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High Modernism

Related: high - Modernism

Contrast: 'Low Modernism' - philistinism

The players: James Joyce (literature) - Sergei Eisenstein (cinema) - Pablo Picasso (visual arts) - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (architecture) - Arnold Schoenberg (music)

Related: atonality - avant-garde - existentialism - Abstract Expressionism - Bauhaus - International Style - jazz age - Surrealism

New media: sound film - gramophone - radio

As a reaction to the democratization of the arts following the Industrial Revolution, High Modernism was marked by elitism; a relentless hostility to mass culture, neophilia, asexuality, asensuality, the cult of ugliness and cultural pessimism. This attitude is best summed up in the views of high modernists such as Theodor Adorno, José Ortega y Gasset , T. S. Eliot and Clement Greenberg, who asserted that culture industries churn out a debased mass of unsophisticated, sentimental and kitschy products which have replaced the more 'difficult' and critical art forms which might lead people to actually question social life. False needs are cultivated in people by the culture industries. These are needs which can be both created and satisfied by the capitalist system, and which replace people's 'true' needs - freedom, full expression of human potential and creativity, genuine creative happiness. Thus, those who are trapped in the false notions of beauty according to a capitalist mode of thinking, are only capable of perceiving beauty in dishonest terms. [May 2006]

Further reading: Sara Danius (Modernism and new media) - Richard Kostelanetz (on the avant-garde) - Stephen Bayley (his book on taste) - John Carey (on the intellectuals and the masses) - Peter Burger (his book on the avant-garde)

Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany (1926) - Walter Gropius


High modernism is a particular instance of modernism, coined towards the end of modernism. The term is used in literature, criticism, music and the visual arts, and is closely associated with anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott.

In the arts
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker remarked that the appreciation and collection of art is a behaviour involving the seeking or maintenance of social status. In the days before photography and other means of mass production and copying made decorative art objects accessible in some form to a wider audience, art conoisseurship could acquire its status from the sheer scarcity of art objects. [Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction] When these technologies threatened to remove scarcity from art objects, a rarefied, austere and hermetic aesthetics began to become more and more influential in the arts. Since art objects could no longer confer status by mere rarity, an alternative ground had to be sought for their social prestige: this prestige was now to be sought by deliberate exclusion of the tastes of the masses and by creating austere works of art that could only appeal to the tastes of an elite who had been educated to understand them. This austerity program is one meaning of "high modernism" in the arts.

High modernism is exemplified in the writings of Clement Greenberg, who developed and promoted an opposition between "avant-garde" art and what he dismissed as "kitsch".[Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch] High modernism especially compasses diverse movements such as abstract expressionism in the plastic arts, followed by the minimalism and the austere cultivation of "flatness" embraced by Piet Mondrian and his successors. In music, the twelve-tone compositions of the Second Viennese School and especially their post-World War II followers such as Milton Babbitt expressed the astringent qualities associated with high modernism. Babbitt's well known essay Who Cares if You Listen praises "efficiency" and "simplification" as two of the virtues sought by serial music. [Milton Babbitt, "Who Cares if You Listen" (originally in High Fidelity, Feb. 1958)]

In architecture, the International Style of uniformly rectangular, unornamented chrome and glass buildings, as pioneered by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, and Le Corbusier, are thought to be an expression of the austerity associated with high modernism.

"High modernism" is often used pejoratively by those who find these works of art distasteful. [But it also used appreciatingly by those in favour, e.g. Richard Kostelanetz]

In politics and culture
Le Corbusier famously called his austere white buildings "machines for living". The "International Style" called itself "international" precisely because its exponents cultivated indifference to location, site, and climate.

It is therefore unsurprising that James C. Scott's writings use "high modernism" as a disparaging label for a cluster of beliefs revolving around faith in "progress" that he finds distastefully technocratic and authoritarian. Scott defines "high modernism" as:

. . a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. [James C. Scott: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, p. 4. ]

Scott sees "high modernism" as an ideology that transcends the traditional divisions between the political "left" and "right"; it could be found wherever anyone wished to use state power to bring about utopian changes in people's work habits, living patterns, moral conduct, or worldview. High modernism accepts the "blank slate": it believes that human beings and human societies can be successfully reordered by planners at will. It requires a centralized bureaucracy to gather information about people and places, which it conceives of as human and physical capital. It finally requires the existence of a state powerful enough to enact its plans upon the lives of its subjects. It involved the imposition of order upon cities, villages, and farms by planners. Enginers, architects, scientists, and technicians of various sorts were its chief implementers.

