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An introduction to the Modernist period for Western Humanities II at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
There are some audio glitches on this video. You may consider them as examples of modernist fragmentation. . . .
See thomasbalazs.com for information about the author of this lecture and his collection of short stories Omicron Ceti III.
So today, we start looking at a new historical and intellectual period known as Modernism. But before we do so, we should probably distinguish this term Modernism or modernist from the more common term, modern. In everyday language, modern just means contemporary, new, the latest thing. But the term Modernism has a different, though a related meaning. It refers to a discreet historical period and intellectual movement which defined itself as the latest thing. But now is largely relegated to the past, since we’re no longer in the Modernist period. We’re actually in the Post-Modernist period. We define ourselves as having coming after modernism which sometimes seems strange to people if you think of the term Modernist they way you would think of the term as modern. Right? If we said we were post-modern in the common sense of the term, that would mean we were somehow after new things, and we’re coming after things that are new, but that doesn’t make any sense because the new is the new. But if you think of Modernism as a discreet historical period with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then it makes sense to talk about Post-Modernism. Now I’m subtitling this presentation “Things Fall Apart,” because it’s during this Modernist period that Enlightenment optimism, religion, and even culture itself seem like they’re falling apart. That at least was the perception of some of the Modernists. Indeed that phrase, “Things fall apart,” comes from a Modernist poem, “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats. So, as we said, Modernism is a historical period, right? And um, as such, we can date is, and probably the most narrow uh, dating of- of Modernism would take it from about 1910 to 1939. Uh, in 1910, that’s the end of what’s called The Edwardian Period. And uh- Kind Eduard was the kind who followed Queen Victoria. He only reigned for about 10 years, and um, with the end of that period we start to see the emergence of um, particularly artists that are looking very much like modernists, and you know, we’ll continue to talk about what that means. Right? And that period of artistic experimentation sort of reaches a- um a- kind of an end point around 1939 with the start of World War II. But a more broad definition of the historical period of Modernism might go back as early as the 1870s, when we’re starting to see some um, radical critiques of the western tradition, rejection of western values, um, among uh- intellectuals and artists. People like the playwright uh, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, or the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. You know, and this reaches a kind of a culmination in the late 1890s with- with Freud, and um, and that kind of um- radical reexamination of western culture in some ways, you know, reaches uh- its natural end point in 1945 with- with the dropping of the atom bomb, which inaugurates a completely, you know new set of issues for western culture. Now, we can also think of Modernism as a state of mind, not just a historical period. And in that respect, it’s not- it’s not restricted to any historical time frame, right? Just as the, you know, just as you can be an Enlightenment philosopher in some ways today if you are very much of the same set of, you know same mind set as people of the Enlightenment. Today, somebody might call you Victorian if your morals are of a certain uh- type or character, and one m- you know, theoretically, at least could consider oneself to be kind of a modernist today if one was, you know, really concerned with um- radically rejecting tradition, and always trying new things, right? It’s kind of a- it’s a state of mind. And- well, actually I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s define that state of mind, right? And the first thing is what I just mentioned. A radical rejection of tradition. That’s what Modernists do. They want to, you know, divorce themselves from- from the past. Free themselves from philosophic traditions, from moral traditions, and you know, perhaps more notably, from artistic traditions, you know. And- and this way it’s a movement, it’s a state of mind that embraces the new. The innovative. The experimental. Right. You might remember Edmund Gosse, who was writing “Father and Son” in 1909, which is just on the cusp of that more narrow historical period of Modernism. Edmund Gosse talks about how in the day that he is writing, in 1909, there is this, um- emphasis on originality. You know, that uh- there is this uh, valuing of being original, right? And that is characteristic of modernism. That’s why I call it a kind of cult of the new. Right. Now, the- the thing is, in its early stages, Modernism was um, fairly optimistic. It looked to a future free of, you know, artificial constraints and advance by rapid technological progress. But, with the arrival of World War I, which I’ll- I’ll talk about in a mind. That optimism was dampened. And replaced largely with a loss of faith in human progress and in the promises of the Enlightenment for a better world. For a more utopian world. Um and um- so there’s a kind of rejection of the enlightenment faith and progress among Modernists. Um, now, you know, as the Enlightenment seemed to play itself out and the world became more fragmented, um- and you know, ideologies were breaking down. Religious ideologies. Moral ideologies. Culture itself seemed to be breaking down, right? Uh- the Modernists did an interesting thing you know. What do you do when life gives you lemons? Well, you make lemonade if you’re a positive person, right? What do you do when culture starts to feel increasingly fragmented and disorganized and chaotic? Well, one of the things the Modernists did was they sort of embraced that