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Modernity: How Has Culture Responded to the Modern Age?

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The decades immediately following the end of the nineteenth century have been interpreted as a period uniquely preoccupied by its own modernity. Modernism was the cultural response to an age characterised by industrialisation, the 'democratisation of luxu

The decades immediately following the end of the nineteenth century have been interpreted as a period uniquely preoccupied by its own modernity. Modernism was the cultural response to an age characterised by industrialisation, the 'democratisation of luxury', the rise of the metropolis, an accompanying decline in ruralism, rapid technological progress, and the growth of consumerism. The purpose of this article is to examine the various ways in which artists, designers and filmmakers have responded to modernity. 

The critic Meyer Schapiro argued that these social changes had direct influence on the development of visual art in this period. He attributed the features of Modernism to external factors, not simply an art-historical chain of cause and effect:

The history of art is not … a history of single wilful reactions, every new artist taking a stand opposite the last … flattening if the other modelled … The reactions were deeply motivated in the experience of the artists, in a changing world with which they had to come to terms and which shaped their practices and ideas in specific ways.2

This central contention of Schapiro's is perhaps verified by the Italian Futurist movement, whose art not only refuted established traditions, but also sought to encapsulate the mental and environmental changes of modernity.  Led by F.T. Marinetti, these artists professed to be opposed to 'all that is old and worm-eaten,'3 and published their conception of the way forward in a series of aggressively worded manifestos. These openly celebrated the various manifestations of modernity, the 'miracles of contemporary life,'4 including industrialisation, the dynamism of the city, and developments in science. In this last field, new discoveries about X-rays and persistence of vision inspired a new way of perceiving the world, finding visual expression in their concept of 'universal dynamism'. Objects were no longer considered in spatial and temporal isolation, but were integrated in dynamic interpenetrations suggesting speed and energy.

Exemplified by Boccioni's The Street Enters the House and The Forces of the Street, universal dynamism incorporates a myriad of sensory stimuli presenting themselves to the viewer's consciousness simultaneously. This is expressed in the use of diagonal lines of force and plastic forms, which seek to engage the viewer in their violence and confusion. The merging, protean forms and splintered vectors replicate the effects of a fast-paced, rapidly evolving modernity.

This was the Futurists' common aim, but certain differences are discernible in their individual approaches. Balla was concerned primarily with optical effects, as in Street Lamp (which celebrates the recent installation of a modern phenomenon - electric lighting) and Flight of Swifts. Rhythms of a Bow and Leash in Motion both depict objects in multiple stages of motion, so that they are visible at several points simultaneously, thus imitating a way of seeing enlightened by photography and investigations into the science of vision. Carrà focussed on the dynamism of the city (e.g. What the Tramcar Said to Me and Leaving the Theatre).

In architecture, Sant' Elia pioneered designs intended for a modern city that would be 'a battery of human and mechanical energy.'5 The fact that these could not be built may be a classic example of Futurist theory preceding practice, but it does demonstrate the spirit of optimism in which they were conceived - one inspired by modernity.

Diametrically opposed to Futurism's response was that of Gaugin, whose example illustrates the diversity of climates into which modernity was received. Gaugin became so disenchanted with modern life that he chose to escape it completely, moving first to Brittany, and then, rather more dramatically, to Tahiti. He went in search of the 'noble savage,' and his work of this period depicts the native population - in an idealised form, since he was judging the culture from a Western perspective. However eccentric the move may sound, it demonstrates a rather conservative way of thinking that was shared by the later Primitivist movement.

Working in the early decades of the Twentieth century these, like Gaugin, rejected the aesthetic potential of modernity, and went in pursuit authenticity and tradition. As if illustrating Schapiro's account of how external factors contribute to the contemporary aesthetic, their methods of representation developed in opposition to Western modernity. They incorporated elements of 'primitive' culture (e.g.West African masks in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d' Avignon). A preference for bold, monumental forms is observed, accompanied by a childlike treatment of space in the work of Gaugin, Kirchner and Heckel. Primitivism depicts 'primitive' culture as an idyllic paradise free from the responsibilities of modernity, populated with languorous women and statuesque bathers.

