The End of the Modernist Era in Arts and Academia
19th May 2022
In The End of the Modernist Era in Arts and Academia, Bruce Fleming explores the continued legacy of modernism as it plays out in today’s cultural and academic institutions. He argues that the creative potential and intellectual excitement of youthful modernism has morphed into an exhausted and anti-human philosophy kept on life-support in our universities.
Modernism began around the early 1900s with the rejection of the Romantic love of tumultuous events brought to dramatic conclusions by strong personalities on dark and stormy nights. Modernism was born when interest diminished in extraordinary and hence unrepresentative individuals, and increased in abstractions about people considered as if far away. Because individuals were primarily considered constituent parts of patterns, there was a shift from the things represented to the process of representation, and to words and works considered as if they were the fundamental building blocks of the world.
This is the perspective of artists and scholars, so modernism was and is a movement of artists and, later, scholars with universities and museums as its home territory. Now, in the 21st century, we are in the last phase of this turn to abstraction: the ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ insistence of special interest groups that we must change our words, not the world. Action by individuals is not what is demanded, just the utterance of specific words. In this last phase of modernism we have finally thrown away the key to what Fredric Jameson called ‘the prison-house of language’. Yet its walls are only words, and we can simply walk through them to the world outside.
Romanticism was coloured in such vivid hues that it frequently turned lurid and overheated. Modernism, by contrast, is cool and grey. Initially it was steel grey glinting with the energy of discovery, but now, in its declining years, it has become merely mousy. Modernism in its early years had its own austere beauty, but gradually its oomph escaped and now it is a deflated balloon, still held aloft in classrooms, journals, and conferences.
But think of the power of youthful Modernism! The shock of the new in Picasso, Braque, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Malevich, Goncharova, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Robert Musil. Those were the days! Amaze at the progression in painting as Mondrian’s outlines of everyday objects grow stronger until they become right-angled black lines and blocks of color! Follow as Kandinsky’s stained-glass-like fairytale landscapes and Murnau paintings turn into explosions of colour with only an echo of objects! Admire the development of literary theory as a stand-alone discipline: Victor Shklovsky and the other Russians, the Anglo-American New Criticism, Structuralism, Semiotics, Jacques Derrida and then Michel Foucault, then the power of this theory as it replaces reading the literary works themselves, now called ‘texts,’ in countless college classrooms!
Follow sociology with its quasi-scientific social structures determining individual behaviour, building on Marx and Freud’s focus on human-related abstractions to which the individual is irrelevant! Live the heyday of anthropology – fieldwork on ‘primitive’ cultures where we Westerners arrive by ship or plane, observe the natives for a few months, and board the same Western transport to take us back to our universities where we report our interpretations of what we saw to the less adventurous folks back home! Puzzle over difficult literature that a professor has to explain to you! Focus on what words mean in countless philosophy classes and conferences!
All this is the result of the modernist switch to regarding people and their products not as individuals but as tiny constituent parts of larger wholes that begged to be arranged, categorized, and researched. And so, we set to work researching, arranging, and categorizing. Twentieth century intellect triumphed over nineteenth century feeling, Modernism over Romanticism. What bliss it was to be alive!
But that was then. The earlier movement of Romanticism came, and then it went. Modernism displaced the Romanticism that begat it, and now, inevitably, is also going. Indeed, it is all but gone, enervated but protected by the structural inertia of the institutions where it lodged and proliferated after the initial modernist explosion of artists and writers. For although the content of modernism is an abstraction from individuals, its initial effervescence in the early twentieth century was created by individuals making individual-sized art like paintings and written words. And its last act is fueled by individuals purporting to articulate structures so fundamental that individual resistance to them merely proves the power of the structures in words.
The power of individuals
All trends that later gain traction as movements, whatever their content, are started by individuals. Individual thinkers and artists are like sailboats that can simply tack to the changing wind rather than battleships that can turn only slowly and with great difficulty. But once battleships set course, they keep going far longer and more ponderously than the sailboats. By mid-twentieth century, modernist abstraction had taken over academia and contemporary art showcases, whose modernist presuppositions most people, not least of all their practitioners, now incorrectly assume are simply givens of these institutions. They are not, and the result is that an increasingly isolated priestly caste is left murmuring inside their temples while the common folk – which is to say, the rest of us – go about our lives outside.
In retrospect, it seems that academic modernism, whose latest form is identity politics, was the path the earlier artistic modernism was fated to take. Academia allowed professors to distance themselves from and analyze human actions and works under something like laboratory conditions, far away from the people who did or made them, turning the noisy jumble of the everyday into the ordered silent academic world of the 20th century’s data-driven human sciences and the study and theory of literature that replaced individual works as subjects. The belief that reading books or considering the actions of people adds to a sum of external knowledge was the party line of humanities and social sciences once rigidly enforced by professors. Now, academics in ‘victimization studies’, having rejected notions of objectivity, insist that they alone have access to the truth. This too is a power play, yet the people most nakedly thirsting after power accuse everyone but themselves of doing so.
