So what is Modernism…?

15 Jan

A DEFINITION…OR RATHER AN ANSWER TO A TRICKY EXAM QUESTION.

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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.

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3 Responses to “So what is Modernism…?”

  1. Jennifer Fawcett January 16, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    Damn good, especially for a response to a question on an exam.

    A couple of thoughts:

    I like your analysis of the self referential aspect of modern art. There is no doubt that artists would like to believe that their work exists in and of itself, but a post modern analysis would suggest that the Other is necessary in order for the creation to reflect back to the artist.

    You make a couple of references to ” the denunciation of preceding literary and aesthetic traditions through the rejection of Victorian realism” and ” The new machine age invigorated the rejection of symbolism by those who were tired of sentimentality and artistic decadence”. This is also some good stuff, and while I see exactly where you are going with this, a couple of examples would buck up your argument. I was noodling around with some of the excesses of fin du siecle authors, especially Huysmans. But then, maybe it wasn’t so much of a break as an evolution. Eliot’s symbolism in “The Waste Land” is profound, referential and yet disturbing as well: the Hanged Man, Mr. Eugenides, Tiresias, Phlebas, The Third Man. These symbolic figures spin the web of Eliot’s meditation on the dissonance and perceived futility of existence.

    Finally, the big picture, because I’m a big picture kind of thinker. There is no doubt that WWI was a massive catalyst for change in all aspects of human existence. But doesn’t it seem to you that this happens about once every century? Or maybe a little longer prior to the Industrial Revolution–but think about it for a second heading backwards in time. WWI, Industrial Revolution, Napoleon, The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the English Civil War, the Black Death, the Conquest, and so on? Cause, effect. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In other words, human experience keeps birthing them artistic mutant babies lol.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Colin James I-10 Blog January 16, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

      I like your analysis of the self referential aspect of modern art. There is no doubt that artists would like to believe that their work exists in and of itself, but a post modern analysis would suggest that the Other is necessary in order for the creation to reflect back to the artist.
      In a post-modernist context I would agree because one has to accept the idea of overt determinism where everything is the product of the dialectic and therefore without essence. Without essence all work must be considered as contrived and the synthesis of outside influences. The authors work is therefore the product of the authors own experiences with culture, politics, economics and nature. Freud would have suggested that it was the unconscious that drives society and not the creativity of the artist or author. Hence the modernist period could not have existed in any other time frame than that which it did. The revelation of Modernism was undoubtedly driven by those who came before them and if anything is perhaps simply a refinement of Victorian realism although it does follow Pound’s axiom of making everything new. Perhaps Pound should have suggested improve upon instead? Given that post modernism follows modernism we have to accept that they are simply the product of one another; as you suggested a synthesis of that which had already been experienced.

      You make a couple of references to ” the denunciation of preceding literary and aesthetic traditions through the rejection of Victorian realism” and ” The new machine age invigorated the rejection of symbolism by those who were tired of sentimentality and artistic decadence”. This is also some good stuff, and while I see exactly where you are going with this, a couple of examples would buck up your argument. I was noodling around with some of the excesses of fin du siecle authors, especially Huysmans. But then, maybe it wasn’t so much of a break as an evolution. Eliot’s symbolism in “The Waste Land” is profound, referential and yet disturbing as well: the Hanged Man, Mr. Eugenides, Tiresias, Phlebas, The Third Man. These symbolic figures spin the web of Eliot’s meditation on the dissonance and perceived futility of existence.
      I am in two minds regarding Eliot as I fail to see his brilliance in his work despite the fact that I am told it is so, time and again. I have a similar problem with Yeats. Both Eliot and Yeats were promoted by Pound which would suggest that it was Pound who was the gate keeper to their literary stardom. The hermetic style with the interior monologue is exciting but one could almost equate this with Langland’s and Chaucer’s dreamers. Rather than a trip through the mind of the protagonist we are instead offered a personal dreamscape. This would once again point to a lack of essence and in the words of the History Boys is simply, “one fucking thing after another!” As original as the modernist poets appear to be we can find their influences splashed throughout literary history. I will check into the other authors as I have never heard of them.

      Finally, the big picture, because I’m a big picture kind of thinker. There is no doubt that WWI was a massive catalyst for change in all aspects of human existence. But doesn’t it seem to you that this happens about once every century? Or maybe a little longer prior to the Industrial Revolution–but think about it for a second heading backwards in time. WWI, Industrial Revolution, Napoleon, The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the English Civil War, the Black Death, the Conquest, and so on? Cause, effect. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In other words, human experience keeps birthing them artistic mutant babies lol.
      Now you are talking. This fits exactly into Marxist theory and dialectical materialism. The moving force behind history and society is production which would account for the leaps that humanity took during each of the events you mentioned. People’s lives and also the culture they experience are related to their economic circumstances which all of these major events would have influenced. Rather than cause and effect I would suggest it is economic adaptation and that life is directly related to economics. The great leaps or lags created throughout history directly control the foundations of society’s institutions and beliefs. This brings us full circle to the inescapable dialectic that everything is connected and therefore we should not be surprised. Clearly the human experience is controlled by those who drive the means of production as it those figures who shape our media, our society and our centers of education. The influence of the market perhaps, rather than human consciousness, may well be the causation of art?

      Thank you for reading and commenting. You know I value your input.
      Something I have been thinking about for a couple of weeks now and it has to do with the idea, of the nonexistence of essence and is in effect contrary to the idea of the dialectic. The model for over determinism does not take into account human consciousness and relies on outside influences to substantiate its own truth. The human element has to factor in and I would suggest that it is the aesthetic that is the true essence of artistic creation. Without a personal realization or without the experience of the inexplicable – that moment when our thoughts are crystal clear and appreciative of what we see or hear i.e. eye of the beholder – there would be no appreciation for beauty. It is the subtlety of aestheticism that embodies the idea of original thought and the processes that develop from that experience.
      This may be complete and utter bollocks but something which intrigues me. What do you think?

    • Colin James I-10 Blog January 16, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

      I sent you a reply that was color coordinated. It appears to be a little jumbled. I hope that you can see where you finished and I started so that we can continue this conversation. Going to the Wigwam tonight with Robyn so perhaps we will see you there 🙂
      Colin

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