‘Modernism’ is a philosophical movement or socially progressive mode of thought, that emerged in response to social, economic, technological and economic changes particularly: imperialism; urbanisation; class conflict; the consolidation of middle-class culture; a ‘crisis of faith’; and the struggle between the sexes, all of which took place within the wider context of the late-nineteenth century. These multiple changes and tensions converged and accumulated until the discourse of novelty became inescapable.
However, unlike the European Enlightenment or the twentieth-century avant-garde in the arts, Modernity is not a solely fixed set of characteristics that might have appeared in a fixed space or time. Its origins remain in question and as Michael Levenson highlights, it is difficult to pinpoint the first modernist; he maintains how we can look back to figures such as, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron and Francois Villon who can be deemed a precursor to the movement. Further to this, we can never be sure that it is a Modernity. Today we talk about living in ‘new’ times, yet the origins of this newness remain contested.
Typical marks of Modernism include: discontinuity; literary self-consciousness; irony; and the use of myth. The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche embraced what he viewed as a cultural rupture, the creative destruction of traditionalism, a moment in time whereby the revival of a powerful artistic vision was possible. The traditional ideology of realism in art was rejected by modernists, in favour of art that fascinated and appalled, such as the work of artists Richard Wagner and Henrik Ibsen. It must be noted that Modernism was not an elite craft refined in secret but constituted a complex exchange between artists and their audiences. This ‘new’ art was regarded by some as a modernist novelty, a dangerous and contagious threat, symptomatic of madness.
M. Levenson, Modernism (Yale University Press, 2011).