Sunday, September 26, 2010

What is “Modernism”? What is “Post-Modernism”?

Search far and wide, you won’t find an easy definition of “Modernism”—let alone of “Post-Modernism”. A lot of seemingly smart people have tried to deliver a handy definition of the two terms—tried and failed. 
The when of Modernism is not in much dispute: Starting roughly in the 1890’s, it was greatly affected and accelerated by the First World War, and had its apogee in the arts (Picasso, Braque) in the ‘teens and ‘20’s, in literature (Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner) in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, in architecture (Lever House) the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s. 
The when of Post-Modernism also is not in dispute—simply put, Post-Modernism in each of the arts occurred after Modernism did. (Ha-ha.) Starting in the ‘50’s, and very self-consciously from the ‘80’s, Post-Modernism is still with us today. And works that are clearly “Post-Modern” from this period are easy to spot: Jeffrey Koons’ flower dogs are Post-Modern. So is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as is Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. 
But what is “Modernism”? What is ‘Post-Modernism”? 

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Literature (1996) defines Modernism as:
a term encompassing numerous movements characterizing international developments in literature, music, and the graphic and plastic arts from the late nineteenth century onward. [. . .] The experimental qualities thought of as essentially Modernist are found in the writings of many of the above [cited writers]; others are more traditional in their stylistic and narrative practices. All, however, respond acutely to the radical shifts in the structures of thought and belief that were brought about in the fields of religion, philosophy and psychology[.] [. . .] The moral cataclysm of the First World War accentuated the senses of general cultural catastrophe and individual spiritual crisis apparent in the writings of novelists and poets already sensitive to such disruptions in the humanist tradition.
[. . .]
The Modernists’ disregard of the expectations of a common readership resulted in allegations of obscurity and élitism which remain central to critical debate. 
So in other words, Modernism encompasses a wide variety of movements in various arts, which are experimental—except when they’re not—and respond acutely to the events and crises of the period 1890–1940, especially the First World War. 
Huh. In other words, the term “Modernism” is as broad as, say, “The Twentieth Century”, or “ice cream”, or “sports”—a catchall phrase. But unlike those terms, which have specific limits between what is in fact the Twentieth Century, or ice cream, or sports, there are no clear boundaries in Modernism. And though Modernist works are often “difficult”, there are plenty of other works from other periods which are also “difficult”. 
Therefore, Modernism would seem to be a distinction with practically no meaning, and hence to usefulness. 
What about the term Post-Modernism
From the same source (emphasis in the original): 
[. . .] It is not entirely clear if anyone or any thing actually is Post-modernist—perhaps the paintings and films of Andy Warhol are. The condition seems to be a generalized projection of what are felt as scattered but unmistakable tendencies in the West since 1945. There are two quite different ways of thinking about the condition, one broader and more historical than the other. In the first, Post-modernism is the name of what comes after Modernism in the arts[.] [ha-ha.] [. . .] In the broader sense Post-modernism is the name of the overall cultural climate of late capitalism[.] [. . .] We are Post-modern whether we know it or not; our art and culture are our reflection, displayed in entertaining but revelatory mirrors.
Again, a distinction without meaning—and this coming from the folks at the Oxford University Press: People way smarter than the average academic dunderhead. 
The last sentence I quoted in particular gets my goat: All art and culture, throughout history, are “our reflection, displayed in entertaining but revelatory mirrors.” To claim that Post-Modernism has an exclusive warrant on this issue is completely false. (I’m not too keen on the issue that we are “Post-Modern unaware”, either.)
If both terms truly were distinctions without meaning—or distinctions so broad and loose and generalized that they don’t seem worth the bother—then my essay ought to end here. (Or rather, I never should have even started this essay—I should have stayed in bed this Saturday morning and banged my girlfriend silly.)
But the thing is, there in fact are certain works of art which we immediately identify—correctly—as Modern and Post-Modern. For instance, Ulysses is Modern, as is Fallingwater House. Gravity’s Rainbow is Post-Modern, as is Playtime
The endemic use of the two terms in the arts and culture also makes for the need for a tight, clear definition of Modernism and Post-Modernism. However, the lack of a stable definition, for either term have led both to fall into Potter Stewart's Hedge: I know it when I see it, but I can’t really define it
This satisfies no-one. Stewart’s Hedge didn’t satisfy the relatively paltry issue of pornography—how could anyone expect it to work with definitions of Modernism or Post-Modernism: These aren’t trivial artifacts designed to stir base emotions—these are historical/philosophical/aesthetic categories, used to distinguish one kind of work from another, so as to thereby help us better understand art. 
That’s something that is often forgotten, in the human urge to categorize: The whole reason for imposing categories is so that we can understand what is encompassed in these categories—and thereby better understand ourselves. In and of themselves, categories and distinctions have use only insofar as they help us get a clearer sense of reality. If they do not help us—or worse, if they add a layer of obscurantism to things we are trying to understand—then they must be cut out and discarded like a cancer. 
If there aren’t definitions for these two terms, then they are meaningless and should be discarded. Yet it is clear, on an intuitive level, that there are such things as “Modernist” novels and “Post-Modernist” paintings—so they cannot be discarded. Rather, they have to be defined. 

