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Joan Oleza

The Case of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez URL:

The business of writing.  Blasco Ibáñez against the paradox of the modern artist

From the very beginning of Modern Age a realm of knowledge and production of the aesthetic has been built with the intention of settling apart from the laws of market created by the process of economic and social modernization. The German romantics will propose the artist as a guardian of spirituality, a Brahmin, like a being from a different and privileged caste, always in war with the world of prose, which is dominated by money and bureaucracy, and articulates by the principle of utility (utilitarianism was an expression used in the 19th century). But during Post-romanticism; in parallel to the process of dissemination and consolidation of modern capitalism that produced a new liberal society and a new leading class, the bourgeoisie; the different aesthetic movements and trends in both art (mainly painting) and literature, try to set an autonomous field of activity and cultural production fully differentiated from the fields of production and utility, a field governed exclusively by legitimacy and the principles of aesthetics: this is what Hegel in philosophy or Gautier, Baudelaire and Flaubert in literature begin calling art for the sake of art, or pure art. It is then  when a conception appears that is generalized in Modernity: the artist that must be distinctive from the common man in his convictions and actions (and identifies with different figures: the priest of beauty, the ivory tower, the dandy, the cursed artist, the bohemian…),  the idea that art (or literature) cannot be valued by the market, and its laws cannot be subject to the same as the those of the market, but to the exclusive values of the own artist and exclusive artistic laws. Meanwhile there is a basic enemy, the bourgeoisie or Philistine, confronted against the artist due to his materialist rudeness, his focus on utility, and his desire for wealth.

Regardless of the fact that many artist in the second half of the 19th century tried to highlight what the new liberal society could provide to the writers and artist; this is the case of Zola , the first one to proclaim that money liberated the artist from the slavery of patronage making him a free worker; and despite the fact that intellectuals in general, and writers and artists in particular, started gaining benefit from the professionalization allowed by the new social organization of culture, the concept that art and artists are the counterpoint of society in general, and the market values and administration of capital in particular, does not disappear. This produces a paradox, assumed to one degree or another depending on the biographic differences, which I have come to name the modern artist paradox: artists and writers living more and more like a professionals, in many cases even like bourgeoisie, extracting profit from their works, but a the same time considering themselves like a sort of priest from a private cult exclusively reserved for the spiritual elite. Being in favour of the aesthetic values of Modernity (change, experimentation, the constant change of shapes, the basic value of what is new and original, the absolute freedom of art, the specialization of the artist on the conscious and reflective use of the tools, etc.), but still an enemy of Modernity itself (the rational and bureaucratic State, the capitalist business, the market’s definition of life’s economy, the rapid development of technology that is considered inhuman, the individual being subject to more and more detailed and normalized laws, etc.), which translates into the paradox of being a modernist and an antimodernist at the same time. The most progressive German philosophical thinking, which derives from Kant (who divided culture into three realms: the beautiful, the useful and the truth) and Hegel (poetry in opposition to the prose of life), going through Adorno, Benjamin and Horkhweimer, and all the way to Marcuse or Habermas, widely developed the nature of this contraposition. Habermas for example, stated that the realm of the aesthetic was a realm of compensation, opposite to the rest that are imposed to the individual especially the dominant effect of economy and the modern state in life. Aesthetics is an area of sublimation, of satisfactions impossible to reach in a practical life, a place where the individual reconciles with nature, where creation is the liberating answer to the submission of modern citizens.

This contradiction is specially present in the generation of artists from the end of the century, the generation appointed as Modernists or Generation of '98 depending on the author, where Blasco Ibáñez breaks not from an illustrated class, a class that had adopted and elaborated the concept of autonomous social beauty, but from a small bourgeoisie anxious to have a leading role  in the new democratic societies that have assimilated the potential power of all the modern masses around the World. Blasco uses Zola as a starting point being strictly loyal, and very public, to the concept of the writer’s emancipation thanks to money. Not only he aimed at earning wealth with literature, but also to make his literature a useful tool for civil society. Not only he wanted to become a thinker for the Spanish republican masses, but he also wanted to become a businessman of culture applying capitalist principles. This is the reason why he led a number of business initiatives (El Pueblo newspaper, Prometeo… publishing) and managed as an employer his own writing labour force. Through his letters we can contemplate him like this, while his works of fiction show us this world and its values. His passing through Spanish literature was thus irreverent and provocative in regards to the ideas deeply accepted by other contemporary writers (from Azorín, Unamuno or Baroja, to Ortega or Gabriel Miró and even someone like Max Aub who could be closer to his experiences, but not to his convictions, due to having a similar social origin), which lead to an increasingly hostile isolation in contemporary literature. His exit from Spain, his Argentinean adventure, his work for North American cinema, his life in the French Riviera, and his more mature works, made him the prototype of the bourgeois writer producing a despised literature for the market. Blasco was never an antimodernist modernist, but attempted to me modernist in all senses even if cost him an irreconcilable enmity with his colleagues.

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