"Make It New" is the renowned rallying cry of modernism. It was the poet Ezra Pound who had called to his contemporaries to reject tradition and be ready to embrace the new age that was already in full progress (Beebe). Taken ahold by a revolution, artists at the end of the 19th century up to the 1950s often subscribed to this motto. Often accepted as one of the most distinguished mantras outlining this literary period, modernists saw themselves as the personified interjection to long-standing literary values and conventional credos of their time. As an era succeeding Romanticism, Modernism pursued self-proclaimed “literary radicalism” (Beebe). While the movement had been strong at flipping traditions and breaking with the past, this nuanced period is almost imprisoned under this broad umbrella term (Adams). From cubists, surrealists, to futurists and even imagists, Modernism is broadly understood as a generation of artists who were involuntarily tossed into an era that saw profound and unprecedented changes. Darwinism, two world wars, the peak of the industrial revolution, and inventions such as photography jolted humanity so much that even the ones living during this era found no consensus in what defined their time. But one thing was for sure: something was happening. An intangible sentiment had become widespread. In hindsight, Virginia Woolf accurately announced on the 10th of December, 1910, that “human nature changed radically” (Adams). Undeniably, humanity had already been struck by exterior events by the time Woolf wrote her statement. While the First World War was looming around the corner, something new had already been boiling under the surface (Adams).
While nothing is for certain, one thing is sure: modernism entailed the deliberate cultivation of the past while making it new. Instead of turning to history for guidance and beliefs in the face of pivoting changes to humanity, modernists preferred to distort those long hailed ancient images beyond recognition. Nothing was safe under the modernist lens, resulting in typical works being defined by a “hard and jagged style of disparate elements juxtaposed without nexus or comment” (Adams). Even though strictly speaking nothing is new, “modernism gives us a sense of our entire cultural heritage being plowed up and turned over” (Adams). Not the classical was what inspired, but the primitive, the barbaric, “the mysterious-side of the ancient world” (Adams). Essentially, the referenced materials were old and repurposed for exploitation until they were new. Under a movement that crossed national boundaries and genres; writers, artists, and composers borrowed techniques from each other to accomplish their goals: to break free from media and conventions. Especially from the previous literary period, Romanticism. Whereas romanticists were enamored by the world in the 19th century, modernists were plagued, perhaps gladly then, by existentialism. This distaste of the former rose-tinted view on the world accumulated when Ezra Pound challenged the Georgian poet Lascelles Abercrombie to a duel. After this man had dared to encourage his contemporaries to turn back to the Romantic poet Williams Wordsworth for inspiration, Ezra Pound sent him a letter. Respectfully, he opened his letter with, “Dear Mr. Abercrombie,” only to end on the note, “Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace”.
Figure 2: The Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso
As already mentioned, a consensus on techniques is hard to define for such a diverse literary period. What seems to hold true is often in danger of being repeated as unreflected truisms. However, certain characteristics are identifiable and more broadly applicable than others. For example, a play with space and time is often at the heart of modernist works. From Cubists who tried to portray an object from multiple perspectives at once to the poets who stripped language of its languor, modernists were unified in trying to break from traditions. New forms of expressions seeped through the arts, poetry adopted common speech, new rhythms instead of traditional poetic language. Novels took a liking to unreliable narrators, the construction of façades, and their following downfall, all a play with the reader’s “expectation to understand” (Adams). And drama saw its first rise in popularity in the US after Puritan repression by introducing original themes to its plays. Preoccupied with the complex experience of reality, all of them experimented with the ramifications and restrictions of their medium deployed by borrowing from each other. The medium had grown into a curse rather than a blessing because it restrained artists' expression from unfolding. Moreover, after the arts had found themselves in an identity crisis because of the then-recent technological inventions, things were bound to change. Photography had been far in development and on its way to gaining ground as another popular medium next to the traditional arts. As a result, brush and paint found themselves at a divide. Whereas portraying reality had previously been of interest in the arts, photography made this endeavor effortlessly obsolete.
Framing a movement and pinpointing its exact characteristics without overlapping with others is difficult. When it comes to describing what makes modernist art different, José Ortega y Gasset suggested that its trademark is a feeling of being “dehumanized” (Beebe). Devoid of human touch and relatability, texts and art reek of absurdity and strangeness. Fictional heroes are suddenly bound to their literary nature, the medium itself, and nothing more. Nothing resembling human but a string to mere words, drawing attention to their existence as “verbal patterns at second, third, or 26th hand” (Adams). Liberated from the idea to replicate reality, modernists preferred to remove themselves and their interpretations of the world, their works and their forms should speak for themselves. This sense of disillusionment, trying to break from the ideal of appealing to reality, can be traced back to the tumultuous times these artists were subjected to. Darwinism had emerged in the 19th century, destroying the sense of religious community and launching the idea of the self as a human into crisis. Further supported by the rising interest in psychology and psychoanalysis, the notion of the human self was torn from its preconceived mentalities (Klarer). And while the rapid acceleration of the Industrial Revolution further paved the way for the “depersonalization of the individual in a mechanized society,” the two world wars completed the destruction of everything previously taken for granted by traumatizing an entire generation. While the slogan “Make It New” may initially sound like an optimistic mantra eager to pry open new dimensions, it was a forced child of its time. Humanity had indeed radically changed by then and different movements within modernism had their unique approaches to revising literary traditions and finding the new human. From the Lost Generation to the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and the Roaring Twenties, modernism can be said to encompass one thing for sure: diversity in the arts.
Adams, Robert Martin. “What Was Modernism?” The Hudson Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 1978, p. 19. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.2307/3850132.
Aubrey, Edwin Ewart. “What Is Modernism?” The Journal of Religion, vol. 15, no. 4, 1935, pp. 426–47. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1086/481709.
Beebe, Maurice. “Introduction: What Modernism Was on JSTOR.” Journal of Modern Literature, 1974, www.jstor.org/stable/3830997.
Klarer, Mario. A Short Literary History of the United States. 1st ed., Routledge, 2014.
Figure 1: Hoppé, E. O. (2013). Ezra Pound [Photograph]. www.guernicamag.com. https://guernica-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Ezra_Pound.jpg
Figure 2: Picasso, P. (1937). Weeping Woman [Painting]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Weeping_Woman#/media/File:Picasso_The_Weeping_Woman_Tate_identifier_T05010_10.jpg