British writer Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “on or about December 1910, human character changed” is all so true. About that time, modernism emerged as the primary social and worldview in human history. Modernism aims at that radical transformation of human thought in relation to God, man, the world, life, and death, which was presaged by humanism and 17th-century philosophy (e.g., Immanuel Kant), and violently practiced in the French Revolution. French philosopher J.J. Rousseau was the first to use the term but it would not blossom fully until the 20th century.

If the worldview deism suggested that God was out to lunch, modernism, a cousin of naturalism, suggested that God was absent altogether.

Modernism, in its broadest definition, is a cultural tendency originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The world, including America, had rapidly changed from an agrarian to an urban society in one short generation.

Modernism fervently believed in science and technology. It was an optimistic vision of the future. It was also a revolt against the conservative values of limitation and pragmatism. The trademark of modernism was its rejection of tradition. Modernism rejected the lingering certainty of Enlightenment epistemology and also rejected the existence of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator God in favor of human progress. The first casualty of this quixotic thinking was Judeo-Christian morality.

Modernism was universal in its rejection of everything conventional. Literature, art, architecture, religious faith, social organization, and daily life were all targets of this surprisingly arrogant movement. Perhaps no social movement has been as confident in its moral ambiguity as modernism was.

The poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 injunction to “Make it new!” was paradigmatic of the movement’s approach toward the obsolete. And Pound is a good example of the paradoxes inherent in modernism. Pound embraced a new understanding of human liberty and free expression while also embracing nascent totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. Pound, like so many modernists, felt he could separate his ethics from his worldview. This delusion would have disastrous consequences. Adolf Eichmann had a similar view in Nazi Germany and designed and implemented the Holocaust.

The modernist movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, marked the first time that the term “avant-garde,” which the movement was labeled until the word “modernism” prevailed, was used for the arts. Surrealism was the “the avant-garde of modernism.”

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