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"Ever since the mid-19th century, the culture of modernity has been characterized by a volatile relationship between high art and mass culture. . . . Modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture." --After the Great Divide (1986) by Andreas Huyssen, p. vi

"The rise of cinema and "moving pictures" in the first decade of the 20th century gave the modern movement an art form which was uniquely its own." --Sholem Stein, Dec 2004

"Pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the postmodern first took shape, and from the beginning until today, the most significant trends within postmodernism have challenged modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture." --After the Great Divide (1986) by Andreas Huyssen, p. 188

"What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century [19th century]. And rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and maybe with Flaubert too, in prose fiction."--"The Notion of 'Postmodern'" (1980) by Clement Greenberg

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons; Technology cannot exist without the potential for accidents. For example, the invention of the locomotive also entailed the invention of derailment and French philosopoher Paul Virilio sees the accident as a negative growth of social positivism and scientific progress.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons; Technology cannot exist without the potential for accidents. For example, the invention of the locomotive also entailed the invention of derailment and French philosopoher Paul Virilio sees the accident as a negative growth of social positivism and scientific progress.
"Machines for living:" for various critics, including Tom Wolfe, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project illustrated both the essential unlivability of Bauhaus-inspired box architecture, and the hubris of central planning.
"Machines for living:" for various critics, including Tom Wolfe, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project illustrated both the essential unlivability of Bauhaus-inspired box architecture, and the hubris of central planning.
Cover of the catalogue of the Nazi "Degenerate Art Exhibition" (1937). The exhibition was held to defame modern and Jewish artists. On the cover is Der Neue Mensch sculpture by Otto Freundlich.
Cover of the catalogue of the Nazi "Degenerate Art Exhibition" (1937). The exhibition was held to defame modern and Jewish artists. On the cover is Der Neue Mensch sculpture by Otto Freundlich.
French art critic Charles Baudelaire(1821 – 1867)
French art critic Charles Baudelaire(1821 – 1867)
Extreme close-up from the movie "The Big Swallow" (1901), produced and directed by James Williamson (1855-1933), see film and modernism
Extreme close-up from the movie "The Big Swallow" (1901), produced and directed by James Williamson (1855-1933), see film and modernism
This page Modernism is part of the cultural movement series. Illustration: Black Square (1915) by Kazimir Malevich
This page Modernism is part of the cultural movement series.
Illustration: Black Square (1915) by Kazimir Malevich

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Modernism is a artistic and cultural movement which has its roots in mid-19th century France and is marked by new forms of art, architecture, music and literature emerging in the decades before 1914 as artists rejected 19th century artistic traditions such as romanticism.

High modernism is the golden age of modernism. It peaked from 1910 to 1930.

In music, it was characterized by atonality, in architecture by the lack of ornament, in literature by the stream of consciousness technique, plotlessness and the lack of chronological narrative and finally, in the visual arts by lack of representation and figuration. Generally, Modernists celebrated novelty and innovation and shunned mass culture.

Some see Modernism as an ongoing development (Richard Kostelanetz), others (Stephen Bayley and John Carey) as a distinct era of ephemeral taste. It can be argued that architectural modernism died with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings in 1972, design-modernism died in 1981 with the formation of the Memphis Design Group.

Ends when postmodernism starts.

Compare modern and modernity.



Modernism is a tendency rooted in the idea that the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life had become outdated; therefore it was essential to sweep them aside. In this it drew on previous revolutionary movements, including liberalism and communism. Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was "holding back" progress, and replacing it with new, and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end. In essence, the modernist movement argued that the new realities of the industrial and mechanized age were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their world view to accept that the new equaled the good, the true and the beautiful.

See: neophilia


Beginnings: the 19th century

Romanticism was, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a revolt against the effects of the Industrial Revolution and bourgeois values, while emphasizing individual, subjective experience, the sublime, and the supremacy of "Nature", as subjects for art, and revolutionary, or radical extensions of expression, and individual liberty. While J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), one the greatest landscape painters of the 19th century, was a member of the Romantic movement, he anticipated the French Impressionists with works such as Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway.

