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Modernism

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This article focuses on the cultural movement labeled modernism (or the "Modern Movement"). See also Modernism (Roman Catholicism) or Modernist Christianity, Modernisme for the Catalan version of Art Nouveau, and Modernismo for a Spanish-language literary movement.
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[[Le Corbusier

's "Villa Savoye", 1929-30: such uncompromising modernism, rejected by individual house-buyers, confined modernist architecture essentially to an official and corporate equivalent of a "court style"]] The modern movement requires an individual to reject previous tradition, to reinvent daily life (illustration, right) and by creating individual techniques, produce work which is original to that artist. In general, the modern movement sought to reach down to basic perceptual and primitive, in the sense of being fundamental, realities.

Modernism in the cultural historical sense is generally defined as the new artistic and literary styles that emerged in the decades before 1914 as artists rebelled against traditional efforts to portray reality as accurately as possible (leading to Impressionism and Cubism ) and writers explored new forms.

Table of contents
1 Historical outline
2 Modernism's reception and controversy
3 Modernism outside the west
4 See also

Historical outline

Precursors to modernism

The first half of the 19th century for Europe was marked by a series of turbulent wars and revolutions, which gradually formed into a series of ideas and doctrines now identified as Romanticism, which focused on individual subjective experience, the supremacy of "Nature" as the standard subject for art, revolutionary or radical extensions of expression, and individual liberty. By mid-century, however, a synthesis of these ideas, and stable governing forms had emerged. Called by various names, this synthesis was rooted in the idea that what was "real" dominated over what was subjective. Exemplified by Otto von Bismarck's realpolitik, philosophical ideas such as positivism and cultural norms now described by the word Victorian.

Core to this synthesis, however, was the importance of institutions, common assumptions and frames of reference. These drew their support from religious norms found in Christianity, scientific norms found in classical physics and doctrines which asserted that depiction of the basic external reality from an objective standpoint was possible. Cultural critics and historians label this set of doctrines Realism, though this term is not universal. In philosophy, the rationalist and positivist movements established a primacy of reason and system.

Against this current were a series of ideas. Some were direct continuations of Romantic schools of thought. Notable were the agrarian and revivalist movements in plastic arts and poetry (e.g. the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the philosopher John Ruskin). Rationalism also drew responses from the anti-rationalists in philosophy. In particular, Hegel's dialectic view of civilization and history drew responses from Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, who was a major precursor toExistentialism. Additionally, Sigmund Freud offered a view of subjective states that involved a subconscious mind full of primal impulses and counterbalancing restrictions, and Carl Jung would combine Freud's doctrine of the subconscious with a belief in natural essence to stipulate a collective unconscious that was full of basic typologies that the conscious mind fought or embraced. All of these separate reactions together, however, offered a challenge to any comfortable ideas of certainty derived by civilization, history, or pure reason.

Two schools originating in France would have particular impact. The first was Impressionism, a school of painting which was initially focused on work done, not in studios, but in the "plain air". They argued that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. The school gathered adherents, and despite deep internal divisions among its leading practitioners, became increasingly influential. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time - the government sponsored Paris Salon (Emperor Napoleon III created the "Salon des rejects," which displayed 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 school was Symbolism, marked by a belief that language is expressly symbolic in its nature, and that poetry and writing should follow whichever connection the sheer sound and texture of the words create. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé would be of particular importance to what would occur afterward.

At the same time social, political, and economic forces were at work which would eventually be used as the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and thinking.

Chief among these was industrialization, which produced buildings such as the Eiffel Tower that 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 urbanity, and the possibilities created by scientific examination of subjects would be crucial in the series of changes which would shake European civilization, which, at that point, regarded itself as having a continuous and progressive line of development from the Renaissance.

The breadth of the changes can be seen in how many disciplines are described, in their pre-20th century form, as being "classical", including physics, economics, and arts such as ballet.

The beginning of modernism 1890–1910

Initially the movement can be described as a rejection of tradition, and a tendency to face problems from a fresh perspective based on current ideas and techniques. Thus Gustav Mahler considered himself a "modern" composer and Gustave Flaubert made his famous remark that "It is essential to be thoroughly modern in one's tastes." The rejection of tradition by the Impressionist movement makes it one of the first artistic movements to be seen, in retrospect, as a modern movement. In literature the symbolist movement would have a tremendous influence on the development of the Modernism, because of its focus on sensation. Philosophically, the break with tradition by Nietzsche and Freud provides a key underpinning of the movement going forward: to begin again from first principles, abandoning previous definitions and systems. This wave of the movement generally stayed within late 19th century norms of presentation; often its practitioners regarded themselves as reformers rather than revolutionaries.

Beginning in the 1890s and with increasing force afterwards, a strand of thinking began to assert that it was necessary to push aside previous norms entirely, and instead of merely revising past knowledge in light of current techniques, it would be necessary to make more thorough changes. The movement in art paralleled such developments as the Theory of Relativity in physics; the increasing integration of internal combustion and industrialization; and the rise of social sciences in public policy. 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 - again, in parallel to the change in organizational methods in other fields. The argument was that if the nature of reality itself was in question, and the restrictions which, it was felt, had been in place around human activity were falling, then art too, would have to radically change.

