Two views of Modernism

“The starting point of modernism is the crisis of belief that pervades twentieth-century culture : loss of faith, experience of fragmentation and disintegration, and shattering of cultural symbols and norms.  At the center of this crisis were the new technologies and methods of science, the epistemology of logical positivism, and the relativism of functionalist thought—in short, major aspects of the philosophical perspectives that Freud embodied. The rationalism of science and philosophy attacked the validity of traditional religious and artistic symbols while the growing technology of the industrialized world produced the catastrophes of the war on the one hand and the atomization of human beings on the other. Art produced after the First World War recorded the emotional aspect of this crisis : despair, hopelessness, paralysis, angst, and a sense of meaninglessness, chaos, and fragmentation of material reality. In a variety of ways suited to their own religious, literary, mythological, occult, political, or existentialist perspectives, they emerged from the paralysis of absolute despair to an active search for meaning. The search for order and pattern began in its own negation, in the overwhelming sense of disorder and fragmentation caused by the modern materialist world. The artist as seer would attempt to create what the culture could no longer produce : symbol and meaning in the dimension of art, brought into being through the agency of language, the Word or Logos of the twentieth century.”

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn : The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981, 97.

“Very broadly speaking, the vast majority of attempts to offer alternative modes of representation from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century have at one time or another been termed modernist, and this applies to literature, music, painting, film and architecture.  In poetry modernism is associated with moves to break from the iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce vers libre, symbolism, and other new forms of writing. In prose it is associated with attempts to render human subjectivity in ways more real than realism: to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual’s relation to society through interior monologue, stream of consciousness, tunnelling, defamiliarization, rhythm, irresolution (…) Modernist writers therefore struggled, in Ezra Pound’s brief phrase, to ‘make it new,’ to modify if not overturn existing modes and subjects of representation, partly by pushing them towards the abstract or the introspective, and to express the new subjectivities of their time: in a compressed, condensed, complex literature of the city, of industry and technology, war, machinery and space, mass markets and communication, of internationalism, the New Woman, the aesthete, the nihilist, and the flaneur.”

Childs, Peter. Modernism. London: Routledge, 2008, 3-4.

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