By mid-century, however, a synthesis of the ideas of Romanticism with more stable political ideas had emerged, partly in reaction to the failed Romantic and democratic Revolutions of 1848. It was exemplified by Otto von Bismarck's Realpolitik and by the "practical" philosophical ideas of Auguste Comte's positivism. This stabilizing synthesis of the Realist political and Romantic aesthetic ideology, was called by various names: in Great Britain it is the Victorian era. Central to this synthesis were common assumptions and institutional frames of reference, including the religious norms found in Christianity, scientific norms found in classical physics, as well as the idea that the depiction of external reality from an objective standpoint was not only possible but desirable. Cultural critics and historians called this ideology realism, although this term is not universal. In philosophy, the rationalist, materialist and positivist movements established the primacy of reason.

Against this current, however, ran another series of ideas, some of which were a direct continuation of Romantic schools of thought. Amongst those who followed these ideas were the English poets and painters that constituted the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who, from about 1850, opposed the dominant trend of industrial Victorian England, because of their opposition to positivism without inspiration. They were influenced by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who had strong feelings about the role of art in helping to improve the lives of the urban working classes, in the rapidly expanding industrial cities of Britain. Clement Greenberg describes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as proto-Modernists: "There the proto-Modernists were, of all people, the pre-Raphaelites (and even before them, as proto-proto-Modernists, the German Nazarenes. The Pre-Raphaelites actually foretold Manet (with whom Modernist painting most definitely begins). They acted on a dissatisfaction with painting as practiced in their time, holding that its realism wasn't truthful enough". Rationalism has also had other opponents later in the 19th century. In particular, reaction to the philosopher Hegel's (1770–1831) ) dialectic view of civilization and history from Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and later in the 19th century Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1913). Together these different reactions, challenged the comforting ideas of certainty derived from a belief in civilization, history, or pure reason.

Indeed from the 1870s onward, the idea that history and civilization were inherently progressive, and that progress was always good (and had no sharp breaks), came under increasing attack. The composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) (Der Ring des Nibelungen, 1853–70) and playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) were prominent in their critiques of contemporary civilization and for warnings that accelerating "progress" would lead to the creation of individuals detached from social values and isolated from their fellow men. Arguments arose that the values of the artist and those of society were not merely different, but that Society was antithetical to Progress, and could not move forward in its present form. In addition the philosopher Schopenhauer (1788–1860) (The World as Will and Idea, 1819) called into question the previous optimism, and his ideas had an important influence on later thinkers, including Nietzsche.

Two of the most significant thinkers of the period were biologist Charles Darwin (1809–82), author of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), and political scientist Karl Marx (1818–83), author of Das Kapital (1867). Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined religious certainty and the idea of human uniqueness. In particular, the notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality. Karl Marx argued that there were fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system, and that the workers were anything but free. Both thinkers were major influences on the development of modernism. This is not to say that all modernists, or modernist movements rejected either religion, or all aspects of Enlightenment thought, rather that Modernism questioned the axioms of the previous age.

Historians, and writers in different disciplines, have suggested various dates as starting points for modernism. William Everdell, for example, has argued that Modernism began in the 1870s, when metaphorical (or ontological) continuity began to yield to the discrete with mathematician Richard Dedekind's (1831–1916) Dedekind cut, and Ludwig Boltzmann's (1844–1906) statistical thermodynamics. Everdell also thinks Modernism in painting began in 1885-86 with Seurat's Divisionism, the "dots" used to paint "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." On the other hand Clement Greenberg called Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) "the first real Modernist", though he also wrote, "What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century—and rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and perhaps with Flaubert, too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture)." (1979 "Modern and Postmodern") And cabaret, which gave birth to so many of the arts of modernism, may be said to have begun in France in 1881 with the opening of the Black Cat in Montmartre, the beginning of the ironic monologue, and the founding of the Society of Incoherent Arts.

The beginning of the 20th century marked the first time a movement in the arts was described as "avant-garde"—a term previously used in military and political contexts, which remained to describe movements which identify themselves as attempting to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo. Much later Surrealism gained the fame among the public of being the most extreme form of modernism.