Scott's use of "high modernism" calls to mind bureaucrats imposing standardization, indifferent to the nuances of local cultures. In his vision, they blindly crush communities and local, organic institutions and cultures as inconveniences in the quest for central planning. In Scott's view, "high modernism" is any of a number of elitist ideologies that must be imposed by officials who imagine that they know better than local people do about how to arrange their lives. Planners seek to impose "legibility" and "simplification" on their subjects; as a result, governments require everyone to use the same system of surnames, erase local systems of weights and measures in favour of uniform, promulgated standards, and statistical tests that measure what is of interest to the rulers rather than the people whom they govern. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_modernism [Apr 2006]

"Has Modernism Failed?

"Has Modernism Failed?" the critic Suzi Gablik asked. Yes and no. There is a strain within modernism -- its most absolute, nihilistic and Manichaean strain, its quintessential one -- that denies the value of art itself. It is found playfully in dada, elegantly in Duchamp, scarily in those pure varieties of futurism that exalted war because it made life into a work of art. And this part of modernism -- which was really postmodernism avant la lettre -- did fail. It had to, because it had nowhere to go. It led to the extreme, self-canceling gestures with which we are all too familiar: dice-toss art, silent art, readymade art -- all those cute, nihilistic table-trimmings for what Kermode called a "farcical apocalypse." --Gary Kamiya http://archive.salon.com/books/feature/2001/05/16/manifestos/index4.html [Aug 2004]

Modernism and new media

We can pinpoint the roots of High Modernism to the 1880s, a time when the first commercially available gramophones and phonographs were changing the way people listened to music. We can further pinpoint the end of modernism to 1930, which was the beginning of the sound film, changing forever the way people consumed fiction. Our history of Modernism is connected to new media that arose during what is sometimes called High Modernism: radio, phonograph and cinema.

There is a direct link between high modernism and cinema in an encounter between Sergei Eisenstein and James Joyce.

The stream of consciousness style of modernist literature appears to be indebted to the development of cinema, where narrativity was expressed differently.

The rise of cinema and "moving pictures" in the first decade of the 20th century gave modernism an artform which was uniquely its own.

See also: high modernism - 1880s - 1890s - 1900s - 1910s - 1920s - stream of consciousness - media - senses - cinema

High Modernism (1910 - 1930)

In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, the major figures of modernism literature helped radically to redefine what poetry and fiction could be and do: figures like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Proust, Mallarme, Kafka, and Rilke are considered the founders of twentieth-century modernism. --http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html [Oct 2005]

High modernism is a particular instance of modernism, coined towards the end of modernism. The term is used in literature, criticism, music and the visual arts. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_modernism

Modern(ist) architecture died in St. Louis

“Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.” -- Charles Jencks

Pruitt-Igoe, 1955
image sourced here.

Pruitt-Igoe, 1972
image sourced here.

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project, originally built in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, has been regarded as one of the most infamous failures of public housing in American history.

Designed in 1951 by architect Minoru Yamasaki (who would later design the World Trade Center), it consisted of 33 11-story apartment buildings on a 57 acre (230,000 m˛) site, totaling 2,870 apartments, and was completed five years later. The project was commissioned as part of the post-WWII federal housing program, as an attempt to bring people back to the city, but within a few years it quickly fell into disrepair and disuse, heavily vandalized by its own residents. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruitt-Igoe [Jun 2005]

The beginning of postmodern architecture
[I]t is significant that the beginning of postmodern architecture is not considered to be the construction of any great building, but the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism#The_development_of_postmodernism [Jun 2005]

See also: architecture - modern architecture - postmodern architecture - 1972 - Charles Jencks

Modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture

"Pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the postmodern first took shape, and from the beginning until today, the most significant trends within postmodernism have challenged modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture." -- After the Great Divide (1986) - Andreas Huyssen

Cinematic criticism

See Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship Between Modern Art and Modern Literature (1997) - Daniel R. Schwarz

  • >Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship Between Modern Art and Modern Literature (1997) - Daniel R. Schwarz [Amazon.com]
    A new book offers insight on the interrelationships between some of modern art and literature's most important and influential figures, while shedding light on the influence of African, Asian and Pacific cultures on European modernism and suggesting how we "read" paintings as narratives.

