Modernism in Art and Literature Essay

Modernism as a movement was a response to the horrors of World War-I and to the rising industrial societies and growth of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It challenged the harmony and the rationality of the Enlightenment and sought to reinvent art and literature of the age. To do so, it broke away from the works of the past and conventions that were earlier held at a pedestal. The conception that reality could be easily be comprehended was replaced by modernism with a more subjective argument.

Reality became not what was directly seen but what was behind the apparent surfaces and it took a crude look at the ugly, the stark behind the glossy surfaces. It was to raise these questions that distortion became a crucial trope in the visual arts of the era. Comte’s Positivism could no longer be used to describe reality. The distorted images force the onlooker to step out of his comfort zone and to question his conception of reality. It highlights the dialectical relationship between the object of expression and the language that expresses it.

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This was echoed in the Literature of the time where sentences are fragmented and deliberately left incomplete as in Waiting for Godot: VLADIMIR: When I think of it . . . all these years . . . but for me . . . where would you be (Act I) Dialogues are seldom completed and there is an inability to find the correct words to describe the state of the self. This breakdown of language after the Wold War calls out for a need to reinvent language to fit the post war world. Hitler’s use of almost an enigmatic, opera type use of words (he admired Wagner) that achieved his mass appeal, did also lead to the war.

It was perhaps then necessary to breakdown language to reinvent it. The distortion and the fragments not only hint at the former but to a unity hat feeds to be rediscovered. The half-sentences make the reader seek to complete them and participate in the call for a search of a new unity and identity which is Pound’s injunction to “Make it New”. The onlooker/reader is removed from his role as a mere passive observer to an active one who contributes to the meaning of the art he views/reads.

Hence the incompleteness was not aimed at a completely pessimistic answer that leads to a loss of hope, but to different source of comfort similar to what T. S Eliot finds in the world of ‘shanti shanti shanti’ at the end of ‘Wasteland’. Picasso’s The Young Ladies of Avignon depicts five women from a brothel, apart from hinting at the moral and sexual corruption of the age, also hints that the classical definitions of what is deemed beautiful, no longer can be applied to the age. The women are openly expressive of their sexuality and the brothel scene itself denotes a larger moral corruption.

The animal like faces of some of the women, depicting man as animal, acting from primal instincts was also advocated by Freud in ‘Studies of Hysteria’ and also by Darwin in ‘Origin of the Species’. Picasso’s cubism became an important part of modernism’s subjective view of reality and a need to move away from traditional forms of art. It was this subjectivity that lead to the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique of narration, as used by Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway. The focus on the interiority of the self and its perception of the objects it conceives was way to grasp the changed notion of reality.

The ‘Pre-Speech’ level of consciousness (as Henry James called it) of the character where the narrative deals with what is freely sensed or felt by the characters rather than what is directly uttered changed the way that narratives functioned and what Barthes framed as : [T]he radical disruption of linear flow of narrative; the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development thereof… ” ( Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment” 68) The expression of the self was also to highlight the crisis of the self within itself.

The existential view of life and its cyclical futile form was what entrapped it rendering it unable to transcend futility of existence. This pessimistic view was a residue of the war which saw man as Sisyphus with his worthless search for meaning, identity and unity in an age that cannot satiate his search. In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ Albert Camus dwells on this futility of the modern experience: If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus: 19) and that the meaning of the world cannot be understood: I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus: 51) The view that traditional conceptions of beauty and on the whole the meaning of art itself did not fit the age lead to another movement called “Dadaism” that consciously set to redefine art itself. The movement was seen as “anti-art” that aimed to upturn its order.

Chaos then as the basic antithesis to order was abundantly used by artists. Started by Tristan Tzara (1896- 1963) as a reaction against the senseless violence of the First World War and to reflect the anarchy that it spread in the social system as well as in the lives of ordinary people. Tzara announced that: In principle I am against manifestos, as I am also against principle…I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking a fresh gulp of air. Tzara, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 842-843) Vladimir and Estragon announce often “Yes, let’s go. ” “They do not move. ” Therefore words and gestures are designed to deliberately contradict each other. What was also opposed was the conception of what was worthy of being the object of art. The classical subjects were replaced by the mundane as the urinal that Marcel Duchamp placed as an object of art in his gallery. Also in his ‘LHOOQ’ Duchamp’s Monalisa with a moustache was a direct means to shake the viewer and the age out from his complacency that lead to the war itself.

It was the direct expression of disillusionment with the war and that art too had lost its meaning like the literature of the classical time. The breaking down of any previously set rules and a violent portrayal of freedom of expression to shock and awe was the channel of the time that saw the violence of the World War firsthand. The artists and writers of the Dada movement were mostly war veterans and expressed through their work the psychological devastation of the war. The call for re-invention was echoed in the movement and stood for what modernism broadly aimed at. Satire of Hitler by John Hearfield) On the whole modernism was critiqued to be elitist in the way that it presupposes an audience already aware of the conventions that the movement breaks. The writers and artists of the era sought to distance themselves from the populace and it was this gap between art and general audience that post-modernism bridged. Dadaism too collapsed because it was reduced to an act of sacrilege. Both however influenced the age and arts in a dramatic way and shaped the movements that followed such as surrealism in literature and visual culture.

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