DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

2. Reality and observation

One of the most prominent and lasting achievements of modernism in all its manifestations is the devaluation of the premise that we occupy an ‘objective’ reality, accessible to but independent of human perception. In traditional realism, artists and critics, social thinkers and scientists were thought to make direct statements about this reality, whether it be natural, social or psychological. Modernism essentially turns away from this realist enterprise and towards discussion and analysis of human measurement or observation.

This rich and profound departure is difficult to describe in brief, but an example from modernist physics helps to illustrate it. In the natural sciences, the great model of an objective, constant, external universe was based on Newtonian mechanics. Einstein undermined this coherent and rational structure by redirecting attention from the nature of reality to the nature of measurement, from what was taken to be our direct contact with nature to our observation of it. In his 1905 paper on Special Relativity, Einstein did not ask what time is: he asked how we measure it. He asked what we mean by the time of an event. In Relativity Theory, a measurement is neither a subjective impression (a unique event in a single mind that cannot be fully communicated) nor a constant, necessary description of an independent external object or event. Instead, it may be seen as a kind of middle ground – literally a mediation – between the observer and the observed phenomenon. And this middle ground is the characteristic epistemological location of modernism: its focus is on neither subject nor object but on the act of human observation of a reality presumed but not proved to be external to the observer.

In modernist painting we can see other manifestations of this shift in value. Cubism – with its subject-matter of bottles, tables, shreds of newspaper, musical instruments – clearly deflects our interest from the subject to its representation. In this process it derogates the specific importance of the historically or religiously or sentimentally significant subject (Christ on the Cross, the Mona Lisa, The Rape of the Sabines) to the problematics of representation, the aesthetics of composition, the formal language. What is significant about Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, for example, is not the subject (Vollard’s distinctive physical features, his support of modernist art, his aesthetic intuition) but how Picasso presents Ambroise Vollard. Just as Relativity Theory focused attention away from the nature of reality towards the nature of measurement and observation, so Cubism focused attention away from what was being represented towards how it was being represented.

Similar illustrations of this shift can be found in most movements of modernist art and literature, as well as in modernist developments in philosophy (see Phenomenological movement). But what is of greatest significance here is the liberating nature of this change in values. The practitioners of modernism felt themselves no longer locked into the limiting dichotomies of object and representation, world and observer. They began to move from one side to the other, to explore without interruption the unceasing interaction between the object and its space, or the event and its temporality. The old categories lost their integrity and the artist and subject, or observer and object, came to inhabit a middle ground of observation itself. In this sense of liberation, the modernist model for reality becomes the field (as in scientific field models), where observers are also participants (as in cubist painting or quantum theory), where readers help to create the text (as in Kafka’s The Castle or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), or in the many other modernist constructions in which all constituents are interdependent and in which all participate and interrelate without privilege.

Citing this article:
Vargish, Thomas. Reality and observation. Modernism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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