Getting to Know… Modernism
First… a Definition Modernism "defines a specific form of artistic production, serving as an umbrella term for a mélange of artistic schools and style which first arose in late-nineteenth-century Europe and America. Characterized by such features as aesthetic self-consciousness, stylistic fragmentation, and a questioning of representation…” (Rita Felski. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U.P., 1995. pp. 12-13.)
Huh? Modernism "is the art consequent on the disestablishing of communal reality and conventional notions of causality, on the destruction of traditional notions of wholeness of the individual character, on the linguistic chaos that ensues when public notions of language have been discredited and when all realities have become subjective fictions." (Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: 1890-1930. Harmondsworth; New York : Penguin, 1976. p. 27. )
Ok… Back up! Modernism is “a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms.” Before we discuss the specifics that comprise the Modernist Movement, it is necessary to look at the historical, social, political, and philosophical phenomenon that spawned it.
Source: Norton Anthology of American Literature • Between 1914 and 1945, the United States engaged in two world wars and emerged as a modern nation and a major world power. • in the 1920s after a “Red Scare” of suspicion about foreign control over labor union activities, progress toward a more mobile and international perspective seemed unstoppable. • A generation of American expatriates enjoyed European life thanks to a newly favorable currency exchange rate. • African American soldiers and officers returned from WWI determined to see their rights in the army continue at home.
After the stock market crashed in 1929 and the United States sank into the Great Depression, social tensions threatened the country’s stability for a decade, until Americans were united by World War II.
In short America was quite suddenly faced with a confluence of problems caused by its sudden role as a world superpower These problems needed a place to take artistic form-this is the beginning of understanding Modernism Artists all of a sudden began to treat modern problems using modern artistic forms. No longer were artists forced to use “serious” or “high” art forms to conceptualize the world-in fact, creativity of expression is prized in Modernist perspective
Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). 1912. Marcel Duchamp -Duchamp uses a traditional subject matter (a nude woman) yet depicts her as made up of group of abstract shapes. This shows how the Modernist movement altered traditional notions of the way we view art, beauty, and the world -The woman herself is secondary to the Artistic rendition of movement. Duchamp is experimenting with ways to illustrate fluidity using a form (painting) that is by definition, static, This is symbolic of the crazed forward progress happening in America -The painting is chaotic-there are no smooth edges. Duchamp, again, is concerned with capturing the volatility of the times. -The painting is beautiful because it is a new approach to understanding beauty. We look at it and think-and that is the point
Many of the social and cultural changes of the interwar period centered around advances in thought concerning the “self” Freud, the inventor and chief practitioner of psychoanalysis, developed the idea of the “unconscious,” a repository of sexual desires and dreams. Freud’s theories helped some Americans break free from small-town, white, Protestant values in favor of increasingly permissive and tolerant attitudes toward the sexual freedoms and desires of women and acceptance of gay and lesbian individuals. He also pioneered the notion that children has an “interior life” which could determine attitudes and behaviors in that person’s future Sigmund Freud
The Human Mind Doesn’t Always Follow the Rules. If you have ever had problems falling asleep due to an overactive mind or restless thoughts-then you have experiences the logical illogical of the brain. The mind works in associations… The evolution of your thoughts are sparked by what comes before it. If I say “what is the first thing that comes to mind when I say cat?” your mind automatically searches around your skull for thoughts of cats-then it selects the most appropriate cat-related thought and presents it as an idea which you formulate into words. What you didn’t see was the infinite other cat-thoughts your brain came up with but DID NOT present as thoughts…
Why? • Given the context of my question, there are a myriad of appropriate and inappropriate responses. • Your brain is programmed to hunt for the most logical responses-illogical brains didn’t make it this far based purely on evolution. Logical brains lived, thrived, and procreated • Those late, sleepless nights show you what happen when the brain flings seemingly illogical thoughts at you • In fact, if you could somehow keep track of those thoughts you may be able to detect a pattern… Yet many associations are based on such obscure relationships that the reason one thought associated another thought is only known in the deepest, forgotten recesses of your mind
In Literature? • Writers like William Faulkner attempted to recreate the behavior of the human mind using a technique called “stream of consciousness” wherein little attention is paid to grammar, logic, reason, and punctuation. The writer simply writes what comes out-the result is intended to mimic actual human thought
An Example of Stream of Consciousness From As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner We picked on down the row, the woods getting closer and closer and the secret shade, picking on into the secret shade with my sack and Lafe's sack. Because I said will I or wont I when the sack was half full because I said if the sack is full when we get to the woods it wont be me. I said if it dont mean for me to do it the sack will not be full and I will turn up the next row but if the sack is full, I cannot help it. It will be that I had to do it all the time and I cannot help it. And we picked on toward the secret shade and our eyes would drown together touching on his hands and my hands and I didn't say anything. I said "What are you doing?“ and he said "I am picking into your sack." And so it was full when we came to the end of the row and I could not help it. And so it was because I could not help it. It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us. But he said he did know and I said "Are you going to tell pa are you going to kill him?“ without the words I said it and he said "Why?" without the words. And that's why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows.