Separately, in the arts and letters, two important approaches developed in France. The first was impressionism, a school of painting that initially focused on work done, not in studios, but outdoors (en plein air). Impressionist paintings demonstrated that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. The school gathered adherents despite internal divisions among its leading practitioners, and became increasingly influential. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time, the government-sponsored Paris Salon, the Impressionists organized yearly group exhibitions in commercial venues during the 1870s and 1880s, timing them to coincide with the official Salon. A significant event of 1863 was the Salon des Refusés, created by Emperor Napoleon III to display all of the paintings rejected by the Paris Salon. While most were in standard styles, but by inferior artists, the work of Manet attracted tremendous attention, and opened commercial doors to the movement.

The second French school was Symbolism, which literary historians see beginning with the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) (Les fleurs du mal, 1857), and including the later poets, Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91), Paul Verlaine (1844–96), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), and Paul Valéry (1871–1945).

The economic upheaval of the late nineteenth century become the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and thinking. Influential innovations included steam-powered industrialization, and especially the development of railways, starting in Britain in the 1830s, and the subsequent advancements in physics, engineering and architecture associated with this. A major 19th-century engineering achievement was The Crystal Palace, the huge cast-iron and plate glass exhibition hall built for The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Glass and iron were used in a similar monumental style in the construction of major railway terminals in London, such as Paddington Station (1854) and King's Cross Station (1852). These technological advances led to the building of later structures like the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) and the Eiffel Tower (1889). The latter broke all previous limitations on how tall man-made objects could be. These engineering marvels radically altered the 19th-century urban environment and the daily lives of people.

The human misery of crowded industrial cities, as well as, on the other hand, the new possibilities created by science, brought changes that shook European civilization, which had, until then, regarded itself as having a continuous and progressive line of development from the Renaissance. Furthermore the human experience of time itself was altered, with the development of electric telegraph from 1837, and the adoption of standard time by British railway companies from 1845, and in the rest of the world over the next fifty years.

The changes that took place at the beginning of the 20th-century are emphasized by the fact that many modern disciplines, including sciences such as physics, mathematics, neuroscience and economics, and arts such as ballet and architecture, call their pre-20th century forms classical.

Late 19th to early 20th centuries

In the 1880s a strand of thinking began to assert that it was necessary to push aside previous norms entirely, instead of merely revising past knowledge in light of contemporary techniques. The growing movement in art paralleled developments in physics, such as Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (1905); innovations in industry, such as the development of the internal combustion engine; and the increased role of the social sciences in public policy. Indeed it was argued that, if the nature of reality itself was in question, and if previous restrictions which had been in place around human activity were dissolving, then art, too, would have to radically change. Thus, in the first twenty years of the 20th century many writers, thinkers, and artists broke with the traditional means of organizing literature, painting, and music; the results were abstract art, atonal music, and the stream of consciousness technique in the novel.

Influential in the early days of Modernism were the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and Ernst Mach (1838–1916). Mach argued, beginning in the 1880s with The Science of Mechanics (1883), that the mind had a fundamental structure, and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of parts of the mind. Freud's first major work was Studies on Hysteria (with Josef Breuer) (1895). According to Freud's ideas, all subjective reality was based on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived. As a philosopher of science Ernst Mach was a major influence on logical positivism, and through his criticism of Isaac Newton, a forerunner of Einstein's theory of relativity. According to these ideas of Mach, the relations of objects in nature were not guaranteed but known only through a sort of mental shorthand. This represented a break with the past, in that previously it was believed that external and absolute reality could impress itself, as it was, on an individual, as, for example, in John Locke's (1632–1704) empiricism, which saw the mind beginning as a tabula rasa (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690). Freud's description of subjective states, involving an unconscious mind full of primal impulses, and counterbalancing self-imposed restrictions, was combined by Carl Jung (1875–1961) with the idea of the collective unconscious, with which the conscious mind fought or embraced. While Charles Darwin's work remade the aristotelian concept of "man, the animal" in the public mind, Jung suggested that human impulses toward breaking social norms were not the product of childishness, or ignorance, but rather derived from the essential nature of the human animal.

