What is the definition of Modernism?

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Modernism is a term which codifies the literary and artistic production that emerged after World War I.

The war unleashed an existential crisis in the Western world. The supposedly self-evident truths that had grounded society before the war were now deemed questionable, if not altogether false. Moreover, gender roles were shifting. Ideas about art and aesthetics were changing. Among Black Americans, there emerged a desire to create a uniquely black aesthetic rooted in African-inspired themes and folk traditions. Ideas about everything, including the meaning of life itself, were changing and given new consideration.

Aesthetically, modernism abandoned demands for traditional order, unity, and sequence in favor of abstraction. Whereas the Victorian and Edwardian eras had expected that artists look outward at changes in society for inspiration, Modernists looked inward. Psychoanalysis inspired Modernist writers, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, to use stream-of-consciousness narration in their novels. This technique allowed authors to narrate the thoughts of each character as they occurred—however strange, incongruous, or obscene those thoughts might have been.

Modernist writers also differed from Victorian-era authors in their preference for one character's point of view in a novel or scene, instead of using a single, authoritative, third-person omniscient voice. In many instances, too, the Modernist's narrator might be an unreliable or marginal person—e.g., mentally unstable, a child, or a social outcast. Moreover, the dialogue now incorporated speech that was more akin to how people really talked. Regional dialects were introduced, as well as slang and profanity.

Visual art also incorporated influences from psychoanalysis. The Surrealists, including Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, were particularly interested in exploring the mind and sexuality in painting. Cubists, such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques, represented the disoriented state of identity in their art, frequently creating distorted figures. Picasso was also very much influenced by African art. Blackness, both in African and African-American contexts, had come into vogue in the 1920s.

The 1920s are generally deemed the peak time for Modernism. It is the decade in which Modernist ideas and aesthetics came into being. However, some contend that we are still in a "modernist" period. What they mean is that we remain interested in all that is new. We are also open to experimentation, and most of us are no longer keen on embracing definitive truths in politics, religion, or the arts. This ideology, which emphasizes all that is current and yet to be discovered, is the foundation of Modernist thought.