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)

    1. The Roots of Modernism

    Until recently, the word "modern" was used to refer generically to the contemporaneous; all art is modern at the time it is made. In his Il Libro dell'Arte (translated as "The Craftsman's Handbook") in 1437, Cennino Cennini explains that Giotto made painting "modern" [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]. Giorgio Vasari writing in 16th-century Italy refers to the art of his own period as "modern." [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]

    As an art historical term, "modern" refers to a period dating from roughly the 1860s through the 1970s and is used to describe the style and the ideology of art produced during that era. It is this more specific use of modern that is intended when people speak of modern art. The term "modernism" is also used to refer to the art of the modern period. More specifically, "modernism" can be thought of as referring to the philosophy of modern art.

    In her book of the same title [see BIBLIOGRAPHY], Suzi Gablik asks "Has Modernism Failed?" Does she mean "failed" simply in the sense of coming to an end? Or does she mean that Modernism failed to accomplish something? The presupposition of the latter is that modernism had goals, which it failed to achieve. What were these goals?

    For reasons that will become clear later, the question of modernism has been couched largely in formal terms. Art historians speak of modern art as concerned primarily with essential qualities of colour and flatness and as exhibiting over time a reduction of interest in subject matter. It is generally agreed that Édouard Manet is the first modernist painter, and that modernism in art originated in the 1860s. Paintings such as his Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe are seen to have ushered in the era of modernism.


    Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863
    Oil on canvas (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

    But the question can be posed: Why did Manet paint Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe? The standard answer is: Because he was interested in exploring new subject matter, new painterly values, and new spatial relationships.

    But, there is another more interesting question beyond this: Why was Manet exploring new subject matter, new painterly values and spatial relationships? He produced a modernist painting, but why did he produce such a work?

    When Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe was exhibited at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 a lot of people were scandalized. When his painting of Olympia was exhibited the public were even more upset. Why was Manet painting pictures that he knew many people would find shocking?


    Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
    Oil on canvas (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

    It is in trying to answer questions like these that forces us to adopt a much broader perspective on the question of modernism. It is within this larger context that we can discover the underpinnings of the philosophy of modernism and identify its aims and goals. It will also reveal another dimension to the perception of art and the identity of the artist in the modern world.

    The roots of modernism lie much deeper in history than the middle of the 19th century. For historians (but not art historians) the modern period actually begins with the Renaissance. A discussion of modernism might easily begin in the Renaissance period when we first encounter secular humanism, the notion that man (not God) is the measure of all things, a worldly civic consciousness, and "utopian" visions of a more perfect society, beginning with Sir Thomas More's Utopia in 1516.

    In retrospect we can recognize in Renaissance humanism that modernist expression of confidence that humankind can learn to understand, and then master, nature and natural forces, that we can grasp the nature of the universe, and even shape our individual destinies and the future of the world.

    The modernist thinking which emerged in the Renaissance began to take shape as a larger pattern of thought in the 18th century. Mention may be made first of the so-called "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," a dispute that dominated European intellectual life throughout the century. The crux was the issue of whether Moderns (i.e. those living in 18th century) were now morally and artistically superior to the Ancients (i.e. the Greeks and Romans). The argument introduces an important dichotomy that is to remain fundamental to the modernist question. In it may be recognized the division between conservative forces, who tended to support the argument for the Ancients, and the more progressive forces who sided with the Moderns.

    In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment saw the intellectual maturation of the humanist belief in reason as the supreme guiding principle in the affairs of humankind. Through reason the mind achieved enlightenment, and for the enlightened mind, freed from the restraints of superstition and ignorance, a whole new exciting world opened up.

    The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement for which the most immediate stimulus was the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th and early 18th centuries when men like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, through the application of reason to the study of Nature (i.e. our world and the heavens) had made spectacular scientific discoveries in which were revealed various scientific truths.

    These truths more often than not flew in the face of conventional beliefs, especially those held by the Church. For example, contrary to what the Church had maintained for centuries, the "truth" was that the Earth revolved around the sun. The idea that "truth" could be discovered through the application of reason was tremendously exciting.

    The open-minded 18th-century thinker believed that virtually everything could be submitted to reason: tradition, customs, history, even art. But, more than this, it was felt that the "truth" revealed thereby could be applied in the political and social spheres to "correct" problems and "improve" the political and social condition of humankind

    This kind of thinking quickly gave rise to the exciting possibility of creating a new and better society.

