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2. Modernity and the arts

Source: Oxford University Press

These ideologies and materialities have profoundly shaped art and literature. They surfaced first in the quarrel of the Ancients and moderns in 17th-century France and England in particular. During the following 150 years, the applied empiricism of the Encyclopédie project (1751–72) of Denis Diderot and the Romanticism of many writers and artists mapped out, respectively, a science and an aesthetic increasingly independent of classical precedent. By 1848 théophile Gautier could assert: ‘It goes without saying that we accept civilization as it is, with its railways, steamboats, English scientific research, central heating, factory chimneys and all its technical equipment, which have been considered impervious to the picturesque’ (Souvenir, p. 203). Others were less sanguine—thus the cry from charles Baudelaire in ‘Le Cygne’: ‘Old Paris is gone (the form of the city … changes much faster, alas! than the mortal heart)’ (Baudelaire, p. 209). Such grief for a past visibly disappearing, shot through with anxiety about whether it is possible to keep up with the necessity of novelty, recoil from the present while being embroiled in a searching for the future within it—this dialectical ambivalence is a typically modern mix.

Seeing the Paris of the Second Empire as a key site of modernity, walter Benjamin traced its definitive figures: the city itself obliterating the countryside except as memory and place of leisure; the volatile crowd against whom individuality was now measured (especially that of the flâneur, a new model for the artist); the dislocations of the experience of time and space; the dominance of the world by its ‘phantasmagorias’, its fanciful, fantastic, engrossing yet misleading projections of itself through advertising and political ideologies. In the years after 1900 mass-produced visual imagery proliferated throughout city spaces and in the burgeoning variety of communicative media. International, national, regional and local cultures defined themselves increasingly in terms of identificatory visual images, as did political parties, urban subcultures and even small, occasional, groupings of people. Advertising, entertainment, propaganda and fashion were the primary vehicles for an imagery of modernity that celebrated the Mass Production process and then its products. Modern design symbolized the age of mass consumption. Images of factories and workers, cities and crowds, products and consumers appeared regularly in the incessant circulation of signs of the new. Modernist art claimed a definitive closeness to the essential spirit of modernity (see Modernism). In its avant-garde forms, it also insisted on the necessity of art’s autonomy, its pure experimentality. It is also arguable, however, that the various realist tendencies in art since the late 18th century, further inspired by the example of Gustave Courbet in the mid-19th century, express the experience of modernity even more directly, if more critically, often picturing its forces at work on individuals seen as part of a social fabric.

Since the late 1960s modernity has been radically reinterpreted. The forces of modernization have been blamed for creating alienating, repressive societies that are increasingly divided between rich and poor, for accelerating the inequities between nations and for wide-scale environmental destruction. Nation states based on such universal systems as socialism, communism and many forms of capitalism are rapidly losing the consent of their citizens, which in turn is leading to greater repression or the creation of hybrid forms of power-sharing. Theorists of post-modernity argue that the master narratives that have sustained consent in modernizing societies—ideals of progress, democracy, humanism, modernity itself—have become illegitimate and that the dream of universal rationality that inspired the Enlightenment has ended. Post-modernists call for a new era of anything-goes, open-ended possibility. Yet in practice, old beliefs, especially theocratic ones, are revived, often fanatically, and new cynicisms flourish beside naive hopes for particular, local changes. This has led, in the late 20th century, to a revisionary reading of the period of modernity as not necessarily closed but rather as a many-sided phenomenon, marked by the ruins of its earlier phases, but still profoundly formative of the present. This situation seems destined to generate textures of experience even more complex than those encompassed by such generic terms as modernity and post-modernity, however expansively they may be defined.

Terry Smith
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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