Michael Levenson. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

A movement of indeterminate origin and span, modernism nevertheless retains the distinctiveness of a major episode in the history of culture. Its most renowned manifestations performed a radical break with the dominant arts of the nineteenth century. They were direct provocations to prevailing norms: norms of beauty, of the representational integrity of the human body, of the continuity of forms, of the consolations of progress, of secure reception by an audience. Despite striking differences, these artifacts were quickly recognized as part of a broad cultural transformation. They incited popular outrage, putting the category of “art” into question and forcing the issue of “difficulty.” The emergence of modernism is inseparable from the active controversy that was an inescapable aspect of its development.

Distinctions among modernization, modernity, and modernism remain indispensable: modernization as the condition of social, economic, and technological change; modernity as the lived social experience of these transforming conditions; and modernism as the cultural activity situated within and alongside these other dimensions. That no secure origin of modernism can be offered is a reflection of its complex relations. The process of modernization—uneven industrialization, the widening of empire, the spread of technologies, the emergence of class society, the struggle for the rights of women—has no fixed starting point, nor does the experience of modernity, the sensation of being unmoored from a continuous past or uprooted from an organic community.

Despite the indeterminacy at its limits, the period known as high modernism, roughly bound by the years 1890 through 1930, achieves historical definition. It does so through the magnitude and extremity of artistic experiment, the proliferation of public gestures (such as exhibitions and manifestos), the attentions of the press, the growing international circulation of experimental texts and ideas, and the widening consciousness of cultural and social change. Any single characteristic of modernism can be traced far back in cultural history. What distinguishes the movement is the convergence of multiple tendencies, including the exploration of such negative states as violence, irrationality, and nihilism alongside the affirmation of art as a redemptive possibility.

Immediate antecedents of high modernism are many and diverse. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), in the poems of Les Fleurs du mal (1857) as well as in his essays, introduced preoccupations taken up repeatedly over subsequent decades: a fascination with and revulsion from the modern city, an encounter with transgressive eroticism, an acceptance of evil, a delight in artifice (especially through the figure of the dandy), and a commitment to the craft of lyric poetry and the power of the Symbol. Whereas Baudelaire enacted his encounter with modernity in compact poetic forms, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) promoted radical transformation on the grand scale. He aimed for a complete reconstruction of nineteenth-century opera, based on his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that combines drama, music, dance, and stage-setting. Wagner’s demand for spectacular dramatic gesture, his investment in large mythic narrative, and his creation of the Bayreuth festival represent efforts to renovate culture through the public force of art.

The symbolic and mythic projects of Baudelaire and Wagner developed in parallel to a newly austere realism that often looked to experimental science as a model. The paintings of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), including The Stone Breakers (1849) and The Burial at Ornans (1850), refused pictorial idealism, representing workers and common citizens in ordinary dress and everyday poses. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), whose Madame Bovary (1857) epitomized the new realism, wrote that art “must rise above personal emotions and nervous susceptibilities. It is time to endow it with pitiless method, with the exactness of the physical sciences” (p. 195). Beginning in the 1870s, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) composed a series of plays—A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Pillars of Society—that insisted on a “realist” analysis of middle-class ideals and that generated uproar throughout Europe. In their methods as their subjects, Courbet, Flaubert, and Ibsen pursued the unmasking of illusion and the hard-won claims of truthful fiction.

Although these figures differed in their work and their legacies, each prepared for the advent of high modernism. The decisive event was the emergence of an oppositional culture. It was only when singular provocations became related to one another, sometimes loosely, sometimes closely, that modernity recognized modernism and modernists became conscious of their historical possibility. There was no modernism without individually audacious artifacts, but equally no modernism without exchanges among artists and relationships among their works.

Impressionism, Symbolism, Oppositional Culture

Impressionism became a visible and contentious movement in the 1870s when a group of young French painters, including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Sisley, and Jean Renoir, gave several controversial exhibitions in Paris. Their break with academic painting and their commitment to everyday life followed Courbet, but they went further in the attempt to render the visible world as they experienced it subjectively: unstable, evanescent, and elusive. As significant as the new pictorial style was the collective aspect of Impressionism. Like the short-lived Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that had appeared in London in the 1850s, Impressionism generated hostility in part because the alliance among artists suggested a viable alternative to cultural orthodoxy.