    The "truth" discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions such as the Church and the monarchy whose misguided traditional thinking and old ideas had kept people subjugated in ignorance and superstition. The belief was that "the truth shall set you free." The concept of freedom became central to the vision of a new society. Through truth and freedom, the world would be made into a better place.

    Progressive 18th-century thinkers believed that the lot of humankind would be greatly improved through the process of enlightenment, from being shown the truth. With reason and truth in hand, the individual would no longer be at the mercy of religious and secular authorities which had constructed their own truths and manipulated them to their own self-serving ends. At the root of this thinking is the belief in the perfectibility of humankind.

    The vision that began to take shape in the 18th century was of a new world, a better world. In 1763, Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed a new society for the individual in his Inquiry into the Nature of the Social Contract. Rousseau declared the right of liberty and equality for all men.

    Such declarations were found not only in books. In the 18th century, two major attempts were made to put these ideas into practice. Such ideas, of course, were not popular with conservative and traditional elements, and their resistance had to be overcome in both cases through bloody revolution.

    The first great experiment in creating a new and better society was undertaken in what was literally the new world and the new ideals were first expressed in the Declaration of Independence of the newly founded United States. It is Enlightenment thinking that informs such phrases as "we hold these truths to be self-evident" and which underpins the notion "that all men are created equal." Its worldly character is clearly reflected in its stated concern for man's happiness and welfare in this lifetime, a new notion that runs counter to the Christian focus on the afterlife.

    Fundamental, too, is the notion of freedom; liberty was declared one of man's inalienable rights. In 1789, the French also attempted through bloody revolution to create a new society, with the revolutionaries rallying to the cry of equality, fraternity, and liberty.

    The French Revolution, however, failed to bring about a radically new society in France. Mention may be made here of a third major attempt to create a new society along fundamentally Enlightenment lines that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. The Russian Revolution, perhaps the most idealistic and utopian of all, also failed.

    It is in the ideals of the Enlightenment that the roots of Modernism, and the new role of art and the artist, are to be found. Simply put, the overarching goal of Modernism, of modern art, has been the creation of a better society.

    What were the means by which this goal was to be reached? If the desire of the 18th century was to produce a better society, how was this to be brought about? How does one go about perfecting humankind and creating a new world?

    As we have seen, it was the 18th-century belief that only the enlightened mind can find truth; both enlightenment and truth were discovered through the application of reason to knowledge, a process that also created new knowledge. The individual acquired knowledge and at the same time the means to discover truth in it through proper education and instruction.

    Cleansed of the corruptions of religious and political ideology by open-minded reason, education brings us the truth, or shows us how to reach the truth. Education enlightens us and makes us better people. Educated enlightened people will form the foundations of the new society, a society which they will create through their own efforts.

    Until recently, this concept of the role of education has remained fundamental to western modernist thinking. Enlightened thinkers, and here might be mentioned for example Thomas Jefferson, constantly pursued knowledge, sifting out the truth by subjecting all they learned to reasoned analysis. Jefferson, of course, not only consciously cultivated his own enlightenment, but also actively promoted education for others, founding in Charlottesville an "academical village" that later became the University of Virginia. He believed that the search for truth should be conducted without prejudice, and, mindful of the Enlightenment suspicion of the Church, deliberately did not include a chapel on the campus in his plans. The Church and its narrow-minded influences, he felt, should be kept separate not only from the State, but also from education.

    Jefferson, like many other Enlightenment thinkers, saw a clear role for art and architecture. Art and architecture could serve in this process of enlightenment education by providing examples of those qualities and virtues that it was felt should guide the enlightened mind.

    In the latter half of the 18th century, the model for the ideals of the new society was the world of ancient Rome and Greece. The Athens of Pericles and Rome of the Republican period offered fine examples of emerging democratic principles in government, and of heroism and virtuous action, self-sacrifice and civic dedication in the behaviour of their citizens.

    It was believed, in fact, certainly according to the "ancients" in that quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns mentioned earlier, that the ancient world had achieved a kind of perfection, an ideal that came close to the Enlightenment understanding of truth. Johann Winckelmann was convinced that Greek art was the most perfect and directed contemporary artists to examples such as the Apollo Belvedere.


