Matei Calinescu's _The Five Faces of Modernity_ is an impressive intellectual history of five concepts central to aesthetics (i.e. the theory and philosophy of art) in the past two centuries-- the concepts of 'modernism', 'the avant-garde', 'decadence', 'kitsch', and 'postmodernism'. After an introductory discussion on the concept of 'modernity' itself, each of these concepts, or 'faces of modernity' is discussed in detail. This discussion generally includes an account of the word's origins and changes in its usage, close readings of important texts that used these concepts in exemplary or revolutionary ways, and a critical analysis of the assumptions that underly the term's application to aesthetics. Throughout, Calinescu ranges quite broadly in his scope, drawing upon texts from throughout Europe and the Americas (both North and South).
Calinescu's account is far too rich and complex to summarize here, but on the whole, the history of aesthetic thought he provides is based on solid research, compelling analysis, and insightful observation. In the process, he makes some astute, and rather surprising observations about how these aesthetic terms were initially used to describe politics or social thought, and only came to be applied to aesthetics later (this is especially true with 'avant-garde')-- yet, their aesthetic application is fundamentally shaped by their earlier social-political associations.
Although this book is quite solid, I do feel that it has some shortcomings that can't be ignored. First and foremost among these is that Calinescu's bizarre characterization of Romanticism. The Romantics, he rightly noted, were crucial in the development of modern aesthetics-- and in the notions of modernism, the avant-garde, and decadence in particular. However, his account of Romanticism is one that I simply do not recognize-- basically reducing it (somewhat inaccurately, I would add) to "the relativization of beauty" and the abandonment of the notion of eternal, transcendent truths or ideals. Part of the problem here is that Calinescu limits his discussion of Romanticism to France, focussing on Chateaubriand, Stendahl, and Hugo. If he had discussed the major German Romantic thinkers or the British Romantic poets, this account of Romanticism (and the role he assigns to it in developing a concept of 'modernity') simply could not stand.
The second main shortcoming of the book is that it focuses overwhelmingly on literary art. Painting and other forms of art are discussed a little bit in some of the chapters (particularly in the one on kitsch), but for the most part, Calinescu's book focuses on prose and poetry-- not on the visual arts (or still less on music). I think his account of some of these concepts (particularly 'modernism' and 'avant-garde') wuld have been greatly improved by considering them.
Still, those criticisms are relatively minor-- this is a great book and an important one on this subject. Highly recommended to intellectual historians, art historians, and those who are interested in a good 'history of ideas' account of these five aesthetic concepts.