Roland Barthes described modernity as something which, “…progresses in company with and at the speed of the years, like the bow-wave of a ship; last years modern is not this years.” (1) With this description one does not need to specify a period of modernism and modernity as it is clearly something which is always in the present moment of time. However, particularly in light of the term “postmodernism”, there is a suggestion that modernism somehow ended and it has been widely and weirdly accepted that it is not a concept that is continuous but rather relates to a period in history – but where does it begin and where does it end?
There is clear disagreement on this. Bradbury and McFarlane see modernism occurring from 1880 to 1950 (with a peak season through 1910-25) (2). Raymond Williams argues that modern began as a term in the late 16th century and was used to mark a period away from the medieval and ancient. Jane Austin spoke of modernity in the 18th century and referred to it as, “A state of alteration, perhaps improvement.” (3) In his book, “Popular Culture – The Metropolitan Experience”, Iain Chambers sees modernism and modernity appearing much later, particularly in the form of architecture, placing it around the 1930’s with a peak in the 1950’s:
“It was not until the 1930’s and the major slum clearances, that the detached house ideal came under siege and modernism, in the form of five or six-storey apartment blocks, mass production building techniques and clean, simple lines, came to be accepted,” and later, “It was not until the 1950’s that modernist architecture became fully part of the public domain and debate.” (4)
There is evidently a difficulty in assuming modernism and modernity are terms particularly relevant to the beginning of the 20th century or indeed if they are relevant at all. To try and define a period, one needs first to define these terms and thus determine whether such terms are accurate descriptions of the kind of social and artistic changes apparent at the beginning of the last century.
So what exactly is modernism in relation to society? Broadly it seems to relate to a change in the make-up of Britain and Europe due to the event of industrialisation. In particular this included the breakdown of the feudal/patronage system, urbanisation and the rise in importance of technology within the workplace, and through communications, throughout the 19th century, continuing until the present day. As a result of these changes, mass production techniques were now developing and for the people this meant, as Virginia Woolf writes:
“All human relations shifted – those between master and servant, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conducts, politics and literature” (5)
This of course changed the social position of the artist who was now given a different status to that previously acknowledged. This status being the perhaps over-romantic one that many perceive the artist having today, that of somehow being alone and alienated as well as idealised. Janet Wolf offers a number of reasons for this, perhaps elevated status:
“…the rise of individualism concomitant with the development of industrial capitalism. The second was the actual separation of the artist from any clear social group or class and from any secure form of patronage, as the old form of patronage was overtaken by the dealer/critic system, leaving the artist in a precarious position.” (6)
It was through this the artist became idealised as the “free” worker because he was not tied to production as such. Because of this new position along with other events, a kind of “rejection ideal” was set up. It was the rejection of the new industrial society and for a number of reasons – because it was new (we fear change!) because of the new urban and the landscape it generated with the often poor conditions people were living in, because of the new relations between people, the emergence of the mass, dehumanisation in the workplace etc. Using literature as an example Terry Eagleton writes:
“How was one to write in an industrial society where discourse had become degraded to a mere instrument of science, commerce, advertising, and bureaucracy? What audience was one to write for anyway, given the saturation of the reading public by mass profit hungry, anodyne culture?” (7)
Following the First World War this rejection ideal was to reach its peak as architects, painters, writers, musicians etc. all began to dispense of everything that had happened previously as the whole of society seemed to be thrown into chaos following the effects of the war. It is this rejection that can be seen as modernism. In this light a great example of a modernist writer and poet is T.S.Eliot who wrote “The Waste Land” to reflect the confusion and desperate feeling of post-war Europe which seemed to have lost its hopes and morals and had become a baron land. He described the urban as the “Unreal City” – a fairly typical image used by the modernist artist. This kind of description was one also used by Joseph Conrad in his novel “Heart of Darkness” where he also made reference to the “Unreal City” and the “Whited Sepulchre” to emphasis the hollowness of the modern urban and was clearly an influence on Eliot.
Modernism developed in the art world with its use of anti-form, desecration of established conventions, the use if hard resonant and witty images, associated sensibility and an expression of the sense of anguish, creating its own “adversary culture.” The term refers to such art as Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Symbolism, Imagism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Bradbury states, “The movement towards sophistication and mannerism, towards introversion, technical display, internal self-scepticism, has often been taken as a common basis for a definition of modernism.” (8) New techniques were being used to create new representations so that he viewer, reader, listener and so on could see things in a new way.
