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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N033-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term modernism denotes an explosion of aesthetic innovation in Europe, Britain, Ireland and America from roughly 1880 to 1950. It embraces a hugely diverse group of works which unevenly manifest some or all of the following characteristics: a sense of a decisive break with tradition; formal experimentation; previously forbidden or marginalized content; a mania for the new; emphasis upon perception and experience over objective reality; exploration of new models of subjectivity; and challenges to existing scientific, technological, philosophical and religious models. A spirit of critique animates many of these characteristics, as artists used aesthetic innovation to demand that Western civilization be either renovated or razed. The variety of works it encompasses means, of course, that no one work exemplifies all these traits, or to the same extent, and that many works do so in contradictory ways. As such, the formal experimentation and spirit of critique that typify modernism in general can manifest in wildly divergent ways in specific works: minimalism or prolixity, masculinism or feminism, fascism or communism, postcolonialism or imperialism, violence or pacifism, art as cultural saviour or disease to be cured. The aesthetics to which these tendencies give rise are likewise various, both within and across the arts, producing effects that range from the soothing soft focus of Impressionism to the harsh dehumanization of Futurism, and from the extreme close-up of stream of consciousness to the impenetrability of abstract expressionism - and almost everything else in between, even including realism (deployed to absurdist effect).

Modernism is the art of modernity. As such, it cannot be understood separately from its contexts. It emerged from, was driven by, and reacted against massive changes in society, technology, science, geopolitics and philosophy. The bewildering pace and shocking nature of many of these changes, led some modernists to proclaim a qualitative shift in human history, to which art must respond. In response, modernist artists made formal experimentation and nontraditional subjects the sine qua non of the new age. Starting from the premise that the old forms could no longer be adequate to a new world, the modernists sought to capture the exuberance, contradictions, horrors and utopian possibilities of modernity. They also both helped create and capitalized upon the modern speculative market in avant-garde art, publishing one another in little magazines and reviews, showing one another’s work, perfecting the art of the limited edition and manuscript sales, and facilitating contacts with well-endowed collectors.

Their success in these endeavours is indisputable. Nonetheless, modernism’s fortunes varied wildly during the remainder of the twentieth century, going from hegemonic status as the pinnacle of (white, male, Western) high culture under the label high modernism (c.1950s-60s), to gradual inclusion of women artists and artists of colour (c.1970s-80s), vilification as the epitome of intolerance and elitism (c.1980s-90s) and finally to a resurgence in dramatically more catholic form, signified by a pluralization: modernisms (1999-present).

Citing this article:
Ross, Stephen. Modernism, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N033-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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