The two dominant cultural movements of our century-modernism and post-modernism-were marked by the turmoil of two world wars and a cold war. But they remain almost impossible to define, even with hindsight. As "fin de millennium" anxieties start to close in on the artistic consciousness, Malcolm Bradbury asks what comes after post-modernism?by Malcolm Bradbury / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Large epochal terms have always been both popular and unpopular with historians: popular because they help define the obvious fact that there are seismic shifts in the processes of history, the structure of culture, the nature of collective consciousness, and the aesthetics, styles and preoccupations of the arts; unpopular because they paste over fundamental differences, and generate endless quarrels about what such terms may really be said to define. The topic of “modernism” is, in this respect, exemplary.
The term is widely deployed, as being of acknowledged usefulness; it’s also an endless matter for dissent. No one is quite sure of the why, the when, the what, the where and the how of modernism: at what point it might be said to have developed; where the epicentre lay; who are the giants and who the pygmies; what the defining characteristics are. Still, it would not be far amiss to suggest that modernism belonged with the great upheavals in the politics, scientific, sociological, sexual and familial orders of the last two decades of the 19th century, predominantly in Europe and the United States. It evidently, too, had much to do with the large technological and scientific transformations that surrounded the turn of the century, and was allied to or possibly some form of revolt against modernisation. It found its cultural manifestations first in the experimental optimism of the belle ?poque years, then in the sense of historical crisis that followed the first world war. Modernism coincided with late Victorian reform, progressive liberalism, the rise of socialism and modern mass society; it co-existed no less with the rise of National Socialism, Fascism and Bolshevism from 1917 on. It displayed the grand and futuristic sense of historical and human transformation that is one aspect of the sensibility of the early 20th century; it also expressed the great European malaise that marked the inter-war years. Its forms explored the radical changes in consciousness of the modern century- as that consciousness became more aware of contradiction and self-doubt, and increasingly saw the price of progress as fragmentation and loss. Much of its impulse was either exhausted or discredited as the century came to its second big crisis in 1939-45, so that when cultural affairs resumed modernism seemed over, and another epoch begun.
the simple truth is that there were many modernisms-and seen in retrospect they will vary greatly in character depending on where we choose…