Modernism: Picasso, Helvetica, Chairman Mao and the Who

I enjoyed the response to Monday’s article about the words “modernism” and “postmodernism” as they are used in the separate fields of architecture and literature. Serendipitously, a tangentially related article has now drifted my way, an illustrated piece by Joseph Clarke about modern architecture in religion and business.

We hear a lot about postmodernism these days, but it’s important to realize that postmodernism is just one of many tips of the iceberg known as modernism. Modernism, the trunk from which many branches spring, was a primal and broad movement born, roughly, as part of the pre-Revolutionary French enlightenment in the 18th Century. It developed gradually along with Romanticism and Impressionism and Symbolism during the 19th Century, then reached an artistic peak in the early 20th Century in the age of Joyce and Beckett and Picasso and Kandinsky and Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Modernism is, of course, still alive today, and still stands as a challenge to traditional society in many forms. Postmodernism is just one small candy-coated facet of the whole thing, and it doesn’t really make sense to talk a lot about postmodernism unless we talk about modernism first.

What is modernism? In one sense its a rigorous mental discipline, calling for a Zen-like focus on an aesthetic or ethical goal. In another sense it’s a return to a more primal nature, a throwing-away of all social artifice. Modernism stands against whatever is. Modernism is the spirit of change, of progress, of reinvention.

In the field of visual art, Pablo Picasso was a modernist because his cubist paintings sought to confuse the eye and the mind into seeing substance and shape anew (Andy Warhol would then follow Picasso, of course, as the quintessential postmodernist, allowing us to see the familiar again). Modern art, like modern architecture, offers many helpful clues towards the meaning of modernism in literature.

Modernist music, on the other hand, has always been a tough sell, and doesn’t offer much by way of useful metaphor. The audience threw stuff at Igor Stravinsky when he debuted Rite of Spring, and Arnold Schoenberg’s strict system of twelve notes to replace the major or minor octaves in all music was, basically, a flop. Perhaps music’s appeal is simply too primal for us to want a modernist revolution, or perhaps the revolution simply hasn’t begun yet.

Modernism is everywhere. It’s amusing to learn that the font Helvetica was created as a modernist masterpiece by expert designers in that most modern of European nations, Switzerland. As Gary Hustwit’s appealing film Helvetica shows, this ultra-clean and simply functional font was intended to define a new “international style”, an egalitarian and politically correct typeface, essentially modern. Times New Roman, in contrast to the newer Helvetica, is an example of an utterly traditionalist font. And if you use Courier (the “typewriter font”) on your blog, you’re clearly trying to be postmodern.

It’s funny that Helvetica has become so popular and widely loved (“My other font is also Helvetica” bumperstickers, etc.), since it was designed to be simply pure and functional. Perhaps this font is the single greatest triumph of modernism in the 20th Century.

As I wrote in Monday’s post, modernism in the arts often corresponded to communism or Communism in politics. Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre were devout Marxists, and it’s certainly not to modernism’s credit that Chinese ruler Mao Zedong was a modernist from head to toe, and in the most brutal sense.

It was Chairman Mao’s entire program, during the many painful and murderous decades of his career, to obliterate China’s past, to tear down villages and replace them with communes, to break ethnic bonds, to destroy treasured antiquities, in the name of a New China. Historians agree that Chairman Mao’s genocidal campaigns against the Chinese people killed more than Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin combined. His successors’ campaign to “modernize” the Buddhist society of Tibet is being widely protested around the world, to little avail, even today.

So much for modernism’s great promise — imagine Mao’s work gangs tearing apart monuments and well-rooted villages to create communes that turned into starvation camps, and you see where modernism’s essentially negative, world-denying stance can eventually lead, if taken to the wrong extreme.

But this, of course, is yet another facet of the greater whole. The word “modernism” reverberates in so many different ways that, like postmodernism, it is often assumed to have no clear meaning. And yet the dots always connect.

Remember the “mods” and “rockers” of Britain’s youth culture, as memorialized by the Who’s album Quadrophenia? The rockers listened to Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent and had long sideburns and greasy clothes. The mods had GS Scooters with their hair cut neat. You can’t be sloppy if you’re a modernist.

16 Responses

  1. You ain’t gonna make it with
    You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow…..

    How’s about modernity ?

    How our way of life is rational and rule based across the whole terrain of our existence. This bureaucratic Kafkaesque carceral continuum rounded in by complexity and topped off with information overload.

