Modernism describes an array of cultural movements rooted in the changes in Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The term covers a series of reforming movements in art, architecture, music, literature and the applied arts which emerged during this period. At its most basic level, Modernism could be described as the experimentation and fragmentation of the human experience, characterized by deviations from the norms of society.
It is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology or practical experimentation. Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was 'holding back' progress, and replacing it with new, progressive and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end. Embracing change and the present, modernism encompasses the works of thinkers who rebelled against nineteenth century academic and historicist traditions, believing the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated; they directly confronted the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world. Some divide the 20th Century into movements designated Modernism and Postmodernism, whereas others see them as two aspects of the same movement.
Central to this synthesis were common assumptions and institutional frames of reference, including the religious norms found in Christianity, scientific norms found in classical physics, especially electromagnetism, and doctrines that asserted that the depiction of external reality from an objective standpoint was not only possible but desirable. Cultural critics and historians label this set of doctrines Realism, though this term is not universal. In philosophy, the rationalist, materialist and positivist movements established a primacy of reason and system.
Against the current ran a series of ideas, some of them direct continuations of Romantic schools of thought. Notable were the agrarian and revivalist movements in plastic arts and poetry (e.g. the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the philosopher John Ruskin). Rationalism also drew responses from the anti-rationalists in philosophy. In particular, Hegel's dialectic view of civilization and history drew responses from Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, who were major influences on Existentialism. All of these separate reactions together began to be seen as offering a challenge to any comfortable ideas of certainty derived by civilization, history, or pure reason.
From the 1870s onward, the ideas that history and civilization were inherently progressive and that progress was always good came under increasing attack. Writers Wagner and Ibsen had been reviled for their own critiques of contemporary civilization and for their warnings that accelerating "progress" would lead to the creation of individuals detached from social norms and isolated from their fellow men. Arguments arose that the values of the artist and those of society were not merely different, but that Society was antithetical to Progress, and could not move forward in its present form. Philosophers called into question the previous optimism. The work of Schopenhauer was labelled "pessimistic" for its idea of the "negation of the will", an idea that would be both rejected and incorporated by later thinkers such as Nietzsche.
Two of the most significant thinkers of the period were, in biology, Charles Darwin, and in political science, Karl Marx. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined the religious certainty of the general public, and the sense of human uniqueness of the intelligentsia. The notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality. Karl Marx seemed to present a political version of the same proposition: that problems with the economic order were not transient, the result of specific wrong doers or temporary conditions, but were fundamentally contradictions within the "capitalist" system. Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would become decisive in establishing modernism.
Separately, in the arts and letters, two ideas originating in France would have particular impact. The first was Impressionism, a school of painting that initially focused on work done, not in studios, but outdoors (en plein air). Impressionist paintings demonstrated that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. The school gathered adherents despite internal divisions among its leading practitioners, and became increasingly influential. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time, the government-sponsored Paris Salon, the Impressionists organized yearly group exhibitions in commercial venues during the 1870s and 1880s, timing them to coincide with the official Salon. A significant event of 1863 was the Salon des Refusés, created by Emperor Napoleon III to display all of the paintings rejected by the Paris Salon. While most were in standard styles, but by inferior artists, the work of Manet attracted tremendous attention, and opened commercial doors to the movement.
The second school was Symbolism, marked by a belief that language is expressly symbolic in its nature and a portrayal of patriotism, and that poetry and writing should follow connections that the sheer sound and texture of the words create. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé would be of particular importance to what would occur afterwards.
At the same time social, political, and economic forces were at work that would become the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and thinking. Chief among these was steam-powered industrialization, which produced buildings that combined art and engineering in new industrial materials such as cast iron to produce railroad bridges and glass-and-iron train sheds—or the Eiffel Tower, which broke all previous limitations on how tall man-made objects could be—and at the same time offered a radically different environment in urban life.
The miseries of industrial urbanism, and the possibilities created by scientific examination of subjects brought changes that would shake a European civilization which had, until then, regarded itself as having a continuous and progressive line of development from the Renaissance. With the telegraph's harnessing of a new power, offering instant communication at a distance, the experience of time itself was altered.
The breadth of the changes can be sensed in how many modern disciplines are described, in their pre-twentieth century form, as being "classical", including physics, economics, and arts such as ballet or architecture.
