What is Modernism?

James Joyce Statue - Dublin
Statue of James Joyce in Dublin

Modernism is notoriously difficult to define clearly because the term encompasses a variety of specific artistic and philosophical movements including symbolism, futurism, surrealism, expressionism, imagism, vorticism, dada, and others.  To further complicate matters, many Modernists (including some of the most successful and most famous), are not affiliated with any of these groups.

However, there are some basic tenets of the Modernist period that apply, in one way or another, to all these movements and those writers and artists not associated with them: “Modernist literature is characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader” (Baldick 159).  Specifically, Modernists deliberately tried to break away from the conventions of the Victorian era.  This separation from 19th century literary and artistic principles is a major part of a broader goal.  Modernists wished to distinguish themselves from virtually the entire history of art and literature.  Ezra Pound captured the essence of Modernism with his famous dictum, “Make it new!”  Many Modernist writers felt that every story that could possibly be told had, in one way or another, been told already.  Therefore, in order to create something new, they often had to try using new forms of writing.  The period thus produced many experimental and avant-garde styles.  Perhaps best known for such experimentation are fiction writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, just to name a few.

When Was Modernism?

The dates of the Modernist movement (itself a problematic term, as there was in no sense a singular, consolidated, “movement”) are sometimes difficult to determine.  The beginning of the 20th century is an extremely convenient starting point.  It saw the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, marking a symbolic break from the preceding century.  The turn of the century also roughly coincided with the publication of several groundbreaking theories, such as Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Einstein’s theory of special relativity.  As such, there were real shifts (not merely symbolic changes) in the natural sciences, social sciences, and liberal arts occurring at this time as well.  However, using the year 1900 as a starting point for Modernism is also problematic, as it would exclude some writers or texts from the late 1800s which definitively display Modernist tendencies.  Many scholars thus use the year 1890 as a starting point; it is close to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the end of the century, but still fairly inclusive.  It is important to remember, however, that while 1890 is an entirely appropriate starting date, it is also an artificial one.

By convention and convenience, most scholars use 1945 as the endpoint for Modernism.  The date marks the end of WWII, and a momentous shift in world politics as well as in the most prominent social, cultural, and literary values.  Personally, I prefer to use the year 1939 as a demarcation point.  It is the beginning of WWII, and symbolically represents the same political and cultural changes brought about by the war as 1945 would represent.  There is, however, a specific literary reason to use 1939 rather than 1945: it is the publication year of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.  Insofar as Modernism is characterized chiefly by experimentation in structure, form, and technique, Finnegans Wake is the ultimate work of Modernism.  It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty.  After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do.  As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history.

More on the Modernist Aesthetic:

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 - 1569) - Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Marcel Duchamp - Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912)

The goal of accomplishing something which, artistically speaking, had never been done before was often accompanied by a sense of despair due to the inherent difficulty (and sometimes the apparent impossibility) of accomplishing that goal.  This despair coincided with a changing worldview that filtered throughout British and much of European and American society.  While the pre-Modernist world is characterized by sense of order and stability rooted in the meaningful nature of faith, collective social values, and a clear sense of identity (both personal and cultural), the Modernist period is characterized by a sense of chaotic instability rooted in the revelation that collective social values are not particularly meaningful, leading to faithlessness, skepticism, and a confused sense of identity.  This worldview is prominent in much (though certainly not all) Modernist literature, perhaps most famously in the fragmented verse of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

An excellent visual depiction of this distinction between the pre-Modernist and Modernist ideology appears to the right. The painting at left is Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (the inspiration for W. H. Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts"). Notice the clear imagery: the coastline with the seaside town; the shepherd with his dog and his flock; the plowman working his field; the ships, the sunset, and the flailing legs of the fallen Icarus. The images are clear, as is the classical allusion, and likely the message. Compare that to the painting at the right, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Notice the fragmented imagery, the multiple perspective coalescing into a single view. If not for the title, many people would have no idea what the painting is supposed to depict. The clarity and order which characterize Bruegel's painting are entirely absent, replaced by a sense of chaos, confusion, and futility of meaning.