Monday, 7 December 2009

Modernism, Modernity and Modernité: Omissions and Corrections.

Modernity is a word that is often used as an overarching periodizing term to denote a historical era. In my first comments regarding this I do make this clear, however I stated that we began with 18th Century Enlightenment, something that is true, but ignores some aspects of modernity’s development that starts in earlier centuries.  I did not emphasis that Modernity refers to a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period. So in a way we may begin somewhere in the Renaissance with the marked by the move from feudalism (or agrarianism) towards capitalism in say 14th Century Florence or even earlier. In England we saw the power of the King challenged by parliament leading to the English Civil War. At this point around 1650 we witness the development of the Public Sphere and opening of the first coffee house in Oxford.  It is perhaps important to note that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations and Denis Diderot is said to have written parts of the Encyclopédie in a coffee house. The coffee house becomes the great social condenser of 18th Century France, helping to break down class barriers. This is discussed in Adam Hart Davis’ Eureka Years Modernity also means a shift towards industrialization, secularization, rationalization and the nation-state. So we see an overarching period from the Renaissance to Enlightenment or Age of Reason, to the Age of Revolutions (American, Industrial, French, 1848, Russian) concluding Post WWII, especially after 1968.

Modernité is concerned with a distinctly modern sense of dislocation and ambiguity and locates it in the more general experience of the aestheticization of everyday life, as exemplified in the ephemeral and transitory qualities of an urban culture shaped by the imperatives of fashion, consumerism, and constant innovation. Here one may consider Baudelaire, Manet or Toulouse Lautrec.

Modernism describes the art, culture, design and style of a historical period: the Modern Age or Modernity. The term is used by Charles Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century to designate a new field of action for the artist. For Baudelaire it describes the culture of the “modern world” or bourgeois industrial society. It is about what is new in one’s own culture and implied an obligation to be of one’s own time. The exact character of this age, as well as its precise dates (although generally speaking the mid -19th Century is often cited as a start date), are described in very different ways by critics and historians (see Richard Kostelanetz and Robert Hughes amongst many others). I think it is fair to say that modernism can vary from country to country and varies from practice to practice Modernist theatre, film, art, photography; design may begin at very different times. Anyway, modernism is often associated with faith in: progress, optimism, rationalism and clarity of communication in some contexts.  With the early days of modernism there was the utopian belief that mechanization and technology if properly channelled could produce a less divided society, perhaps by the seventies and eighties this started to look absurd. The end of modernism corresponds with the “collapse” of modernity: the architecture historian Charles Jenks gives us the year 1972 and even the exact minute of the collapse (I mean this literally) of modernism and the modern movement with the destruction of Pruitt–Igoe the housing complex designed by Minoru Yamasaki. I think that it was Robert Hughes in The New Shock of the New that refers to 9/11 as modernisms final moments.  The World Trade Centre was also designed by Minoru Yamasaki.

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