In some ways, Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation” seems to contradict itself. As the title suggests, it reads somewhat and an “explanation” of her work and of her style as well as a defense of modernism. But reading this lecture as an explanation of her work would seem to ruin the “continuous present” that her work strives to create. Can we be in that continuous present if we are looking for meaning or trying to understand her purpose? The solution to this contradiction is perhaps that while the substance of Stein’s essay is certainly illuminating, it would be unable to really explain anything if it were not also written in her characteristic style of repetition and “using everything.” And so, as the title suggests, it is only through experiencing this style that we might begin to understand her style.
So why does Stein write as she does? What is modernism, and what is its interaction with society? Stein’s lecture provides us her answers to these questions, some of which are somewhat unsettling. Is it art for art’s sake that she is defending? Or is it progress for progress’s sake, and art for progress’s sake as well?
Pervasive in Stein’s lecture is the acknowledgement of change over time, that “each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted” (409). That is what “is” composition–Stein writes that “nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition” (407). And how does what is seen change? Stein argues that it is changes in culture and lifestyle that define what is seen, that “what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything” (407). It is for this reason that “the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic” but that the artist’s contemporaries cannot recognize the beauty of the art “as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway” (407). Thus, art and “composition” appear to be about living, it is composition according to Stein that “makes living a thing they are doing” (408).
A useful analogy can perhaps be made to history. Just as history is only “created” after the actual events have taken place, so it is perhaps that “composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here” (408). There is a disconnect between the life that people are living at a certain time, and the art that people deem classical and beautiful at that time. The art that actually “belongs” to that time is “irritating and stimulating” to its viewers because it has not yet been accepted as beautiful and they therefore cannot see its beauty (408). For Stein, there does appear to be some intrinsic beauty, purity or liberation that people pushing the boundaries of art or writing instead of just imitating the style of the past are trying to reach and some element of the aesthetic ideal of “art for art’s sake.”
The hard part of Stein’s argument to understand is how art and society interact. When she advocates for modernism, is she advocating for anything that pushes boundaries, or can there be right and wrong ways of pushing? Is all change progress, and is all progress good? Is it that what is pushing boundaries in the “right” way is what will be understood later as beautiful? This is what I would like to believe Stein meant, because it would hold artists accountable–even if it is impossible to judge their work during their time, it is possible for us to judge it afterward. However, she also argues that World War I was a particular phenomenon that enabled artists to be recognized during their own time. In forcing society to become “not only contemporary in act not only contemporary in thought but contemporary in self-consciousness,” war “made every one contemporary with the modern composition” (411). To me, war seems like exactly the kind of change that can hardly be seen as progress. And to think of it positively because it forced us to become “contemporary,” for instance by developing new military devices, seems somewhat troubling.
Regardless of whether or not you believe Stein’s argument, however, you are left with a slightly better understanding of her style because you have experienced it. She has used the repetition that defines her style, the sense of moving forward a little and then backward, and doing it over and over in order to make progress, to make you understand why she uses that repetition. And it is clear that for Stein, this is how progress occurs, both within a work and within a society, and this is what the modernism does–pushes the boundaries repeatedly, inching forward even though they receive no recognition.