The War of the Artists

Innovation is the key to artistic achievement.  Indeed, the history of the arts can be seen as a continuous attempt at creative evolution—to forge something new in order to stir hearts and minds.

For more than a century, there has been a dualistic current running through the arts in regard to creating innovate works:  Modernism and Postmodernism.  Many of the attempts at creative evolution in this century and the previous have fallen into one or the other aesthetic mindset.

The purpose of today’s article is to explicate the conflict in the arts between modern and postmodern aesthetic philosophies.  In addition, it will attempt to present clear definitions of Modernism and Postmodernism as being in relation to each other rather than as being mutually-exclusive philosophies.


“Actually the composer has come to distrust his inspiration because it is not really as innocent as it was supposed to be, but rather conditioned by a tremendous body of recollection, tradition, training and experience.  In order to avoid the dictations of such ghosts, he prefers to set up an impersonal mechanism which will furnish, according to premeditated patterns, unpredictable situations…” – Ernst Krenek

The general philosophy of the Modern Age is often defined in terms of its belief that progress in society could be brought about through the gradual perfection of humanity.  The Modern Age is associated with faith in progress, optimism, rationality, the search for absolute knowledge in science, technology, society, and politics, and the idea that gaining knowledge of the true self was the only foundation for all other knowledge.

The implementation of the ethos of the Modern Age is centered around the concept of modernization.  Modernization suggests updating something, or bringing something into line with what are seen as present day fashions and needs.  It is, by its nature, an endless process.

The ideals of Modernism have been applied in the arts, where it has been defined as necessarily outside of, and superior to, the rest of culture and society.   Artistic Modernism is relentlessly hostile to mass culture, which is seen as crass and superficial.

In general, the Modernist approach to creating art involves four aspects.  First, novelty—valuing that which is not tied to the past, no references to tradition, and based on reason and objectivity.  Second, progress, in which technology, standardization, and streamlining are utilized.  Third, a sense of individual heroism, in that the artist sees him or herself as a god-like creator of a brave new world.  Finally, purity—in the sense of form, function, simplicity, rationality, newness, rejection of ornamentation—is  embraced.   All of these points can be summarized as the belief that the progress of artistic creation can be spearheaded by rational knowledge.

Modernist ideas aim to strip art of any ambiguity and connotation by imposing a single meaning, formula, or presence.  The Modernist seeks to create art for its own sake.

Historically, most descriptions of Modernism in the arts tend to date it from the mid to late nineteenth century, with the development of the impressionist and post-impressionist movements in France, in particular the works of Monet, Degas, Gauguin in painting and Debussy in music.  This is often described as the beginning of a great experimental period in the arts, a period in which art pursued new goals and broke free from all traditions of representation.  In this simplified view of events, the impressionists triggered off a break from the past in which art learned to turn away from realistic styles of representation and move towards more abstract forms of expression.

In this revolution art progressed by means of “heroic” interpretation – the shock tactics of the “tradition of the new” – towards a position of highly self-conscious art for art’s sake.  Via the innovations of cubism and abstract expressionism in the visual arts and free atonality and serialism in music, the artistic gestalt turned toward the idea that art should become valid on its own terms, without having to have any obvious relation to the traditional, representationalist world.  Modernism is sometimes said to culminate in certain highly reductive, minimalist art forms of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The ideals of Modernism can be summed up best in six basic ideas:  experimentation, innovation, individualism, progress, purity, and originality.


There are several broad themes within Postmodernism:  an erosion of conventional distinctions between high and low cultures; a fascination with how our lives seem increasingly dominated by visual media; a questioning of ideas about meaning and communication, and about how signs and symbols refer to the world; a sense that definitions of human identity are changing, or ought to change; and skepticism about the stories we tell to explain the human race, and about the idea of progress.

Postmodern art generally features a mixture of styles from past times, a mixture of styles from different places, and a high degree of referencing or quotation.  It is deliberately open to many different interpretations and is generally more free-style, allowing for the pleasures of finding associations and making connections.  In this way, the Postmodern artist tries to effect a greater sense of communication.

There are several different methods and styles by which the Postmodernist creates.  Four of the most utilized are straight revivalism, radical eclecticism, pastiche, and parody.   Straight revivalist artists seek to create as if Modernism never happened—they imitate traditional forms with little attempt at novel invention.  In radical eclecticism, the object is to mix styles in an ironic way through the use of juxtaposition and quotation.  Pastiche is the imitation of a recognizable style, and parody is pastiche used for humorous or satirical effect.

In general, Postmodernist art forms aim to appeal to a wide audience.  Re-thinking the relationship between art and popular culture by reconsidering the supposed differences between works of art and other consumer goods is of tantamount importance. The Postmodernist creates from the standpoint that all cultural production is involved in complex social relations.

The Debate

Modernists often argue that today’s artists, and society in general, have lost sight of their ideals.  They claim that Postmodernism has left us in a state of exhaustion, pessimism, irrationality, and disillusionment with the idea of absolute knowledge.  However, many Postmodern thinkers have actively sought to challenge those supposed ideals and have celebrated their purported decline.

The question of whether Postmodernism is a split from an older era, part of an endless cycle of change, or just another aspect of the Modern Age—perhaps with a genuine postmodern period yet to come—has been a focus of considerable debate.  Just as there is no straightforward way of drawing a line between the Middle and the Modern Ages, so there can be no clean, objective distinction between the Modern and Postmodern.  We can point to no single date and claim it marks either a chasm or a point of transition between the two periods.

One contentious facet of Postmodernism is that it tries to replace Modernism’s severe functionality, rationality, and purity with a more democratic, less elitist playfulness.  The Postmodernist is against Modernism’s idea that art defines itself, and see the “artness” of objects and images as defined by social acts of interpretation.

In the field of music, some Postmodern thinkers see music as being corrupted by Modernist philosophies since the inception of Romanticism.  They argue that there were some composers whose interest centered on sonorous effect no less than on structural coherence.  They continue that for such composers, chromaticism was more than colorful harmony; it became an end in itself.  This in turn is said to have led to a sort of harmonic recklessness, the cumulative effect of which was the gradual weakening of tonality.  This vein of supposed harmonic irresponsibility is said to run through the history of Western music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, almost constituting a tradition in its own right.

Also in music, serialism has been another point of contention between Modernists and Postmodernists.  Serialism is an attempt to solve the perceived problem of tonality by rational means.  However, Postmodernists feel that serialism has created a problem of indeterminacy.  They claim that serialism restored complete and rational determinacy of pitch, at the price of indeterminacy of chords, which, they follow, paradoxically results in serial orderings being indistinguishable from collections of random sounds.


The dual reality of the arts today lies in the conflict between Modernism and Postmodernism.  While Modernist artists strive to break free from traditional means to forge esoteric, “pure” works of rational objectivity, Postmodernists wish to build from the past to create new works that can perhaps more easily connect with the average person.  In the end, whether they be Modernists or Postmodernists, artists will create works which they believe will move people to see the world a little differently.  Despite the partisan artistic war being waged in philosophical tracts, art will no doubt always continue to be a vital force in human culture.

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