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Modernism is what I plan to learn about and understand on Thursday when we discuss it! -- a student response on a quiz asking “What do you know about Modernism?”.

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Modernism is a form of writing where the individual is alienated from society. -- student

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Modernism is what I plan to learn about and understand on Thursday when we discuss it!-- a student response on a quiz asking “What do you know about Modernism?”


Modernism was a movement which included art and literature, German DADA movement, Picasso’s cubism, etc. Literature was exploring how the modern way of life was negatively affecting mankind.-- another student


Modernism is when literature and poetry begin to sound more straight forward, like everyday language. It is more realistic, as opposed to literature from the 19th century, which was more poetic and pleasant.-- a student


Modernism is literature that was written at the end of or just after World War II and was a response to the shock and horror that had come out of the war and the first use of the atom bomb.-- a studentWhat mistake is being made? Confusing World War I with World War II?


Modernism is a style that flourished in the early 1900s and was characterized by a broken or at least not traditionally coherent or linear writing style. This style was supposed to more closely resemble life itself, which is rarely simple or coherent.-- a student


Modernism is a collection of new ideas, a counter-culture reaction to a conservative society. Modernism had a sense of futility, a questioning of norms.-- a student


Modernism is a time of crisis, where the truth is questioned, where there is fragmentation found in literary works – or an attempt at clarity in the face of real-world fragmentation. A yearning for wholeness and unity is also reflected in literary works.-- a student


This begins my comments:Modernity begins in the 17th century with the rise of scientific thinking and rationality, with the Enlightenment.It is not a sudden dawning of a new era, but a force or influence in Western civilization that grew gradually, but which coalesced the most visibly by the end of the 1800s.


Modernism is the aesthetic response to modernity – painting, literature, architecture. It is given a “starting point,” which some say was the Armory Show of 1913 in New York City, an annual exhibition of new artists.It included a famous work by Marcel Duchamp…

marcel duchamp nude descending a staircase 1912
Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase



Modernity“Human rationality will predominate, subordinating irrationality, custom, and superstition, with the efficacy to plan for and attain progressive improvement in all social institutions through the free exercise of will….


Humans have the ability to understand nature as it is – real, solid, and lawfully dependable – which diminishes dependence on theological or transcendental concepts.”Preface to ModernismArt Berman


In this sense, modernity is optimistic. It produces cures for diseases. It liberates people from oppression and superstition. It increases understanding of the human mind, making possible greater personal fulfillment.


Advances in technology are made possible by modernity. Among these new technologies are transportation advances – ships, trains, planes, etc. These make possible great travel, trade, the opening of new markets, the availability of new products, exploration, colonization, war, large and sudden migrations.


Machines seem to dominate modernity. For instance, machines alter manufacturing, so that factories replace home-based craftsmen. Factories make for large cities. Large cities make for economic opportunities. Large cities mean people leave the countryside. These migrations upset families and loosen the hold of tradition and conformity on those who migrate.


Modernism simultaneously celebrates the “advances” of modernity and critiques them.“Artistic innovation, creativity, exuberance, and insight into the human condition are to act as a critique of modernity and as a social, political, and aesthetic corrective to it….


Modernism is, however, also intended to advance modernity, in particular its optimistic belief in material, social, and intellectual progress….


It rejects the social and commercial values of a conservative and complacent middle class, and it abhors the way the middle class defines value in commercial and monetary terms.”Preface to Modernism(And yet the modernist artist is frequently dependent upon that middle class – Who buys the most books? Who sees the most plays? Who buys the most paintings?)


In the following image, note how the artist has presented something that could qualify as fragmented, but it is not pessimistic. It attempts to capture the excitement of modern life. The artist attempts to create a new style to depict a new reality. It breaks previous assumptions of what makes “good art”; it doesn’t follow normal definitions of “beauty.”

joseph stella the battle of lights coney island 1913
Joseph Stella

The Battle of Lights, Coney Island



In this famous piece, the artist renews that challenge to conventional definitions of “art.” This is “found art,” something found in a real-world setting that is minimally manipulated by the artist. It doesn’t even require technical skill. It also demonstrates Modernisms playfulness, while perhaps communicating some pessimism or cynicism.


Modernist architecture was not nearly so playful or exciting. It was more of a science, coolly rational. It created “machines for living,” a phrase used to describe a home. It defied previous notions of “beauty,” but by getting rid of “artifice” and “prettiness.” Architecture would not get chaotic or “fun” until Postmodernism.


The most extreme example of modernism’s critique of modernity is the “sudden onset of insecurity and even dread … as it becomes apparent that science and economics cannot cure the ontological loneliness following upon God’s, or the soul’s, obsolescence.”Preface to Modernism


Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all convictions, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. From “The Second Coming”William Butler Yeats, 1921