A second French movement, more significant and sustained, was symbolism, which emerged in the 1880s. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) were presiding figures, and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was the legendary seer who had disappeared from France. The symbolists looked back to Baudelaire and resisted the dominance of realism, especially in its more extreme manifestation in the naturalist novels of Émile Zola (1844-1896) and the Goncourts (Edmond [1822-1896] and Jules [1830-1870]). Symbolism offered the rituals of the poetic enigma: evocative music, not descriptive reference. “To name the object,” wrote Mallarmé, “is to destroy three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem” (p. 869). The poetic Symbol could be a sound, a scent, or a memory incarnating the invisible meanings of the world or intimating a mystery beyond the senses. Much symbolist polemic was a refusal of modernization (science, urbanism, mass politics, and the dislocations of individual experience). Apart from the success of individual poems, such as Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune or Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre, the importance of symbolism was that it offered an aesthetic counterworld. It was at once an artistic program and a social formation.

In Britain a critical lineage stretching from John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold to Walter Pater brought the idea of “culture” close to the symbolist vision of an alternative universe of value. A disciple of Pater, Arthur Symons (1865-1945) helped to introduce symbolism to the English-speaking world, presenting it as a fulfillment of literature’s highest responsibilities: “for in speaking to us so intimately, so solemnly, as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes itself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual” (p. 9). He introduced Mallarmé to W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), who also imagined a literature imbued with the force of religion and resistant to a mechanized social world and materialist philosophy. Yeats looked to magic and the occult, as well to the folklore and fairy tales of Ireland. His responsiveness to such a range of countertraditions suggests the extent of the division between the new literary movements and the modernizing social world around them.

Nineteenth-century cultural movements emerged within the broader context of modernity: in particular, the recognition of class conflict in postrevolutionary Europe. The Europeanwide revolutions of 1848 established modern society as a struggle between competing groups. It is often noted that the term avant-garde began with political and military meanings and only transferred its reference to the arts in the nineteenth century. Many artists had joined the revolutionary struggles, not only in 1848 but also in the Paris Commune of 1871. The turn away from politics is a striking feature of much late-century culture, with symbolism as a defining example; yet the political struggle generated possibilities for historical change that affected even those artists who refused the call of politics.

The Assertion of Modernism, 1890-1914

The reaction against symbolism began early, and even as its influence was passing to other national cultures, it attracted stringent critique. In the 1890s symbolism often became identified with decadence, in which the austere experiments of Mallarmé gave way to easier rhythms of yearning and escape. The tableau of the weary poet cultivating the sensations of dream became a European-wide image, vulnerable to caricature and dismissal. J. K. Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884) helped to inspire Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which dramatized but also ironized the languid life of decadence, the vocation of the senses. Wilde is a decisive figure, one who in his life and work carried Decadence into the public world and who detached himself from it through wit, irony, and paradox. When Wilde went to trial in 1895, the encounter between oppositional culture and the canons of respectability became vivid and painful. His conviction, imprisonment, and early death revealed the entanglements of modernism within the social world it refused.

The turn of the century brought a perceptible change in artistic and literary movements. The symbolist poet, committed to ritual incantations of the suggestive word, gave way to the young, assertive artist, eager to contend with aesthetic convention and social orthodoxy. When Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) painted a brothel tableau in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), with its harsh forms, its sexual brazenness, its direct encounter with the eyes of the viewer, he enacted the turn from weariness to confrontation. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus sets himself as the antagonist of a sluggish culture, daring to echo Satan’s “Non Serviam.” Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) conveyed the shock of atonality to Western music, attracting tones of outrage to match its experiment in dissonance. In his first Futurist manifesto (1909) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti asserted, “No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece” (p. 41). He toured Europe, celebrating an escape from the exhausted past into the speed and violence of modern technology.

