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Modernism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term applied to the invention and the effective pursuit of artistic strategies that seek not just close but essential connections to the powerful forces of social Modernity. The responses of modernists to modernity range from triumphal celebration to agonized condemnation and differ in mode from direct picturing of the impacts of modernization to extreme renovations of purely artistic assumptions and practice. Such strategies—pursued by artists working individually or, often, in groups, as well as by critics, historians and theorists—occur in all of the arts, although in distinctive forms and across varying historical trajectories. They have been strongest in painting, design and the Modern Movement in architecture, highly significant in literature and in music, but quite muted in the crafts. They have echoes in aspects of commercial and popular culture. Despite being intermittent in their occurrence and unsystematic in nature, these strategies have been most effective in Europe and its colonies from the mid-19th century and in the USA from the early 20th, moving from the margins to the centre of visual cultures, from reactive radicality to institutionalized normality.

Some early usages of the term ‘modernism’ occur in the context of the recurrent battle between the new and the old. In 1737 Jonathan Swift complained to Alexander Pope about ‘the corruption of English by those Scribblers, who send us over their trash in Prose and Verse, with abominable curtailings and quaint modernisms’ (Published Works, 1757, ix: 218b). Yet such disputes were usually local ones, occurring within broader frameworks of cultural continuity, except at periods of epochal change. During the 19th century in Europe, however, modernizing forces became hegemonic, and by the mid-20th century modernity had become the norm in many parts of the world, its effects being felt everywhere.

Within this fast-changing context, certain moments in the history of the visual arts stand out as definitively modernist. The play of modernizing forces in Paris in the 1850s and 1860s was manifest in Courbet’s critical realism, Manet’s induction of the aesthetics of popular spectacle into high art, and the poetics and art criticism of charles Baudelaire. ‘By modernité’, Baudelaire wrote in 1863, ‘I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable’. These artists and writers recognized that to make significant, potentially timeless art, it was necessary to begin from the transitory, ever-changing present. This reversed the historical teachings of the academies. Towards the end of the 19th century the term ‘modernist’ was adopted to identify Art Nouveau tendencies in many European countries. A related usage appeared in the claims of Secession artists in Germany and elsewhere.

In the years after 1900 Paris was the centre of an explosion of artistic innovations, by Fauvist and Cubist artists, which inspired radical experimentation by Futurists in Italy, Suprematists and Constructivists in Russia, Dadaists in Germany and many others. Subsequent tendencies, such as Surrealism, explored the social and psychological impacts of modernization even more deeply. In general, these artists passed from drastic transformations of tradition to fundamental interrogations of art itself. Such extreme reflexivity, emphasizing negative criticism of the conventional and pursued by these artists usually working in groups, constitutes the avant-garde within modernism.

At the same time developments in modern art were fashioned into influential historical narratives in such exhibitions as Manet and the Post-Impressionists (London, 1910), opened by the critic roger Fry, and new markets for modernist art were created by the Armory show (New York, 1913) and others. Those involved in these developments usually identified each movement or grouping by its name and referred to ‘the new art’ or, increasingly after 1920, ‘modern art’ as the generic term for what was emerging as a broad tendency. Meanwhile, product designers made the term ‘modernist’ fashionable for their Art Deco elegances, but defenders of tradition during the first half of the 20th century saw ‘modernistic’ art as indicative of political excess, diseased social values and the insanity of those who made it.

As a name for the mainstream tendency in 20th-century abstract art ‘modernism’ came into widespread usage only in the 1960s. It was applied to the Abstract Expressionists and to contemporary hard-edge painting, colour field painting and abstract sculpture, most influentially by the American critic clement Greenberg. Its lineage was traced back to Manet as the initiator of a sequence of formal innovations, particularly those that lessened illusionism in painting and mimeticism in sculpture. Reflecting the economic and cultural ascendency of the USA and the enormous power of the New York art market, this viewpoint became orthodox internationally. It was, however, subject to subversion by Pop and Minimalist artists and to devastating criticism by conceptual, political and feminist artists and commentators. By the early 1970s it was displaced as a paradigm for most artists, although it persists in many museums, galleries and educational systems.

What were the practices of modernist artists? A typical strategy was to provoke the shock of the new, to reveal the present as replete with blindingly self-evident value and, at the same instant, to consign the recent past to anachronism. Another was to imagine the future as within reach, and still another was to reclaim the distant and even ancient past as a generalized precedent, a repository of essential values that transcended the style-bound historicisms of the 19th century. Typical modes were these: picturing the environments, artefacts, styles and attitudes of everyday life in the modern world; inventing forms, compositional formats and systems of visual signage that parallel those of the forces of modernization; insisting on art’s autonomy—its obligation to secure a space for unbridled creativity, for pure possibility; promoting abstraction as an inevitable historical unfolding; highlighting the separateness of the arts or mixing them in startling ways; constantly disturbing fixed relationships between artists and works of art and between works and viewers. The basic impulse of modernism within modernity is the drive to create previously unimagined objects and new ways of seeing them.

In the late 20th century, however, the limitations of modernism, its wasteful exclusions, became increasingly evident. Aspects of the cultures of non-European peoples were often incorporated into modernist experimentality as estranging devices and signals of ‘primitive’ otherness. This occurred throughout the vanguard movements in Europe around 1900, but from a post-colonial perspective it can be seen as a legacy of imperialism. While the agenda for world art seemed to be set by mainstream Ecole de Paris art movements, and then, after World War II, by developments in American art, artistic practice in the cultural and economic colonies is not necessarily a matter of dependent provincialism. Local artists adopt, adapt and often transform elements that circulate throughout a system of exchange, which is itself becoming increasingly international. Regional, local, even national, modernisms have occurred all over the world since the 1920s, each with their own distinctive concerns and values. Feminist art historians draw attention to the exclusion of significant work by women artists from the canon of modernist masterpieces, to the social restrictions that prevented these artists from entering many of the spaces so vital to modern life, and to the persistence in early modernism of women seen as aesthetic objects. Similarly, modernist art constantly pirated popular and commercial visual cultures, while still insisting on an essential critical distance from the everyday life of modernity. No longer a source of strength, this contradictory pattern of incorporation and exclusion has contributed to modernism’s decline.

While modernism no longer inspires artists, its heroic history and its accumulation of masterworks have became standard fare within educated taste as it consumes the visual arts with ever-increasing enthusiasm. Modern Masters, fine designers, great geniuses, modest decorators: a diverse and conflict-free aesthetic has spread outwards from the centres of artistic innovation to become an international modernist culture among the upper and middle classes in most countries with a European heritage.

Post-modern artists and theorists (see Post-modernism) tend to reject modernism as a historical narrative binding on current practice, while at the same time rehearsing some of its strategies and quoting instances of early modernist art as allusions within their circulating of imagery from, potentially, anywhere and any time. Post-modernism is, however, obsessed with modernity; and the issue of whether human societies have moved into a post-modern phase remains open. Another modernist moment in art cannot, therefore, be ruled out.


From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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