Tuesday, May 22, 2007



Modernism, as a tendency, emerged in mid-nineteenth century Western

Europe. It is rooted in the idea that the "traditional" forms of art,

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become outdated; therefore it was essential to sweep them aside.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 what was new was also good and pretty.

The first half of the nineteenth century for Europe was marked by a

number of wars and revolutions, which reveal the rise of the ideas and

doctrines now identified as Romanticism: emphasis on individual

subjective experience, 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 impressions that are subjective.

Modernism can best be described, in intent, as a reaction to the seemingly harsh tradition of Victorianism,

which saw its own decay at the turn of the Twentieth century. Victorianism espoused the idea that a

singular world view was the source of truth and that ideologies revolved around clearly defined

dichotomies between good and evil, right and wrong, hero and villain. Modernism, in and of itself,

dispelled these notions. It presented antithetical movements to Victorianism (Dada, Surrealism,

Symbolism) that destroyed these previously defined divisions by presenting anti-heroic characters and

unclassifiable persons and objects or, as is common in the Imagist case, no hero at all. Through these

creations and counter-creations, one sees the revolutionary spirits, expropriations, and misappropriations

that have come to characterize Modernism. Revolution and rebellion, in this sense, is not limited to simply

attacks or criticisms of the Victorian way, but as will be seen, is applicable to all previous literary tradition.

Modernism, therefore, argues (once more against the tradition of Victorianism) that all things are relative.

While the Victorians stressed clear views, Modernism not only presents opposite views but also different

ways of interpreting the views presented; no longer did an author or poet necessarily enforce strict

viewpoints or even singular viewpoints ("Modernism - a Working Definition"). With these two major

tenets in mind, it is that this essay proposes that Modernism is simply a revolution against literary tradition.

Goals of Modernism

Many modernists believed that by rejecting tradition they could discover

radically new ways of making art. Arnold Schoenberg believed that by

rejecting traditional tonal harmony, the hierarchical system of

organizing works of music which had guided music making for at least a

century and a half, and perhaps longer, he had discovered a wholly new

way of organizing sound, based in the use of twelve-note rows (See

Twelve-tone technique). This led to what is known as serial music by the

post-war period.

From the 1870s onward, the ideas that history and civilization were

inherently progressive and that progress was always good came under

increasing attack. Writers Wagner and Ibsen had been reviled for their

own critiques of contemporary civilization and for their warnings that

accelerating "progress" would lead to the creation of individuals

detached from social norms and isolated from their fellow men. Arguments

arose that not merely were the values of the artist and those of society

different, but that Society was antithetical to Progress, and could not

move forward in its present form. Philosophers called into question the

previous optimism. The work of Schopenhauer was labelled "pessimistic"

for its idea of the "negation of the will", an idea that would be both

rejected and incorporated by later thinkers such as Nietzsche.

Two of the most disruptive thinkers of the period were, in biology,

Charles Darwin and, in political science, Karl Marx. Darwin's theory of

evolution by natural selection undermined religious certainty of the

general public, and the sense of human uniqueness of the intelligentsia.

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 seemed to present a political version

of the same proposition: that problems with the economic order were not

transient, the result of specific wrong doers or temporary conditions,

but were fundamentally contradictions within the "capitalist" system.

Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would

become decisive in establishing modernism.

Separately, in the arts and letters, two ideas originating in France

would have particular impact. The first was Impressionism, a school of

painting that initially focused on work done, not in studios, but


The second school was Symbolism, marked by a belief that language is

expressly symbolic in its nature and a portrail of patrotism, and that

poetry and writing should follow connections that the sheer sound and

texture of the words create. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé would be of

particular importance to what would occur afterwards.

