The Modernist Movement
Artists rebelled against late-19th century artistic traditions.
Modernists believed that "traditional" forms of art, literature, social organisation and daily life had become outdated, and that it was therefore essential to sweep them aside and reinvent culture.
It encouraged the idea of re-examination of every aspect of existence.
It argued that the new realities of the 20th century were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their world view to accept that what was new was also good and beautiful.
Romanticism, the precursor to Modernism, focused on individual subjective experience, the supremacy of ‘Nature’ as the standard subject for art, revolutionary or radical extensions of expression, and individual liberty. An idea formed that what was ‘real’ dominated over what was subjective. It was believed that depiction of the basic external reality from an objective standpoint was possible.
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection established the notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals". This proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality.
Karl Marx seemed to present a political version of the same problem, that problems with the economic order were fundamentally contradictions within the "capitalist" system. Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would become decisive in establishing Modernism.
At the same time social, political, and economic forces were at work that would eventually be used as the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and thinking.
Contrary to the common notion, Modernism or the avant-garde didn't make its entrance by breaking with the past. The Modernists got their standards and levels from the best of the past.
In the first fifteen years of the twentieth century a series of writers, thinkers, and artists made the break with traditional means of organising literature, painting, and music, in parallel to the change in organisational 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.
Powerfully influential in this wave of modernity were the theories of Sigmund Freud, who argued that all subjective reality was based 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.
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 art form which was uniquely its own.
Leading lights within the literary wing of the Modernist movement include:
D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, William Carlos Williams, and Franz Kafka.
On the eve of World War I, a growing tension and unease with the social order began to break through with the increasing agitation of "radical" parties, and an increasing number of works which either radically simplified or rejected previous practice. Young painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had recently begun causing a shock with their rejection of traditional perspective as the means of structuring paintings.
This development began to give a new meaning to what was termed 'Modernism'. At its core was the embracing of disruption, and a rejection of, or movement beyond, simple Realism in literature and art, and the rejection of, or dramatic alteration of, tonality in music. 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.
In the 1920s, and increasingly after, Modernism, which had been such a minority taste before the war, came to define the age.
At the same time, the 1920s were known as the "Jazz Age", and there was a public embrace of the advancements of mechanisation: cars, air travel and the telephone. The assertion of Modernists was that these advances required people to change, not merely their habits, but their fundamental aesthetic sense.
By 1930, Modernism had won a place in the establishment, including the political and artistic establishment.
Ironically, by the time it was being accepted, Modernism itself had changed. There was a general reaction in the 1920s against the pre-1918 Modernism, which emphasised its continuity with a past even as it rebelled against it, and against the aspects of that period, which seemed excessively mannered, irrational, and overly-emotional.
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.
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 revolutionising 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.
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. In literature, specifically, this often involved the rejection of intelligible plots or characterisation in novels, or the creation of poetry that defied clear interpretation.
Because of its emphasis on individual freedom and expression, and its emphasis on the individual, many modern artists ran afoul of totalitarian governments, many of which saw traditionalism in the arts as an important prop to their political power. The Soviet Communist government rejected modernism on the grounds of alleged elitism; and the Nazi government in Germany deemed it narcissistic and nonsensical, as well as "Jewish" and "Negro".
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 even called itself "Moderns", though usually shortened to Mods. In popular music, Bob Dylan combined folk music traditions with modernist verse, adopting literary devices derived from T.S. Eliot and others. The Beatles also developed along these lines, even creating atonal and other modernist musical effects in their later albums (especially their ‘White Album’).