  2. Mods v Rockers, I remember it
    Mods v Rockers, I remember it well, there was another sub-group called Mockers, neither mod nor rocker and disdainful of both.
    Rockers, and their sub groups Teddy Boys and Greasers listened to old fashioned Rock’n’Roll, Elvis etc, and rode motor bikes
    Mods and their cohorts Suede Heads and Skinheads, ‘dressed smart’, Ben Sherman button down shirts, Mohair suits, short hair was ‘de riguer’, football Bluebeat ans Ska were very fashionable, as where The Who, Kinks, and Small Faces. Lambretta’s and Vespa scooters where the height of working class ‘chic’,
    Living on a counciestate ‘The Ocean’ ‘Mountmorres’ and the Clichy was to be ‘sorted’ and upwardly mobile. Bobby Moore the footballer,-Billy Bragg called him the last of the short hairs- was god, the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel was both working class nirvana and gangster cool.
    To be standing in the ‘Beggars’ with a badge festooned Vespa parked outside, ‘The Twins’ at the bar, in the company of a ‘dolly bird with mini skirt half way up her arse’ and bunch of notes in your strides was working class heaven- David Bailey or Harry Diamond might even take your picture.
    That’s all gone now, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of monetarism, privatisation, and the advent of a’property owning democracy’ swept it all away. The ‘East End’ is now a very different place, multicultiralism is now the name of the game,
    It was always a migrant area, Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Maltese, and Bengali migrants have all settled there, some have stayed and others moved on.
    Now the New Europreamns are settling there, Polish
    Baltic, Russian Hungarian, and Albanian are changing the landscape once more. They even have their own Mods and Skinheads, less pleasant than before but skinheads nonetheless.
    The ‘East End’, the more it changes the more it remains the same.
    I lived and studied there for twenty years in one fashion or another, it’s great, I might even return.
    That’s another kind of post-modern moderness, dont you just love it.

  3. Hell [vetica] yeah!
    Mao was a

    Hell [vetica] yeah!
    Mao was a cynic to the nth degree–that may be giving him too much credit–and the Cultural Revolution was his shock doctrine to hold onto power and has been discredited as much as possible in 1984-speak China. His cult of personality still lives on to a degree, e.g., Mao’s viasage is on banknotes and you can buy his bust and even full size statues available where ever the tourist buses stop and this may be more a postmodern thing than modern.

  4. I’ve decided to become a
    I’ve decided to become a post-modern, post-Y2K, post-9/11, post-Bush, post-Financial Meldown, kind of a guy.

    I’ve decided to call my movement post-Toastie.

    I’m going to dress like a mod, ride a post-GM-bankruptcy vespa scooter, and take post-Health Care Reform leapers.

    And I hope I die before I get post-young.

  5. This is the last post – no
    This is the last post – no bugles please- on post modernism.
    Reincarnation is always a possibility.

  6. I knew this Jewish kid in the
    I knew this Jewish kid in the late seventies, in high school. He’d become rather brash and extroverted all of a sudden, working in a book store, listening to Punk (which had evolved into New Wave), the band Horse Lips, in particular. I wanted a copy of Mao’s Red Book, so he gave me one. He’d written a song called Levittown Burn It Down. I thought about joining his band even though there was no actual band. I’d spent my pre-school and grammar school years in Levittown but, like him, was living on the yuppie side of the tracks. Some Hare Krishna’s visited our school; I got interested in them, but not for long.

    As an adolescent, Beat/jazz fan David Bowie almost shaved his head, became a Buddhist. I was listening to Bowie’s Images album a lot

  7. Postmodernism cannot be
    Postmodernism cannot be described as simply that which is a response to or a tempering of modernism; this is to cut the tail off the animal of history and to limit the sweep of its remit. Postmodernism is a reaction to EVERYTHING that has gone before. What came immediately before postmodernism was modernism; we accept that—we can look at the works of poets and architects and dictators alike and rest easy on the notion. But also before postmodernism came the first caveman to make fire, the Monghul hordes, the Cluniac order, the Crusades, the Rennaisance, the Enlightenment, etc. I missed out one or two things; please see Wikipedia for further examples.

    Postmodernism is a reaction against all of that, against everything; it is an approximate way of thinking about all of that, a way of thinking about the differences between all of the past and all that might come in the future, using irony and understatement and non-statement as psychic sunglasses so that we may better stare at the sun-sum of totalism that is our history and projected future-and, as has been said above, postmodernism is also a reaction to the tenets of moderism, though clearly not exclusively so (even if one were to admit that postmodernism would not have been possible without the precursor of modernism—though not, I hasten to add, in any silly teleological/dialectical sense).

    Postmodernism is borne from the fact that we have studied ourselves and represented ourselves in so many intricate and delving and difficult ways, the results of which, through the many media around us, are easily accessible and digestible in the comfort of our homes, in all kinds of weird and wonderful formats. Think YouTube, The Human Genome Preject, Big Brother, Google Earth etc. The internet has pushed postmodernism forward at an incredible pace, I think. We are, in a sense, having to constantly catch up with ourselves, in a grand scale reenactment of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Perhaps. Gosh. (Not sure that metaphor actually works, but it sounds kind of smart.)

    I would further postulate that we are skating on the edges of postmodernism right now, heading into something else, something different, a shift towards a reestablishing of values and metanarratives. Not the same metanarratives exactly—though capitalism and Islam and Christianity remain as strong as ever—but other new ones, such as globalism and environmentalism and multiculturalism. Perhaps others also, though I cannot immediately bring them to mind. Perhaps technologism?

