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Modernism in the arts refers to a specific period starting around 1900 and coming into its own in the 1920s. It expressed a set of common attitudes and assumptions that centered on a rejection of established authority. It was a movement of skepticism directed toward the post-Victorian middle class, an overhaul of the entire legacy of comfort, security, paranoia, rigidity, and hierarchy. It rejected the premise of melodrama, namely clear moral messages in art and literature that were meant to edify and instruct. Socially, it was a reaction against the complacency of the bourgeoisie, of their willingness to start wars over empire and notions of nationalism.
Modernist art and literature sometimes openly attacked the moral values of mainstream society, but sometimes experimented with form itself and simply ignored moral issues. This was the era of l’art pour l’art ("art for art's sake”), of creation disinterred from social or intellectual duty. Artists broke with the idea that art should “represent” something noble and beautiful, and instead many indulged in wild experiments and deliberately created disturbing pieces meant to provoke their audience. Sometimes, modernists were really “modern” in glorifying industrialism and technology, while other times they were modern in that they were experimenting with entirely novel approaches to creation.
One of the quintessential modernist movements was Futurism. Starting in Italy before World War I, Futurism was a movement of poets, playwrights, and painters who celebrated speed, technology, violence, and chaos. Their stated goal was to destroy the remnants of past art and replace it with the art of the future, an art that reflected the modern, industrial world. Futurism sought something new and better than what the Victorian bourgeoisie had come up with: something heroic.
In 1909, F.T. Marinetti, the movement's founder, wrote the Futurist Manifesto. In it, he thundered that the Futurists wanted to “sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness,” and that “poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown.” The Manifesto went on to proclaim, ominously, that “we want to glorify war - the only cure for the world” and that the Futurists were dedicated to demolishing “museums and libraries” and sought to “fight morality, feminism, and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” The Manifesto, in short, was a profound expression of dissatisfaction with the mainstream culture of Europe leading up to World War I, and its proponents were proud partisans of violence, elitism, and misogyny.
Futurist art itself was often bizarre and provocative - one Futurist play consisted of a curtain opening to an empty stage, the sound of a gunshot and a scream offstage, and the closing of the curtain. Futurist paintings often depicted vast clouds of dark smoke with abstract images of trains and radio towers, or sometimes just jumbles of color. While their politics were as murky as some of their art early on, after World War I most of the Futurists embraced fascism, seeing in fascism a political movement that reflected their desire for a politics that was new, virile, and contemptuous of democracy.
The Futurists were just one branch of modernism in the In visual arts. Other schools existed across Europe, including Vorticism in England, Expressionism in Austria, and Cubism in France. Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973), the major cubist painter and sculptor, was one of the quintessential modernist painters in that he portrayed objects, people, even the works of past masters, but he did so from several different perspectives at once. The English Vorticists, meanwhile, attempted to capture the impression of motion in static paintings, not least by depicting literal explosions in their art.
Among the creators of the most striking, sometimes beautiful, but other times grotesque images associated with modernism were the Austrian expressionists. The major point of expressionism was to put the artist's inner life on display through abstract, often disturbing images. The governing concept was not to depict things "as they are," but instead to reflect the disturbing realities of the artist's mind and spirit. The greatest Austrian expressionist was Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918), who created beautiful but haunting and often highly eroticized portraits, the most famous of which became one of the quintessential dorm room decorations of collegiate America - The Kiss.
In 1901, the University of Vienna commissioned Klimt to create paintings to celebrate the three great branches of traditional academic scholarship: philosophy, medicine, and law. In each case, Klimt created frightening images in which the nominal subject matter was somehow present, but was overshadowed by the grotesque depiction of either how it was being carried out or how it failed to adequately address its subject. Philosophy, for instance, depicts a column of naked, wretched figures clinging to one another over a starry abyss, with a sinister, translucent face visible in the backdrop. The paintings were all beautiful and skillfully rendered, but also dark and disturbing (the originals were destroyed by the Nazis during their occupation of Austria - Modernism was considered “degenerate art” by the Nazi party).
One of Klimt's students was Egon Schiele (1890 - 1918), who subverted Klimt's themes (which, although very dark, were also beautiful) and openly celebrated the ugly and threatening. His self-portraits in particular were meant to portray his own perversity and depression; he normally painted himself in the nude looking emaciated, threatening, and grim. Whereas Klimt sought to capture at least some positive or pleasurable aspects of the human spirit and the mind that existed at the unconscious level, Schiele’s work almost brutally portrayed the ugliness embedded in his own psyche.
Modernism was not confined to literature and the visual arts, however. Some composers and musicians in the first decades of the twentieth century sought to shatter musical traditions, defying the expectations of their listeners by altering the very scales, notes, and tempos that western audiences were used to hearing. Some of the resulting pieces eventually became classics in their own right, while others tended to become part of the history of music more so than music very many people actually listened to.
One of the most noteworthy modernist composers was Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971). A Russian composer, Stravinsky's was best known for his Rite of Spring. The Rite of Spring was a ballet depicting the fertility rites of the ancient Scythians, the nomadic people native to southern Russia in the ancient past. Staged by classical ballet dancers, the Rite of Spring completely scandalized its early audiences; at its first performance in Paris, members of the audience hissed at the dancers, and pelted the orchestra with debris, while the press described it as pornographic and barbaric. The dancers lurched about on stage, sometimes in an overtly sexual manner, and the music changed its tempo and abandoned its central theme. Within a few years, however (and following a change in its wild choreography), the Rite became part of ballet’s canon of great pieces.
In contrast, the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) invented a form of orchestral music that remains more of an important influence to avant-garde musicians and composers than something actively listened to by mainstream audience. Schoenberg’s major innovations consisted of experiments with atonality - music without a central, binding key - and a newly-invented twelve-tone scale of his own creation. Schoenberg was among the first to defy the entire tradition of western music in his experiments. Ever since the Renaissance, western musicians had worked in basically the same set of scales. As a result, listeners were “trained” from birth to expect certain sounds and certain rhythms in music. Schoenberg deliberately subverted those expectations, inserting dissonance and unexpected notes in many of his works.
Similar in some ways to the innovations in the visual arts and music, modernist literature created out a new approach to poetry and prose. Authors like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce (whose places of origins spanned from Dublin to Prague) created a new form of literature in which the nominal plot of a story was less important than the protagonist’s inner life and experience of his or her surroundings and interactions. Joyce’s (incredible difficult to read) novel Ulysses described a single unremarkable day in the life of a man in Dublin, Ireland, focusing on the vast range of thoughts, emotions, and reactions that passed through the man’s consciousness rather than on the events of the day itself. Proust and Woolf also wrote works focused on the inner life rather than the outside event (Woolf was also a seminal feminist writer). Kafka’s work brilliantly, and tragically, satirized the experience of being lost in the modern world, hemmed in by impersonal bureaucracies and disconnected from other people - his most famous story, Metamorphosis, describes the experience of a young man who awakens one day to discover that he has become a gigantic insect, but whose immediate concern is that he will be unable to make it in to his job.
Ultimately, artistic modernism in the arts, music, and literature questioned the (post-)Victorian obsession with traditional morality, hierarchy, and control. The inner life was not straightforward – it was a complicated mess of conflicting values, urges, and drives, and traditional morality was often a smokescreen over a system of repression and violence. Certain modernist artists attacked the system, while others exposed its vacuity, its emptiness or shallowness, against the darker, more complex reality they thought lay underneath.