A different explanation for the evolution of Modernism was postulated by Clement Greenberg, who argued that they were internal to the discipline itself. Therefore, 'primitive' elements were adopted because they conformed to the modern aesthetic, not merely inspired it.6 The primitive tendency was produced from within Modernism. The entire significance of a painting depended solely on the arrangement of forms on the canvas, since only intrinsic factors governed them. Greenberg argued that Modernism was characterised by a self-critical tendency that originated with Kant, a philosopher whom he thus regarded as the first Modernist. This 'intensification' of the self-critical tendency is evident in the very use of the word 'Modernism' to describe this cultural development, as well as in the art produced under its banner. Greenberg wrote: 'The essence of Modernism lies … in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself.'7 So, in the same way that Kant used logic to criticise logic, Modernist art searched for that which is 'unique and irreducible' to art. He argued that, in each art, this corresponded to what is unique to each medium. Therefore, painters should discover what this is in painting and exhibit it in their work, eliminating anything that originated in another medium. This would drastically reduce each art's area of concern, but what was left to it, it would possess all the more securely. In Greenberg's view, the essence of painting consists in its flat surface. Modelling in light and shade, the illusion of depth - these were borrowed from sculpture, and Modernist painters were required to banish them from their canvasses. By outlining these beliefs Greenberg accounted for the move towards abstraction, exemplified by Kandinsky, Malevich and so on. These artists were trying to create a 'pure' art, irrespective of the social changes emphasised by Schapiro.

In his book Pioneers of the Modern Movement Nikolaus Pevsner observed a similar progression of intrinsic factors in the field of design, from William Morris to Walter Gropius. A substantial body of recent criticism has contested his view that the 'machine-aesthetic' of the Twentieth-century has its antecedents in the vernacular idyll of the Arts and Crafts movement. Rather, it is understood as originating in the German Werkstätten and Werkbund. These institutions favoured a new, simple aesthetic and machine production, inspired by modernity. They aimed to create simple, efficient designs appropriate for modern living.

Of major significance is the Bauhaus, which, under the leadership of Gropius, strove for the ideal 'type-form' in its designs. These would be the definitive solution to any design problem, and would be styleless and universal, transcending national boundaries and never becoming obsolete. Examples are Marcel Breuer's tubular steel chairs, which have indeed dated well. In effect, the Bauhaus designers were trying to create a new environment to accompany the new modernity.

Similarly, the architect Le Corbusier had observed the great changes taking place in fields other than design. He wrote that 'painting has outsped the other arts. It is the first to have attained attunement with the epoch.'8 He can be aligned with Futurism in believing that a new perspective had developed, thanks to the advances of the machine-age, but lamented that 'we have not yet adapted the house thereto.'9 Like the Futurists he believed that the environment lingering on from the Nineteenth-century was incompatible with modernity. They shared a desire to renounce the past, albeit in a less aggressive form with regards to Le Corbusier.

Since he believed the house, and the environment in general, were essential for social wellbeing, Le Corbusier set out to rectify the situation. He evolved an aesthetic that was in tune with the pace of modernity, based on the engineer's aesthetic. His famous statement 'the house is a machine for living in'10, often misunderstood, really meant that the guiding principle for architects should be to adapt everything to the requirements of the owner, in the same way that an efficient machine is organised towards a specific purpose, and has no extraneous features. This echoes Frank Lloyd Wright's concept of 'Organic Architecture', and Louis Sullivan's declaration 'Form follows function', which became a maxim of the Modern movement.

Le Corbusier praised engineers for their use of mathematical order, and encouraged architects to emulate this in order to attain harmony and logic in their designs. His pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition, in sharp contrast to the ambience of Art Deco elaboration, was inspired by the economic use of space of ocean liners.11 Simple, geometric forms dominated, along with an exploration of modern materials and a subdued use of colour. His architecture abounds with unadorned clean, white edifices and horizontal, ribbon windows.

