightenment, in the context of its artistic and sociological formations.


“The way is clear for studies of Lewis that investigate his relationship to specific issues, or which concentrate on particular elements in his work. David Wragg’s substantial and scrupulously argued study of Lewis in relation to ‘Enlightenment’ and the concepts of rationality and the avant-garde is the first book to fulfill the promises of that possibility. Wragg’s study takes a set of issues that are central to the understanding of modernity and literary and artistic modernism and situates Lewis’s work at their heart. The Lewis who emerges from his productive context is a thinker, writer and visual artist whose oeuvre might ‘form part of a critical manual on “enlightened” behaviour’ (Chapter 6), and whose diagnoses of the world of modernity have continued relevance both for our understanding of his time and for our own analyses of our own lives and experience as citizens of Enlightenment. Lewis is situated anew in the context of one of the most profound and compelling debates about modernity and modern life, and in that context he thrives. In undertaking this positioning and working through the discussion in precise detail, David Wragg’s book marks a new and productive departure for studies of Lewis.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) David Peters Corbett, Reader in History of Art, University of York

“I am pleased to write a letter of recommendation for David Wragg’s book, which offers not only a powerful and original reconsideration of aspects of Wyndham Lewis’s work up to the 1930s, but an ambitious and wide-ranging engagement with recent critical thinking about Modernism and even about critical theory itself. ...David Wragg’s critically informed and intellectually sophisticated approach does justice to the full range of Lewis’s actual work in the period, whether verbal or visual, and a particular strength of this book is the ease and authority with which Wragg engages with relevant critical debates in literature, visual arts and intellectual history – a combination especially relevant in any engagement with Modernism and its fuller dimensions and implications … Any adequate account of Lewis has to grapple with the complex, combative and perhaps irresolvably conflicted nature of much of his work. David Wragg has risen to this challenge and produced a challenging, densely argued, but coherent book, which will make a real contribution to Lewis scholarship and larger discussions of Modernism.” – David Murray, Professor of American Studies, School of American and Canadian Studies, University Park, Nottingham

“I am more than happy to write a letter of recommendation for David Wragg’s remarkable book. This book demanded to be written. It has long been apparent that Lewis’s work opens upon contemporary theoretical concerns, but no critic had succeeded in establishing the groundwork from which the necessary critique could be written. By working out of the concept of Enlightenment, its aporias and its critics, Wragg has theorised Lewis’s work down to 1930 in a discussion of substance that will have lasting significance for our understanding of modernism and modernity. This is a demanding work, particularly at the outset, but it is structured carefully … This book has a future. It is an undoubtedly important contribution to Lewis criticism, and will have lasting value.” – Alan Munton, Senior Research Fellow in English, University of Plymouth at Exmouth

Table of Contents

List of Plates
A Note on Method
Art and the problem of Enlightenment – Introductory Signposts
1. ‘Wild’ Bodies’
2. The Aporias of Vorticsm
3. Provisional Narratives
4. Art in the 1920s
5. Sociology, Philosophy: Art and the Politics of Isolation
6. Towards a Conclusion

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