Friedrich Nietzsche was another major precursor of modernism with a philosophy in which psychological drives, specifically the 'Will to power', were more important than facts, or things. Henri Bergson (1859–1941), on the other hand, emphasized the difference between scientific, clock time and the direct, subjective, human experience of time. His work on time and consciousness influenced twentieth-century novelists, especially those modernists who used the stream of consciousness technique, such as Dorothy Richardson, Pointed Roofs, (1915), James Joyce, Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927). Also important in Bergson's philosophy was the idea of élan vital, the life force. His philosophy also placed a high value on intuition, though without rejecting the importance of the intellect. These various thinkers were united by a distrust of Victorian positivism and certainty.

Out of this collision of ideals derived from Romanticism, and an attempt to find a way for knowledge to explain that which was as yet unknown, came the first wave of works, which, while their authors considered them extensions of existing trends in art, broke the implicit contract with the general public that artists were the interpreters and representatives of bourgeois culture and ideas. These "modernist" landmarks include the atonal ending of Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in 1908, the expressionist paintings of Wassily Kandinsky starting in 1903 and culminating with his first abstract painting and the founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich in 1911, and the rise of fauvism and the inventions of cubism from the studios of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and others in the years between 1900 and 1910.

Important literary precursors of Modernism were: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) (Crime and Punishment (1866), The Brothers Karamazov (1880); Walt Whitman (1819–92) (Leaves of Grass) (1855–91); Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) (Les fleurs du mal), Rimbaud (1854–91) (Illuminations, 1874); August Strindberg (1849–1912), especially his later plays, including, the trilogy To Damascus 1898–1901, A Dream Play (1902), The Ghost Sonata (1907).

This modern movement broke with the past in the first three decades of the 20th century, and radically redefined various art forms. The following is a list of significant literary figures between 1900-1930 (though it includes a number whose careers extended beyond 1930):


Explosion, 1910–1930

On the eve of the First World War a growing tension and unease with the social order, already seen in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the agitation of "radical" parties, also manifested itself in artistic works in every medium which radically simplified or rejected previous practice. Young painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were causing a shock with their rejection of traditional perspective as the means of structuring paintings—a step that none of the impressionists, not even Cézanne, had taken. In 1907, as Picasso was painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Oskar Kokoschka was writing Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, Hope of Women), the first Expressionist play (produced with scandal in 1909), and Arnold Schoenberg was composing his String Quartet No.2 in F-sharp minor.

Cubism was brought to the attention of the general public for the first time in 1911 at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris (held 21 April – 13 June). Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and Roger de la Fresnaye were shown together in Room 41, provoking a 'scandal' out of which Cubism emerged and spread throughout Paris and beyond. Also in 1911, Kandinsky painted Bild mit Kreis (Picture With a Circle) which he later called the first abstract painting.

In 1912 Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes wrote the first (and only) major Cubist manifesto, Du "Cubisme", published in time for the Salon de la Section d'Or, the largest Cubist exhibition to date. In 1912 Metzinger painted and exhibited his enchanting La Femme au Cheval (Woman with a horse) and Danseuse au café (Dancer in a café). Albert Gleizes painted and exhibited his Les Baigneuses (The Bathers) and his monumental Le Dépiquage des Moissons (Harvest Threshing). This work, along with La Ville de Paris (City of Paris) by Robert Delaunay, is the largest and most ambitious Cubist painting undertaken during the pre-War Cubist period.

In 1913—the year of Edmund Husserl's Ideas, Niels Bohr's quantized atom, Ezra Pound's founding of imagism, the Armory Show in New York, and, in Saint Petersburg, the first "futurist opera," Victory Over the Sun—another Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, working in Paris for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, composed The Rite of Spring for a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that depicted human sacrifice.