    I would say that perhaps (just perhaps) the whole “point” of postmodernism has been to reevaluate the entire corpus of history, to reexamine (in cold Cartesian light) everything that has gone before and everything that might come in the future, without bias (risking a kind of societal and psychic collapse), with all referents banging into one another like the wine-drunk participants of a badly organised love-in (trying to make it all mean something), and that perhaps we are now beginning to see some conclusions from this examination; that globalism and environmentalism and multiculturalism would be the three main areas where important conclusions are coming.

    Perhaps it is too late for environmentalism, and perhaps multiculturalism is still being discussed (more in some places than others), and perhaps globalism (particularly in the political sense) is still a bit of a twinkle in postmodernism’s eye, but, that said, they do seem to be the kinds of things we are thinking about: about coming together for big ideas because it makes sense to do so.

    I don’t know.

    All I do know is that everything I have written is an approximation and is mostly just thinking out loud, tinted with a faux certainty, for the purpose of moving my over-zealous sentences forward. And I am tired.

  8. Inundated with information,
    Inundated with information, and like in your analogy we can never catch up cause it had a head start not to mention that we are not even gods.

    I think (one of )the big idea(s) is to get levi to program this internet thing so it’s like a giant synapse in the global brain and we can figure out a way collectly, like slime mold to shoot our spores (wow i began and ended my irrelevant posts with lennon lyrics) across the universe


  9. Never been one to
    Never been one to unappreciate a good ‘Gosh’ when I see one, can I just say yours was excellent.
    However, despite its lower case attribution you seem to be suggesting that ‘Capitalism’ is a religion.
    That would make Adam Smith, Henry Ford and Bill Gates heavenly deities, and the career virgin Richard Branson would have to settle for being the Immaculate Conception of Capitalism.
    Furthermore, the opiate of the masses would be wedded to the wealth of nations, now there’s a dialectic that eluded the intellectual shortcomings of Hegel and Marx.
    How PrOtO PoMo is that, and what kind of synthesised archictecture would that throw up in the face of history.
    The shopping malls of the world may be in for a Renaissnce experience. A stained glass MacDonalds, I can’t wait.

  10. Nothing wrong with “faux
    Nothing wrong with “faux certainty” Michael. Without it, everyone would sound like all the guests interviewed on NPR, who constantly say “sort of” and “kind of.” Listen to them sometime – it drives me crazy!

    Here would be you, if you were a typical NPR guest (but be glad you are not typical):

    “Postmodernism is borne from the fact that we…we have kind of studied ourselves and, and sort of represented ourselves in so many, differnt, sort of…intricate and delving and difficult ways…”

    Duncan, I enjoyed reading your impressions of the “East End” with the Mods, Rockers, bars, and chicks. What are “The Twins”?

    Too bad many of the “local” scenes are becoming generic. That’s a good thing about cyberpunk – one can create a colorful locale, a street, a business hub, a pub or whatever, and make it both futuristic and well-worn at the same time.

    Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker arrive on the planet Tatooine and appraoch a cantina. “The Mos Eisley spaceport,” says Obi-Wan. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

    Okay, Star Wars isn’t classified as cyberpunk, but I couldn’t think of a quote from Neuromancer.

  11. ‘The sky above the spaceport
    ‘The sky above the spaceport was like the color of television tuned to a dead channel’ although I never read it I believe that’s the opening line Bill

    and really what gets people more excited the golden arches or a crucifix ?

    oh yeah and the opium of the masses is opium

  12. ‘The Twins,’ Reggie and
    ‘The Twins,’ Reggie and Ronnie Kray,where real big time show biz gangsters. the East End was their ‘manor’ and the Beggars was their public hangout. They were eventually ‘lifed up’ for slaying a rival in the Beggars in ‘braod daylight’, as they say.

  13. Duncan, speaking of culture,
    Duncan, speaking of culture, where have all the pearlie kings and queens done gone? I remember the Cockneys. Off the bollocks and up the revolution!

  14. Steve, the Pearly’ Kimgs and
    Steve, the Pearly’ Kimgs and Queens are still around, flourishing even.They are a kind of working class ‘royalty’. Predominantly market families, Billingsgate, (fish) Smithfirld (meat0
    Covent Garden( fruit and veg), The markets have moved from their original locations, all their traditions and associations are still intact. They can still be seen on the streets of London,
    especially on ceremonial occasions Derby day, Cup Final day and such like.They are Londoners first and second as opposed to English or Btitish. They keep their traditions to themselves, and unless you are one they can be a bit of a mystery, and like ‘royalty’ everywhere they have their own lines of succession and regeneration.
    You probably know as much about as I do, they defend their traditions quite ferociously, and unless you are one, they can be a bit of a mystery, that’s a smart way to operate.

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