So, Joe—I’ll give it a go: 

I posit that “Modernism” refers to an aesthetic movement whose works refer to and depend on outside secular events or other works of art. They cannot be understood without the audience being aware of and familiar with these outside referents. Hence, Modernist works depend on the outside referents for their complete meaning. 

For example, the Hemingway short story “On the Quai of Smyrna” is incomprehensible, unless one is aware of the historical background of World War I. The same can be said of all the other stories in Hemingway’s collection, In Our Time (1925), where “Smyrna” appears. If one is not aware that Hemingway is writing in reaction to the events he experienced in the First World War, one cannot understand his work. 
Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses makes no sense, unless one is aware that the novel’s structure is based on Homer’s The Odyssey, and knows the basic personal biography of the author, Joyce. Far from the artists being aloof of his work, paring his fingernails, in Modernist works, an author’s biography is essential to understanding the work. 
Modernist exterior referents need not be only other works of art or literature—they can be social referents. For instance, Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers are referencing the then-common knowledge that the dancers were part-time prostitutes, and the ballet aficionados their patrons. 
All of these Modernist exterior referents are by my definition secular. Indeed, I would say that Modernism is a reaction to religious art, whose external referent was the Christian narrative. 

The exterior secular referents expand the meaning of the Modernist works. Hence, brief works can be filled with meaning, to the extent that they successfully and artfully reference outside works or events. But if the link between the Modernist work and its exterior referent is cut—if one reads Ulysses, without being aware of The Odyssey—then the significance of the Modernist work is lost, rendering it confusing to the point of obscurity. 
Modernist works are therefore not “portable”—they cannot be fully (or sometimes even partially) understood outside of their historical context, as they depend on their historical context in order to transmit their meaning. 
Modernist works are also exceptionally useful for modern academia. Since they depend on outside referents in order to fully tease out their meaning, they supply an endless source for students and academics to “study”. Modernist works provide the raw material for endless academic disquisitions. In other words, Modernist works provide academics with the totems, gospel and liturgy of their own private religions. 
This academic effort is very necessary, for Modernist works of art can quickly lose its meaning, and its very sense: Since the exterior referents it depends on can sometimes be obscure, or become obscure through time, often there is a danger that the Modernist work will become untethered from reality altogether—become just a jumble of meaninglessness. 

“Post-Modernism”, to my way of thinking, is the conscious effort by artists to achieve this untethering—this jumble of meaninglessness. 
I posit that Post-Modernism is identical to Modernism, in that works of this category refer to outside events, other works of art, or generally extraneous information. However, the extraneous information Post-Modernism refers to is often either deliberately obscure, trivial (such as pop culture), erroneous, or altogether non-existent. 
Hence Post-Modernism is untethered to reality or to outside referents—or else, whatever slim and brittle line holds it tethered to reality is designed to be broken by the artist, so as to cast the work adrift. 
A piece of Modernist art can become Post-Modernist, whereas other works are Post-Modern from their conception. 
For example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is a prime example of a Modernist work of art that became Post-Modernist. In the Wake, literally every word of text refers to external referents by way of puns and allusions to other works—a classically Modernist move. 
But so many of those exterior referents are so obscure, that from the perspective of today’s reader, they no longer make any sense. Hence the Wake has become untethered from reality—the novel can literally mean whatever a reader wants it to mean. There is no longer a “right way” to interpret Joyce’s work—all interpretations are “right”. 
This points out a defining element of Post-Modernist works of art: By making exterior referents obscure, ambiguous or non-existent, those referents multiply, to encompass everything—the infinite. 
That which is infinite? Of course—God. 
It's no accident that, at the end of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the bidder at the auction that Oedipa Mas is waiting for is an infinite being. Pynchon never says this outright, but the only infinite being is God. Similarly, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), the man the characters are all fruitlessly waiting for is, in a very clear sense, infinite and all-encompassing. Beckett himself always pronounced the title of the play “Waiting for God-Ought”. 

