by Gerald Boerner
Modernism represents the reaction to the traditional forms of artistic expression, including literature and the visual arts. There are several movements included under this umbrella classification and some of the best known writers and artists of the 20th century fall into this movement. Similarly, the concepts behind many of these trends manifest themselves in the 20th century photographers, especially those in Europe.
This is Part 1 of a 2 part series. GLB
“This grandiose tragedy that we call modern art.”
— Salvador Dali
“There is no such thing as modern art. There is art,and there is advertising.”
— Albert Sterner
“What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”
— Octavio Paz
“It is not hard to understand modern art. If it hangs on a wall it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it it’s a sculpture.”
— Tom Stoppard
“The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
— Jackson Pollock
“The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.”
— Paul Gauguin
“The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in modern art is merely romantic fiction. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.”
— Thomas Wolfe
“Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals.”
— Susan Sontag
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Artistic Style: Modernism, Part 1
Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes both a set of cultural tendencies and an array of associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world.
Modernism rejected the lingering certainty of Enlightenment thinking, and also that of the existence of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator. This is not to say that all modernists or modernist movements rejected either religion or all aspects of Enlightenment thought, rather that modernism can be viewed as a questioning of the axioms of the previous age.
A salient characteristic of modernism is self-consciousness. This often led to experiments with form, and work that draws attention to the processes and materials used (and to the further tendency of abstraction). The poet Ezra Pound’s paradigmatic injunction was to "Make it new!" Whether or not the "making new" of the modernists constituted a new historical epoch is up for debate. Philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno warns us:
"Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category. Just as it cannot be reduced to abstract form, with equal necessity it must turn its back on conventional surface coherence, the appearance of harmony, the order corroborated merely by replication."
Adorno would have us understand modernity as the rejection of the false rationality, harmony, and coherence of Enlightenment thinking, art, and music. But the past proves sticky. Pound’s general imperative to make new, and Adorno’s exhortation to challenge false coherence and harmony, faces T. S. Eliot’s emphasis on the relation of the artist to tradition. Eliot wrote:
"[W]e shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet's] work, may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously."
Literary scholar Peter Childs sums up the complexity:
"There were paradoxical if not opposed trends towards revolutionary and reactionary positions, fear of the new and delight at the disappearance of the old, nihilism and fanatical enthusiasm, creativity and despair."
These oppositions are inherent to modernism: it is in its broadest cultural sense the assessment of the past as different to the modern age, the recognition that the world was becoming more complex, and that the old "final authorities" (God, government, science, and reason) were subject to intense critical scrutiny.
Current interpretations of modernism vary. Some divide 20th century reaction into modernism and postmodernism, whereas others see them as two aspects of the same movement.
History of Modernism
The first half of the nineteenth century for Europe was marked by a number of wars and revolutions, which contributed to an aesthetic "turning away" from the realities of political and social fragmentation, and so facilitated a trend towards Romanticism: emphasis on individual subjective experience, the sublime, the supremacy of "Nature" as a subject for art, revolutionary or radical extensions of expression, and individual liberty. By mid-century, however, a synthesis of these ideas with stable governing forms 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 "practical" philosophical ideas such as positivism. Called by various names—in Great Britain it is designated the "Victorian era"—this stabilizing synthesis was rooted in the idea that reality dominates over subjective impressions.
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 and doctrines that asserted that the depiction of external reality from an objective standpoint was not only possible but desirable. Cultural critics and historians label this set of doctrines realism, though this term is not universal. In philosophy, the rationalist, materialist and positivist movements established a primacy of reason and system.
Turn of the century
In the 1890s 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 current techniques. The growing movement in art paralleled such developments as the Theory of Relativity in physics; the increasing integration of the internal combustion engine and industrialization; and the increased role of the social sciences in public policy. It was argued that, if the nature of reality itself was in question, and if restrictions which had been in place around human activity were falling, then art, too, would have to radically change. Thus, in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century a series of writers, thinkers, and artists made the break with traditional means of organizing literature, painting, and music.
Powerfully influential in this wave of modernity were the theories of Sigmund Freud and Ernst Mach, who argued, beginning in the 1880s, that the mind had a fundamental structure, and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of the parts of the mind. All subjective reality was based, according to Freud’s ideas, on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived. Ernst Mach developed a well-known philosophy of science, often called "positivism", according to which the relations of objects in nature were not guaranteed but only known 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 empiricism, with the mind beginning as a tabula rasa. Freud’s description of subjective states, involving an unconscious mind full of primal impulses and counterbalancing self-imposed restrictions, was combined by Carl Jung with a belief in natural essence to stipulate a collective unconscious that was full of basic typologies that the conscious mind fought or embraced. Darwin’s work had introduced the concept of "man, the animal" to the public mind, and Jung’s view suggested that people’s impulses toward breaking social norms were not the product of childishness or ignorance, but derived from the essential nature of the human animal.
Friedrich Nietzsche championed a philosophy in which forces, specifically the ‘Will to power’, were more important than facts or things. Similarly, the writings of Henri Bergson championed the vital ‘life force’ over static conceptions of reality. All these writers were united by a romantic distrust of Victorian positivism and certainty. Instead they championed, or, in the case of Freud, attempted to explain, irrational thought processes through the lens of rationality and holism. This was connected with the century-long trend to thinking in holistic terms, which would include an increased interest in the occult, and "the vital force".
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.
On the eve of the First World War a growing tension and unease with the social order, 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. 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 by Alexey Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov and Kasimir Malevich—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. Meanwhile, 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.
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 moviemaking. 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 sometimes while 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 farther to the avant-garde were more heard of than heard. Polemics in favour 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.
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. 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. Each of these "modernisms," as some observers labelled them at the time, stressed new methods to produce new results. 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.
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 had 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.
Second Generation, 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 gained traction in academia, 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 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 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 Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Salvador Dalí, Wyndham Lewis, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, the Dutch author Menno ter Braak and many others.
One of the most visible changes of this period was the adoption of objects of modern production into daily life. Electricity, the telephone, the automobile—and the need to work with them, repair them and live with them—created the need for new forms of manners and social life. 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.
Modernism as leading to social organization would produce inquiries into sex and the basic bondings of the nuclear, rather than extended, family. The Freudian tensions of infantile sexuality and the raising of children became more intense, because people had fewer children, and therefore a more specific relationship with each child: the theoretical, again, became the practical and even popular.
[ This is Part 1 of 2 part posting.
Please check back tomorrow for the final installment. ]
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Modern Art…
Wikipedia: History of Painting…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Think Exist: Modern Art Quotes…