    In Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship Between Modern Art and Modern Literature, published by St. Martin's Press, Cornell English Professor Daniel R. Schwarz proposes, relationships between artists as varied as Edouard Manet and Henry James, Paul Eugéne Henri Gauguin and Joseph Conrad, Paul Cézanne and T.S. Eliot, as well as among Pablo Picasso, Wallace Stevens and James Joyce. In doing so, Schwarz suggests directions for studying the relationship between modern art and modern literature that erase the boundaries between visual and written texts. - Darryl Geddes

    Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (1998) - James Donald, Anne Friedberg, Laura Marcus

    Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (1998) - James Donald, Anne Friedberg, Laura Marcus [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Product Description:
    Close Up was the first English-language journal of film theory. Published between 1927 and 1933, it billed itself as "the only magazine devoted to film as an art," promising readers "theory and analysis: no gossip." The journal was edited by the writer and filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson, the novelist Winifred Bryher, and the poet H. D., and it attracted contributions from such major figures as Dorothy Richardson, Sergei Eisenstein, and Man Ray. This anthology presents some of the liveliest and most important articles from the publication's short but influential history.

    The writing in Close Up was theoretically astute, politically incisive, open to emerging ideas from psychoanalysis, passionately committed to "pure cinema," and deeply critical of Hollywood and its European imitators. The articles collected here cover such subjects as women and film, "The Negro in Cinema," Russian and working-class cinema, and developments in film technology, including the much debated addition of sound. The contributors are a cosmopolitan cast, reflecting the journal's commitment to internationalism; Close Up was published from Switzerland, printed in England and France, and distributed in Paris, Berlin, London, New York, and Los Angeles. The editors of this volume present a substantial introduction and commentaries on the articles that set Close Up in historical and intellectual context. This is crucial reading for anyone interested in the origins of film theory and the relationship between cinema and modernism. --Amazon.com

    Between 1927 and 1933, the journal "Close Up" championed a European avant-garde in film-making. It was edited by the writer and film-maker, Kenneth MacPherson and among its regular contributors were the poet H.D., Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf (whose essay on cinema is reprinted here in full). This volume republishes articles from the journal, with an introduction and a commentary on the lives of, and complex relationships between, its writers and editors. --Amazon.co.uk

    A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (1973) - Roger Fowler

    A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (1973) - Roger Fowler [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Book Description
    Around 300 essay-style entries introduce the reader to the traditional terms of literary criticism and the central preoccupations of contemporary critical thinking.

    In What is a classic? (1944) T.S. Eliot asserts that classic status can be known 'only by hindsight and in historical perspective.'


    Though [modernism is] sometimes loosely used as a label for the dominant tendency of the twentieth-century arts, as ‘neo-classicism’ is for eighteenth- and ‘romanticism’ for nineteenth-century arts, ‘modernism’ raises problems crucial to the character and destiny of those arts. Not only is much modern writing not modernist – so Stephen Spender distinguishes between 'modern' and 'contemporary' writers (The Struggle of the Modern, 1963) – but it resists the thesis that modernist style and sensibility are inevitable in our age.

    For modernism tends to propose special opportunities and difficulties for the arts. Modernist art is, in most critical usage, reckoned to be the art of what Harold Rosenburg calls 'the tradition of the new'. It is experimental, formally complex, elliptical, contains elements of decreation as well as creation, and tends to associate notions of the artist's freedom from realism, materialism, traditional genre and form, with notions of cultural apocalypse and disaster.

    Its social content is characteristically avant-garde or bohemian; hence specialized. Its notion of the artist is of a futurist, not the conserver of culture but its onward creator; its notion of the audience is that it is foolish if potentially redeemable: 'Artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists' is Ezra Pound's definition. Beyond art's specialized enclave, conditions of crisis are evident: language awry, cultural cohesion lost, perception pluralized.

    Further than this, there are several modernisms: an intensifying sequence of movements from Symbolism on (Post-impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism, Imagism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism) often radically at odds, and sharp differences of cultural interpretation coming from writers apparently stylistically analogous (e.g. T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams).

    A like technique can be very differently used (e.g. the use Of STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS in Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and William Faulkner) according to different notions of underlying order in life or art. The post-symbolist stress on the 'hard' or impersonal image (see IMAGISM) can dissolve into the fluidity of Dada or Surrealism or into romantic personalization: while the famous 'classical' element in modernism, emanating particularly from Eliot, its stress on the luminous symbol outside time, can be qualified by a wide variety of political attitudes and forms of historicism.

    Note from the editor: paragraphs were added to this excerpt.

    See also: classic - modern - critical - critical theory - literary criticism - literary theory - term

    Make It New: Essays (1935) - Ezra Pound

    Make It New: Essays (1935) - Ezra Pound [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezra_Pound [Sept 2005]

    See also: new - modernism - 1935 -

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