Elegantly contrapuntal to the notion that all successful Post-Modernist work ultimately expands to refer to the infinite, there is also the case of what I would call the Wallace Spiral, after David Foster Wallace: Where the Post-Modernist work of art spirals in on itself, questioning every assertion—even at the most trivial level—ultimately spiraling down into meaningless and entropy. The obsessive self-reference of Post-Modernism—beyond mere narcissism—points to a fundamental sickness at the core of the movement. 
Finally, the obscurity and ephemerality of the outside referents that Post-Modernist works depend on makes them prime examples of planned obsolescence. 
Hence it’s no accident the Post-Modern fixation on consumer goods and epehemeral human objects: Post-Modernist art is busy creating precisely such objects of planned obsolescence, whether the artist making them is aware of it (Duchamp) or not (Toulouse-Lautrec). The only difference is, those consumer goods embody a practical, near-term utility, whereas self-consciously Post-Modern works (such as Duchamp’s) only hold artistic pretentions. 

That’s why so much of Modernism and Post-Modernism is so cold and dreary: Neither appeals to human emotions—they appeal to the artist’s vanity. They are both, at bottom, aesthetics of the artistic narcissistic. That’s why they are “difficult”—they are exercises in self-indulgence, that often deliberately (and rather meanly) belittle its audience. 
Such works are a thin gruel, for people hoping to find nourishment from art: That the best artistics talents of the last century were directed by such awful aesthetics gives an indication of what was squandered. So much of this work can be admired, but not loved. Experienced, but not enjoyed. 
Most of all, as tools to understand the reality around us, they fail. Because their principle aim is not to help others understand reality—it is so that the artist can indulge in his own subjective reality, and force his audience to go on the same ride. 
This art is ultimately doomed: It is the ex uno plures, e pluribus casus (out of one many, out of many downfall) fallacy I am exploring in The Green of the Republic and the other two parts of United States. Such atomization into private little universes cannot long continue—art that appeals only to the artist and academics is doomed. 
So what will come next? What sort of art will come after Post-Modernism? What will be post Post-Modernism?
I can speak for myself—for my own aesthetic: I call it neohumanism
The idea of neohumanist art as I am practicing it is art that helps human beings understand the common reality around us all. (I'm aware of the epistemic issues this statement raises; I have an epistemology that covers these issues, which I will discuss at a later date.)
In order to help human beings understand and experience the common reality, neohumanist art as I practice it elicits a specific, deliberate, predictable reaction from my audience. I do this by using craft (so as to elicit the specific reaction), and by referring only to those things which are universal to all human beings (so that I need not worry that my audience does or does not know extraneous information). 
Therefore, in neohumanism, all references to information outside the scope of the work—which my audience would not necessarily know or even be aware of—is either purged from the work, or explained fully within the work. 
This guarantees that neohumanist art is portable—it depends on nothing but itself, reality, and human nature for comprehension. 
The ideal of neohumanism is to create a specific work of art that elicits the exact same reaction in every human being who has ever lived, regardless of their circumstances, history, sex, age, whatever. 
In other words, perfect communication
Of course, nothing perfect is possible—perfect communication is an ideal. Yet in the search for this ideal, great things can be achieved. 


  1. Out of context-out of sight-out of mind. Rediscovered in the future yet diluted from its previous form of entirety.

    The meaning changes yet again.

