Arising out of heady optimism in the early 1900s, modernism was a radical approach thattried to recreate the way modern civilization viewed culture, politics, and science. This new thinking engendered a sort of rebellion that merged in full force by the 1920s.
There were certain assumptions that moderns made: Western culture was old-fashioned and dysfunctional. Society was bound by the facileness of a society that was too preoccupied with image and too recalcitrant or reticent to embrace needed change. This disillusionment with everything status quo led writers and artists to cross cultural boundaries heretofore ignored. The Puritans embraced neo-classicism. The romantics were nature lovers. The modernists examined and replicated the lifestyle of Amazon prehistoric culture.
This of course was impossible and laughable. Modernist subjects included primitive people groups who looked like they had just descended the steps of Macys. In short, the emerging culture would undermine tradition and authority in the hopes of transforming contemporary society. They would fail abysmally. They could not have their epistemological cake and eat their pneumatic icing in the same meal. It was like mixing oil and water. So, perhaps the best way to describe modernism is “nihilism.”
Nihilism was the questioning of all religious and moral enculturation principles as the only means of obtaining social progress. Ironically, a sort of modernist religion replaced the old orthodox religion and no progress was made at all. As one social critic explained, “Like poor Elmer Fudd and his futile quest to bag Bugs Bunny, there arrived a moment when Elmer exclaimed ‘West and wewaxation at wast!’” But poor Elmer and the modernists had neither bagged their prey nor knew how to rest!
At the same time that modernists embraced pastoral themes, they also embraced science. In the wake of the discovery of the Theory of Relativity, modernist were sure that they had arrived at Nirvana. Science, now, where religion had failed, would solve all the problems of society.
Science, being the cold and sterile thing that it is, invited modernists to repudiate the moral codes of the society in which they were living. In other words, the modernists ran from Victorian morality as quickly as they could! The reason that they did so was not necessarily because they did not believe in God, although there was a great majority of them who were atheists, or agnostics. Rather, their rejection of conventional morality was based on its boring predictability, and its exertion of control over human feelings. In other words, limited the human spirit or, to use later vernacular, traditional morality “cramped” one’s style.
Conformity and tradition were anathema. And so, in the arts, for instance, at the beginning of the 20th-century, artists flirted with so many different styles: cubism, futurism, constructivism, dadaism, and surrealism. They broke new ground, so to speak.
Yet, is it really that new? Xerxes and Pharoah saw themselves as gods–now that is a metaphysical coup d’é·tat. Pretty modern too. The builders of the Tower of Babel believed in science too. Fervently too. And we know what happened. But a few people got it right. Moses put his rod into the Red Sea and it parted. Hum . . . Not very “modern”–there is nothing cool about an old rod and old fashioned faith. The Sea parted too. And we know what happened to old Pharoah!