Explaining modernism

Posted on by Ben Hodson

Modernism as a term can be used to describe a number of different time frames and movements.  This can range from anything since the Renaissance 14th -17th Century (which interestingly coincides with the rise of capitalism) or since the mid – 19th century until the mid 20th century or even a specific style of art. For the purpose of this essay we will concentrate on the term as it is usually referred to in terms of art history.  Most modernists were utopian idealists, who believed that the new modern way of thinking would bring progress for the future.  This was built on scientific process and it reasoned that for something to exist you must be able to prove it. A modernist might reason, I will only believe what I can see and do.  “I think therefore I am.”( Descartes, 1985) This famous quote by René Descartes seems to me to sum up a lot of modernist thinking.


In terms of Western art, modernism originally gained pace from around 1850 with a succession of movements from the realism of Gustave Courbet, to its climax in abstract art in the 1960’s. Modernism self-consciously rejected old ways of doing things in exchange for the art of the present.  It proposed new methods on the grounds that they were better suited to the present.  It was characterised by constant progression, innovation and the notion of pure aesthetic experience. Some modernists argued that the universal meanings and truths in life could be communicated through the formal qualities in a piece of art work.  A few other key themes began to characterise it, including concepts of originality, newness, abstraction and of the artist expressing themself.  It was counter consumerist and mass culture. The literary critic Paul De Man explains it like this; “Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at least a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.” (De Man,1969).  This lead to the notion of the avant garde or the “forward guard”. It was first developed and embraced by modernist artists as a way to identify the cutting edge of contemporary art, design, writing and philosophy.  This promoted the idea that the forefront of art is and should be exclusive. It requires a highly developed sense of taste or aesthetic sensibility to understand it. It becomes elitist.