  2. What a wonderful essay to see here today. I've been thinking about ISMs and here is a summation: All ISMs are created by art critics who in turn make or break big money galleries. Artist just do what artists do, its always a personal statement up for interpretation by other persons. Its what "others" do that makes it valuable, although to the artist, if we are satisfied, its value is priceless, meaning its like having a price put on your child's head, an impossibility.

    Modernism was the period that an answer came to the question asked of the stars on a dark night. "Do I matter?" Post Modernism is the period we accepted there would never be an answer forthcoming.

    In this way, Modernism actually allowed us hope in the way Post Modernism allows us nothing of worth or substance. Post Modernism is the art critics' inside joke, an illusion inspired as mockery of Bauhaus precision.

    The newest ISM is Relativism. Everything relates to everything. Merely commenting on your essay, we have created a work of Relative Art. Unfortunately, as usual, the same powers are at work promoting it which means finding exponentially more ways to make money from garbage, corruption, false desires and insincere values.

    I enjoyed your essays very much and am pleased you are so versatile in your material.

    Thank you, Nina

  3. Gonzalo,

    I recommend you to take a look at work of Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin who has extensive opinion about post-modernism in application to dying wester-liberal society.


  4. Mr. Lira,

    You've overcomplicated things.

    First, one should define pre-Modern art. Simply put this is work that is overtly religious or aristocratic; church or crown, shaman or chief, power and magic. Pre-Modern art is distinct from the Modernist emphasis on the individual (Individualism). This is an outgrowth of modern democratic thinking (i.e. American and French revolutions). As sovereignty shifted from church and crown to "the people" so to did the arts.

    Modernism in the visual arts begins with Manet's 1863 Olympia. A frank, un-romanticized painting of a prostitute. This was inappropriate subject matter and style and therefore brought into question the notion of conventionality. Therefore Olympia can be viewed as a painting "about" Painting. The form IS the content. This is the simplest, most straight forward definition of Modernism.

    This idea, that form is content, via a highly individual view, ultimately ends a century later with Abstract Expressionism and/or pure Minimalism. A hundred year de-evolution of content into pure form.

    You've also overcomplicated Postmodernism.

    Postmodern is simply the antithesis of Modernism. The Postmodernist thinker, seeing a highly interconnected, electronically mediated, very complex societal-systems culture, where the individual is actually incapable of self-reliance and therefore incapable of true Individualism, challenges Modernism's assumptions.

    The emphasis/objective of Postmodern art is one of emphasizing influence over the "myth" of the individual; continually challenging the Modernist notion of the autonomous, independent, free-thinking, individual by reminding the viewer that our identities are no longer formed through a direct experience with Nature, but simply as an intersection of mediated influences.

    Pre-Modern Art (pre 1860's) Religious/Aristocratic demonstrations of power and the supernatural.

    Modern Art (1860's-1960's) Autonomous individual challenging convention - form is content.

    Postmodern Art (1970's - ?) Concerned with influence and therefore challenging Modernist notions of the autonomous individual.

    Of course Postmodern art relates to neo-Marxist critiques of Capitalist culture. The Modernist belief in the individual appeals to the Classic Liberal and pre-Modern work appeals to Paleo-Traditionalists.

  5. Gonzoallah,
    Your question is a bait, a lure, a fabrication of a static conceptualization of post-modernism. Understanding the reality of the human dilemma, we would never ask a question about a general conceptualisation, such as the Zeitgeist meme of post modernism.
    Why, because we are processing post-modernism at warp speed, and by the end of this sentence it will be irreverent and diminished by attention spans regulated to the here and now devoid of historical context.
    The context is the post-modern message in an age of contextual acceleration and abbreviation that barely allows us to communicate.

  6. I once read an interesting account of an anthropologist translating Hamlet for the people he was working with, with the idea that Shakespeare is universal and they would enjoy the story.

    Upon hearing that there was a ghost, the audience knew that some particular relative of Hamlet was to blame (a male cousin on his father's side? I forget...), since within the belief system the anthropologist was studying, no one else would have the power to make an apparition appear. When Hamlet blamed his stepfather for the murder, the crowd lost sympathy for him: how could he be so stupid?

    While many of the cultural references that Shakespeare used to construct meaning were religious, I am not certain that your definition of Modernism excludes all of his work.