Modernism in design parallels developments in contemporary painting. The process of reduction to essential characteristics demanded by Greenberg is evident in the 'Less is more' ethos of Mies van der Rohe and his fellow Modernists. Penny Sparke has noted how Cubism pursued the essence of objects by breaking them down into their geometric components. The Constructivist De Stijl artist Mondrian evolved an abstract vocabulary of asymmetrical grids and primary colours,12 while Futurism used dynamic forms and strong diagonals. This situation provided designers with geometric, dynamic motifs ideally suited to the new spirit of modernity. The most obvious example of a design inspired by painting is Rietveld's experimental Red-Blue chair (1917), influenced by Mondrian. Marianne Brandt used geometric motifs in her tea service designs at the Bauhaus. The cog and wheel became abstract motifs suggesting how the machine would transform modernity.13

On the subject of how film has responded to modernity, Michael Wood has suggested that it is tempting to see all films as Modernist and cinema as 'an accelerated image of modernity.'14 Instead he argues that cinema has counteracted this assumption by 'embracing the ancient conventions of realism and narrative coherence.'15 Also, nostalgia for past eras of cinema encourages people to read films neither as Modernist nor as responding to modernity. Therefore, only certain films are concerned with commenting on it.

A major trend in cinema has been to focus on the rise of the metropolis as a symptom of modernity. Instrumental in this was Georg Simmel's essay 'The Metropolis and Mental Life', which announced that the city had become the arena of modernity, the realm of modern experience. Baudelaire had written that the city presented solitude among a multitude; Simmel now showed that the individual's sense of isolation was compounded by the city's excess of sensory stimulation.

To avoid becoming catatonic with awe16, Simmel suggests it is necessary to adopt a blasé attitude, a detached nonchalance: 'The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination …The meaning and differing values of things … are experienced as insubstantial.'17 A result of this is the fact that city dwellers often fail to recognise their neighbours by sight, making them appear cold and heartless to those from rural environments. Frequently 'one nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd.'18

Simmel urges that the potential alienation be counteracted by cultivating one's uniqueness: consumerism can be used to assert individuality. This suggestion goes some way to accounting for the boom in consumerism, mass-culture, and especially fashion (which has had particular significance for the designer) in the modern age.

Within the strand of filmmaking using the city to represent modernity there exists a polarity of opinion. Inspired by Expressionism in painting, Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis opens with a vision of a futuristic skyline with striking diagonals suggesting energy and dynamism. It is reminiscent of Futurism and could almost be a celebration of modernity. The following shots of infernal machines immediately refute this. Workers are shown moving like automatons through a subterranean world controlled by machines. Metropolis is essentially a science-fiction film, and it has been argued that this genre frequently has more to say about the present than the future.

Metropolis has been read as a critique of capitalist society: the extreme poverty and subordination of the workers contrasts to the bourgeois affluence of those above ground. The segregation of society into these separate worlds shows how the gap has increased between rich and poor, and is clearly intended to be read as an extrapolation of that of the present. Costumes and sets both resemble the 'Jazz Age', exhibiting a debauchery redolent of Hollywood musicals, Art Deco, The Great Gatsby, and so on.

Furthermore, the visions of imposing skyscrapers are derived from those of New York, investing the metropolis with a startling contemporaneity that becomes increasingly prescient as the years progress. The presence of the scientist creating his race of automatons to replace the workers demonstrates scepticism towards technological progress that threatens to eradicate human values.

Similarly, Charles Chaplin's Modern Times is openly critical of modernity. Mass production and industry threaten the wellbeing and individuality of Chaplin's hapless worker (at one point he is even devoured by a machine). The factory represents both technology and consumerism, recalling the production-line factories of the car industry. These manifestations of modernity constitute a hostile environment, which the worker has to escape. He finds redemption in the form of love, latching on to fundamental human values and abandoning the city. The film ends with Chaplin and his love strolling into the sunset, with a rural landscape beneath.

Thus, both films, despite their obvious generic difference, share an alternative view of modernity: as technological bewilderment and alienation. Martin Scosese's Taxi Driver operates in a similar way, using the underside of New York as a vantage point from which to survey the degeneration of contemporary American society. Here modernity is rife with corrupt politicians, disillusioned Vietnam veterans, vice and prostitution. Family life has deteriorated until only vestiges of it remain somewhere of indeterminate location outside the big city.

