The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Modernism: A revolutionary movement encompassing all of the creative arts that had its roots in the 1890s (the fin de siècle), a transitional period during which artists and writers sought to liberate themselves from the constraints and polite conventions associated with Victorianism. Modernism exploded onto the international scene in the aftermath of World War I, a traumatic transcontinental event that physically devastated and psychologically disillusioned the West in an unprecedented way. A wide variety of new and experimental techniques arose in architecture, dance, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

As a literary movement, modernism gained prominence during and especially just after World War I, then flourished in Europe and America throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Modernist authors experimented with new literary forms, devices, and styles; incorporated the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; and paid particular attention to language — both how it is used and how they believed it could or ought to be used. Their works reflected the pervasive sense of loss, disillusionment, and even despair in the wake of the Great War, hence their emphasis on historical discontinuity and the alienation of humanity. Although modernist authors tended to perceive the world as fragmented, many — such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce — viewed art as a potentially integrating, restorative force, a remedy for the uncertainty of the modern world, and thus created patterns of allusion, symbol, and myth to provide order in their works. This rather exalted view of art fostered a certain elitism among modernists.

Modernism encompassed a number of literary paths, many of which became known as movements in their own right, such as Dadaism, expressionism, formalism, and surrealism. Modernist works are often called avant-garde, an appellation that has also been applied to more radically experimental postmodernist works written in the wake of World War II. Many literary scholars distinguish between “old” (or modernist) avant-garde works and “new” (or postmodernist) ones. A modernist surrealist work is easily differentiated from a postmodernist Absurdist one.

Modern and modernist are not synonymous. The term modern broadly refers to that which is contemporary, that which pertains to the present day. Modernist refers to the complex of characteristics shared by those who embraced or participated in the modernist movement.

EXAMPLES: Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) are famous modernist literary works. Modernist art includes the cubist and surrealist paintings of Pablo Picasso (such as Three Musicians [1921] and Three Dancers [1925], respectively) and the surrealist works of Salvador Dalí. Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1933) is an example of modernist music.