Modernity, Modernization and Modernism

And I will show something different from either
Your shadow in the morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you,
I will show you fear in a handful dust

T.S. Eliot – ‘Waste Land’

Definition of ‘Modern*’

What is the uniqueness of modern art and modernism? Before embarking on my first exercise of this part I am going to look into some ‘definitions’ or at least some guidance for me as a starting point for differentiating art work that most likely can be considered as modern/modernist art. In the following a loose line of references and a personal conclusion for me to continue from.

Reading through the course materials and further references I started to develop a visual map with key elements. For that purpose I used the Inspiration software, quite helpful not only for this purpose but also with its many templates a good tool for research and essay preparation. And I can use and exchange files on my laptop and my iPad. This format allows a better mapping compared to linear flow of words in a text. Quite complex and only a brief look at the subject.


Often the era of Modern art is defined by convention as the art created in the aftermath of the French and the Industrial Revolution. In the spirit of and after the era of Enlightment, as a response to machine production, and with the uprise of urban landscapes and the development of urban society. Modern is characterised as the today (from lat. modus) and as the departure from the ancient past. One can consider the main feature of ‘modern’ as the distinguishing from  ‘traditional’ (Macey, 2001, pp. 259-261)

By convention one can distinguish between three related moments in the dynamic of the modern (Harrison, 2002, pp.127-131):

Modernization as referring to the scientific and technological development causing a changing world. It  refers to the ‘growing impact of the machine’. Especially considering the Western societies at the turn of the twentieth century with an increasing change pace. Besides being a ‘technological fact’ it is also a ‘social fact’ by influencing social relationship and social classes.

Modernity as referring to the ‘social and cultural condition of these objective changes’. Modernity as the human experience and awareness of change and the required adaptation to this change. Besides being a social phenomena modernity impacts the inner experience effecting the person and its character.

Modernism can be seen as ‘the condition of modernity [that] exists in a shifting, symbiotic relationship with Modernism’. A deliberate and self-conscious reflection i.e.  the representation of the experience of the new. Or as M Bersham describes it as the ‘attempt of modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization’ (Berman, 1988, p.5)

Nevertheless, the definitions are not sharp and not always clearly distinguishable. Bottomline seems to be that modernity and modern life was and is a twofold experience: a social and an inner experience.

Modernity is a wide area covering fine art, literature, architecture, and philosophy. Many writers were shaping the concept of the modern and the modern society. Butler explored the common demominators of modernism in painting (e.g. F. Léger, P.Picasso, G. Braque), literature (e.g. James Joyce, T.S Eliot, V. Woolf, E.Pound), drama (e.g. B. Brecht) nd music (e.g. A. Schönberg, I. Stravinsky). Common aspects are around cross-cultural allusions, experimental techniques, juxtaposition of fragments and imaginary. It is around ideas of self, myth and the unconscious and sexual identity that modernist artist (Butler, 2010, pp. 1-13). For me it seems a kind of experimental appropriation.

One of the earliest writer was Charles Baudelaire who described 1864 in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ the modern life of man in a city: ‘The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’ (Baudelaire, 1969, p.9) And Baudelaire describes the ‘joyful curiosity’ alongside the ‘ecstatic gaze of a child’ as the driving force of the modern man, the ‘flâneur’ . Baudelaire also articulated the phenomena of the ‘man of the crowd‘ who anonymous, having no reason to identify with those who surround him. Social life in an urban landscape became a spectacle of modern life in a crowd. This is mostly linked to the male spectator, less the female. It is discussed whether women were also able to stroll freely and lonely outdoors e.g. in parks or on promendas of the city and whether they could this evenly ‘anonymous’ or not (Furlong-Clancy, 2015). This modern life seems to give the person, citizen a role as an observer.

Representation in Art

The question in art was more on representation of modern life experience. Modern painters became concerned with this question and Edouard Manet (1832-1883) tried to depict the ‘anonymous’  figures with a rather dead-pan faces and an absences of expression or narrative, e.g. ‘Olympia‘, 1863 or ‘The Balcony‘, 1868.

The paradox of observing and representing and how they impact each other reminds me of the observer effect phenomena. 

E. Schrödinger (1887 – 1961) described this in quantum physics with his famous thought experiment (Schrödinger’s cat)

According the C. Greenberg  Manet made ‘the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted. (Greenberg, 1995, 86) And M Fried supported Greenberg’s opinion in explaining that  ‘His [Manet] own awareness of himself as in and yet not of the world… the first painter whose awareness of himself raises problems of extreme difficulty that cannot be ignored: the first painter for whom consciousness itself is the great subject of his art.’ (Fried, 1992, p.792) Modernism in connection with art goes often back to Greenberg’s argumentation.

Greenberg’s formalist approach to modernism art was characterised by a shift towards abstraction and an orientation to flatness and a self-referentialty of art and its medium and the picture surface. His main focus was on modern painting and he was less concerned with the social and political environment.

However, Blake and Frascina do see one key aspect of modernism in that ‘modern social experiences [are] inseparable from a self-conscious attitude to the means by which those experiences could be represented’. For them it is therefore more than a mere concern with flatness and issues with the medium (Pooke en Newall, 2007, p.56). Modernism as embedded in a wider social context.

