Modernism was a fashion in the arts. It began in French poetry in the mid/late nineteenth century, then effectively ended in the 1950s. The technique of Modernism was to pull everything apart, and then put it back together. It was often alleged that the stresses of modern life had done the pulling. Sometimes World War I was mentioned, though modernism was already in full cry before the guns of August. The real causes were probably the itch to try something new, and the unbelievable prosperity of mature capitalism. Artists not only became free of aristocratic patrons, they were free of the very mass market that capitalism created–free at least to get by. (“Nobody actually starves,” as Philip Larkin put it.) They could live, and feel misunderstood–a delicious combination.
There are some side issues: was jazz modern? were movies? Were they new forms actually pursuing old ends, and thus only accidentally modern? These questions only trouble theorists.
We are now in some new fashion, maybe post-modern, where artists know both much more and much less than modernist artists did. They know all the techniques of their predecessors, while they know next to nothing of the world their predecessors tried to recreate.
Modernism has left behind some great beauty–Matisse, Bartok, Yeats, Eliot–some great botches, with beautiful moments–the careers of Picasso and Pound–and many failures, which have sunk back into the womb of oblivions even more rapidly than our successes ultimately will.
True or untrue? Fair or unfair? Irrelevant?