    Apollo Belvedere
    Roman marble copy after a bronze original of c. 330 BCE (Vatican Museums, Rome)

    It is under these circumstances that Jacques-Louis David came to paint the classicizing and didactic historical painting Oath of the Horatii exhibited at the Salon in 1785. This was a noble and edifying work treating a grand and moralizing subject.


    Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1785
    oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

    David himself saw the role of art in building a new society in no uncertain terms. Speaking as a member of the Revolutionary Committee on Public Instruction a few years later he explains that the Committee:

      considered the arts in all respects by which they should help spread the progress of the human spirit, to propagate and transmit to posterity the striking example of the sublime efforts of an immense people, guided by reason and philosophy, restoring to earth the reign of liberty, equality, and law.

    He states categorically that "the arts should contribute forcefully to public instruction."

    With respect to the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, David can be associated with the supporters of the Ancients. He envisioned a new society based on conservative ideals. In contrast, there were others, we can call them Moderns, whose vision of a new world order was more progressive.

    The Moderns envisioned a world conceived anew, not one that merely imitated ancient models. The problem for the Moderns, however, was that their new world was something of an unknown quantity. The nature of truth was problematical from the outset, and their dilemma over the nature of humans who possessed not only a rational mind open to reason but also an emotional life (love, for example, which is demonstrably beyond all reason) which had to be taken into account.

    It was also felt that reason stifled imagination, and without imagination no progress would be made. Reason alone was inhuman, but imagination without reason also "produces monsters" (see Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). It was agreed, though, that freedom was central and was to be pursued through the very exercise of freedom in the contemporary world.


    Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
    Etching and aquatint
    (Caprichos no. 43: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos), 1796-1797

    After the Revolution of 1789, the Ancients came to be identified with the old order, the ancien régime, while the Moderns became identified with a new movement we call Romanticism. In the wake of the 1789 revolution, these two movements, each with their own vision of the future, were soon politicized.

    The Ancients, on the one hand, were caste as politically conservative and associated with classicizing, academic art. On the other hand, the Moderns were seen as progressive in a left-wing, revolutionary sense and associated with anti-academic Romanticism. The nature of this division is best seen in the rivalry of Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

    In the Salon of 1824, in which Ingres exhibited his Vow of Louis XIII, and Delacroix his Massacre of Scios, Ingres' work, painted in a style the critics called "le beau" (the beautiful), was identified with classical academic theory and the right-wing conservative forces of the ancien régime. In contrast, Delacroix, whose style was labeled "le laid" (the ugly), clearly exhibited more liberal attitudes in his choice of subject matter and was associated with anarchy, materialism, and contemporary or modern life.


    J-A-D Ingres, Vow of Louis XIII
    1824, Oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

    Eugène Delacroix, Massacre at Chios
    1824, Oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

    For conservatives, Ingres represented order, traditional values, and the good old days of the ancien régime. Political progressives saw Delacroix as the representative of intellectuals, of revolution, of anarchy; his supporters said he had overthrown tyranny and established the principle of liberty in art.

    It is from Delacroix that the line of progressive modernism extends directly to Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. In the conservative view, Delacroix's Romanticism, Courbet's Realism, and Manet's Naturalism were all manifestations of the cult of ugliness that opposed the Academic ideal of the beautiful. Delacroix, Courbet, and Manet, were each in turn accused by conservatives of carrying on subversive work that was intended to undermine the State.

    This may sound strange to us today. Orthodox art historians and critics have tended to treat modern art as contentless and politically neutral. The process of neutralizing and depoliticizing art was taken in hand by the State, with the support of conservative forces and compliance of formalist critics and art historians, beginning as early as 1855.


    Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830
    1830, Oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

    Delacroix, whose support of the revolution of 1830 is made clear in his painting Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830, for example, came to be spoken of as a colorist. The socialist statements forcefully made by Gustave Courbet in his The Stonebreakers, for example, and the sharp political commentary of Manet in his The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1868, for example, are glossed over in discussions of the formal qualities of each work; their painterly technique and the flattened treatment of pictorial space.


    Édouard Manet
    Execution of the Emperor Maximilian
    1868, Oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

    Gustave Courbet
    The Stonebreakers
    1849-50, Oil on canvas (destroyed)

    In this way, the prevailing conservative ethos of society maintained control over the impulses of progressive modernism.
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    MODERNISM | Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe | Sweet Briar College