Modernism

For Protevi (1999), modernism is a 1920s to 1950s phenomenon in literature and the arts, and includes the work of Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Schoenberg, Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and others.

In other accounts, the discourse on modernism in art began with the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire’s book The Painter of Modern Life (Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne), first published in Paris in 1863. In that book, he explains the fundamental difference between the first Modern painter, such as Manet or Courbet, and the academic painters.

The difference between them was not how they painted, but what they painted. The academics painted idealised pictures drawn from Greek or Roman ancient history or allegorical scenes from the Bible. The Modernist painters painted the everyday life of the nineteenth century when they lived. The change in subject matter was shocking to nineteenth century audiences and provoked major scandals at the time.

Some confusion exists in the use of the terms Modernism and avant-gardism. The trends in the complex development of literature and art, beginning with 1905, can be divided into groups and one of the principal groups is that of the avant-garde (Szabolcsi, 1971: 51). While being avant-garde implies being Modernist, it is nevertheless possible for an artist to be a Modernist, and not be an avant-gardist.

One key difference between the Modernist and the avant-gardist lies in the avant-garde’s disruption of the basic expectations of what makes a work of art. The scandals caused by Modernist works arose from violating a prohibition against painting the contemporary, everyday world of the nineteenth century. However, these Modernist works did not fundamentally challenge the idea of “art” itself.

It is this challenge to the definition of “art” that is essential to the definition of the avant-garde.

In literary scholarship in English-speaking countries and in France, Szabolcsi (1971: 50) notes, the term modernism is used in a generalising sense, usually taking it to cover every trend that contrasts with the previous period, which is that of Romanticism and realism. While literary historians date the beginning of the modernist revolt back to the 1890s, most agree that what is called high modernism came after the First World War. The year 1922 alone, for example, saw the publication of such monuments of modernist innovation as James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, as well as many other experimental works of literature.

Huyssen (1986: viii-ix) argues that both modernism and the avant-garde defined their identity in relation to two cultural phenomena: traditional bourgeois high culture, especially the traditions of romantic idealism and of enlightened realism and representation; and vernacular and popular culture as it was increasingly transformed into modern, degraded commercial mass culture.

Both Adorno and Greenberg, for example, insisted on the categorical separation of high art and mass culture in the late 1930s in order to save the dignity and autonomy of the art work from the totalitarian pressures of fascist mass spectacles, socialist realism and an ever more degraded commercial mass culture in the West.

References 

Abrams, M.H. (1999). A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Baudelaire, C. (1995). The painter of modern life and other essays, 2nd ed. London: Phaidon.

Huyssen, A. (1986). After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Protevi, J. (1999). Some remarks on Modernity and Post-modernism and/or Post-structuralism [Webpage]. Available at: http://www.protevi.com/john/DG/PDF/Remarks_on_Modernity_and_Post-Modernism.pdf [Accessed 24 September 2013].

Szabolcsi, M. (1971). Avant-garde, neo-avant-garde, modernism: questions and suggestions. New Literary History, 3 (1), 49–70. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/468380 [Accessed 24 February 2016].

edited 22 May, 2017 by Allan Parsons