Modernism: An Apologia

Modernism in the arts is an indefinite term. Like fascism , the word gets bandied about despite the absence of any firm idea of what it means. Even the editors of Modernism: 1890-1930 , a widely used text, fell back on this:

The name [i.e. modernism] is clear; the nature of the movement or movements … is much less so. And equally unclear is the status of the stylistic claim we are making. We have noted that few ages have been more multiple, more promiscuous in artistic style; to distil from the multiplicity an overall style or mannerism is a difficult, perhaps even an impossible task.
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At about the same time, critic Monroe K. Spears echoed the sentiment when he prefaced an important book on the same subject by observing that “Modernism is, of course, an impossible subject.” That was the mid-1970s. Here we are thirty years later and head-long into post-Modernism, yet still with no definitive idea of precisely what we are post of.

So we have to be careful not to discard the achievements of modernism in the arts—the visual arts, my chief concern—on ideological ground that has more sand in it than we like to think.

Max Beckmann. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1917). St. Louis Art Museum
Max Beckmann. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1917). St. Louis Art Museum

Pius X’s condemnation of modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” has reverberated in unsuspected ways. The shadow of heresy-by-association blankets the fragmentation and disjunctions of modern art (much of it a reaction to the horrors of war). Since modern art challenged the authority of preceding art, it was disdained as an expression of the same heretical impulse.

This over-simplification is far less interesting than the reality. The entire history of Western art has been a succession of challenges to previous art as well as a story of intricate branching and wandering, with many false starts along the way. People of faith, skeptical toward unnuanced Darwinian hypotheses about the origin of man, accept without question mainstream Darwinian views of art history.
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Following the received wisdom, they lend themselves to the myth of the supposedly organic structure of art history, imagining an unbroken line of progress from classical times to the Renaissance. (Some stretch it to the 1880’s and the beginnings of Impressionism, but no later.) After that, in the modern era, the presumed ladder of ascendancy collapses. Believers jump ship to take up the unsmiling game of modernist-spotting. The visual correlative of heresy-spotting.

And that is too bad. The volume and scope of art dismissed by this attitude is staggering. Stay awhile with Beckmann’s interpretation of the theme of the woman taken in adultery. There is great power in Christ’s gesture, staying the mob of accusers with one hand; with the other, making a gesture of acceptance toward the woman. While the crowd mocks, it is they who look grotesque, not Christ—self-assured and protective—and not the woman who places herself under his protection with closed eyes in trust.

And the paint! The beauty of it does not translate onto the screen. It is one of modernism’s great gifts.