Many of the ideas in Taxi Driver are derived from film noir, a cycle of films made in the aftermath of World War Two. In his essay 'Notes on film noir', Paul Schrader (scriptwriter of Taxi Driver) noted how these films exhibited a 'new mood of cynicism, pessimism and darkness,'19 reflecting post-war disillusionment with modern society. This was expressed in the use of corrupt characters and fatalistic themes:20 characters were continually overwhelmed with waves of despair and apathy in the face of insurmountable odds. Visually, the influence of German Expressionism resulted in sparse lighting ('night-for-night' shooting) and the use of oblique or vertical lines, rather than horizontal. The result was a dark and ominous environment with shadows enveloping characters and sharp diagonals fracturing the screen so the 'no character can speak authoritatively'.21

Modernity is a 'world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption,'22 in which 'there is nothing the protagonist can do; the city will outlast and negate even his best efforts.'23

In contrast, Woody Allen's films take a more favourable approach. Manhattan, made within three years of Taxi Driver and set in the same city, offers a startlingly different view. Allen delights in the sheer variety of experience available, expressed in his enamoured voice-over beginning five different descriptions of New York. He embraces the aesthetic potential of the city and presents it as a cultural centre through the use of chic black and white photography and George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue playing over the montage.

To conclude, modernity has provoked many and various responses among artists, designers, and filmmakers, ranging from outright rejection to outright celebration. If Modernism is understood as the cultural response to modernity, it must be appreciated that Modernism is an attitude, not a style, and its basic impulse is to create an environment necessitated one way or another by modernity24. The magnitude of Modernism as a cultural reaction is indicated by the multitude of styles it encompasses, each representing an alternative response. Modernity has been defined as a social condition in which progress is a fact of life, and it is a testament to the aesthetic possibilities it offers that it has always served to 'keep culture moving'.25


1. Charles Baudelaire in 'The Painter of Modern Life' p12

2. Meyer Schapiro in 'The Nature of Abstract Art', in Modern Art, volume two: 19th and 20th centuries (Chatto & Windus Ltd,1978) p191

3. The 'Manifesto of Futurist Painters', quoted in Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1977). All references within the text are to this edition. p31

4. Ibid. p32

5. Ibid. p121

6. Gill Perry in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 1993) p3

7. Clement Greenberg in 'Modernist Painting', in Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (Blackwell Publishers Ltd,1992) pp754-55

8. Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture (John Rodker, 1927). All references within the text are to this edition. p19

9. Ibid. p17

10. Ibid. p 107

11. Jonathan M. Woodham in Twentieth-Century Design (Oxford University Press, 1997) p53

12. Penny Sparke in Design Source Book (Macdonald & Co Ltd, 1986) p74

13. Ibid. p75

14. Michael Wood, 'Modernism in Film' in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism(Cambridge University Press, 1999) p217

15. Ibid. p217

16. Seminar on 'The Modern', 14/2/00

17. Georg Simmel, 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' in Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1992) pp132

18. Ibid. p133

19. Paul Schrader, 'Notes on film noir' in Film Noir Reader (Limelight, 1998) p53

20. Ibid. p53

21. Ibid. p57

22. Ibid. p54

23. Ibid. p57

24. Seminar on 'The Modern' 7/2/00

25. Clement Greenberg in 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', in Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (Blackwell Publishers,1992) p531


Baudelaire, Charles The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (First published by Phaidon Press, 1964, London. Second edition,1995)

Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (First published as Vers une Architecture by Editions Crés, 1923. First published in this translation by John Rodker, 1927. Translated by Frederick Etchells)

Greenberg, Clement, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' in Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (First published in 1992 by Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford. Reprinted 1998) pp529-541

Greenberg, Clement, 'Modernist Painting' in Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (First published in 1992 by Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford. Reprinted 1998) pp754-760

Harrison, Charles, Frascina, Francis and Perry, Gill, Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (First published in 1993 by Yale University Press in association with The Open University, London)

Schapiro, Meyer, 'The Nature of Abstract Art' in Modern Art volume two: 19th and 20th centuries (First published in 1978 by Chatto & Windus Ltd, London)

Schrader, Paul, 'Notes on film noir' in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James (eds.), Film Noir Reader (First published in 1998 by Limelight, New York) pp53-65

Sparke, Penny, Design Source Book (First published in 1986 by Macdonald & Co Ltd, London)

Simmel, Georg, 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' in Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (First published in 1992 by Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford. Reprinted 1998) pp130-135

Tisdall, Caroline and Bozzolla, Angelo, Futurism (First published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1977)

Wood, Michael 'Modernism in Film' in Levenson, Michael (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (First published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999)

Woodham, Jonathan M., Twentieth-Century Design (First published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997)


Posted on Jun 29, 2010
Posted on Jun 28, 2010
Posted on Jun 28, 2010

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