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Summary Article: modernism
From Aesthetics A-Z

In aesthetics the term 'modernism' generally refers to a complex, somewhat disorderly constellation of philosophical ideas, constitutive and critical, some of which are traceable back to the eighteenth century. Depending on context, it may also refer to certain artistic practices and movements, which began to emerge across the fine arts in late nineteenth century, first in Europe and later also in the USA, becoming indigenous to the first half of the twentieth century up until the 1960s. Modernism is often conflated with the term 'modernity', which is normally reserved for denoting specifically the cultural condition or epoch within which modernist ideas, practices, and constitutive events became increasingly manifest. The tenets of modernism in aesthetics are of varied origins and any shortlist would inevitably be far from exhaustive. Furthermore, since they function as ultimate presuppositions, that is – as assumptions to the effect that various ensuing issues can be raised and answered – they have yielded not only contrasting philosophical responses but also contrasting artistic manifestations – celebratory on some occasions and anguished on other. Modernism is often seen as the culmination of the so-called 'project of the Enlightenment' with its rationalist thrust toward truth and systematization, as well as its firm belief in the prospects of progress, technology and innovation. Some foundational ideas in the history of aesthetics arose in this spirit, for example: Lessing's arguments for medium purity, Kant's ideas of aesthetic autonomy and disinterestedness, and Hegel's quest for truth in art. Other ideas followed: growing awareness of the medium in art led to formalism, to aestheticism, and to an emphasis on self-reference in art; anti-realism, which has grown more pronounced in science, led to increasing preoccupation with modes and methods of representation. Some of the most distinct artifacts and practices that have become part and parcel of the modernist milieu in art, and the theoretical responses to them, can be analyzed in terms of either an emulation of, or a reaction against, these perennial themes. The urge to create new artistic objects and new ways of seeing is eminently clear not only in the way the visual arts challenged received methods of representation – for example, in cubism – but also in the fracturing of the tonal idiom in twentieth-century music, and also in some of the literary experiments of the past century from Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness writing to William Burroughs' cut-up method for producing new kinds of prose and film. At times such phenomena reflected also the state of cultural shock and antagonism toward the effects of technological advances and social transformations, which ran parallel to such enjoyment of experimentality. A rift opened between high art – especially institutionalized avant-garde – and popular culture. Sentiments of alienation, repression, and distortion were given voice and shape in art, but also in theory, for instance, in the deep ambivalence of the Frankfurt School thinkers towards the idea of aesthetic autonomy. Eventually, the ultimate presuppositions of modernism themselves became, at least arguably, the primary focus of postmodernist critique over the past three decades, thus becoming also sharply delineated and susceptible to further scrutiny. Insofar as aesthetics is committed to the compartmentalized autonomy of art and the aesthetic, and to foundationalist theorizing about this exclusive domain, it would be fair to say that aesthetics has been, at least since its eighteenth-century inauguration, largely a modernist affair. This is evident across the so-called analytic-continental divide, although analytic aesthetics in particular remained by and large overwhelmingly modernist especially with regards to its firm belief in the coherence and comprehensibility of its purported subject matter as well as its belief in the fundamental, philosophically far-reaching idea of the fixity of text.

See abstraction; Adorno; autonomism; Beardsley; Bell; Bloomsbury Group; conceptual art; Derrida; Greenberg; Hegel; Kant; Marcuse; Marxism; modern system of the arts; narrative; New Criticism; phenomenology

Further reading: Eysteinsson 1990

© Eran Guter, 2010

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