In "The Case for the Ephemeral," G. K. Chesterton attacked both the idea and the name of Modernism, writing:
It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite.
Chesterton regards Modernism as shallow and snobbish in the same way that it is shallow and snobbish to look down on others because one has a newer car or more fashionable clothes than they do. An intellectual and artistic movement ought to have more to offer than being the most recent phenomenon, which, of course, Modernism no longer is.
While Modernism certainly has an element of snobbery in it, it is far from being the blind worship of progress Chesterton is criticizing. Modernity is clearly one of the principal themes of Modernism, but the great Modernist writers—including T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce—are far from worshipping the modern age. On the contrary, they write very scathingly about modernity, constantly complaining that it is empty and vapid. The snobbish element of their attitude lies not in any pride at being up to date, but in their dislike of democracy as a central element of modernity.
In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argues that the obscurity and difficulty generally associated with Modernism are a direct result of this anti-democratic attitude. The advent of Modernism coincided with the rise of mass literacy, but the Modernists preferred an elite readership. James Joyce, Carey points out, even went so far as to write a book about the common man which no common man would be able to read.
Modernism is a paradoxical movement in many ways. It is certainly a reaction against Victorianism, but it is also a revolt against the twentieth century. Clement Greenberg, one of the foremost authorities on the movement, described Modernism in a 1979 lecture on the subject as the artist's response to an ongoing emergency. He continued:
Artists in all times, despite some appearances to the contrary, have sought aesthetic excellence. What singles Modernism out and gives it its place and identity more than anything else is its response to a heightened sense of threats to aesthetic value: threats from the social and material ambience, from the temper of the times, all conveyed through the demands of a new and open cultural market, middlebrow demands.
What Carey regards as snobbery, Greenberg sees as an ongoing quest for artistic excellence in an increasingly philistine and commercial atmosphere.