These developments began to give a new meaning to what was termed "modernism": It embraced discontinuity, rejecting smooth change in everything from biology to fictional character development and filmmaking. It approved disruption, rejecting or moving beyond simple realism in literature and art, and rejecting or dramatically altering tonality in music. This set modernists apart from 19th-century artists, who had tended to believe not only in smooth change ("evolutionary" rather than "revolutionary") but also in the progressiveness of such change—"progress". Writers like Dickens and Tolstoy, painters like Turner, and musicians like Brahms were not radicals or "Bohemians", but were instead valued members of society who produced art that added to society, even when critiquing its less desirable aspects. Modernism, while still "progressive", increasingly saw traditional forms and traditional social arrangements as hindering progress, and therefore recast the artist as a revolutionary, overthrowing rather than enlightening.

Futurism exemplifies this trend. In 1909, the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro published F.T. Marinetti's first manifesto. Soon afterward a group of painters (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini) co-signed the Futurist Manifesto. Modeled on the famous "Communist Manifesto" of the previous century, such manifestoes put forward ideas that were meant to provoke and to gather followers. Strongly influenced by Bergson and Nietzsche, Futurism was part of the general trend of Modernist rationalization of disruption.

Modernist philosophy and art were still viewed as only a part of the larger social movement. Artists such as Klimt and Cézanne, and composers such as Mahler and Richard Strauss were "the terrible moderns"—those more avant-garde were more heard of than heard. Polemics in favor of geometric or purely abstract painting were largely confined to "little magazines" (like The New Age in the UK) with tiny circulations. Modernist primitivism and pessimism were controversial, but were not seen as representative of the Edwardian mainstream, which was more inclined towards a Victorian faith in progress and liberal optimism. Modernist art style derived from the influences of Cubism, most notably the work of Picasso. Modernist art was all about fragmentation versus order, the abstract and the symbolic. The newfound 'machine aesthetic' contradicted the old romantic, traditional styles, instead focusing on sharp lines, multi-facets and the lack of a human element.

However, the Great War and its subsequent events were the cataclysmic upheavals that late 19th-century artists such as Brahms had worried about, and avant-gardists had embraced. First, the failure of the previous status quo seemed self-evident to a generation that had seen millions die fighting over scraps of earth—prior to the war, it had been argued that no one would fight such a war, since the cost was too high. Second, the birth of a machine age changed the conditions of life—machine warfare became a touchstone of the ultimate reality. Finally, the immensely traumatic nature of the experience dashed basic assumptions: realism seemed bankrupt when faced with the fundamentally fantastic nature of trench warfare, as exemplified by books such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Moreover, the view that mankind was making slow and steady moral progress came to seem ridiculous in the face of the senseless slaughter. The First World War fused the harshly mechanical geometric rationality of technology with the nightmarish irrationality of myth.

Thus Modernism, which had been a minority taste before the war, came to define the 1920s. It appeared in Europe in such critical movements as Dada and then in constructive movements such as surrealism, as well as in smaller movements such as the Bloomsbury Group, which included British novelists Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. Again, impressionism was a precursor: breaking with the idea of national schools, artists and writers adopted ideas of international movements. Surrealism, cubism, Bauhaus, and Leninism are all examples of movements that rapidly found adopters far beyond their geographic origins.

Each of these "modernisms," as some observers labelled them at the time, stressed new methods to produce new results. The poet Ezra Pound's 1934 injunction to "Make it new!" was paradigmatic of the movement's approach towards the obsolete.

Exhibitions, theatre, cinema, books and buildings all served to cement in the public view the perception that the world was changing. Hostile reaction often followed, as paintings were spat upon, riots organized at the opening of works, and political figures denounced Modernism as unwholesome and immoral. At the same time, the 1920s were known as the "Jazz Age", and the public showed considerable enthusiasm for cars, air travel, the telephone and other technological advances.

By 1930, Modernism won a place in the establishment, including the political and artistic establishment, although by this time Modernism itself had changed. There was a general reaction in the 1920s against the pre-1918 Modernism, which emphasized its continuity with a past while rebelling against it, and against the aspects of that period which seemed excessively mannered, irrational, and emotionalistic. The post-World War period, at first, veered either to systematization or nihilism and had, as perhaps its most paradigmatic movement, Dada.

