The term modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War One period. The ordered, stable and inherently meaningful worldview of the nineteenth century could not, wrote T.S. Eliot, accord with "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Modernism thus marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois morality; rejecting nineteenth-century optimism, they presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray. This despair often results in an apparent apathy and moral relativism. Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes a set of cultural tendencies and movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world. The first half of the 20th century is then normally referred to in literary histories as ‘Modernism’, a very general term used to talk about a series of different movements and tendencies (impressionism, expressionism, imagism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism...) that tried to break with old tradition and the realistic concept of art. Modernism challenged the assumption of reality, which is at the roots of realism: that there is a common phenomenal world that can be reliably described. Psychoanalysis, Darwinism, Nietzche and Marxism questioned traditional assumptions and so did World War I and the skeptical spirit it brought about. They all helped to shatter traditional beliefs. Regardless of the specific year it was produced, modernism is characterized primarily by a complete and unambiguous embrace of what Andreas Huyssen calls the "Great Divide." That is, it believes that there is a clear distinction between capital-A Art and mass culture, and it places itself firmly on the side of Art and in opposition to popular or mass culture. In the world of art, generally speaking, Modernism was the beginning of the distinction between “high” art and “low” art. The educational reforms of the Victorian Age had led to a rapid increase in literacy rates, and therefore a greater demand for literature or all sorts. A popular press quickly developed to supply that demand. The sophisticated literati looked upon this new popular literature with scorn. Writers who refused to bow to the popular tastes found themselves in a state of alienation from the mainstream of society (Postmodernism, according to Huyssen, may be defined precisely by its rejection of this distinction.)))))
Modernist writing is predominantly cosmopolitan, and often expresses a sense of urban cultural dislocation, along with an awareness of new anthropological and psychological theories. There was a break in the implicit contract with the general public that artists were the reliable interpreters and representatives of mainstream ("bourgeois") culture and ideas, and, instead, developed unreliable narrators, exposing the "irrationality at the roots of a supposedly rational world".
Modernism is often derided for abandoning the social world in favour of its narcissistic interest in language and its processes. Recognizing the failure of language to ever fully communicate meaning ("That's not it at all, that's not what I meant at all" laments Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock), the modernists generally downplayed content in favour of an investigation of form. The fragmented, non-chronological, poetic forms utilized by Eliot and Pound revolutionized poetic language. Modernist formalism, however, was not without its political cost. Many of the chief Modernists either flirted with fascism or...
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