There had been precursors of this emphatic confrontalism too. Rimbaud had made scorn for mediocrity a founding principle of his verse. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) released the intensity of color to create intensities of affective assault. But the context that prepared for high modernism was wider than literature and the arts. The unsettled life at the end of the nineteenth century was not simply the background of high modernism; it became an ongoing concern for an intellectually self-conscious movement intent to reengage the world. Major influences included the revolutionary theory of Karl Marx transmitted through post-Marxist theorists in Europe; Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity in favor of the “overman” and the will to power; Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic exposition of the unconscious, dreams, bisexuality, and neurosis; James George Frazer’s comparison of pagan rituals and modern life in The Golden Bough; and Henri Bergson’s arguments for an experience of pure duration available only to the deep self. These ambitious theories conflicted on many points: Marx’s social vision against Freud’s pessimistic view of instinctual conflict and Bergson’s strictly philosophic approach, Frazer’s scholarly assimilation of primitive and modern attitudes in contrast to Nietzsche’s tense demand for a transvaluation of all values. What they shared was a sense of radical transformation. High modernism participated in this active theoretical milieu, in which it seemed that every basis for human self-understanding was under reconsideration. Intellectual life was often an essential element in the art, and the centrality of manifestos in high modernism is another register of the intellectual character of the movement. New artifacts did not appear as isolated provocations; they arrived within a dense context of essays, reviews, and manifestos that connected the making of modernist artifacts to the unfolding of modern theory.

Outside the realm of theoretical writing stood the power of social events. The development of a large reading public and mass democracy incited a modernist anxiety over popular culture recurrent through the period. The conflict between the sexes, including the image of the New Woman and the militant demand for female suffrage, challenged the representation of sexuality in the visual arts, the structure of the marriage plot, and poetic lyricism. This was also the new age of European imperialism, and whether empire became part of the focal subject matter, as with Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster, or remained unacknowledged, it formed an inescapable cultural context. The political environment sometimes inspired arts to social engagement, as in the feminist writings of Virginia Woolf or in the political theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht; just as often it created styles of resistance or right-wing reaction, as in the later works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Wyndham Lewis. In either case, the success of left-wing parties, the threat of revolution in Germany, and its success in Russia meant that experimental artists worked within a milieu of political hopes and fears.

High Modernism and the Avant-Garde, 1914-1930

The devastations of World War I created a social trauma that lasted a generation and intensified the ambitions of the arts. Beginning shortly before the war and continuing through the following decade, an astonishing variety of technically audacious works appeared. A community of artists, readers, viewers, editors, and curators created a receptive context encouraging ever more experimental work, including the move to abstraction in the fine arts (Wassily Kandinsky in painting, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Vladimir Tatlin in sculpture); the development of new cinematic styles (Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Dziga Vertov); the architectural revolution of Le Corbusier (modern materials in abstract forms); the theatrical extravagance of the Ballets Russes accompanied by the music of Igor Stravinsky; the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg; and the experiments in narrative consciousness of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. This profusion has been called the “the last literary season of Western culture” (Moretti, p. 209). A claim of modernism to historical distinctiveness rests first of all on the sheer abundance of formally provocative art and the wide attentiveness to it.

A frequently noted aspect of modernist form is its fragmentation: the dissolution of continuity in speech, wholeness in the body, consecutiveness in narrative. The one-or two-lined lyrics of imagism, the abrupt focal shifts in the work of Gertrude Stein, the disintegration of the face in analytic cubism, the rapid editing in the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, all present decomposing forms shorn of the usual contexts of meaning. “Image,” “vortex,” “moment,” “epiphany” were some of the names given to these radiant fragments. A prominent concern then became the passage from these shorter forms, however resonant, toward more encompassing structures: longer poems, more capacious novels, larger paintings, more ambitious films and music. The later phase of modernism, which contains some of its most striking artifacts (Eliot’s The Waste Land, Picasso’s Three Musicians, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eisenstein’s October,Schoenberg’s unfinished Moses und Aron), turns toward synthetic forms that might arrange fragments into broader patterns. The use of myth was a dominant resource for Joyce, Eliot, and Stravinsky; in Eliot’s formulation, the mythic method gave a form of order that made “the modern world possible for art.” Eisenstein’s development of cinematic montage, the conceptual and metaphoric linking of separate images, was another manifestation of synthesis.

