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Toward a Definition of Modernism

Lawrence B. Gamache’s article “Toward a Definition of Modernism” encapsulates in itstitle the challenges critics meet in their attempts to formulate a coherent theoretical modernist model, though the quintessential modernist works –even at the time of this 1987 article – are over sixty years old. Indeed, the sheer number of scholarly books and articles that discuss or contribute to the debate surrounding the definition of modernism indicates the extent to which modernism is a term whose only non-contentious consensus is that it its meaning is fraught with ambiguity. Susan Stanford Friedman’s contribution to the debate summarizes the theoretical crises thus:

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As terms in an evolving scholarly discourse, modern, modernity, and modernism constitute a critical Tower of Babel, a cacophony of categories that become increasingly useless the more inconsistently they are used. We can regard them as a parody of critical discourse in which everyone keeps talking at the same time in a language without common meanings. When terms mean radically different or contradictory things to people, then their use appears to threaten the project of scholarship/teaching altogether. (497)

“Cacophony” aside, because there are some artists, though disparate in style and genre, who persistently make it into the debate, and who are universally regarded as modernist, such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Picasso, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Frank Lloyd Wright, there must be a unifying or underlying principle that is essentially modernist.

Notably, however, the sister arts drama and opera are absent from the genres represented by the “quintessential modernist works” of the artists above. (Although Picasso designed opera …

… Tradition 2nd Ed. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 1127-1141.

Mathey, Francois. The Impressionists. Trans. Jean Steinberg. New York: Praeger, 1961.

Puchner, Martin. “Modernism and Anti-theatricality: An Afterward.” Modern Drama 44.3 (2001): 355-361.

Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. 1970. London: Futura, 1982.

Stolba, K Marie. The Development of Western Music: A History 2nd Ed. Wisconsin: Brown and Benchmark, 1994.

Trammell Skaggs, Carmen. “Modernity’s Revision of the Dancing Daughter: The Salome Narrative of Wilde and Strauss.” College Literature 29.3 (2002): 124-139.

Yeats, William Butler. “My First Meeting with Oscar Wilde.” The Trembling of the Veil, in Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1916. 79-85. Rpt. in Oscar Wilde A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Ellman. New Jersey: Prentice, 1969. 9-15.

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