The systematization of knowledge
Without the distanced perspective of modernism, the academic humanities and social sciences could never have developed into ordered systems of study at all, disciplines where the given is the system itself as opposed to its content. Modernism made this systematization into disciplines possible. As modernism runs out of steam, as it is doing, these machines/disciplines themselves – not just their contents but the very structure of their thought that separated them off from other disciplines – will falter and run down as well.
We are now at the end of the modernist long century and we can see that what started big has become small. Back then, modernists had faces – or at least huge individual visions. Now we have academics that write articles considering work X from the perspective of theorist Y, paying homage to the earlier considerations of comparable or identical pairings by academics A, B, and C, and presenting the result as ‘research’. This then appears in a journal that not even insiders read, or is read aloud in a monotone at a conference to a handful of other academics, most of whom are only there because they are awaiting their turn to do the same. And the goal of speakers at the same conference the next year will be to do the same, and the next, and the next. Over time the buzz phrases change but it still does not add up to a sum of knowledge – it is just individuals expressing their thoughts. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just that this is not part of an organized discipline, and it is unclear why universities should pay for it.
Or at least that’s the way it was. In 2019, Covid-19 put an end to in-person conferences, as well as to many programmes and even colleges, and to the hiring cycle for new professors that had dwindled to close to zero anyway because of a lack of students. The hollowness of the whole enterprise became clear.
The modernist era required for its birth a change of focus with respect to the individualistic Romanticism that preceded it and that was its progenitor. This alteration was not so much what we are accustomed to calling, after Thomas Kuhn, a ‘paradigm shift’ – which sounds like one thing displacing another (Kuhn never says how this happens) – but more a pulling back from the same world as before, like looking at the whole mountain range on a topographical map rather than a single individual in front of a single Alp.
Significantly, modernism did still view people, however distanced, not just the completely impersonal galaxies, diseases, and microbes that define science. But it did this out of what I call ‘science envy’: it was the attempt to move the personal end of the scale closer to science, to adopt some of its attitudes, terminology, and methods, and to demand agreement on the basis that its conclusions had been proven as part of the objective world. (Nobody thought that, say, Hegel had proven his world-view to be correct; you either agreed or disagreed for personal reasons.) This quasi-scientific viewpoint of human beings produced the academic humanities and social sciences, disciplines with codified methodologies, that could lead, like science (at least in the modernist conception), to increasing knowledge. Science was unaffected by the modernist era until the ‘disciplines’ in the centre of the scale grew powerful enough to try to take down science with the ‘gotcha’ of pointing out its subjective element (which of course it has, being something done by individuals).
Even our contemporary post-post-modernists, the identity politics people, insist that they alone speak Truth and thus are being objective. Because others can also put forth their subjective points of view as if objective, this leads to what, in politics, the right wing (echoing the left) came to call ‘alternative facts.’ When everyone has arrived at their own Truth, the claim loses its punch. As Hegel says at the beginning of The Phenomenology of Spirit, quoting a German proverb: at nighttime, all cats are black. The result is the patchwork of competing micro-kingdoms of identity theory that now swarm around us. The good news is that we can just walk away and let them fight it out. They didn’t like the rational over-structure that was designed to mediate between individual disagreements? Fine. Let them deal with its absence. If every person claims kingship, there is going to be trouble.
In the process of its initial abstraction from the world, early artistic modernism was linked to the world, because the abstraction had to be effected: that was the source of its power. Now, the abstraction long since accomplished, its descendants have left the world far behind. This is certainly true of what we call postmodernism, the embrace of the fragmentary and transient as the logical rebellion against, and therefore next step past, Modernism’s high-culture broad-reaching complexities (such as Joyce’s Ulysses, the cubism of Braque, or Schoenberg past Transfigured Night). If modernism is linked to the world, postmodernism links only to a previous movement.
The idea that no structure was the new structure, or that a random displacement of the usual order of things (installations in galleries of things we see every day outside! Dirt or rocks on museum floors! Fat in vitrines!) was intrinsically interesting, held our attention for a time as a response to the difficult and rigidly organized high Modernism of the early twentieth century. Yet as became clear, the problem with Postmodernism is that one displacement or lack of structure (or set of extreme personal associations unclear to all outside the artist) looks very much like any other, and all are one-shot tricks. Once you get the point, the work is exhausted. Postmodernist objects aren’t so much works as ideas, intended as sparks for discussion. So its apologists had to be constantly interposed between us and the work, explaining it all to us. And the explanation, while necessary to make the object meaningful, was almost always more interesting than the work. Art therefore became academic, things requiring explanation from insiders rather than things to be perceived and sensed, and so lost its connection to everyday life.
