27 October 2005
Born into Modernity: The Contemporary Attitude Toward Modernism
On my first day of kindergarten I wouldn't leave my mom's side. I am the oldest child in my family, and therefore the first to go to kindergarten, and I was scared. I didn't know the teacher, I didn't know the other kids, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I soon realized that although it was true that I could no longer spend all my time at home with my family, kindergarten was an all right place, and there were things to learn there. In a similar way, Modernist writers saw the brave new world of technology and mass-production, and they were scared. Although the concerns that dominated the thoughts of the Modernists are still with us, our views toward them have changed and, in many ways, matured.
For example, our view toward the past has undergone an almost textbook-perfect didactic change. The early Modernist view toward the past is expressed in Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent” when he says, “the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” (1286). Early Modernists like Eliot, Pound, and to an extent Willa Cather, believed that in order to overcome the fragmenting effects of the modern life, the individual had to comprehend and appreciate the mythic past. This idea changed dramatically with the avant-gardes, and especially the Futurists. They believed that the modern world required not only a new form of art, but a complete break with, and destruction of, the past. For example, Marinetti's “Manifesto of Futurism” makes explicit the Futurists' desire to “demolish museums and libraries” and “fight morality”. Contemporary society has rejected the idea that only the novel is worthwhile. In fact, the nearly continuous attempts by Experimentalists to shock us has made the novel no longer avant-garde, but passé. While we have rejected much of the inherent importance of the novel, we have maintained some of the skepticism of the past that Modernism taught us. For example, we seem almost obsessed with proving that the past wasn't as idyllic as we once thought, as evidenced by the publishing of DNA evidence showing Thomas Jefferson as a philanderer and the book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which claims that Abraham Lincoln was bisexual. There is, however, still a deep respect for, and interest in, the past. We have become the generation of criticism; we respect the past, but we have maintained some of the Futurist skepticism of it.
This skepticism of the past is evidence of another aspect of our society which has departed from the philosophy of the Modernists. A society which is so steeped in criticism obviously believes in its own worth, for a willingness to criticize other cultures must be based on a belief in your own culture's validity. Modernists, on the other hand, doubted the worth of their society. They had became deeply disenchanted with the concept of social Darwinism, the idea that society was evolving, and becoming more and more advanced. Modernists claimed that the great irony of the Modern Age was that technology and communication advances did not lead to societal improvements, but actually caused us to regress culturally. This idea is found throughout Modernist literature, but one especially powerful example is Adam's “The Dynamo and the Virgin”. He says, “As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross . . . Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.” Adams claims that society is based on force, and that the old, spiritual forces of the feminine are being replaced by the amoral force of technology. Morality, according to the Modernists was being replaced by machinery, and we were becoming the worse for it.
In contemporary society, especially contemporary American society, social Darwinism seems to be making a comeback. The end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy to countries previously very undemocratic has given credence to the thought that perhaps the world is progressing after all. This attitude is reflected by the positive attitude toward foreign affairs that all of our recent Presidents have had, from Reagan's ultimatum to Gorbachev to Bush, Sr.'s “thousand points of light” to Clinton's peace talks with Palestine. We believe that not only is the world getting better, but that we are helping to effect those improvements.
Another attitude that has changed in some interesting ways is our attitude toward art. Modernists were appalled by a middle class who was exposed to some of the greatest art of the centuries, but made it kitsch. “The 'age demanded,'” as Pound says, “chiefly a mould in plaster, / Made with no loss of time” (1115). Mass production of art, according to the Modernists, denigrated art – it changed Venus into a plaster mould, a paperweight, and changed The Tempest into “that Shakespeherian Rag” (Eliot, 1296). In many ways, this criticism applies equally well, if not more aptly, to our society. Through the Internet we have access to, and we are exposed to, more of good art than any other society. And yet, we still buy Britney Spears and Thomas Kincaid (not that Thomas Kincaid deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Britney Spears). There is an ironic paradox among the middle class. They have inherited the Modernist distrust of kitsch, of “pop culture”, but they don't truly appreciate high culture. Those who admit to liking the Backstreet Boys or Christina Aguilera are mocked, but so are those who like Grieg or Bach. This leads some to attempt to find a middle ground, like certain professors who become almost obsessive over music from the '80s. We truly are an estranged society. In all seriousness, though, we seem to be at an adolescent period in regards to our attitude toward art. We recognize that what we produce is not truly art, but we are not yet ready to accept real art. One may argue that we have become a society amazingly apt to criticize, but unable to produce. We know good art when we see it, but we have lost the ability to create it.
Although we certainly do not live in a perfect society, and we do not have all of the answers to the important questions that Modernists were asking, we have come a long way. Technology and industry have changed from being an intimidating threat to becoming a part of life, for better and for worse. We have recognized and are dealing with the negative consequences of modernity, but we have also learned how to harness the positive elements, and in many respects, we are beginning to find meaning through modernity.