William Everdell has argued that Modernism began with Richard Dedekind's division of the real number line in 1872 and Boltzmann's statistical thermodynamics in 1874; but Clement Greenberg wrote, "What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century—and rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and perhaps with Flaubert, too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture). The "avant-garde" was what Modernism was called at first, and the term remained to describe movements which identify themselves as attempting to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo.
In the 1890s a strand of thinking began to assert that it was necessary to push aside previous norms entirely, instead of merely revising past knowledge in light of current techniques. The growing movement in art paralleled such developments as the Theory of Relativity in physics; the increasing integration of the internal combustion engine and industrialization; and the increased role of the social sciences in public policy. It was argued that, if the nature of reality itself was in question, and if restrictions which had been in place around human activity were falling, then art, too, would have to radically change. Thus, in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century a series of writers, thinkers, and artists made the break with traditional means of organizing literature, painting, and music.
Sigmund Freud offered a view of subjective states involving an unconscious mind full of primal impulses and counterbalancing self-imposed restrictions, a view that Carl Jung would combine with a belief in natural essence to stipulate a collective unconscious that was full of basic typologies that the conscious mind fought or embraced. Jung's view suggested that people's impulses towards breaking social norms were not the product of childishness or ignorance, but were instead essential to the nature of the human animal, the ideas of Darwin having already introduced the concept of "man, the animal" to the public mind.
Friedrich Nietzsche championed a philosophy in which forces, specifically the 'Will to power', were more important than facts or things. Similarly, the writings of Henri Bergson championed the vital 'life force' over static conceptions of reality. What united all these writers was a romantic distrust of the Victorian positivism and certainty. Instead they championed, or, in the case of Freud, attempted to explain, irrational thought processes through the lens of rationality and holism. This was connected with the century-long trend to thinking in terms of holistic ideas, which would include an increased interest in the occult, and "the vital force".
Out of this collision of ideals derived from Romanticism, and an attempt to find a way for knowledge to explain that which was as yet unknown, came the first wave of works, which, while their authors considered them extensions of existing trends in art, broke the implicit contract that artists were the interpreters and representatives of bourgeois culture and ideas. These "modernist" landmarks include Arnold Schoenberg's atonal ending to his Second String Quartet in 1908, the expressionist paintings of Wassily Kandinsky starting in 1903 and culminating with his first abstract painting and the founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich in 1911, and the rise of cubism from the work of Picasso and Georges Braque in 1908.
Powerfully influential in this wave of modernity were the theories of Sigmund Freud and Ernst Mach, who argued, beginning in the 1880s, that the mind had a basic and fundamental structure, and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of the parts of the mind. All subjective reality was based, according to Freud's ideas, on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived. Ernst Mach developed a well-known philosophy of science, often called "positivism", according to which the relations of objects in nature were not guaranteed but only known through a sort of mental shorthand. This represented a break with the past, in that previously it was believed that external and absolute reality could impress itself, as it was, on an individual, as, for example, in John Locke's empiricism, with the mind beginning as a tabula rasa.
This wave of the modern movement broke with the past in the first decade of the twentieth century, and tried to redefine various artforms in a radical manner. Leading lights within the literary wing of this movement (or, rather, these movements) include:
Composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and George Antheil represent modernism in music. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and the movements Les Fauves, Cubism and the Surrealists represent various strains of Modernism in the visual arts, while architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe brought modernist ideas into everyday urban life. Several figures outside of artistic modernism were influenced by artistic ideas; for example, John Maynard Keynes was friends with Woolf and other writers of the Bloomsbury group.
On the eve of the First World War a growing tension and unease with the social order, seen in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the agitation of "radical" parties, also manifested itself in artistic works in every medium which radically simplified or rejected previous practice. In 1913, the year of Einstein's first paper on the General Theory of Relativity, Niels Bohr's quantized atom, Edmund Husserl's Ideas, Ezra Pound's founding of Imagism, and the New York Armory Show, famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, working for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, composed Rite of Spring for a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky that depicted human sacrifice, and young painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were causing a shock with their rejection of traditional perspective as the means of structuring paintings—a step that none of the Impressionists, not even Cézanne, had taken.