While some writers attacked the madness of the new Modernism, others described it as soulless and mechanistic. Among modernists there were disputes about the importance of the public, the relationship of art to audience, and the role of art in society. Modernism comprised a series of sometimes contradictory responses to the situation as it was understood, and the attempt to wrestle universal principles from it. In the end science and scientific rationality, often taking models from the 18th-century Enlightenment, came to be seen as the source of logic and stability, while the basic primitive sexual and unconscious drives, along with the seemingly counter-intuitive workings of the new machine age, were taken as the basic emotional substance. From these two seemingly incompatible poles, modernists began to fashion a complete weltanschauung that could encompass every aspect of life.

Modernism: 1930–1945

By 1930, Modernism had entered popular culture. With the increasing urbanization of populations, it was beginning to be looked to as the source for ideas to deal with the challenges of the day. As Modernism was studied in universities, it was developing a self-conscious theory of its own importance. Popular culture, which was not derived from high culture but instead from its own realities (particularly mass production) fueled much modernist innovation. By 1930 The New Yorker magazine began publishing new and modern ideas by young writers and humorists like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, E. B. White, S. J. Perelman, and James Thurber, amongst others. Modern ideas in art appeared in commercials and logos, the famous London Underground logo, designed by Edward Johnston in 1919, being an early example of the need for clear, easily recognizable and memorable visual symbols.

Another strong influence at this time was Marxism. After the generally primitivistic/irrationalist aspect of pre-World War I Modernism, which for many modernists precluded any attachment to merely political solutions, and the neoclassicism of the 1920s, as represented most famously by T. S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky—which rejected popular solutions to modern problems—the rise of Fascism, the Great Depression, and the march to war helped to radicalise a generation. The Russian Revolution of 1917 catalyzed the fusion of political radicalism and utopianism, with more expressly political stances. Bertolt Brecht, W. H. Auden, André Breton, Louis Aragon and the philosophers Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin are perhaps the most famous exemplars of this modernist form of Marxism. This move to the radical left, however, was neither universal, nor definitional, and there is no particular reason to associate modernism, fundamentally, with 'the left'. Modernists explicitly of 'the right' include Salvador Dalí, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, the Dutch author Menno ter Braak and others.

One of the most visible changes of this period was the adoption of new technologies into daily life of ordinary people. Electricity, the telephone, the radio, the automobile—and the need to work with them, repair them and live with them—created social change. The kind of disruptive moment that only a few knew in the 1880s became a common occurrence. For example, the speed of communication reserved for the stock brokers of 1890 became part of family life, at least in North America. Associated with urbanization and changing social mores also came smaller families and changed relationships between parents and their children.

Significant modernist literary works continued to be created in the 1920s and 1930s, including further novels by Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, and Dorothy Richardson. The American modernist dramatist Eugene O'Neill's, career began in 1914, but his major works appeared in the 1920s and 1930s and early 1940s. Two other significant modernist dramatists writing in the 1920s and 1930s were Bertolt Brecht and Federico García Lorca. D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was privately published in 1928, while another important landmark for the history of the modern novel came with the publication of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in 1929. In the 1930s, in addition to further major works by Faulkner, Samuel Beckett's published his first major work, the novel Murphy (1938). Then in 1939 James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake appeared. In poetry T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Wallace Stevens were writing from the 1920s until the 1950s. While modernist poetry in English is often viewed as an American phenomenon, with leading exponents including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky, there were important British modernist poets, including David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting, and W. H. Auden. European modernist poets include Federico García Lorca, Anna Akhmatova, Constantine Cavafy, and Paul Valéry.

Criticisms of modernism

The most controversial aspect of the modern movement was, and remains, its rejection of tradition. Modernism's stress on freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism disregards conventional expectations. In many art forms this often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects, as in the strange and disturbing combinations of motifs in surrealism or the use of extreme dissonance and atonality in modernist music. In literature this often involved the rejection of intelligible plots or characterization in novels, or the creation of poetry that defied clear interpretation.

