What Modernism Means

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Modernism describes an array of cultural movements rooted in the changes in Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The term covers a series of reforming movements in art, architecture, music, literature and the applied arts which emerged during this period. At its most basic level, Modernism could be described as the experimentation and fragmentation of the human experience, characterized by deviations from the norms of society. Embracing change and the present, modernism encompasses the works of thinkers who rebelled against nineteenth century academic and historicist traditions, believing the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated; they directly confronted the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world. Some divide the twentieth century into movements designated Modernism and Postmodernism, whereas others see them as two aspects of the same movement. Historians have suggested various dates as the starting point of Modernism. 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. Separately, in the arts and letters, two ideas originating in France would have particular impact. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time, the government-sponsored Paris Salon, the Impressionists organized yearly group exhibitions in commercial venues during the 1870s and 1880s, timing them to coincide with the official Salon. 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. 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. 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. 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. Futurism exemplifies this trend. 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 being part, and only a part, of the larger social movement. Second, the birth of a machine age changed the conditions of life machine warfare became a touchstone of the ultimate reality. 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. Again, Impressionism was a precursor: breaking with the idea of national schools, artists and writers adopted ideas of international movements. 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. By 1930, modernism had won a place in the establishment, including the political and artistic establishment, although by this time modernism itself had changed. Among modernists there were disputes about the importance of the public, the relationship of art to audience, and the role of art in society. By...
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