Key Characteristics Of Modernity Essay Research Paper

Key Characteristics Of Modernity Essay, Research Paper

Brief: What do we mean by modernity? Discuss by presenting an account of the origins and key characteristics of modernity.


In this essay I shall attempt to discuss some of the many key characteristics of modernity with an overview of politics and history relevant to modernity and later focus on the Bauhaus movement to articulate some of these key characteristics in more detail.

Modernity – just what does it mean and when exactly did it happen ? The more publications one refers to in order to help clarify an answer to this question, the more confusing it all becomes. With each newly found authority discovered, comes the realisation that even the historians and cultural theorists seem to disagree widely over exact dates, cultural Movements , and the significant events which contribute to the definition and discourse of the concept Modernity.

Might one argue that Modernity came to encapsulate what ever was modern for the period in which it emerged, or was created, but this seems too easy an explanation. Perhaps we should refer to the art historian Charles Harrison for some guidance.

Harrison seems in little doubt about such definitions, claiming that Convention distinguishes three related moments in the dynamics of the modern : modernisation, modernity and Modernism (Art in Theory 1900-1990, p.126). He argues that the first term refers to scientific and technological advance, the process and outcome of which resulted in such rapid and social change and conditions for which there seems to be no historical precedent.

By technological advance, he must be referring to the machine in particular, which allowed industrialisation to flourish. The machine, rather than becoming the slave of man – thus alleviating the human workforce from the most brutal and laborious conditions was, by contrast, unfortunately used by industrialists for excessive mass production and the accumulation of even greater wealth. The transition for so many inhabitants who had originally came from a rural-agricultural past, to become part of the concentration of human life in the industrialised cities – all seeking the same thing, a living – resulted in a pessimistic fear of a population explosion. For many cultural practitioners it must have seemed that human life was becoming ever regulated and imprisoned by the demands of the machine. Man , or rather the working masses became little more than a mere cog in the wheel of mechanisation.

In a Capitalist society, it is no surprise that any positive changes in workers rights of employment were tremendously slow when compared with the acceleration in growth of the industrialist s wealth. One could argue that the backlash to such capitalism was the growing tendency towards socialism. The emergence of Marxism elsewhere had its effects on Britain – the rise in class consciousness was just one of the many contemporary narratives to be heard. First whispered, then shouted, this narrative was finally assimilated into a class consciousness which not only gave hope to its followers, but eventually brought about social changes sympathetic to their needs rather than the whims of the wealthy.

Modernity, according to Harrison, refers to the social and cultural condition of those objective changes : the character of life under changed circumstances (ibid., p.126). By this, he seems to be suggesting that the concept of Modernity best describes the lived experience of such social and cultural circumstances – one s conscious awareness of, and ability to adapt to such rapid change – and the effects these changes had on the individual, informing one s character. It was not simply a social experience but a profound inner experience also. Whereas Modernism, Harrison believes, is the deliberate reflection upon and distillation of – in a word, the representation of – that inchoate experience of the new (ibid., p.126). He is suggesting that the experience of the Modern condition cannot be fully understood until it is represented .

But it was not simply the experience of industrialisation which played its part in the conception of Modernity, but also Revolution and War. The late 18th century, and the 19th century witnessed the French Revolutions, with Liberty, Fraternity and Equality – or words and sentiments to that effect – for everyone. The Abolition of Slavery was the outcome of the American Civil War – even though one hundred years later the Rev. Dr., Martin Luther King would still be pleading for equality.

Russia had probably had similar revolutionary aims in mind, as did those who fought for the Mexican Revolution during the early decades of the 20th century – a period which also witnessed the rise of Fascism and the First World War. Within a couple of decades the Second World War had erupted, as well as the Civil War in Spain. New technology played a significant part in the war effort, not just in ammunition and warfare but in the dynamic changes regarding transport and communications in general. All of which helped spread the word via the propaganda machine in shaping, and possibly determining one s actions.

Further to this, how could the Western world continue to see itself as a civilised society after the Holocaust ? The world witnessed the increasing polarisation between the democratic and capitalist West, and the Communist East, resulting in the Cold War from the 1950 s on, while Humanism had long began to replace the more traditional forms of religion – whereby Man was answerable for his/her own actions rather than God.

Although this is probably a vast generalisation, one could possibly argue that a theme which seems to run through much of the revolutionary arguments is one which advocates a break with the past, with old traditions and customs, with privileges – often associated with the Aristocracy, Imperialists, Royalists and the ruling classes in general – alongside a change in social relationships and between classes. This, in turn had its effects on power relationships. This break with the past and an engagement with all that was new – such as contemporary thoughts, ideas, philosophies, art and architecture can be seen as central to the concept of Modernity .

Informed by some of the Visual Culture lectures that I have attended relating to Modernity, I shall attempt to explain what a break with past traditions implies in response to a specific design Movement – Movement being the operative word. Movements tend to exist when there is a need, and fracture, fragment and disperse often when the need no longer exists. The emergence of a new artistic Movement is often a response, or reaction, to what went before. Thus, a Movement can be recognised as a call for a change, for the new, and a break with past artistic traditions. Of course, art can also be read as the creative response to the rapidity of social change expressive of the fear associated with the unknown and/or unfamiliar. Cultural practitioners active within artistic Movements are often the initiators of change, using their visual persuasive powers to transform people s ideas and perceptions about art, life and politics .

Some historians are fairly precise in their arguments as to the moment in time/place when Modernity emerged, while others are perhaps rightly, far more apprehensive and vague.

