EVERY STUDY OF MODERN ART OR LITERATURE, right at the outset, poses for itself the awkward problem of defining what “modernity” actually means. Does it have to do with a particular chapter in human history, or does it concern human sensibility across the ages? Is there a modern way of doing things—of making paintings, writing novels, building cities? Or is modernity only a matter of perception, a way of seeing things? Perhaps it is a bit of both.
Part of the modernist project in twentieth-century Europe—with figures such as Pablo Picasso and TS Eliot at its helm—involved, simultaneously, locating the modern element in ancient poetry and traditional tribal art, and recontextualising it in the present: in the here and now of modernity. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ was a faithful enactment of this modernist outlook, with intermingling echoes—many of them verbatim—of Homer, Ovid, the Bible and the Upanishads. The great poem is like a monument composed of bits and pieces of other monuments. This may be the manner Picasso had in mind when he defined modern art as a sum of destructions—and the title of Eliot’s poem is uncannily in keeping with this definition.
The modern mind feeds on this sort of haphazard cultural transaction. It has a tendency to establish seamless links: between Ovid’s poetry and the Upanishads, for instance; or, as in Picasso’s case, between the dissimilar aesthetics of the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, the Spanish Renaissance artist El Greco and the tribal mask-makers of Africa. To Western modernists, looking to the Orient or Africa for creative inspiration couldn’t have caused any anxiety about borrowing from outside the domain of one’s own heritage. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the European artistic tradition prided itself on being cosmopolitan. Cultural appropriation was considered a very modern trait. It still is.