fragmentation. They made it uh- an aesthetic value. So along with the cult of the new is a kind of a cult of fragmentation, right. And you can see it even in things like cubism, like in this work to the right. Um, there’s a kind of um, you know, delight in the fragmented that you see in modernism. Um, Finally, one of the interesting… the roots of modernism. Um, In some ways, Modernism is the logical end point of the Victorian era. When Freud pointed out that it was um, the unconscious and not human intention that was driving culture, and when Nietzsche declared that God was dead, you know, what was left but to abandon um, you know, moral and religious and philosophical traditions? Right. You know, but at the same time um, technology was making great strides and we were seeing um, you know, um advances in architecture and building as you know, new industrial materials became available. You started to have you know, the use of cast iron that enabled the building of these massive, tall structures like- like the Eiffel Tower or like sky scrapers. And automobiles were coming onto the scene. Uh- Modernists were very interested in speed and locomotion. At the start of the 20th century, you know, the Wright brothers successfully tested and airplane. And man, it seemed like like human kind was literally reaching never before reached heights. Some of these themes we’ve been talking about are most obvious in Modern art. Some of these themes that we’ve been talking are most obvious in Modernist art. Picasso’s break with traditional forms of presentation can be seen, for example, in the painting to the left. Uh, the.. le Demoiselles D’Avignon, right? Um, this painting actually you know, uh proceeds World War I. It’s a 1907 and yet you can even, then you can see a kind of a fragmentation um, in it. But what’s perhaps mos- most notable right, are a couple of things. One is the move away from realistic depiction of human figures, right. Um, these women don’t look realistic and- and it’s not because Picasso wasn’t able to draw realistic figures. He chose not to, right. He’s breaking with tradition. He’s also experimenting with new methods. In this case, cubism. Right? And so, um- Picasso is considered to be one of the innovators of cubism and this is one of the reasons this painting was valued, because it’s doing something new and innovated. Right? A more dramatic rejection of tradition can be seen in the work on the right. The 1917 uh, work of Marcel Duchamp. This piece called “Fountain” was first displayed in 1917 and it radically changes, you know, our notion of what art is. Right? Duchamp was one of the founders of a movement known as Dada, right. And here he takes um, an inverted urinal and he makes it a work of art. Or um- or, you know, an “objet d’art.” Right? Uh, Um. This was in some sense, uh- a declaration of hostility not only towards uh- audiences, but to art hims- to art itself. Right? But, on the other hand, he’s he’s really asking us to look at the world in a new kind of way. He’s- he’s asking his audience to find, you know, to find beauty in a toilet. Right? Um, and that, that reflects not only you know, the break with tradition, but this- there’s a- this embrace of experimentation and refection of tradition opened up a gap between artists and artists. Between high and low culture. And that’s a gap that still exists today, and you know, and you can- you can see that gap at work if you ever to go like a museum where they’re displaying modernist uh modernist works of art like for example, this Jackson Pollock on the left. Um and often you’ll hear people say, perhaps you’ve said yourself, you know my two-year-old could do just as well as that, right? Um, the- the audience is no longer in the same place as the artist in many respects. Uh- the same kind of gap can be seen in modernist literature in works such as, for example, James Joyce’s novel Ulysees, right? In that novel, Joyce completely rejects plot and unity of form. Every single chapter is written in a different style, and each style is challenging and difficult to understand. A lot of people are not able even to finish the novel Ulysses. And those of them who do often need the help of um-secondary sources such as uh the annotate Ulysses, which you see to the- to the right. In fact, there’s been a whole industry of books written just to help people ready Ulysses. And I’m not talking about like Cliffnotes or Sparknotes. You know, from the- from the first days when this novel was uh- published people were writing books about how to read and understand it because, um you know, Joyce was no longer uh- taking his audience into consideration in the same way that earlier authors did. You can also see this same kind of um, attitude of the artist at work in T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Wasteland.” That was a poem that was so difficult and so fragmented that Elliot himself provided it with its own footnotes. Modernism didn’t exactly die with the end of World War II and the explosion of the atom bomb, but something changed. You know, we still live in a culture that rejects tradition often, you know, embraces the new values, sometimes even overvalues originality, right? But I guess with that rejection of tradition, I mean, we’re no longer expected to reject tradition the way, for example the Modernists did. Um- somehow the trauma of World War II caused us to sort of perhaps, also rethink this gap between high and low culture. Right. We’ve since entered a period that’s known as Post-Modernism. And Post-Modernism is marked by a greater uncertainty and playfulness than you see in Modernism. And it’s- it’s kind of at odds with what is often a kind of a high seriousness of Modernism. In- It’s in the Post-Modernist period that we, you know, we see a kind of the emergence of the kind of gallows humor that we all live with today. Post-Modernism is the sort of sensibility, for example, that, you know, that juxtaposes high and low, the sublime and the ridiculous, the deadly and the comic, you know. So that Post- Modern- Post-Modernists today, we live in an age, you know that could, for example, find a clown face in a mushroom cloud.