It is the influence of Modernist architects such as Walter Gropious , Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier of these early decades – derivative of all that represented Modernity – which seems most significant, simply because their designs were harnessed to new technology/industrialisation and was inevitably to have a profound impact on everyone s life style in the form of one s home.

Although John Ruskin was very much part of Victorian England, his socialist values influenced the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement William Morris , who himself eventually spent more and more of his time spreading the gospel of Socialism and less on arts and crafts. It was in part, Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement and its Socialist principles in England, which inspired the setting up in Weimar Germany, what eventually became known as the Bauhaus in 1919. The major difference was in the production of goods. Under the influence of architect Walter Gropius, Bauhaus (building house) harnessed the basic theories of good design – to the machine for mass production – and together with new technology, Bauhaus truly revolutionised quality home ware, furnishings, textiles, even housing, as well as graphic design and photography . Bauhaus boasted a major architectural department led by influential architects such as Walter Gropius and, a little later, Theo Van Doesburg who were both actively engaged with contemporary design issues and pursued the use of new technology – glass, steel and prefabricated concrete. But probably, the most influential architect of this period in the pursuit of the Modernist idea, must have been the French architect Le Corbusier.

If dwellings were to be built in already overcrowded cities which afforded little space for development, then streets would have to be built vertical, rather than horizontal. Family accommodation made up of box-like separate units – the number of units were dependent on the size of the family/occupants – boasted a private balcony, walls of glass panels, and flat roofs, the style which became synonymous with the Modern Movement in architecture. Modern technology meant that pre-fabricated concrete sections – usually painted white for greater aestheticism – allowed ease of assembly and thus equated with affordability. These homes were functional in that they were built/designed with fully fitted kitchens and basement communal laundrette s – unheard of in most pre/inter-war homes except for the wealthy .

The Nazi Regime did not approve of the Left Wing socialist principles advocated by Bauhaus key members, resulting in many being forced to flee Germany during the Second World War. Living in exile first on the continent, until occupation, and in England but mainly settling in the U.S., these architects helped set up architectural schools (for instance at Harvard), advocating the style of the Modern . This style became particularly evident in Chicago, which benefited tremendously by the glass and steel high rise structures. Boasting just one interior service shaft incorporating electricity, air-conditioning, elevator, and sanitation, the exterior glass walls reflected the sky and mirrored other high rise buildings of the Modern age. These buildings associated with major cities in the U.S., and recognisable as the products of Modernity were informed by, and derivative of the Modern Movement in architecture .

The painter Wassily Kandinsky, another key member of Bauhaus, along with artists associated with the German Expressionists were among those Hitler singled out for ridicule in an exhibition called Degenerate Art , held in Munich 1937 . Namely works of avant-garde art and representative of Modernity were offered to spectators, by Hitler as examples of madness, corruption and cultural bolshevism (Harrison, Art in Theory 1900-1990, p.423). Hitler apparently disliked any visual evidence which made obvious any break with tradition, which challenged academic art of the past. It was his belief that such artistic products of the avant-garde – namely artwork by the German Expressionists recognised as the products of Modernity – was the work of fools, liars, or criminals who belong in insane asylums or prisons (ibid., p 423), and we all know what he wanted to do the insane ! Hitler s engagement with Modernity was seemingly one of hostility and can be best encapsulated by the burning of the books – an act of censorship by destruction .

Such has been the response to Modernity – ranging from enthusiastic applause to ridicule, and/or absolute fear – to the extent of censorship and destruction, evident in Hitler s reaction to anything contemporary, avant-garde and/or challenging. The challenging art work which Hitler found so degenerate was probably the artists attempt at coming to terms with the contemporary world – new thoughts, ideas, ideologies and a rapidly changing society – urban, densely populated and industrialised .

After the Second World War, England witnessed a post-war boom creating the need for the production of commodities, which in turn created jobs – the building of high rise housing, a concentration on new technology for home appliances, and a little later – changes in industrial processes due to the development of the micro chip and computerisation – facilitated even greater social upheaval. A new vocal youth culture emerged with new and different aspirations, and with it came Pop culture – music, art and so on with the term Pop becoming the buzz word of the 60s both here and the U.S. Academics began to focus their attention on Mass and Popular culture (culture of the masses), referring to high and low art with equal interest for the first time it seems . It was such a major break with tradition that prompted critics to – at first at least – question its validity as Art .

As we rapidly approach the 21st century where information flows freely and quickly across national and cultural boundaries, similar questions have been raised in response to computer art and the complex manipulation of imagery which relies on even greater sophistication of new technology – but this takes us into the realms of post-modernity. This cut and mix technique in visual manipulated art has long been the domain of the music industry – taking from all cultures, using, fusing and sometimes even abusing, sampling from this and that in the creation of something new and uniquely post-modern.

But when did Modernity acquire the prefix of Post ? The implication is that we are now past Modernity, so when exactly did it happen ? Its time to return to the beginning of this essay and do a little investigating into the definition of Post-Modernity – only that will have to be another essay.


Atkins, Robert.

Artspeak : A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1848-1944.

AbbevillePress, N. Y., and U.K.,1993.

Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul.

Art in Theory 1900-1990, Blackwell, N.Y., and UK, 1992.

Murray, Peter and Linda.

The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, Penguin Books, U.K.,1959.

Pischel, Gina.

A World of Art: Painting ,Sculpture, Architecture and Decorative Arts: Guild Publishing House, UK, 1966.

Written by Shane Kelly


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