W.E.B. DuBois and The Souls of Black Folks -Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks identified in the black psyche a “double consciousness” of blacks themselves as Americans and as the racial stereotypes accepted by whites. -Through the NAACP and journals published in the black neighborhood of Harlem in New York, the “city within a city” to which thousands of blacks migrated, Du Bois and others argued for the intellectual and cultural achievements of African Americans within this urban setting. -DuBois’ contributions further established that the artistic expression can and must be a multi-cultural phenomenon
Karl Marx Outlines Class Inequality -Marx’s economic theories were used to diagnose class inequalities as antagonism between owners and management (collectively known as “capital”) on the one side and labor on the other. -His writings encouraged workers to reject the middle-class individualist ethos in favor of collective action to improve the lot of all workers. -The plight of the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots” is a major thematic element of Death of a Salesman
Technology contributes to the modernization of America, resulting in the birth of a mass popular culture • The increased presence of new inventions like electric lighting and appliances, telephones, phonograph record players, motion pictures, and the radio combined to make person-to-person communication quicker and easier and to standardize American tastes in fashions and ideas. • The automobile changed America more than any other invention by allowing new industries and jobs dependent on transportation, by causing a network of new roads and highways to spring up, and by dictating the birth and death of cities, suburbs, and towns based on proximity to those arteries.
Interesting… Verrrry Interesting Einstein’s relativity theories, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the discovery of both subatomic particles and the infiniteness of the universe threatened the traditional role of science as an explanation of felt human experience. In effect, science became as abstract as art itself as both disciplines attempted to explain existence Scientists and artists became mistrustful of one another’s methods, and art began to rival science as a way of interpreting reality, especially in terms of subjective experience.
The Great Depression was… Depressing! Rampant Free-Market Capitalism rewarded greed and subjugated the working class Erosion of restrictions on corporations meant they could do whatever the want to whomever they wanted Led to massive influx of people into cities (where do all the roads lead?) Rampant poverty led to Americans Becoming very interested in alternative economic policies from around the world ( Communism?) The South was hit especially hard given that this was the first generation after the Civil War-loss of identity AND wealth
So… Amidst all this tension an artistic movement emerges. Modernism is… • A Transformation of culture • An Experiment of, adapting, and altering literary styles and forms • A Reflection on what had come before in terms of culture-and often times a profound sadness at the loss of what had come before
Modernist Poetry and Prose (anything not Poetry) • Tended to be short and precise • Subjective, and suggestive rather than exhaustively detailed with exterior descriptions--YOU figure it out! Meaning comes from YOUR reaction to art • Fragments and disjointed perspectives rather than cohesive or coherent patterns • Favors questions over explanations • Reject artificial literary order and truth
At the core Good art forces you to ask questions-asking questions is the overarching quest upon which all men embark during life-thus, art is successful when it prompts us along that journey. Also, the individual experience is the best way to traverse that path-rather than me GIVING you the answers, good art forces you to seek and obtain them yourself
High Vs. Low Art The individual can not be told what is art… as it had in the past. Meaning can come from any form-thus we start hearing terms like “high” and “low” art. Up until Modernism-High Art was the only acceptable way to treat important, meaningful topics.
Low art: Comics, “Pop” art, Toilet Humor, Blue Language, Best Seller Books (Harry Potter), Reality TV
In Modernism There is no “Right Way” to Examine a Topic-No Matter How Important That Topic Is Example: Art Spiegelman
Finally-we come to Arthur Miller and the theater A last major development was the maturity of American drama during the interwar years thanks to experiments by playwrights reacting to Broadway and successful mixtures of American theatrical elements. Broadway, the center of American theatrical activity in the late nineteenth century, had begun premiering shows and plays in New York City and then sending them to tour the rest of the United States…As many modernists realized the potential of plays to speak to a larger audience, drama moved into the literary mainstream.