Examples of this can be seen in Pablo Picasso’s work, such as “Factory at Horta de Ebro” (1990) where he reduced visual realities to their geometric shapes. Along with his friend Georges Braque he used this idea to give birth to Cubism. Other examples include “Violin and Grapes” (1912) and “Lady with a Fan” (1909) which used sharp geometric shapes in their make-up, perhaps in order to reflect the new shape of the evolving landscape. With regards to painters like Picasso, Read claimed:
“We are now concerned not with a logical development of the art of new painting in Europe, not even a development for which there is any historical parallel, but with an abrupt break with all tradition – the aim of five centuries of European effort is openly abandoned.” (9)
When looking at modernism in this way it seems very organised and very much in the hands of that genius artist – a positive movement almost. But as a movement of rejection others have described it in a very different way to that above. Rather than simply being sophisticated and revolutionary Bradbury and McFarlane describe it as:
“…not so much a revolution, which simply implies a turning over – even a turning back, but rather a break up, a devolution, some would say dissolution. Its character is catastrophic.” (10)
Marshal Berman went a step further claiming it to be more of a threat – the creation of a whole world, which would destroy everything. He saw how it unified people but also identified the paradox:
“Modern environments cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology. In this sense modernism can be said to unite all mankind but it is also a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity, it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and a renewal of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of the universe in which as Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air””
This kind of description is often also used to describe postmodernism – something which generates continual debate as to whether a piece is to be considered modern or postmodern and again creates confusion as to where one ended and the other began (if indeed they are even seen as differing in definition!).
This often stems from the contrary argument to that of modernism as somehow chaotic and fragmentary. Jim Collins’ view is very different to that of Berman in that he argues that modernism is far more stable than that and in fact describes it as a set of absolutes which go towards what he describes a the “Grande Hotel” (11) . This being the image of society Fritz Lang was offering in his film “Metropolis” whereby society and culture are orchestrated by some kind of master controller. In presenting modernism in this way Jim Collins seeks to set postmodernism off against it, stressing that it is much more fluid and relative. One could argue however that this description of modernism is almost set up as an heuristic argument on order for Collins to argue his point and try and separate the two terms which otherwise seem to merge.
The comments of D.H.Lawrence, often seen as a modernist writer, also seem to tie in with the ideas surrounding the concept of postmodernism:
“We have to drop our own manner of on-and-on-and-on, from start to finish, and allow the mind to move in cycles, or to flit here and there over a cluster of images. Our idea of time as continuity in an eternal straight line has crippled our conscious cruelly.” (12)
This illustrates the confusion of what really constitutes a difference between modernism and postmodernism and one could almost argue that postmodernism is simply a repackaging of modernity in the face of lacking something new. After all, once you have a term that continually defines the present and continually redefines itself according to current changes what new term is left for the theorists to come up with to reflect the current state of society and sell more books with?
But what of modernism’s definition itself and agreeing when and what it is. Well it is clear there are disagreements on both counts – even if we accept that there was a great deal of change in society and consequently within the arts with the event of industrialisation could we not apply the term modernism to any period in which there has been a great deal of change? One could even make comparisons with such radical changes as occurred with the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire in ancient history – surely at the time the changes in religion, society, art and indeed warfare could have had the same label of modernism attributed to them.
Even if one accepts it as a term particularly relevant to the 20th century then there is still the problem of agreeing what exactly the concept is – is it fragmentary, catastrophic, unifying or absolute?
Such disagreement surrounding the term brings into serious question its usefulness in describing artistic and social changes occurring throughout the past century or so. Personally I think I’ll stick to Barthes’ definition and the relativity of it all as at the very least this humbles us a little more in the face of history and takes away that typically individualistic and arrogant edge that we seem to hold of feeling that the changes in our “modern” lives are somehow radically different and more important than anything that as ever happened before.
(1) from “Modernism” by Bradbury and McFarlane 1978 p22
(2) from Introduction in the above where they described it as a, “response of the imagination to an urbanised, Gesellschaft world.”
(3) from “The Politics of Modernism” by Raymond Williams 1989
(4) taken from “Popular Culture – The Metropolitan Experience” by Iain Chambers 1993 p47-8
(5) from “Modernism” p33. Originally taken from Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown written in 1924.
(6) from “The Social Production of Art” by Janet Wolf p10-11
(7) from “Literary Theory” by Terry Eagleton
(8) from “Modernism” p28
(9) as above p20
(10) as above p20
(11) from “Uncommon Cultures” by Jim Collins
(12) from “Modernism” p51