A Note on Modernism

Modernism was essentially based on an utopian vision of human life and society and a belief in progress, or moving forward and not dwelling on the past. 


Modernist ideals pervaded art, architecture, literature, religious faith, philosophy, social organisation, daily activities, and even the sciences, becoming a new zeitgeist and form of cultural ethos that promoted innovation and a new way of seeing design and function. Originally Modernism was essentially conceived of as a rebellion against traditionalist 19th Century academic and historic traditions and against staid Victorian nationalism and cultural absolutism, on the grounds that the “traditional” forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organisation and daily life (in a modern industrialised world) were becoming outdated and only benefited the wealthy. The movement was initially called “avant-garde”, descriptive of its attempt to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo. 



The term “modernism” itself is derived from the Latin “modo”, meaning “just now”. It called for the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was “holding back” progress, and replacing it with new, improved, progressive and better ways of reaching the same end. Modernists believed that by questioning tradition they could discover radically new ways of making art, and at the same time force the audience to take the trouble to question their own historical preconceptions and biases. 



It stressed freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism and primitivism, and its disregard for conventional expectations often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects (e.g. surrealism in art, atonality in music, stream-of-consciousness literature). Some Modernists saw themselves as part of a revolutionary culture that also included political revolution, while others rejected conventional politics as well as artistic conventions, believing that a revolution of political consciousness had greater importance than a change in actual political structures. The first wave of Modernism as an artistic umbrella movement broke in the first decade or two of the 20th Century, with ground-breaking musical works by people like Arthur Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; whilst innovative artists such as Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian push new boundaries hitherto forbidden; Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in architecture; and Guillaume Apollinaire, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf in literature; to mention just a few leaders of the movement. 



The movement came of age in the 1920’s with Bauhaus, Surrealism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and, perhaps the most nihilistic of all, Dada. After World War II, the focus moved from Europe to the United States, and Abstract Expressionism (led by Jackson Pollock) continued the movement’s momentum, followed by movements such as Geometric Abstraction, Minimalism, Process Art, Pop Art and Pop Music. By the time Modernism had become so institutionalised and mainstream that it was considered “post avant-garde”, indicating that it had lost its power as a revolutionary movement, it generated in turn its own reaction, known as Post-Modernism, which was both a response to Modernism and a rediscovery of the value of older forms of art. Modernism remains much more of a force in the arts and architecture and design, than in philosophy, although Post- Modernism has a specifically philosophical aspect in addition to the artistic one.