Discussion Topic

Definition of Modernism


Modernism is a cultural movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by a deliberate break from traditional styles and an emphasis on innovation and experimentation in literature, art, and architecture. It often reflects a sense of disillusionment with contemporary society and explores themes of alienation, fragmentation, and the search for meaning in a rapidly changing world.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the definition of Modernism?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How would you define and explain modernism?

Modernism is not an easy term to define. Just the simple act of identifying when it begins and ends as an artistic movement is challenging. Scholars continue to debate which social and cultural changes have the largest impact on Modernism. This explanation will offer three points about Modernism that encapsulate a brief definition.

First of all, Modernism as a literary movement responds directly to the rigidity of the Victorian Era. Predictable literary norms that were popular and expected during Victorian times, were abandoned in favor of more artistic and unconventional expression. This is the time period readers link with the stream of consciousness style, as well as the confessional approach to writing that hid nothing at all about a writer or narrator's experience from readers.

Second of all, Modernism was a response to the atrocities of World War I and all of the advancement that contributed to the death and destruction caused by the war. The emotions and devastation caused by the war are linked directly with the technology that was used for the first time during the war; for example, young men with naive dreams of glory on the battlefield were subjected to the shock of machine gun warfare and gas attacks, both of which offer combatants few opportunities for old-fashioned gallantry.

Finally, Modernist literature can be characterized by experimentation that reflects a lack of faith in the old reliable traditions of the past. The traumatized emptiness of the post-World War I survivors could not be described adequately by traditional forms of writing, so new ones needed to emerge. Much of Modernist literature is so deeply personal, many readers find them completely impenetrable, much like a personal crisis can be beyond everyone's understanding, except for the person going through the pain.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How would you define and explain modernism?

Modernism is the general name for the changes in the literary and cultural spheres of activity and influence between the mid-nineteenth century and roughly the 1960's. The movement reflected rising concern about the changes in society being brought about by increasing technology. Modernism grew out of concerns that societies were moving toward self-destruction and that the value of the human as an individual or as a lifeform was becoming irrelevant.

In the late 1800s many of society’s certainties were undermined. Marx demonstrated that social class was created, not inherent; Freud boiled down human individuality to an animalistic sex drive; Darwin provided evidence that the Bible might not be literally true; and Nietzsche argued that even the most deeply-held ethical principles were simply constructions.

Modernism was first reflected in art coming out of Europe's major cities, particularly Paris. Modernism spread to all parts of the world and to other human endeavors in cultural attitudes and concerns. It was an attempt to find relevancy and reaffirmation of the worth of human endeavors in the midst of great change.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is "modernism"?

Modernism is broadly applied to "writing marked by a strong and conscious break with tradition" (Holman and Harmon, A Handbook to Literature, sixth edition).  Modernism represents a literary period in which authors are disenchanted with the time period preceding it and rebel and explore and experiment with ideas and techniques which previous "masters" would have frowned upon.

Modernism is considered experimental and different from what one had been accustomed to before WWI.  There are many characteristics which apply to writing that fits in this category, although the writing may not evidence of every single one of them to be considered "modernist."  Some of those include a sense of alienation, loss, despair, and focus on the individual rather than society as a whole.  Modernism tends to reject traditional ideals and conventions.  In many ways, it is a rebellion against realism and naturalism.  Stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf's work as well as the sexual content of D. H. Lawrence and other subject matter that was considered questionable would fall into this category.  The work of T. S. Eliot ("The Wasteland") and George Bernard Shaw would qualify as Modernism, as would the psychological theories of Freud and Jung.

I have included some other sources on this type of criticism and writing for you to peruse.  Good Luck!

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on