footnote on modernity, in the arts

Thought I should clear up any confusion with regards to modernity in the arts and it’s relationship to culture and society. The word modernity, in general terms is pretty much encapsulated in this Wiki description:

Modernity typically refers to a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period, in particular, one marked by the move from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism, industrialisation, secularization, rationalization, the nation-state and its constituent institutions and forms of surveillance (Barker 2005, 444). Conceptually, modernity relates to the modern era and to modernism, but forms a distinct concept. Whereas the Enlightenment invokes a specific movement in Western philosophy, modernity tends only to refer to the social relations associated with the rise of capitalism.

Modernist Art works, in this respect, should be seen as both the product of modernism – in that it’s development is contingent on the development of modernism itself, but can also, within the context of modernism, act as reflective mirror on the effects of modernism. This means that modern art, having gained a certain autonomy because of modernity, is now free to develop or construct a critique of modernism. This critical facility of modernism can indeed, as it has always done (in spades), even borrow specifically from the traditional agrarian feudal and/or nativist cultures that have been rejected by modernism. In fact, I would go so far as to say that literally every development (or movement) in modern art has always been referenced and informed by a deep seated index to the old ways. While this state of affairs is usually not “officially” acknowledged, examples are abundant.

One of the principal effects and benefits of modernism was freedom from the rigid and authoritarian constraints imposed within ethno-centric society, which allowed for instance a “rediscovery” of long neglected if not previously unknown societies. The culture of these societies then acted as an inspiration to the new arts, by opening up all manner of pictorial, musical, or dance potentials that had been formally restricted to established rule sets of the former order. Sometimes this happened in obvious ways, like a Paul Gauguin  traveling to Tahiti,  how Picasso and Braque were spurred on to cubism (and his later styles) through the study of African art, or how many early modernists’ were influenced by Asian art that swept the European continent. In this respect, the advent of modernism brought along with it – through increased trade, technology, and the new sciences, like anthropology and psychology – a whole world of previously unavailable (formal) models upon which to expand into what seemed like new modes of expression.

Another, particularly relevant example of this fusion of the ancient and the contemporary would be the development of Jazz music in America, and we’re back to the twenties again. Because another popular term for the roaring twenties was the Jazz Age. With the development of jazz we have a synthesis of the long gestating structures of African music coupled up with music and instrumentation of European tradition springing forth as an entirely new and unique musical form. This new musical form, along with it’s attendant dance forms (like the Charleston and the Black Bottom) was met and embraced with an entirely new audience of  white city people, who for the first time in our history, took the art work of its former slaves as a legitimate, serious, and progressive new art form.

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