These developments began to give a new meaning to what was termed 'Modernism': It embraced disruption, rejecting or moving beyond simple Realism in literature and art, and rejecting or dramatically altering tonality in music. This set modernists apart from 19th century artists, who had tended to believe in 'progress'. Writers like Dickens and Tolstoy, painters like Turner, and musicians like Brahms were not 'radicals' or 'Bohemians', but were instead valued members of society who produced art that added to society, even if it were, at times, critiquing less desirable aspects of it. Modernism, while it was still "progressive" increasingly saw traditional forms and traditional social arrangements as hindering progress, and therefore the artist was recast as a revolutionary, overthrowing rather than enlightening.
Futurism exemplifies this trend. In 1909, F.T. Marinetti's first manifesto was published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro; soon afterward a group of painters (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini) co-signed the Futurist Manifesto. Modeled on the famous "Communist Manifesto" of the previous century, such manifestoes put forward ideas that were meant to provoke and to gather followers. Strongly influenced by Bergson and Nietzsche, Futurism was part of the general trend of Modernist rationalization of disruption.
Modernist philosophy and art were still viewed as being part, and only a part, of the larger social movement. Artists such as Klimt and Cézanne, and composers such as Mahler and Richard Strauss were "the terrible moderns"—those farther to the avant-garde were more heard of than heard. Polemics in favour of geometric or purely abstract painting were largely confined to 'little magazines' (like The New Age in the UK) with tiny circulations. Modernist primitivism and pessimism were controversial, but were not seen as representative of the Edwardian mainstream, which was more inclined towards a Victorian faith in progress and liberal optimism.
However, the Great War and its subsequent events were the cataclysmic upheavals that late 19th century artists such as Brahms had worried about, and avant-gardists had embraced. First, the failure of the previous status quo seemed self-evident to a generation that had seen millions die fighting over scraps of earth—prior to the war, it had been argued that no one would fight such a war, since the cost was too high. Second, the birth of a machine age changed the conditions of life—machine warfare became a touchstone of the ultimate reality. Finally, the immensely traumatic nature of the experience dashed basic assumptions: Realism seemed to be bankrupt when faced with the fundamentally fantastic nature of trench warfare, as exemplified by books such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Moreover, the view that mankind was making slow and steady moral progress came to seem ridiculous in the face of the senseless slaughter of the Great War. The First World War, at once, fused the harshly mechanical geometric rationality of technology with the nightmarish irrationality of myth.
Thus in the 1920s, modernism, which had been such a minority taste before the war, came to define the age. Modernism was seen in Europe in such critical movements as Dada, and then in constructive movements such as Surrealism, as well as in smaller movements such as the Bloomsbury Group. Each of these "modernisms", as some observers labelled them at the time, stressed new methods to produce new results. Again, Impressionism was a precursor: breaking with the idea of national schools, artists and writers adopted ideas of international movements. Surrealism, Cubism, Bauhaus, and Leninism are all examples of movements that rapidly found adopters far beyond their original geographic base.
Exhibitions, theatre, cinema, books and buildings all served to cement in the public view the perception that the world was changing. Hostile reaction often followed, as paintings were spat upon, riots organized at the opening of works, and political figures denounced modernism as unwholesome and immoral. At the same time, the 1920s were known as the "Jazz Age", and the public showed considerable enthusiasm for cars, air travel, the telephone, and other technological advances.
By 1930, modernism had won a place in the establishment, including the political and artistic establishment, although by this time modernism itself had changed. There was a general reaction in the 1920s against the pre-1918 modernism, which emphasized its continuity with a past while rebelling against it, and against the aspects of that period which seemed excessively mannered, irrational, and emotionalistic. The post-World War period, at first, veered either to systematization or nihilism and had, as perhaps its most paradigmatic movement, Dada.
While some writers attacked the madness of the new modernism, others described it as soulless and mechanistic. Among modernists there were disputes about the importance of the public, the relationship of art to audience, and the role of art in society. Modernism comprised a series of sometimes contradictory responses to the situation as it was understood, and the attempt to wrestle universal principles from it. In the end science and scientific rationality, often taking models from the 18th Century Enlightenment, came to be seen as the source of logic and stability, while the basic primitive sexual and unconscious drives, along with the seemingly counter-intuitive workings of the new machine age, were taken as the basic emotional substance. From these two poles, no matter how seemingly incompatible, modernists began to fashion a complete weltanschauung that could encompass every aspect of life.