The landmarks include Arnold Schoenberg's atonal ending to his Second String Quartet in 1906, the abstract 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.

Powerfully influential in this wave of modernity were the theories of Freud, who argued that the mind had a basic and 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. This represented a break with the past, in that previously it was believed that external and absolute reality could impress itself on an individual, as, for example, in John Locke's tabula rasa doctrine.

However, the modern movement was not merely defined by its avant garde but also by a reforming trend within previous artistic norms. This search for simplification of diction was found in the work of Joseph Conrad. The pressures of communication, transportation and more rapid scientific development began placing a premium on architectural styles which were cheaper to build and less ornamented, and on writing which was shorter, clearer, and easier to read. The rise of cinema and "moving pictures" in the first decade of the twentieth century gave the modern movement an artform which was uniquely its own, and again, created a direct connection between the perceived need to extend the "progressive" tradition of the late nineteenth century, even if this conflicted with then established norms.

This 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 include Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Guillaume Apollinaire, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, H.D, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Franz Kafka. Composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky represent modernism in music. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and the Surrealists represent 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 began to break through - seen in the Russian Revolution of 1905, the increasing agitation of "radical" parties, and an increasing number of works which either radically simplified or rejected previous practice. In 1913, Igor Stravinsky, working for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, composed Rite of Spring for a ballet that depicted human sacrifice.

Modernism's cutting edge to this point had been the exploration of subjective experience and the clarification and simplification of structure. These two trends were, to some extent, at cross purposes - many early modernists were seeking increasing sophistication and hence greater difficulty in understanding a work, and others a greater transparency, and hence easier understanding.

Subjectivity lead to an increasing exploration of primitivism, arguing that society and social norms of that period were restricted, unnatural, and repressive, especially with respect to sexual mores. Freedom from social restriction was therefore identified with societies where clothing and sexual practices seemed more open. This trend had begun with Paul Gauguin's paintings, and was adopted by painters such as Pablo Picasso. Arts from Africa became increasingly prominent in the public consciousness, because of their geometrical nature, their perceived reaching for original or basic drives, and their phantastmagoric quality, such as is seen by ceremonial masks.

Another underlying strand of thinking can be called the shift from idealistic to critical in philosophy and art. Previously artists were told, and many believed, they were creating ideal beauty or more ideal forms. This related to some ideas in the sciences regarding physical laws - there was an ideal, objective truth, and art was part of the process by which people discovered and presented it. With the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, there was an increasing stance that the purpose of art and philosophy was to critique rather than lead forces, that art was in service, either of an abstract notion of art itself, expressed as l'art pour l'art, and hence without pragmatic end, or of some movement or ideal. These two tendencies mirror subjectivity: in the first case that art is for the artist alone.

One example of the second purpose for art was the movement towards clarity, and the embracing of new technology, found in Futurism. In 1909, a manifesto was published in the Le Figaro, and rapidly a group of painters: Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini co-signed The Manifesto of Futurist Painting. Such manifestos were modeled on the famous "Communist Manifesto" of the previous century, and were meant to provoke and gather followers, even as they put forward principles and ideas.

In 1914, the outbreak of a pan-European war which was eventually to engulf most of the globe was to cement modern ideals. First, the fantastic failure of the previous status quo seemed self-evident to a generation which 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 introduction of a machine age into life seemed obvious - machine warfare became a touchstone of the ultimate reality. Finally, the immensely traumatic nature of the experience made both critical and subjective strands of the modern movement basic assumptions: subjective narrative was the only thread which made sense in the face of the realities of trench warfare - as exemplified by books such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front - and the constant critique was necessary to prevent a recurrence of whatever had brought about the war.

Thus in the 1920s and increasingly after, modernism became the paradigm for implementation, in architecture, government, schooling, and social organization. There was a subtle, but important, shift from the earlier phase: in the beginning the movement was by individuals who were part of the establishment, or wished to join the establishment. Increasingly, the tone became one of individuals who were trying to replace the older hierarchy with one based on new ideas, norms, and methods. By 1930, modernism had won a place in the establishment, including the political and artistic establishment.

Thus in the immediate post-war years, the tendency to form movements and develop systems became increasingly entrenched in the modernist movement. Examples include Dadaism, Sravinsky's neoclassical style of composition, the "International style" of Bauhaus and a variety of artistic movements which were related to larger doctrines, such as Socialist Realism. Such ideas rapidly became labelled "modern" or "hyper-modern", and included areas as diverse as literature and chess.

In this period crucial ideas about the importance of the machine and machine age as being part of beauty, the importance of subjective experience, the necessity for a system to replace the concept of "objective reality" and the rise of scientific or highly and obviously organized works. These concepts were often in competition with each other, and even in direct conflict. Within modernity there were disputes about the importance of the public, the relationship of art to audience, and the role of art in society. Rather than a lockstep organization, it is better to see modernism as taking a series of responses to the situation as it was understood, and the attempt to wrestle universal principles from it.