After the rise of Stalin, the Soviet Communist government rejected modernism on the grounds of alleged elitism, although it had previously endorsed futurism and constructivism. The Nazi government of Germany deemed modernism narcissistic and nonsensical, as well as "Jewish" and "Negro" (see Anti-semitism). The Nazis exhibited modernist paintings alongside works by the mentally ill in an exhibition entitled Degenerate Art. Accusations of "formalism" could lead to the end of a career, or worse. For this reason many modernists of the post-war generation felt that they were the most important bulwark against totalitarianism, the "canary in the coal mine," whose repression by a government or other group with supposed authority represented a warning that individual liberties were being threatened. Louis A. Sass compared madness, specifically schizophrenia, and modernism in a less fascist manner by noting their shared disjunctive narratives, surreal images, and incoherence.

In fact, modernism flourished mainly in consumer/capitalist societies, despite the fact that its proponents often rejected consumerism itself. However, high modernism began to merge with consumer culture after World War II, especially during the 1960s. In Britain, a youth sub-culture emerged calling itself "modernist" (usually shortened to Mod), following such representative music groups as The Who and The Kinks. The likes of Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg and The Rolling Stones combined popular musical traditions with modernist verse, adopting literary devices derived from James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, James Thurber, T. S. Eliot, Guillaume Apollinaire, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The Beatles developed along similar lines, creating various modernist musical effects on several albums, while musicians such as Frank Zappa, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart proved even more experimental. Modernist devices also started to appear in popular cinema, and later on in music videos. Modernist design also began to enter the mainstream of popular culture, as simplified and stylized forms became popular, often associated with dreams of a space age high-tech future.

This merging of consumer and high versions of modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of "modernism". First, it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Second, it demonstrated that the distinction between elite modernist and mass consumerist culture had lost its precision. Some writers declared that modernism had become so institutionalized that it was now "post avant-garde", indicating that it had lost its power as a revolutionary movement. Many have interpreted this transformation as the beginning of the phase that became known as postmodernism. For others, such as art critic Robert Hughes, postmodernism represents an extension of modernism.

"Anti-modern" or "counter-modern" movements seek to emphasize holism, connection and spirituality as remedies or antidotes to modernism. Such movements see modernism as reductionist, and therefore subject to an inability to see systemic and emergent effects. Many modernists came to this viewpoint, for example Paul Hindemith in his late turn towards mysticism. Writers such as Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, in The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (2000), Fredrick Turner in A Culture of Hope and Lester Brown in Plan B, have articulated a critique of the basic idea of modernism itself — that individual creative expression should conform to the realities of technology. Instead, they argue, individual creativity should make everyday life more emotionally acceptable.

In some fields the effects of modernism have remained stronger and more persistent than in others. Visual art has made the most complete break with its past. Most major capital cities have museums devoted to 'Modern Art' as distinct from post-Renaissance art (circa 1400 to circa 1900). Examples include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. These galleries make no distinction between modernist and postmodernist phases, seeing both as developments within 'Modern Art'.



Tropes: alienation - fragmentation - intellectualism - non linearity - neophilia - confrontation with new media - non linearity - confrontation with mass production - confrontation with mass culture - progressive - embrace of realism - cult of ugliness

By medium: modernist architecture - modern architecture - modern art - modern design - modern literature - modernist cinema - modernist literature - modernist music - modern music - modernist timeline

Not to be confused with: modernity

Era: 1850s - 1860s - 1870s - 1880s - 1890s - 1900s - 1910s - 1920s - 1930s - 1940s - 1950s

Related: 19th century - 20th century - art nouveau (modernismo) - avant-garde - Decadent movement - high modernism - low modernism - industrial revolution - literacy - modern - modern art - new - realism - mass reproduction - Symbolist movement

Contemporary critics of modernism: Charles Baudelaire - Matthew Arnold - John Ruskin - Walter Pater

Posteriori critics of modernism: Clement Greenberg - T. J. Clark

Media and technologies: literacy - machine age - cheap newspapers - illustrated newspaper - cinema - gramophone

Preceded by: Romanticism

Followed by: Postmodernism

List of key works

See also

Further reading

Listed chronologically

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