Another strong influence at this time was Marxism. After the generally primitivistic/irrationalist aspect of pre-World War One Modernism, which for many modernists precluded any attachment to merely political solutions, and the neoclassicism of the 1920s, as represented most famously by T. S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky—which rejected popular solutions to modern problems—the rise of Fascism, the Great Depression, and the march to war helped to radicalise a generation. The Russian Revolution was the catalyst to fuse political radicalism and utopianism, with more expressly political stances. Bertolt Brecht, W. H. Auden, André Breton, Louis Aragon and the philosophers Gramsci and Walter Benjamin are perhaps the most famous exemplars of this Modernist Marxism. This move to the radical left, however, was neither universal, nor definitional, and there is no particular reason to associate Modernism, fundamentally, with 'the left'. Modernists explicitly of 'the right' include Wyndham Lewis, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, the Dutch author Menno ter Braak and many others.
One of the most visible changes of this period is the adoption of objects of modern production into daily life. Electricity, the telephone, the automobile—and the need to work with them, repair them and live with them—created the need for new forms of manners, and social life. The kind of disruptive moment which only a few knew in the 1880s, became a common occurrence. The speed of communication reserved for the stock brokers of 1890 became part of family life.
Modernism as leading to social organization would produce inquiries into sex and the basic bondings of the nuclear, rather than extended, family. The Freudian tensions of infantile sexuality and the raising of children became more intense, because people had fewer children, and therefore a more specific relationship with each child: the theoretical, again, became the practical and even popular.
The 1940s in New York City heralded the triumph of American Abstract expressionism, a modernist movement that combined lessons learned from Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Surrealism, Joan Miró, Cubism, Fauvism, and early Modernism via great teachers in America like Hans Hofmann and John D. Graham. American artists benefited from the presence of Piet Mondrian, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst and the André Breton group, Pierre Matisse's gallery, and Peggy Guggenheim's gallery The Art of This Century, as well as other factors.
During the late 1940s Jackson Pollock's radical approach to painting revolutionized the potential for all Contemporary art that followed him. To some extent Pollock realized that the journey toward making a work of art was as important as the work of art itself. Like Pablo Picasso's innovative reinventions of painting and sculpture near the turn of the century via Cubism and constructed sculpture, Pollock redefined the way art gets made. His move away from easel painting and conventionality was a liberating signal to the artists of his era and to all that came after. Artists realized that Jackson Pollock's process—the placing of unstretched raw canvas on the floor where it could be attacked from all four sides using artist materials and industrial materials; linear skeins of paint dripped and thrown; drawing, staining, brushing; imagery and non-imagery—essentially blasted artmaking beyond any prior boundary. Abstract expressionism in general expanded and developed the definitions and possibilities that artists had available for the creation of new works of art.
The other Abstract expressionists followed Pollock's breakthrough with new breakthroughs of their own. In a sense the innovations of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Peter Voulkos and others opened the floodgates to the diversity and scope of all the art that followed them. Rereadings into abstract art, done by art historians such as Linda Nochlin, Griselda Pollock and Catherine de Zegher critically shows, however, that pioneer women artists who have produced major innovations in modern art had been ignored by the official accounts of its history.
In abstract painting during the 1950s and 1960s several new directions like Hard-edge painting and other forms of Geometric abstraction, as a reaction against the subjectivism of Abstract expressionism began to appear in artist studios and in radical avant-garde circles. Clement Greenberg became the voice of Post-painterly abstraction; by curating an influential exhibition of new painting that toured important art museums throughout the United States in 1964. Color field painting, Hard-edge painting and Lyrical Abstraction emerged as radical new directions.
By the late 1960s however, Postminimalism, Process Art and Arte Povera also emerged as revolutionary concepts and movements that encompassed both painting and sculpture, via Lyrical Abstraction and the Postminimalist movement, and in early Conceptual Art. Process art as inspired by Pollock enabled artists to experiment with and make use of a diverse encyclopedia of style, content, material, placement, sense of time, and plastic and real space. Nancy Graves, Ronald Davis, Howard Hodgkin, Larry Poons, Jannis Kounellis, Brice Marden, Bruce Nauman, Richard Tuttle, Alan Saret, Walter Darby Bannard, Lynda Benglis, Dan Christensen, Larry Zox, Ronnie Landfield, Eva Hesse, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra, Sam Gilliam, Mario Merz, Peter Reginato were some of the younger artists who emerged during the era of late modernism that spawned the heyday of the art of the late 1960s.
