Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

1. Roots of Modernism

2. Art for Art's Sake

3. Modernism & Politics

4. Modernism & Postmodernism

5. The End of Art

  • Bibliography

  • Copyright © (text only) 2000 - Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe - This essay appeared originally in What is Art?...What is an Artist? (1997)

    3. Modernism and Politics

    In the period between World War One and World War Two progressive modernism continued to pursue its goals, but now often in association with other forces.

    Progressive artists actively supported political revolution. Pablo Picasso, for example, joined the communist party in 1944, as did many other artists. The Russian Revolution seemed at the time, and for a long time after, to be the answer to the progressive modernist's dream. Marxist communism was the boldest attempt to create a better society, adopting not a political democracy like the United States, but an economic democracy wherein all were economically equal.

    The ideas of Karl Marx infused the Surrealist movement that saw itself as promoting, in the words of Salvador Dali, "a revolution in consciousness." Communism offered the vision of universal freedom predicated on freedom of ideas. Progressive modernist artists, in the imaginative freedom of their works, exemplified or encouraged this freedom.

    Under Josef Stalin, however, this freedom was sharply curtailed. Modernism persisted, but in a state-manipulated and controlled form. This same form, generally called Social Realism, also flourished at the other end of the political spectrum in Hitler's Nazi Germany.

    World War One left progressive modernism dazed and confused. World War Two was a blow that only in later decades do we understand to have been mortal. World War Two effectively destroyed the spirit of modernism. After Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno asked if any art has a right to exist. The Nazi holocaust reduced the modernist dream to ashes. The Germans, after all, were a civilized people who had actively participated in the modernist enterprise from the beginning.

    The basic Enlightenment assumption that art improves people warranted serious re-examination. It was claimed (and is still claimed in some circles) that from the study of art comes a moral education all by itself. Further exposure to and learning about art only served to improve the student. But, does art improve people?

    Artists, art historians, curators, critics, to mention a few who are in contact with art everyday; are they noticeably different, better, than anyone else who hasn't studied art?

    As we have seen, the Enlightenment pictured the human race as engaged in an effort towards universal moral and intellectual self-realization. It was believed that reason allowed access to truth, and knowledge of the truth would better humankind. These tenets were fundamental to the notion of Modernism, the goal of which was the creation of a new world order.

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    MODERNISM | Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe | Sweet Briar College