Modernism's second generation

By 1930, modernism had entered popular culture with "The Jazz Age" and the increasing urbanization of populations, it had begun making systematic challenges to previous art and ideas, and was beginning to be looked to as the source for ideas to deal with the host of challenges faced in that particular historical moment.

Modernism's reception and controversy

The most controversial aspect of the modern movement was, and remains, its rejection of tradition, both in organization, and in the immediate experience of the work. This dismissal of tradition also involved the rejection of conventional expectations: hence modernism often stresses freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism. In many art forms this often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects. Hence the strange and disturbing combinations of motifs in Surrealism, or the use of extreme dissonance in modernist music. In literature this often involved the rejection of intelligible plots or characterisation in novels, or the creation of poetry that defied clear interpretation.

Many modernists believed that by rejecting tradition they could discover radically new ways of making art. Schoenberg believed that by ignoring traditional tonal harmony (the hierarchical harmonic structure of music of the common practice period) he had discovered a wholly new way of organizing sound, based in the use of twelve-note rows (See Twelve-tone technique). This became known as serial music by the post-war period. Abstract artists, taking as their examples the Impressionists, as well as Paul Cézanne and Edvard Munch, began with the assumption that color and shape formed the essential characteristics of art, not the depiction of the natural world. Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich all believed in redefining art as the arrangement of pure colour. The use of photography, which had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, strongly affected this particular aspect of modernism. However, these artists also believed that by rejecting the depiction of material objects they helped art move from a materialist to a spiritualist phase of development.

Other modernists, especially those involved in design, had more pragmatic views. Modernist architects and designers believed that new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete. Le Corbusier (born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) thought that buildings should function as "machines for living in", analogous to cars, which he saw as machines for travelling in. Just as cars had replaced the horse, so modernist design should reject the old styles and structures inherited from Ancient Greece or from the Middle Ages. Following this machine aesthetic, modernist designers typically reject decorative motifs in design, preferring to emphasise the materials used and pure geometrical forms. The skyscraper, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York (19561958), became the archetypal modernist building. Modernist design of houses and furniture also typically emphasised simplicity and clarity of form, open-plan interiors, and the absence of clutter. Modernism reversed the 19th century relationship of public and private: in the 19th century, public buildings were horizontally expansive for a variety of technical reasons, and private buildings emphasized verticality - to fit more private space on more and more limited land. Where as in the 20th century, public buildings became vertically oriented, and private buildings became organized horizontally. Many aspects of modernist design still persist within the mainstream of contemporary architecture today, though its previous dogmatism has given way to a more playful use of decoration, historical quotation, and spatial drama.

In other arts such pragmatic considerations were less important. In literature and visual art some modernists sought to defy expectations mainly in order to make their art more vivid, or to force the audience to take the trouble to question their own preconceptions. This aspect of modernism has often seemed a reaction to consumer culture, which developed in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. Whereas most manufacturers try to make products that will be marketable by appealing to preferences and prejudices, modernists rejected such consumerist attitudes in order to undermine conventional thinking. The art critic Clement Greenberg expounded this theory of modernism in his essay Avant Garde and Kitsch. Greenberg labelled the products of consumer culture "kitsch", because their design aimed simply to have maximum appeal, with any difficult features removed. For Greenberg, modernism thus formed a reaction against the development of such examples of modern consumer culture as commercial popular music, Hollywood, and advertising. Greenberg associated this with a revolutionary rejection of capitalism.

Many modernists did see themselves as part of a revolutionary culture - one that included political revolution. However, many rejected conventional politics as well as artistic conventions, believing that a revolution of consciousness had greater importance than a change in political structures. Many modernists saw themselves as apolitical, only concerned with revolutionizing their own field of endeavour. Others, such as T. S. Eliot, rejected mass popular culture from a conservative position. Indeed one can argue that modernism in literature and art functioned to sustain an elite culture which excluded the majority of the population. The Soviet Communist government rejected modernism on the grounds of alleged elitism; and the Nazi government in Germany deemed it narcissistic and nonsensical. The Nazis exhibited modernist paintings alongside works by the mentally ill in an exhibition entitled Degenerate art.

In fact, modernism flourished mainly in consumer/capitalist societies, despite the fact that its proponents often rejected consumerism itself. However, modernism began to merge with consumer culture after World War II, especially during the 1960s. In Britain, a youth sub-culture even called itself "modernists", though usually shortened to Mods. In popular music, Bob Dylan combined folk music traditions with modernist verse, adopting literary devices derived from Eliot and others. The Beatles also developed along these lines, even creating atonal and other modernist musical effects in their later albums. Musicians such as Frank Zappa 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 modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of "modernism" itself. Firstly, it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Secondly, 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. Recently, (2000) a new paradigm has been suggested, comprising not only traditionalism versus modernism but also a third group, called Cultural Creatives, who differ from both.

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 Gallery in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Such galleries (and popular attitudes) make no distinction between modernist and postmodernist phases, seeing both as developments within 'Modern Art'.

Modernism outside the west

Many trends outside of western culture have been described as modern, modernist, or modernistic. Examples include Gamelan gong kebyar.

See also