A DEFINITION…OR RATHER AN ANSWER TO A TRICKY EXAM QUESTION.
The turn of the twentieth century witnessed the denunciation of preceding literary and aesthetic traditions through the rejection of Victorian realism. There occurred a conscious aesthetic movement away from artistic didacticism toward a style that was infinitely more liberating and self-representative. Modernist art – instead of conforming to the restrictions of the traditional process – immersed itself in individuality and reflected the idea that art could exist for its own sake. Although the Romantics of the previous centuries had revealed hidden aesthetic truths it was the Modernists who promoted the concept of artistic acceptance. This innovative, artistic form generally adhered to Ezra Pound’s axiom of “make it new.” The esthetic, or “the aura of art,” as Adorno called it, required only to be receptive to the recipient i.e. the eye of the beholder and therefore art didn’t have to induce mass appeal. Just because it wasn’t appreciated by the masses didn’t detract from its intrinsic beauty and therefore art could exist independently. Given that artistic restraint was dispensed with, the artist and writers of the period were free to create following their own conscious desire whilst expressing contemporary sensibilities and rescinding traditional values.
Adorno described the changes in human sense perception brought about by the dialectic that exists in literature. Just as society is mutually effective, art, as the modernist movement proved, like everything else, is subject to causation. Things only exist in relationship to one another and therefore the modernist movement could only have been created by the period in which it was conceived. Modernism therefore reflects itself as well as its period. Everything is cause and effect.
This shift from traditionalism took on many forms and the period gave birth to a diverse variety of aggressively modern movements – among many others – such a Futurism, Vorticism, and Cubism. Although modernism can be regarded as an artistic singularity that is both provocative and experiential, Levinson sees it as “the emergence of an adversary culture of the New that [is dependent] on audiences as well as artists, enemies as well as supporters.” Modernism therefore was a manifestation of the selfish and reactionary. This accounts for the short lived artistic movements that disappeared as quickly as they appeared only to be replaced by something equally exotic.
The new machine age invigorated the rejection of symbolism by those who were tired of sentimentality and artistic decadence. Not only was it the esthetic that changed but also humanities sense of itself. The outbreak of World War One and the destruction it wrought gave rise to a pessimistic world view thanks to the political and philosophical upheavals created by the conflict. This caused people to reassess their values and gave rise to philosophers such as Freud who began to question the notion of human rationality; the plausibility of exact truth and a mistrust of institutionalized ideas such as empire, church and country. Literary groups such as the Bloomsbury Set created manifestos rejecting everything apart from friendship, estheticism and personal pleasure.
This idea gained momentum and novelists began to experiment with the hermetic style of free thought writing which, instead of following the traditional literary mileposts of the bildungs roman or Victorian Romance novel, experimented with the concept of stream- of-consciousness that allowed the reader to see into the characters mind; offering an extra dimensional allusion to a character or story. Poets and writers like T.S Eliot in the poem The Wasteland and James Joyce in his novel Ulysses were extremely adept with parataxis; a modernist literary method that was developed to disrupt and fragment conventional sequencing, creating literature that was innovative and unique. The literature that grew from this stylistic adaptation was invariably introspective and probed the darker aspects of the human psyche and can be classed as quintessentially Modernist.