Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #17: Modernism


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Continuing our week of -isms today, we have:

Terms of Art #17:


THIS is the feeling of modernism
Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893) [source]

Pronunciation: modern + ism

Definition: Modernism is a movement in art (including literature, music, etc.) that began in the late 19th century and extended until roughly the 1960s. Sometimes reserved especially for (a) the period between 1900 and, oh, let’s say 1930, or (b) the “interwar” period (1918-1939).

Let me set the scene. It’s the industrial revolution. Suddenly there are factories and stuff can be mass produced by machines. Cool! Also your kids can finally work long hours no matter what age. Yaayyy…?

Then Marx excoriates capitalism (not unrelated to the child labor thing). Darwin presents his theory of evolution. People develop theories about stuff you can’t even see, like germs and subatomic particles. Plus, the beginnings of globalization (railroads, and eventually the telephone and radio).

Now imagine everything that changed after that. If you’re doing it right, you’re imagining literally everything about life changing.

Modernism is the result of this. People had to rethink the place of human life and human experience in the world around them. I mean, holy. shit. You thought computers changed our lives? That’s nothing compared to this.

Also all of this got even more intense after World War I. Now we can kill each other on an unprecedented scale. WHAT EVEN IS HUMAN LIFE ANYMORE

Some common patterns of response that characterize modernism:


fragmented, dissected, reimagined, and somehow also proud: this is also the feeling of modernism
(Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) [source])

  • the rejection of tradition
    (screw realistic scenes! suck it, straightforward narrative stories!)
  • the rethinking and invention of new forms
    (yay abstraction and wacky new shapes! hooray new technologies and production methods!)
  • still, some parody and references to the past
    (because who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with the parent they really don’t want to be like but obviously deeply influenced who they became??)
  • hope for the future, progress, and utopian ideals
    (what does human flourishing look like now? let’s create and promote it through art and design!)
  • but also, angsting about modern life
  • a focus on inner life and subjectivity
    (if god isn’t real and evolution is true, then who/what even are we?)

Related terms:
modernity – sometimes broader than modernism as defined here (like, 17th century till now), but other times basically synonymous with it…

Not to be confused with:
contemporary (as a historical period, like “contemporary art”*) – (1) art and literature and history and stuff since basically the end of WWII till the present; or (2) whatever is happening now, so art by living (or only recently dead) artists

*Think modern vs. contemporary art museums: Modern art museums focus on modernist art; contemporary art museums focus on contemporary art.


  1. Also not to be confused with “modern philosophy”, which starts Descartes and ends with Kant.

    • Hm, I’d call this period early modern, where Kant marks the transition from early modern to (non-early) modern philosophy. What do you think?

      • Sometimes departments hiring advertise for “early modern” because they want a scholar who works on figures from Descartes to Leibniz— Kant is just too late. And someone who works on Marx wouldn’t say that they work in “history of modern.” I’m not sure how Hegel and Fichte scholars self-describe, but my guess would be that they don’t say “history of modern” either.

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