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Modernism

Impressionism, Symbolism, Oppositional Culture, The Assertion Of Modernism, 1890–1914, High Modernism And The Avant-garde, 1914–1930

A movement of indeterminate origin and span, modernism nevertheless retains the distinctiveness of a major episode in the history of culture. Its most renowned manifestations performed a radical break with the dominant arts of the nineteenth century. They were direct provocations to prevailing norms: norms of beauty, of the representational integrity of the human body, of the continuity of forms, of the consolations of progress, of secure reception by an audience. Despite striking differences, these artifacts were quickly recognized as part of a broad cultural transformation. They incited popular outrage, putting the category of "art" into question and forcing the issue of "difficulty." The emergence of modernism is inseparable from the active controversy that was an inescapable aspect of its development.

Distinctions among modernization, modernity, and modernism remain indispensable: modernization as the condition of social, economic, and technological change; modernity as the lived social experience of these transforming conditions; and modernism as the cultural activity situated within and alongside these other dimensions. That no secure origin of modernism can be offered is a reflection of its complex relations. The process of modernization—uneven industrialization, the widening of empire, the spread of technologies, the emergence of class society, the struggle for the rights of women—has no fixed starting point, nor does the experience of modernity, the sensation of being unmoored from a continuous past or uprooted from an organic community.

Despite the indeterminacy at its limits, the period known as high modernism, roughly bound by the years 1890 through 1930, achieves historical definition. It does so through the magnitude and extremity of artistic experiment, the proliferation of public gestures (such as exhibitions and manifestos), the attentions of the press, the growing international circulation of experimental texts and ideas, and the widening consciousness of cultural and social change. Any single characteristic of modernism can be traced far back in cultural history. What distinguishes the movement is the convergence of multiple tendencies, including the exploration of such negative states as violence, irrationality, and nihilism alongside the affirmation of art as a redemptive possibility.

Immediate antecedents of high modernism are many and diverse. Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), in the poems of Les Fleurs du mal (1857) as well as in his essays, introduced preoccupations taken up repeatedly over subsequent decades: a fascination with and revulsion from the modern city, an encounter with transgressive eroticism, an acceptance of evil, a delight in artifice (especially through the figure of the dandy), and a commitment to the craft of lyric poetry and the power of the Symbol. Whereas Baudelaire enacted his encounter with modernity in compact poetic forms, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) promoted radical transformation on the grand scale. He aimed for a complete reconstruction of nineteenth-century opera, based on his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the "total work of art" that combines drama, music, dance, and stage-setting. Wagner's demand for spectacular dramatic gesture, his investment in large mythic narrative, and his creation of the Bayreuth festival represent efforts to renovate culture through the public force of art.

The symbolic and mythic projects of Baudelaire and Wagner developed in parallel to a newly austere realism that often looked to experimental science as a model. The paintings of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), including The Stone Breakers (1849) and The Burial at Ornans (1850), refused pictorial idealism, representing workers and common citizens in ordinary dress and everyday poses. Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), whose Madame Bovary (1857) epitomized the new realism, wrote that art "must rise above personal emotions and nervous susceptibilities. It is time to endow it with pitiless method, with the exactness of the physical sciences" (p. 195). Beginning in the 1870s, Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) composed a series of plays—A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Pillars of Society—that insisted on a "realist" analysis of middle-class ideals and that generated uproar throughout Europe. In their methods as their subjects, Courbet, Flaubert, and Ibsen pursued the unmasking of illusion and the hard-won claims of truthful fiction.

Although these figures differed in their work and their legacies, each prepared for the advent of high modernism. The decisive event was the emergence of an oppositional culture. It was only when singular provocations became related to one another, sometimes loosely, sometimes closely, that modernity recognized modernism and modernists became conscious of their historical possibility. There was no modernism without individually audacious artifacts, but equally no modernism without exchanges among artists and relationships among their works.

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