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.