In 1962 the Sidney Janis Gallery mounted The New Realists the first major Pop Art group exhibition in an uptown art gallery in New York City. Sidney Janis mounted the exhibition in a 57th Street storefront near his gallery at 15 E. 57th Street. The show sent shockwaves through the New York School and reverberated worldwide. Earlier in England in 1958 the term "Pop Art" was used by Lawrence Alloway to describe paintings that celebrated consumerism of the post World War II era. This movement rejected Abstract expressionism and its focus on the hermeneutic and psychological interior, in favor of art which depicted, and often celebrated material consumer culture, advertising, and iconography of the mass production age. The early works of David Hockney and the works of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi were considered seminal examples in the movement. While in the downtown scene in New York's East Village 10th Street galleries artists were formulating an American version of Pop Art. Claes Oldenburg had his storefront, and the Green Gallery on 57th Street began to show Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist. Later Leo Castelli exhibited other American artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein for most of their careers. There is a connection between the radical works of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, the rebellious Dadaists with a sense of humor, and Pop Artists like Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein, whose paintings reproduce the look of Benday dots, a technique used in commercial reproduction.
By the early 1960s Minimalism emerged as an abstract movement in art (with roots in geometric abstraction via Malevich, the Bauhaus and Mondrian) which rejected the idea of relational, and subjective painting, the complexity of Abstract expressionist surfaces, and the emotional zeitgeist and polemics present in the arena of Action painting. Minimalism argued that extreme simplicity could capture all of the sublime representation needed in art. Associated with painters such as Frank Stella, minimalism in painting, as opposed to other areas, is a modernist movement. Depending on the context, minimalism might be construed as a precursor to the postmodern movement. Seen from the perspective of writers who sometimes classify it as a postmodern movement, early minimalism began and succeeded as a modernist movement to yield advanced works, but which partially abandoned this project when a few artists changed direction in favor of the anti-form movement. In the late 1960s the term Postminimalism was coined by Robert Pincus-Witten to describe minimalist derived art which had content and contextual overtones which minimalism rejected, and was applied to the work of Eva Hesse, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra and new work by former minimalists Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, and Sol Lewitt, and Barry Le Va, and others. Minimalists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, John McCracken and others continued to produce their late modernist paintings and sculpture for the remainder of their careers.
Since this time, many artists have embraced minimal or Postminimal styles and the label postmodern, has been attached to them.
Related to Abstract expressionism was the emergence of combined manufactured items, with artist materials, moving away from previous conventions of painting and sculpture. This trend in art is exemplified by the work of Robert Rauschenberg, whose "combines" in the 1950s were forerunners of Pop Art and Installation art, and made use of the assemblage of large physical objects, including stuffed animals, birds and commercial photography. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Jim Dine, and Edward Kienholz among others were important pioneers of both abstraction and Pop Art; creating new conventions of art-making; they made acceptable in serious contemporary art circles the radical inclusion of unlikely materials as parts of their works of art. Another pioneer of Collage was Joseph Cornell whose more intimate scaled works were seen as radical; partially because of his personal iconography and partially because of his use of found objects.
Marcel Duchamp famously gave up "art" in favor of chess. Avant-garde composer David Tudor created a piece, Reunion (1968), written jointly with Lowell Cross that features a chess game, where each move triggers a lighting effect or projection. At the premiere, the game was played between John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.
Another trend in art which can be associated with the term Neo-Dada is the use of a number of different media together. Intermedia, a term coined by Dick Higgins and meant to convey new artforms along the lines of Fluxus, Concrete Poetry, Found objects, Performance art, and Computer art. Higgins was the publisher of the Something Else Press, a Concrete poet, married to artist Alison Knowles and an admirer of Marcel Duchamp.
During the late 1950s and 1960s artists with a wide range of interests began to push the boundaries of Contemporary art. Yves Klein in France, and in New York City, Carolee Schneemann, Yayoi Kusama, Charlotte Moorman and Yoko Ono were pioneers of performance-based works of art. Groups like The Living Theater with Julian Beck and Judith Malina collaborated with sculptors and painters creating environments; radically changing the relationship between audience and performer especially in their piece Paradise Now. The Judson Dance Theater located at the Judson Memorial Church, New York, and the Judson dancers, notably Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Elaine Summers, Sally Gross, Simonne Forti, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton and others collaborated with artists Robert Morris, Robert Whitman, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and engineers like Billy Klüver. Park Place Gallery was a center for musical performances by electronic composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and other notable performance artists including Joan Jonas. These performances were often designed to be the creation of a new art form, combining sculpture, dance, and music or sound, often with audience participation. The works were characterized by the reductive philosophies of minimalism, and the spontaneous improvisation, and expressivity of Abstract expressionism.