At the same time social, political, and economic forces were at work that

would become the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and

thinking. Chief among these was steam-powered industrialization, which

produced buildings that combined art and engineering in new industrial

materials such as cast iron to produce railroad bridges and

glass-and-iron train sheds- or the Eiffel Tower, which broke all previous

limitations on how tall man-made objects could be- and at the same time

offered a radically different environment in urban life. The miseries of industrial urbanism, and the

possibilities created by scientific examination of subjects brought changes that would shake a

European civilization which had, until then, regarded itself as having a

continuous and progressive line of development from the Renaissance. With

the telegraph's harnessing of a new power, offering instantaneity at a

distance, the experience of time itself was altered.

William Everdell has argued that Modernism began with Richard

Dedekind's division of the real number line in 1872 and Boltzmann's

statistical thermodynamics in 1874; but Clement Greenberg 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)."[1] The "avant-garde" was what Modernism was called at

first, and the term remained to describe movements which identify

themselves as attempting to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the

status quo.

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.

Sigmund Freud offered a view of subjective states involving an

unconscious mind full of primal impulses and counterbalancing

self-imposed restrictions, a view that Carl Jung would combine with a

belief in natural essence to stipulate a collective unconscious that was

full of basic typologies that the conscious mind fought or embraced.

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. What united all these

writers was a romantic distrust of the 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

terms of holistic ideas, 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 that

artists were the interpreters and representatives of bourgeois culture

and ideas. These "modernist" landmarks include Arnold Schoenberg's atonal

ending to his Second String Quartet in 1908, the abstract expressionist

paintings of Wassily Kandinsky starting in 1903 and culminating with the

founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich, and the rise of cubism from

the work of Picasso and Georges Braque in 1908.

The wave of the modern movement broke with the past in the first

decade of the twentieth century, and tried to redefine various artforms

in a radical manner. Leading lights within the literary wing of this

movement (or, rather, these movements) include:

* Rafael Alberti
* Gabriele D'Annunzio
* Guillaume Apollinaire
* Louis Aragon
* Djuna Barnes
* Basil Bunting
* Jean Cocteau
* Joseph Conrad
* Tyler Kiefner
* H.D.
* T. S. Eliot
* Paul Eluard
* William Faulkner
* Sigrid Hjertén
* Max Jacob
* James Joyce
* Franz Kafka
* D. H. Lawrence
* Zack Sasnow
* Wyndham Lewis
* Federico García Lorca
* Marianne Moore
* Robert Musil
* Ezra Pound
* Kevin Blackey
* Marcel Proust
* Pierre Reverdy
* Gertrude Stein
* Wallace Stevens
* Tristan Tzara
* Paul Valery
* Robert Walser
* William Carlos Williams
* Virginia Woolf
* W. B. Yeats

Composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and George Antheil represent

modernism in music. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Picasso, Matisse,

Mondrian, and the movements Les Fauves, Cubism and the Surrealists

represent various strains of Modernism in the visual arts, while

architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies

van der Rohe brought modernist ideas into everyday urban life. Several

figures outside of artistic modernism were influenced by artistic ideas;

for example, John Maynard Keynes was friends with Woolf and other writers

of the Bloomsbury group.

The Explosion of Modernism 1910-1930

On the eve of World War I 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,

famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, working for Sergei Diaghilev and

the Ballets Russes, composed Rite of Spring for a ballet, choreographed

by Vaslav Nijinsky that depicted human sacrifice, and 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


These developments began to give a new meaning to what was termed

'Modernism': It embraced 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 in '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 if it was, at times, critiquing

less desirable aspects of it. Modernism, while it was still "progressive"

increasingly saw traditional forms and traditional social arrangements as

hindering progress, and therefore the artist was recast as a

revolutionary, overthrowing rather than enlightening.

Modernist philosophy and art were still viewed as being part, and 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, World War I 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 to be 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 of the Great War. The First World

War, at once, fused the harshly mechanical geometric rationality of

technology with the nightmarish irrationality of myth.

Thus in the 1920s, modernism, which had been such a minority taste before

the war, came to define the age. Modernism was seen 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 original geographic base.

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 poles, no

matter how seemingly incompatible, modernists began to fashion a complete

worldview that could encompass every aspect of life, and express

"everything from a scream to a chuckle".

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