Modernism began with an abundance of intellectual capital, a fortune in ideas generated by its shift in focus to abstraction. By now, however, what was once a colossal hoard has been divided and subdivided through generational succession, proliferation of descendants, and family bickering, so that it has become ordinary, with smaller and more subdivided groups jockeying harder for less and less. Now what we see is just a lot of unimpressive people giving themselves airs, trying to carry on as best they know how but still trying to keep up appearances for the sake of the family name. And in its last act, modernist formalism spills out of its natural home of academia and takes to the streets, to insist that only my point of view is valid – and your protestations only show how right I am.
Some academics do think that (for example) reading and teaching literature serves to further the development of the individual as a person. And some professors will even admit that they are weary of hearing the same thing over and over at conferences. A number are also tired of reading the same badly written contortions in scholarly journals that always start with summarizing and usually praising in extravagant terms previous articles before sketching out their (usually trivial) differences with their predecessors. Some academics acknowledge that students, and not just ‘research,’ matter too, if for no other reason than that they are the constant inflow from the world outside and hence provide a reality check each semester. Yet in the modernist century that conceives of the humanities and social sciences as an amassing of objective knowledge, students are incidental, the works that could change their lives considered as nothing but so much raw material to be fed into theoretical machines whose handles the professors turn.
Of course, the blame for this, belongs at least in part, to those who see themselves doing ‘research’ in the humanities and social sciences. That’s what they were trained to do in graduate school by people who were similarly trained. In the long mdernist century, that’s just the way you did it. This push to ape science is what drove the trivialization of the considerations of people and their products.
It’s interesting to you, perhaps (if you’re lucky – many humanities PhD students tire of their ‘research’ before it produces a dissertation, and many who start never finish the degree). But if so, having anyone else care as much as you or even enough to read your book, presupposes the same degree of intense scrutiny you have devoted to the topic on the part of the reader of your interpretation/discovery (of course you present it as the latter and not the former) – which it almost never gets because you’re the only one who has read all these things from this perspective. You present your claims at your job talks (if there are any), and if you are lucky, get a job. Then (if you are lucky) you get to teach a course in something related to your ‘research,’ for several years until the students dwindle to two or three and you teach something else. A handful of libraries buy your book (or a seminal article appears in a specialists’ journal nobody reads) and nobody checks it out.
Is this a life? It’s what you were told a professor does. And you’re one of the lucky ones to have gotten a job at all! If you got disillusioned along the way, you didn’t even finish graduate school. Most people who powered through and finished found themselves (a) without a tenure track job, certainly not one at the level of institution where they learned how to turn the prayer wheel of humanities and social science ‘research’ and/or (b) stuck with uninterested students and growing harassment from administrators whose only concern, besides keeping the students happy, is the financial bottom line (these two goals overlap) and/or (c) failing to get tenure because someone in the department doesn’t approve of them, and so out on the street at 40. What else can a PhD do?
The modernist disciplines are a vast network of machines that grind away and make a lot of noise to produce, with great effort, a pile of widgets that nobody knows what to do with, so they are catalogued and put on shelves. Now the machine is cranking out this: If I feel ‘marginalized,’ I rule. This may be exciting for groups that think that asserting their primacy makes them important, but it is merely fatiguing – because predictable – for everyone else. More fundamentally, asserting lesser status as something to be aggrieved about merely reaffirms the greater status of the group against which they are lesser. Being in opposition is a very comforting position, but if the government falls, the guerillas have nothing to rebel against. Besides, the various splinter groups aren’t united merely because they are splinter. And the ultimate joke is that the majority group doesn’t see itself as a group at all, instead as a collection of individuals. Thus the groups attacking the majority have to convince the majority that their understanding of themselves is totally wrong – while of course the understanding of the attacking groups of themselves is completely and by definition right. So more words, words, words, talk, talk, talk. And only those in the modernist bubble think talk and words is all there is.
The dreary repetitiveness and relentless triviality of current academia and art is one (high) price we pay for the continued existence of exhausted Modernism. But the even higher price we pay is the dereliction of duty on the part of academics towards those who don’t deal in these things professionally. Philosophy professors, to take one obvious example, write for the rapidly diminishing number of other philosophy professors and the even more rapidly diminishing numbers of philosophy graduate students rather than for non-professionals, who might benefit by some distance from their everyday situation. This leaves for most people a void filled, for better or worse, by advice columnists, self-help authors, television personalities, and social media influencers. Modernist-dominated academic philosophy is irrelevant to their lives, apparently proud of being so pointless. And art works could actually touch and enlighten people, not just play tag with other art works.
Bruce Fleming has degrees in philosophy and comparative literature from Haverford College, The University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. He has written over twenty books, available on Amazon and listed here. He has been a professor at the United States Naval Academy since 1987. You can purchase The End of the Modernist Era in Arts and Academia here.