During the same period—the late 1950s through the mid 1960s—various avant-garde artists created Happenings. Happenings were mysterious and often spontaneous and unscripted gatherings of artists and their friends and relatives in varied specified locations, often incorporating exercises in absurdity, physicality, costuming, spontaneous nudity, and various random or seemingly disconnected acts. Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Robert Whitman among others were notable creators of Happenings.
Fluxus encouraged a do it yourself aesthetic, and valued simplicity over complexity. Like Dada before it, Fluxus included a strong current of anti-commercialism and an anti-art sensibility, disparaging the conventional market-driven art world in favor of an artist-centered creative practice. Fluxus artists preferred to work with whatever materials were at hand, and either created their own work or collaborated in the creation process with their colleagues.
Artists from many disciplines continue to work in modernist styles into the 21st century. The continuation of Abstract expressionism, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Geometric abstraction, Minimalism, Abstract Illusionism, Process Art, Pop Art, Postminimalism, and other late 20th century modernist movements in both painting and sculpture continue through the first decade of the 21st century.
At the turn of the 21st century, well-established artists such as Sir Anthony Caro, Lucian Freud, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, and younger artists like Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Sam Gilliam, Isaac Witkin, Sean Scully, Joseph Nechvatal, Elizabeth Murray, Larry Poons, Richard Serra, Walter Darby Bannard, Larry Zox, Ronnie Landfield, Ronald Davis, Dan Christensen, Joel Shapiro, Tom Otterness, Joan Snyder, Ross Bleckner, Archie Rand, Susan Crile, and dozens of others continued to produce vital and influential paintings and sculpture.
However by the early 1980s the Postmodern movement in art and architecture began to establish its position through various Conceptual and Intermedia formats. Postmodernism in music and literature began to take hold even earlier, some say by the 1950s. While postmodernism implies an end to modernism many theorists and scholars realize that late modernism continues into the 21st century.
Many modernists believed that by rejecting tradition they could discover radically new ways of making art. Arnold Schoenberg believed that by rejecting traditional tonal harmony, the hierarchical system of organizing works of music which had guided music making for at least a century and a half, and perhaps longer, he had discovered a wholly new way of organizing sound, based in the use of twelve-note rows (See Twelve-tone technique). Abstract artists, taking as their examples the Impressionists, as well as Paul Cézanne and Edvard Munch, began with the assumption that color and shape formed the essential characteristics of art, not the depiction of the natural world. Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich all believed in redefining art as the arrangement of pure color. The use of photography, which had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, strongly affected this aspect of modernism. However, these artists also believed that by rejecting the depiction of material objects they helped art move from a materialist to a spiritualist phase of development.
Other modernists, especially those involved in design, had more pragmatic views. Modernist architects and designers believed that new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete. Le Corbusier thought that buildings should function as "machines for living in", analogous to cars, which he saw as machines for traveling in. Just as cars had replaced the horse, so modernist design should reject the old styles and structures inherited from Ancient Greece or from the Middle Ages. Following this machine aesthetic, modernist designers typically reject decorative motifs in design, preferring to emphasize the materials used and pure geometrical forms. The skyscraper, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York (1956–1958), became the archetypal modernist building. Modernist design of houses and furniture also typically emphasized simplicity and clarity of form, open-plan interiors, and the absence of clutter. Modernism reversed the 19th century relationship of public and private: in the 19th century, public buildings were horizontally expansive for a variety of technical reasons, and private buildings emphasized verticality—to fit more private space on more and more limited land. Conversely, in the 20th century, public buildings became vertically oriented, and private buildings became organized horizontally. Many aspects of modernist design still persist within the mainstream of contemporary architecture today, though its previous dogmatism has given way to a more playful use of decoration, historical quotation, and spatial drama.