  7. Post-Modernism arose out of and is based on Modernism. Modernism, however, never really existed. Therefore Post-Modernism doesn't exist.

  8. You claim that the "Wallace Spiral" is simply the product of an artist's narcissism; I disagree. I believe that it does as much to advance the principles of "Neohumanism" than your "portable" art does. Infinite Jest is an attempt to absorb you into a world that is alien to you. It helps you accept that your personal view point is not necessarily universal or correct. This in turn allows you to see that we are all outsiders, we are all imperfect. No one is fully merged into a group; our separation from one another is purely a product of the scale at which we choose to view ourselves. We have the ability to choose a viewpoint in which we can group ourselves with as many people or cultures as we wish.
    This is not to say your art style of art does not help bring us together, however ignoring the differences that separate us ultimately will not help.

  9. A wonderful essay as usual. I could never get a handle on what people mean when they say 'post-/modern'. This actually cleared many things up for me, especially the distinction between the two.

    I can more comfortably say that 'modernism' in the artistic sense is very different than in the industrial sense. Frederick Taylor's approach to 'scientific management', for instance, is noted as a modernist approach to organizing work. The approach itself just applied statistics to what was then a new endeavor, so it does not depend on historical context or an individual's views. It's 'realistic' (if I can venture to use such a word in the audience of those who like colonizing words with their conventions) in that meaning exists beyond form or perspective. Continuing with this example, however, Taylorism doesn't seem to work well in settings where outcome is difficult to measure, like services, and more subject to interpretation.

    Then again, most things in math or systems are 'garbage-in-garbage-out'. Thinking of this from an artistic post-/modern perspective is rarefying a mechanical output and 'no shit' intuition. The context does seem to have a strong tendency to frame the discourse, however.
    Maybe protocol is that important after all.

    (Also, I'm not saying those who use Taylorite approaches (e.g., management consultants, economists, etc.) aren't slaves to cults of their own styles, but the methods themselves don't seem post-/modern.)

  10. Great stuff here. Dead-on. I would point out that Modernism and its postscript, Postmodernism, are artistic responses to the anti-(classical)-liberalism of the 20th Century. The classification of pre-Modernism as everything prior to Modernism is a gross oversimplification of everything that happened in that very long time period. For one, how can one take seriously a category that says Lord Byron is "religious." We have prehistoric art, ancient art, Medieval art, Renaissance art (with its initial move away from religion), Enlightenment art, Romantic art, neoclassical art, realism, and naturalism all preceding Modernism. And that's a purely Eurocentric view. From the Enlightenment to Naturalism, we have responses to and within the development of liberalism. With Modernism we have its outright rejection. Thus, its elitism.

  11. Waltinseattle here...
    Just discovered you. Joy! Read it to my wife and now she has an inkling of postModern and the venom in my spittle when the subject comes up.

    I propose the commentators to this piece do some field research into the "symptoms" or artifacts of postmodern, particularly in academic social "science" writing. They will find unrepentant soviet statist madmen and madwomen, they will find incoherent babel that not long ago would have been court valid proof in a commitment hearing. Experiments have been done, machine programs have been fed postmodern buzzwords and made grammatically correct constructs posing as scholarly papers. The papers were submitted and duly accepted for publishing. I read early postmoderns, then recent. Something is going to the bottom and going very fast. Going from a valid view to gibberish.

    When you talk of the artist's ego, only the word "infantile" needs to be inserted for precision. "I am nothing, but I should be everything!" And all works are but a condemnation of the philistine middle class oafs and oafesses who could never ever understand his great works of genius. That is my opinion .

    Delightful to have other converts to humanism. Please don't call it neo- it's always the same, the only difference is reaching different people with different perspectives. The human condition has not changed for milenia, but the stage where its played has changed dramatically. Why is music more universal? Because it is wordlessness. Is is somaatic not mental, because there is less to mistranslate.

    Man and the Great and terrifying abyss, what else is there? except either diversion or coming to terms.

  12. It seemed to me that a pervasive characteristic of Post-modernism was demonstration of the failures of the individual subject to understand the reality around them - the impossibility of ever getting to the bottom of things, once and for all.