Was high modernism then a new aesthetic order or a new antiorder? This question circulated among artists and their critics. Despite the theoretical justifications brought forward to explain the difficult art, it is clear that modernist masterworks contained much that was contingent and resistant to explanation. The sheer eruptive energies, the sense of play, the pleasure in accident, and the linguistic and visual anarchy cannot be safely ordered as examples of a new “method.” The implications of this disruptive aesthetics were most fully drawn by the avant-garde groups that developed during and after the war, especially expressionism, dadaism, and surrealism. These groups differed significantly, but they shared a commitment to aesthetic radicalism and direct public challenge. In Germany a group of poets, painters, and filmmakers began to work under the heading expressionism, aiming not to receive the world’s impressions but to express irrational and intuitive states of mind. They opened the visual world to exaggeration, heightened gesture and emotion, and deformed space and time in their refusal of a corrupt social order. Beginning in Switzerland and spreading quickly to France and Germany, dadaism saw the war as marking the failure of civilization and developed the practice of anti-art as a gesture of defiance. In 1916 Hugo Ball opened the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where performances included cacophonous music, nonsense poetry, comic recitation, and costumed theatricality. Dada put in question the most central assumptions of Western art: its seriousness, its coherence as an artifact, its separation from the everyday social world. The dissolution of dada in the early 1920s led some of its members to join André Breton’s surrealism, which emphasized the recovery of repressed sources of the imagination and their release into a rational art. Rimbaud’s call for a derangement of the senses was one major influence; Freud’s theory of the unconscious was another. Automatic writing, hallucination, and dreams were seen as instruments of liberation from a constrained and destructive reality. Many of the surrealists, like many of the Dadaists, understood their place within the avant-garde as part of a more general program of political and cultural revolution.

Useful distinctions have often been made between the high modernism of Yeats, Eliot, Rilke, Joyce, Proust, and Mann, deeply committed to the integrity of the artifact, and the “historical avant-garde” constituted by these socially active movements that questioned the coherence of art and its withdrawal from social life. Historically attentive scholarship has shown, however, that these are not rival camps or opposing sides of a cultural dyad. Within high modernism one finds both signs of radical indeterminacy in form and strong statements of social engagement. Ezra Pound’s assertion that “the artists were the antennae of the race” (p. 67) represents a characteristic modernist demand, sometimes from the political right and sometimes from the left, for social change founded on the basis of revolutionary art. Similarly, within the avant-garde, one finds scenes of consolidation, where the discord resolves into determinate artifacts. The “avant-garde” and “high modernism” are best seen as moments within the conditions of cultural modernity: an ongoing dialectic between openness and indecidability, on the one hand, and formal integrity, on the other.

Modernism after High Modernism

The later history of the movement involved its circulation into new cultural settings around the world, where it met other forms of modernity and became at once an influence and an object of resistance. The Harlem Renaissance, an efflorescence of African-American literature after World War I, emerged out of local and national contexts—specifically, the consolidation of cultural possibility in New York after the Great Migration northward. It generated experimental forms (for instance, in Jean Toomer’s Cane), but it also accommodated traditional styles, as in sonnets of Claude McKay. The Harlem Renaissance was not a product of high modernism; rather, it was a parallel movement, intersecting and diverging, that obliges us to recognize a wider, more differentiated history of cultural modernity.

Late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first-century scholarship has shown how modernism played a double-sided role in the national independence movements before and after World War II. The European provenance of celebrated masterworks could make them appear distant and oppressive, tainted by the imperial past. But within the context of the traditional curriculum of the colonial schools, Modernism was also taken as a force of resistance to a canon still derived from nineteenth-century achievement. In the work of Chinua Achebe in Nigeria or Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kenya complicated double inheritance appears: modernism is at once acknowledged and appropriated, but it has no special privilege alongside other literary aims. It combines with storytelling traditions and national aspirations (Gikandi, 1987). Other studies have shown that in the Caribbean the formal techniques refined by modernism converged with styles of experiment associated with the hybrid history of the islands (Gikandi, 1992). The “creolization” of everyday speech created regional contexts for modernist art, and the conditions of social conflict brought resistance to the elite prestige of European high modernism.

Modernism came to no definite end. The call to “make it new,” the use of formal discontinuity, the willingness to compose and present difficult works of art, all continued through the end of the twentieth century. But in the last half of that century, the assimilative power of culture diminished the challenge of such work. A movement that had offered an oppositional principle and a call for transformation found itself part of the routine of shock, celebrity, and fashion.