Modernism

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Modernism

In it’s broadest sense, Modernism is modern thought or reason. More specifically, Modernism explains the adventurous new ideals of society that originate from the sweeping and widespread changes of Western culture in the earliest portion of the 20th century. In other words, Modernism was a rebellion from the conventional pillars of realism. Modernism seems to snub many of the overhanging values of the Enlightenment, such as religion, as well as the “outdated” political views of the industrialized globe. It is of course important to note that this does not mean that the Modernist movement simply discarded faith or the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment period, but rather those Modernism questions of the truisms that came before it. While Modernism is often hard to define both on paper and in real life, one prominent feature can distinguish a true Modernist: self-awareness. Many times, this self-awareness has led Modernists, particularly artists, to test the boundaries around them in a way that seems so radical and off-putting that the general public can only scorn. This aspect of Modernism, while detestable to the average citizen, has led to an intense evolution of both art and society that affected the course of history.

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Clement Greenberg was incredibly understanding of the concepts of Modernism, especially how it manifests itself in art. One is Greenberg's first pioneering essay, "Modern Painting," illuminates many of his ideas on Modernism. Although he later came to reject it, in its second paragraph he offers what one of the most refined definition Modernism: “... the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself…to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”[1] Greenberg feels that the fundamental self-criticism of Modernism comes from the condemnation of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment reproach in an expected sense: from the outside looking in. Modernism, on the other hand, critiques from within. In other words, Modernists critique the processes themselves of that criticize.

It seems natural that this new kind of criticism should have appeared first in philosophy, which is critical by definition, but as the 18th century wore on, it entered many other fields. A more rational justification had begun to be demanded of every formal social movement.

We know what has happened to religion. When Darwinism threatened its foundation, it crumbled into shambles, unable to defend itself against both outside and internal critics. At first glance the arts might seem to have been in a situation like that of religion. Having been disproved and disowned by many citizens during the Enlightenment, they looked as though religion itself was going to be adjusted for purely recreational purposes. The arts could only save themselves from this debasement by showing society that the understanding they provided was valuable in its own right and unobtainable from any other endeavor. In other words, art had to prove its individual merit. What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible individually. Each style and movement had to be exclusive and irreplaceable, exclusive only to it. While that meant each art had to confine its capability, it also meant by doing so that it could make its control all the more concrete.

It soon came to be that the distinct portions of proficiency of each art coincided with the distinct nature of the medium. Even more so, the idea of “self-criticism” became more explicit in each art. True Modernist artists prided themselves in the ability to test a variety of styles focusing on form, content, and procedure. This continued style hopping may sound erratic and unproductive, but helped to render a "pure" outlook and standard of art.

Surprisingly, the existence of “natural” art had stalled creativity and paradoxically suppressed the arts with other art. Modernism, instead, utilized art to call attention to art. They rebelled against the restrictions of surface, shape, and intensity established by the Bourgeois and praised the features in paintings that were treated as undesirable by the more traditional art schools. Under Modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly. Édouard Manet became the first truly Modernist artist because of the bluntness of his canvases. Many critics say they enunciate and draw attention more to the surface they are painted on than the content or procedure itself. Because of Manet, Impressionist artists repudiated glosses and glazes, to insure the viewer knew their paints were not some top tier, elitist hues. Take into consideration Paul Cézanne, a post-Impressionist who oftentimes sacrificed correctness so his drawing would fit on a rectangular canvas more explicitly. It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. Walling in the shape of the picture was a norm, not only in art but also in theater. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.

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While it is quite clear that Modernism shows itself in art, a looming question is why it shows up so emphatically. I believe the answer to that question, why Modernism expresses itself so forcefully in art, is because it has immense power. Art evokes emotion. Many assume that it is primarily happiness, but that is not always the case. Sometimes powerful art makes people angry, sad or even uncomfortable. But art can be strong and powerful even if it doesn’t make people happy. More important even than that emotional power is art’s power to destroy. Destruction is the power deemed to be incredibly important in progression of the Modernism movement. Peter Gay, author of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, explains that Modernism two significant inclinations: overturning the society it’s a part of and personal exploration. This first inclination, which Gay refers to as “the lure of heresy”, breaks the societal rules, while work to create “a single aesthetic mind-set,”[2] a “climate of thought, feeling and opinion,”[3] unifying disconnected artistic rebellion. In other words, Modernism refuses to conform to the materialistic lifestyle of society, meaning that it must manifest itself in a non-materialistic vehicle. There are very limited options for a widespread manifestation of Modernism, but they were primarily religion and art. While they may both seem like adequate vehicles for Modernism, there is a reason why art was chosen. At first glance, religion seems like a good suitor, but in actuality it is vastly inferior to art. Both religion and art strive for transcendence and the destruction of the materialistic lifestyle. They both want to destroy the grubby lifestyles of the middle class, who have put their values in the wrong things. They want to provide a heightened human experience. But taking a deeper look, the compatibility for Modernism and religion ends. First, religion is highly moral. It has codes and rules that must be followed with a large amount of conviction. Modernism isn’t structured; it does not need morals to keep it upright and in line. There is condemnation and redemption built into the structure of religion take force the participants to engage in an individual role. Most importantly, religion has an end goal for its participants. Art is the opposite of this. It lacks morality and end goal. It pushes the viewer to condemn the world, but it offers no hope or resolution. Art merely wants you to take it for what it is and escape into it. Unlike religion, its power has not been questioned and disproved. Artists even now are held up high in society, deemed to have more insight or understanding than everyone else. Religion, on the other hand, has been shaken and scorned. Darwinism tore down the pillars of religion for most of society has, but art and its power to destroy the fabric of society hasn’t been disproved.

It’s all of these characteristics in art that make it a good vehicle for the Modernism movement. Like art, Modernism is quite diverse with a fine, underlying string that ties it together. It is not organized and strategic like religion. Modernism lacks morality and is actually quite elitist. Like art needs to be directed toward and appreciated by a small group, not the masses. Modernism always needs tension; it cannot truly have an endpoint. In actuality, there is no other vehicle that could have truly sustained Modernism for as long as it did, through some many varying social and political climates. Without the freedom that has long been a standard of art, any Modernism that we recognize today would not have been the same.

It is very easy to see that the movement of Modernism is quite complex and far-reaching. While there may not be a perfect vehicle for Modernism to exist infinitely, art surely contained the closest conditions that would allow Modernism to thrive to its fullest extent. Without art, the tendrils of Modernism would have curled up and died long before history shows us that it did. Art and Modernism, I now believe, truly go hand-in-hand with one another. They are emphatically codependent and their outcomes would be vastly altered if Modernism had chosen a different vehicle of manifestation.


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[1] Greenberg, Clement. "Modernist Painting." Art and Literature (1965): 85.

[2] Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton (2008): 3.

[3] Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton (2008): 4.