The art historian R. Krauss describes the effects of modernity and modern life on sculpture and how those are listed sculpturally through a ‘loss of site, producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure maker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential.’ (Pooke en Newall, 2007, p.45)

Behind all this lays the struggle of living in a modern society. Modern art was concerned with the representation of a self-conscious awareness of the social changes around. This went along a sense of disengagement and alienation.  Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) described the estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt) and applied this in a way of acting in his epic theatre.  Karl Marx (1818-1883) investigated the alienation effect of labor and commodity production.

Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) satirised mass production and the treadmill of industrial modern life after the Deep Depression in a highly visual evocative and hilarious way in his film of the Tramp in ‘Modern Times’, 1936 (Ngoc Yen, 2016) .

Charlie Chaplin 'Modern Times', 1936

Charlie Chaplin ‘Modern Times’, 1936

The film explores the human conditions and estrangement of factory workers from their work and the manufactured product alongside the alienation while searching for humanity as a constant struggle. Quite the opposite of the idea of a self determined and active man in modern times.  70 years after Baudelaire modernity in urban environment turned from a leisure observer role towards a struggling worker and failure. The huge machinery in the factory is visually overwhelming not only for the worker but also for us as well the observer, viewer of the film. I find this film quite contemporary with its underlying messages that are still valid in our times.


Painting techniqu: Cubism

In this context of ‘flatness’ I find the explanation on representation and visual perception given by art historian and a major French art dealer D.H. Kahnweiler (1884 – 1979) on Cubism quite insightful (the article appeared first 1916 in Zurich). In Cubism real objects are depicted through basic geometric forms and those act as a ‘stimulus which carries with it memory images’ Thus the observer will construct in its mind the physical representation of the ‘real objects’ (Kahnweiler, 2003, p.212). This reminds me further of the phenomena of Pareidolia, content visible from structure, form. An unconscious experience, most likely linked to learned patterns of the brain. Modern as well in context of Surrealism and the automatic techniques. By that the representation of Cubism works are different from illusionistic representational paintings with applied tools of perspective and lightning.

Overall, one can say that the topic of discussion is around subject and content. The observer’s experience of representation (content) is going in parallel with the experience of form. Many abstract paintings build on this phenomena. (McIver Lopes, 2013).

Personal conclusion:

  • Modernization is often associated as a technological fact with development based on scientific and engineering inventions. It can be considered a social fact with changes in social relations and social classes.
  • Modernity is a wide area covering all aspects of life in society under the influence of modernization.
  • Modernism explicitly in art can be seen as new attempts to represent the challenges and changes that come with living in a modern society. In painting and sculpture the awareness of the artist of those challenges in representation is build on outer and inner experiences and further on the exploration of the medium specificity. Past artistic tools e.g. perspective,  lightning and chiaroscuro are exchanged with medium intrinsic efforts e.g. relationship between objects, representation objects as ‘real objects’ not as ‘perceived objects’. The self-consciousness of the artist is explored through a self-referentiality of the picture.
  • Overall, I do feel that modernism art works are more successful when the form of the picture is sufficient in itself and the experience of modernity is represented intrinsically in the picture e.g fragment of labor works represented through fragments of objects on the surfaces.
  • In Modern Art the interaction of form and content is of high importance in representational experience.
  • At the end of this brief research I am wondering whether ‘Modern’ and ‘Modernism’ can be merely considered as an era. Or rather as one perspective by applying different innovative artistic tools to represent the experience and encounter with the new world. With all its social and personal encounters. I have the feeling that specific movements e.g. Cubism are more specific. So this will be a question that I will take with me during this part of the course.



  • Baudelaire, C. (1969) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ in J. Mayne, ed. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon.  [Scribd] Available from:  [accessed 14 March 2017]
  • Berman, M. (1988) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York; London: Penguin Books.
  • Butler, C. (2010) Modernism: A Very Short Introduction,Very short introductions. Oxford University Press
  • Fried, M. (2003) ‘Three Amercian Painter: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella’, in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) Art in theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden, MA; Oxford, UK; Victoria, AUS: Blackwell Publishing,  pp. 787-793. VIB.
  • Furlong-Clancy, S. (2015) Fashion and the Painting of Parisian Modernity, [online], available from: [accessed 17 March 2017]
  • Greenberg, C. (1995) ‘Modernist Painting’, in Greenberg, C. (ed.) The Collected Essays and Criticism, Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press,  pp. 85-93.
  • Harrison, C. en Wood, P.J. (red.) (2002) Art in theory, 1900-2000: An anthology of changing ideas. 2de editie. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Inspiration Software Inc.  [Software], Available from: [accessed 28 March 2017].
  • Kahnweiler, D.-H. (2003) ‘The Rise of Cubism’, in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) Art in theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell Publishing,  pp. 208-214. IIB.
  • Macey, D. (2001) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory,Penguin Reference Books. London etc: Penguin Books.
  • McIver Lopes, D. (2013) ‘Painting’, in Gaut, B. M. L., D. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 3rd ed., London; Ney York: Routledge,  pp. 596-605.
  • Yen, N. (2016) Modern Times (1936) Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, [Video online], Available from: [accessed 30 March 2017].
  • Pooke, G. en Newall, D. (2007) Art history: The Basics. London: Taylor & Francis.


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