In other arts such pragmatic considerations were less important. In literature and visual art some modernists sought to defy expectations mainly in order to make their art more vivid, or to force the audience to take the trouble to question their own preconceptions. This aspect of modernism has often seemed a reaction to consumer culture, which developed in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. Whereas most manufacturers try to make products that will be marketable by appealing to preferences and prejudices, high modernists rejected such consumerist attitudes in order to undermine conventional thinking. The art critic Clement Greenberg expounded this theory of modernism in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Greenberg labelled the products of consumer culture "kitsch", because their design aimed simply to have maximum appeal, with any difficult features removed. For Greenberg, modernism thus formed a reaction against the development of such examples of modern consumer culture as commercial popular music, Hollywood, and advertising. Greenberg associated this with the revolutionary rejection of capitalism.
Some modernists did see themselves as part of a revolutionary culture—one that included political revolution. Others rejected conventional politics as well as artistic conventions, believing that a revolution of political consciousness had greater importance than a change in political structures. Many modernists saw themselves as apolitical. Others, such as T. S. Eliot, rejected mass popular culture from a conservative position. Indeed, one could argue that modernism in literature and art functioned to sustain an elite culture which excluded the majority of the population.
The most controversial aspect of the modern movement was, and remains, its rejection of tradition. Modernism's stress on freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism disregards conventional expectations. In many art forms this often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects: the strange and disturbing combinations of motifs in Surrealism, or the use of extreme dissonance and atonality in modernist music. In literature this often involved the rejection of intelligible plots or characterisation in novels, or the creation of poetry that defied clear interpretation.
The Soviet Communist government rejected modernism after the rise of Stalin on the grounds of alleged elitism, although it had previously endorsed Futurism and Constructivism; and the Nazi government in Germany deemed it narcissistic and nonsensical, as well as "Jewish" and "Negro" (see Anti-semitism). The Nazis exhibited modernist paintings alongside works by the mentally ill in an exhibition entitled Degenerate art (Louis A. Sass (Bauer 2004) compares madness, specifically schizophrenia, and modernism in a less fascist manner by noting their shared disjunctive narratives, surreal images, and incoherence). Accusations of "formalism" could lead to the end of a career, or worse. For this reason many modernists of the post-war generation felt that they were the most important bulwark against totalitarianism, the "canary in the coal mine", whose repression by a government or other group with supposed authority represented a warning that individual liberties were being threatened.
In fact, modernism flourished mainly in consumer/capitalist societies, despite the fact that its proponents often rejected consumerism itself. However, high modernism began to merge with consumer culture after World War II, especially during the 1960s. In Britain, a youth sub-culture even called itself "modernists", though usually shortened to Mods, following such representative music groups as The Who and The Kinks. The likes of Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg and The Rolling Stones combined popular musical traditions with modernist verse, adopting literary devices derived from James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, James Thurber, T. S. Eliot, Guillaume Apollinaire, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The Beatles developed along similar lines, creating various modernist musical effects on several albums, while musicians such as Frank Zappa, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart proved even more experimental. Modernist devices also started to appear in popular cinema, and later on in music videos. Modernist design also began to enter the mainstream of popular culture, as simplified and stylized forms became popular, often associated with dreams of a space age high-tech future.
This merging of consumer and high versions of modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of "modernism". Firstly, it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Secondly, it demonstrated that the distinction between elite modernist and mass consumerist culture had lost its precision. Some writers declared that modernism had become so institutionalized that it was now "post avant-garde", indicating that it had lost its power as a revolutionary movement. Many have interpreted this transformation as the beginning of the phase that became known as Postmodernism. For others, such as, for example, art critic Robert Hughes, postmodernism represents an extension of modernism.
"Anti-modern" or "counter-modern" movements seek to emphasize holism, connection and spirituality as being remedies or antidotes to modernism. Such movements see Modernism as reductionist, and therefore subject to the failure to see systemic and emergent effects. Many Modernists came to this viewpoint, for example Paul Hindemith in his late turn towards mysticism. Writers such as Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, in The Cultural Creatives (2000), Fredrick Turner in A Culture of Hope and Lester Brown in Plan B, have articulated a critique of the basic idea of modernism itself — that individual creative expression should conform to the realities of technology. Instead, they argue, individual creativity should make everyday life more emotionally acceptable.
In some fields the effects of modernism have remained stronger and more persistent than in others. Visual art has made the most complete break with its past. Most major capital cities have museums devoted to 'Modern Art' as distinct from post-Renaissance art (circa 1400 to circa 1900). Examples include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. These galleries make no distinction between modernist and postmodernist phases, seeing both as developments within 'Modern Art'.