Rather than an artistic style, modernism was a rebellious state of mind that questioned all artistic, scientific, social, and moral conventions

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Definition of Modernism

  • Rather than an artistic style, modernism was a rebellious state of mind that questioned all artistic, scientific, social, and moral conventions.

Characteristics: Challenging Conventions

  • by embracing nihilism

  • by rejecting every system of belief

  • by believing in the self-sufficiency of each individual work of art

  • by adopting primitivism

  • by exploring perversity

  • by focusing on the city rather than nature

Nihilism: The Belief in Nothing

  • Modernists viewed the world, and especially human existence, as being meaningless.

  • Modernists rejected the belief that morality and organized religion provided the means for social evolution and/or the betterment of man.

Rejection of all Systems of Belief

  • Modernists questioned all accepted systems:

    • the sciences
    • political/social/economic paradigms
    • the arts, especially the Academy

Self-sufficiency of a Work of Art

  • Art was not to be judged on the old standard of mimesis, the literal representation of reality.

  • Art needed to be judged on an individual basis.

  • Art should be judged on the basis of how well an artist is able to communicate the purpose of the work as well as the relationship between meaning and form.

Modernists Rebelled Against the Dictates of the Academy

  • Each country had its Academy, an institution that judged what was proper and what was not in the depiction of reality.

  • The Academy saw its task as the education of artists in the practice of an idealizing art in the classical (or classicizing) tradition.

  • The Academy was a school as well as a regulatory body.

What Was Acceptable?

  • Goal of the artist was to achieve perfection through the following:

    • a highly polished style
    • use of historical or mythological subject matter
    • a moralistic tone

The Modernist Artist

  • systematically and deliberately developed an art that testifies to all that is strange, unknown, and unlabeled in the self

  • created a new language of images that described the inexpressible

  • expected the viewer/reader to interact with the work


  • Modernists rejected technology and the rigidity of society and its institutions.

  • Modernists embraced the natural primal roots of primitive man.

  • Modernists embodied the pursuit of personal and artistic freedom.


  • Modernists explored the uncivilized nature of man.

  • Modernists suggested that being “civilized” was merely a veneer that quickly vanishes.

Focus on the City

  • Modernists shifted away from nature.

  • Modernists explored the city as a place of lonely crowds and marginalized individuals.

Forces that Shaped Modernism

  • technology and the new science

  • the new philosophical paradigms

  • F.H. Bradley

  • Alfred Whitehead

  • Albert Einstein

  • the new psychological paradigms

  • Sigmund Freud

  • Carl Jung

  • Henri Bergson

  • the new geo-political paradigms

Technology and the New Sciences

  • generated optimism

  • created dynamic industrial and urban growth

  • accelerated the way life is experienced

  • shrank distances through new communication and transportation systems

The Modernist Philosophical Paradigms

Relativity: Space, Time and Light

  • Modern thinkers broke with the belief in classical mechanics.

    • Newton had asserted that space and time were absolute.
    • Modernists, on the other hand, questioned objective reality.
  • Instead, the modernists embraced subjectivity.

    • Observations about reality are observer-dependent.

F. H. Bradley: Appearance and Reality

  • Reality is not absolute.

  • An object’s appearance varies depending on from what angle it is being viewed.

  • To really understand an object, one has to view it from several points of view.

Alfred Whitehead: Process and Reality

  • Reality is not static but in a state of flux, always in the process of becoming.

  • No object exists in a vacuum—rather “there is no element whatever which possesses this character of simple location.”

  • Each object is relevant to its surroundings in that it is in the process of becoming another object.

  • Matter, space, and time are all interrelated.

Albert Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

  • Space and time are relative; only the speed of light is constant.

  • There is no such thing as a favored point of view.

  • Color is relative.

  • A universal present moment does not exist.

Albert Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

  • Only “local” time exists.

  • Moving clocks run slower than stationary clocks.

  • Two perfectly synchronized clocks would differ according to their respective speeds.

Albert Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

  • Time slows as one approaches the speed of light.

  • The present moment expands from a narrow sliver until it encompasses both the past and the future.

  • At light speed, time ceases to change because it contains all change.

Albert Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity—Speed Dilates Time

Albert Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

Albert Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

the Modernist Psychological Paradigms

  • The New Perception of Internal Reality

Sigmund Freud

  • expanded the definition of sexuality

  • defined the major components of personality

  • created a dynamic psychology based on the interaction of the id, the ego, and the superego

  • defined the importance of the unconscious

  • created psychoanalysis, a science that uncovers the personality’s secrets

Carl Jung

  • based psychology on the collective unconscious, the inherited memories of the race

  • developed archetypes to explain human behavior

  • explained how archetypes are expressed in fairy tales, myths, and artistic endeavors

Henri Bergson

  • defined human experience through duration, psychological time consisting of the constant flow from the past into the future rather than a succession of chronological instants

  • believed that reality is a past that constantly becomes something new

  • held that intuition is the most trustworthy guide to understanding

The New Global Economy

  • industrialization

  • social and psychological fragmentation

  • alienation

  • class warfare

  • economic interdependence

  • colonialism

  • cultural cross-fertilization

  • nationalism

  • war

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