In one sense, "high modernism" is closely associated with anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott, who uses the phrase in a pejorative sense. Scott and his followers use the phrase with an implied criticism of modernism as austerely minimalist and excessively rationalist or bureaucratic, combined with a sense of hubris in its claims about the inevitability of progress, or its claim to embody progress.
The pejorative sense is usually absent when the term is used in reference to literature.
High modernism is exemplified in the writings of Clement Greenberg, who developed and promoted an opposition between "avant-garde" art and what he dismissed as "kitsch". High modernism especially compasses diverse movements such as abstract expressionism in the plastic arts, followed by the minimalism and the austere cultivation of "flatness" embraced by Piet Mondrian and his successors. In music, the twelve-tone compositions of the Second Viennese School and especially their post-World War II followers such as Milton Babbitt expressed the astringent qualities associated with high modernism. Babbitt's well known essay Who Cares if You Listen praises "efficiency" and "simplification" as two of the virtues sought by serial music.
In architecture, the International Style of uniformly rectangular, unornamented chrome, concrete, and glass buildings, as pioneered by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, and Le Corbusier, are thought to be an expression of the austerity associated with high modernism.
"High modernism" is often used pejoratively by those who find these works of art distasteful.
Le Corbusier famously called his austere white buildings "machines for living". The "International Style" called itself "international" precisely because its exponents cultivated indifference to location, site, and climate.
Extending this original usage, James C. Scott's writings use "high modernism" as a disparaging label for a cluster of beliefs revolving around faith in "progress" that he finds distastefully technocratic and authoritarian. Scott defines "high modernism" as:
Scott sees "high modernism" as an ideology that transcends the traditional divisions between the political "left" and "right"; it could be found wherever anyone wished to use state power to bring about utopian changes in people's work habits, living patterns, moral conduct, or worldview. High modernism accepts the "blank slate": it believes that human beings and human societies can be successfully reordered by planners at will. It requires a centralized bureaucracy to gather information about people and places, which it conceives of as human and physical capital. It finally requires the existence of a state powerful enough to enact its plans upon the lives of its subjects. It involved the imposition of order upon cities, villages, and farms by planners. Engineers, architects, scientists, and technicians of various sorts were its chief implementers.
Scott's use of "high modernism" calls to mind bureaucrats imposing standardization, indifferent to the nuances of local cultures. In his vision, they blindly crush communities and local, organic institutions and cultures as inconveniences in the quest for central planning. In this, he draws on the thought of Jane Jacobs and her critique of urban renewal and planning. In Scott's view, "high modernism" is any of a number of elitist ideologies that must be imposed by officials who imagine that they know better than local people do about how to arrange their lives. Planners seek to impose "legibility" and "simplification" on their subjects; as a result, governments require everyone to use the same system of surnames, erase local systems of weights and measures in favour of uniform, promulgated standards, and statistical tests that measure what is of interest to the rulers rather than the people whom they govern.