    This is a truth, but the arts dwelled on this truth for too long. The descent towards meaninglessness, the tendency towards the infinite - in a way, these are like the problems of adolescence.

    In effect, the better works of Postmodernism nuance, frame, and contextualize the questions of Modernism - making them more accurate without necessarily clarifying them.

    Modernism asks questions of rationality and individuality, and Postmodernism supplies mocking counterquestions.

    But, and here's the crux of it: this is only the starting point. The descent into meaninglessness, or the call of the infinite - these are the starting points of journeys, not their end.

    Postmodernism failed to continue the story past its beginning. That's why it's so sterile. From defiance, to despair, to revelling in that self-same despair.

  13. and Po mo dripped down into pop culture where it fermented into a hopeless, nihlistic stew of utter meaninglessness. How perfect for a Society that values only surfaces, an endless bloody hall of mirrors where a bunch of vampires could be mesmerized by their own non existant reflections & declare an end to history. Of course they elected a former actor president, OF COURSE

    Nothing depresses me more than watching an episode of 'Seinfeld.' To me it exemplifies every disgusting thing about this culture where everything is a joke & nothing means anything at all, so why bother.

  14. Modernism, I would argue began with the enlightenment in the 1680s and paralleled the rise of scientism--that science can solve all man's problems. Life is a story as we can know and depict it.

    Post-modernism was ably launched as we realized that science may be making things worse, like at Hiroshima in 1945. All assumptions were out the window from that event forward. Life? what story?

    Typically, artists are well ahead of the curve in recognizing, leading, depicting these shifts in human thought. It becomes evident in their art (fine arts, poetry, music) even if the artist does not fully comprehend the forces inspiring their work.

  15. Excellent essay. There isn't an official definition, of post-modernism (much like Derrida who refused to define Deconstruction) You've actually hit on the essence of post-modernism.

    Its largely incoherent as both an art form and a philosophy. Meandering concepts that can point in different directions and lead to contradicting conclusions. Words that can mean one thing - or another. A subjective view of ethics 0 that negates objective ethics much like ancient sophistry. A story without a punchline. etc...

    I would argue though while post modernism is now dying it did actually serve a very useful purpose (whether intentioned or not by its various proponents). It showed us just how much contradiction their often is in communication and claims of rationality.. and this is driving us to now want to correct that.

    In my opinion, to make this happen requires a revisit of language itself. Much like we went from grunts to basic language, we need language 2.0. Language thus far has been the result of random events that create ad-hoc additions. Like a winding road in Rome (as opposed numbered gridded streets in New York) its inefficient and hasn't been thought out of in a holistic fashion. There are key problems hat need to be resolved to simplify communication and make it more coherent.

    A big one is lack of context. While It can be corrected with normal language how many arguments have started needlessly because of one out-of-context word taken in offense? (and once egos get involved cracks can become canyons)

    Another problem is ill defined proper use of analogy. We are all Hitler according to someone that doesn't approve of us.

    Then there is meaning of individual words. While can mostly agree on physical concepts, abstract concepts are sometimes being conceptualized radically different (a process made worse because they are chained together with other abstract concepts - sometimes in infinite regress). What is "good"? What is justice?

    We also need to be more concise. Language needs to be considered from a mathematical standpoint to maximize meaning per squiggly character. New words should not be allowed into official use randomly. There should be a process that there is a specific formula that readers can derive meaning from without exactly having ever heard the word before (much like scientific terms)

    The short of it is, we have to optimize language rather than perpetually be victims to it.

  16. Dear sir,

    Your characterization of modernism and postmodernism is both pompous and ridiculously reductive, not to mention plain wrong. A work of art is defined above all by its ability to successfully move from the specific and localized to the universal. All the writers you list and then dismiss as self-indulgent obscurantists achieved this, and it is one reason why they continue to be read and discussed beyond their lifetimes -- both inside and outside academia. Moreover, what you say about DFW's work being hopelessly entangled in self-defeating webs of self-consciousness is an insult to the man and his great and troubled genius. Finally, your conception of "neohumanism" is at best naive and adolescent. No writer or artist can operate outside his or her time -- at least not in the way you'll have it.

    Good day


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