Why was modernism for so long so inexhaustibly creative?

Piet Mondrian moved to Hampstead on 20 September and lived in a studio opposite Ben [Nicholson] and Barbara [Hepworth] for almost two years.  Mondrian’s studio in Paris had become a kind of pilgrimage site for modern artists across Europe in the 1930s.  With no means of viewing art unless it was exhibited, the way to see new work was to visit the artist.  Alexander Calder moved to Paris from New York in 1926, aged twenty-seven, and his visit to Mondrian’s studio gave him what he described as the ‘shock that started things’.  He likened it to being slapped like a baby to get its lungs working.

That is from Caroline Maclean’s new and noteworthy Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists, a good book to read to think about the roots of artistic creativity.  Creators back then, by contemporary standards, had so few “means,” and yet they — perhaps unlike us?? — were quite capable of being shocked by new styles and thus revolutionized and awoken from their slumbers.  Is there any way to recreate those feelings?  Or will that happen only in tech areas and not so much in the arts?  What in music today could possibly shock you at this point?  Or in painting?

There is plenty of gossip in the book as well, in this case a plus.

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Is it known at the time or only in retrospect?

There is no question that certain times and places are associated in creative output, at least in the eyes of those creating that output. And then there is the whole manifesto aspect of certain movements, or their embedding in social change (Soviet aesthetics in the 20s).

However, the undying need to classify and categorize leads to putting together 'schools' by including people using such wonderful phrasing as "though the artist had no contact with others members of the school, they were clearly part of the zeitgeist, and we recognize their immense contribution to developing ....."

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'With no means of viewing art unless it was exhibited' Someone is seemingly unaware of various forms of reproduction in the 1930s. Along with the fact that photography played a major role in Modernism.

The idea that art should shock is the essence of a dead end aesthetic, as anyone familiar with great works of art spanning thousands of years recognizes.

You are very right Goya. Modernism lasted so long because it became a trap. Artists tried every which way to get around the requirement to shock. But the modernists had a lock on the establishment, and if you were not part of the shock party, you needed a complex quasi-radical rationale to justify yourself (hence, post-modernism).

In the modernist era, anyone not explicitly radical was considered reactionary and outside the pale of serious consideration (very much like our current political discourse). So so brilliant artists and creators like pre-Sondheim Broadway songsmiths, illustrators like Norman Rockwell from the great age of American magazine, Will and Ariel Durant, craftsmanlike Hollywood film-makers, Walt Disney, etc., were considered forces of conservatism. A cultural critic could make his or her career attacking these targets from the modernist perspective well into the 1980s.

The current cultural scouring in the name of identity politics, is the reassertion of modernism's exclusionary privilege by a different generation of the same elite.

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I think simple low-hanging fruit is responsible. The Beatles were genius songwriters, but coming along at the same time that advances in recording technology did artificially elevate them above similarly talented peers from the 40s or 80s. The same patterns repeat across media and eras. Einstein was brilliant, but would his discoveries have lasted until the 90s if he weren’t born til then?

Some of the Jazz Age greats were still producing in the 1940s, but who were the similarly talented peers in the 1980s? Explosions of creative energy really do exist: one person feeds off the other, a field of creativity (say music or painting) pulls in highly gifted people from other fields (it was actually possible to make a living as a journeyman jazz or rock musician), new musical or visual forms are created and perfected, and then it eventually fades out. Why then and not some other time? Nobody really knows.

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Bing Crosby was the first singer to really understand how amplification changed the kind of singing that was possible: you no longer needed to sing loud, but now could sing intimately. (Remarkably, Crosby had an immensely powerful voice but was still able to make the transition to his new style as an adult.)

Crosby was a very bright man who moved from L.A. to Silicon Valley to be an angel investor for new audio-visual tech start-ups. (E.g., it had long been assumed that no movie or video existed of the legendary 7th game of the 1960 World Series won by Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer. Then about a decade ago somebody found a video of it in Crosby's old wine cellar. Crosby was both part-owner of the Pirates and an investor in, I believe, Ampax, so he had the game taped while he was making a movie in France.)

Bob Hope was more or less the first comedian to figure out a new style based around the microphone.

Interesting. I didn't know Bing Crosby had a powerful voice. I've always admired his quiet, modest presentation.

Bob Hope was not as good as his reputation. C+.

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The post-WW1 period saw Western intellectuals decisively reject the Western tradition. They embraced modernism in all its forms - meaning non-Western or anti-Western culture whenever they could. We got atonal music, poetry that don't rhyme - and pro-Soviet politics.

So anyone can shock by smearing feces on the wall and calling it a political statement. They just can't shock for long. It is only shocking the first time. So I would say it is the opposite of inexhaustibly creative. I would say it is remarkably limited and now pretty much everyone admits modern Art is about Public Relations and getting some sucker to pay for it more than anything interesting or useful.

But the fringe has become mainstream. Those that dared to say f**k on TV have become the Establishment. So to be shocking you have to do something new. Rappers shock by using the N-word, calling women Ho and generally being obnoxious. But that is fine because they have street cred and no one dares criticize them for it.

I would say Trump is the closest we get in the modern world. He tweets and he offends the Powers That Be. He is the Sex Pistols to the New York Times' Mary Whitehouse.

Whether he is as limited in his expression, or if he ends up dead in Rickers, we will have to see.

Or that blank verse was something that arose out of the trenches of WWI.

Japonisme - The term is generally said to have been coined by the French critic Philippe Burty in the early 1870s. It described the craze for Japanese art and design that swept France and elsewhere after trade with Japan resumed in the 1850s, the country having been closed to the West since about 1600.

The rediscovery of Japanese art and design had an almost incalculable effect on Western art. The development of modern painting from impressionism on was profoundly affected by the flatness, brilliant colour, and high degree of stylisation, combined with realist subject matter, of Japanese woodcut prints. Design was similarly affected in as seen in the aesthetic movement and art nouveau.

In Britain the chief artist transmitter was James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In the field of design, Christopher Dresser and the architect William Godwin were key figures. www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/j/japonisme

Blank verse - Blank verse was introduced into England by the Earl of Surrey in about 1540. It is the principal metre of Shakespeare's plays and the metre of Milton's epic poems, as well as of many other major works of poetry. /www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/forms-of-verse-blank-verse/

The film Topsy-Turvy shows a little of the effect of Japonisme. Good fun.

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The aesthetic and related movements seem pretty firmly opposed to modernism to me, and the embrace of things Japan in no way represents an obvious rejection of the "Western tradition." Whatever you may feel about that tradition, it was certainly never parochial. Openness seems like its defining feature; had the opening of Japan been met with indifference - that would have been out of character.

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I know all that, but Louie Armstrong and hundreds of others were really good, despite being derided at the time using the exact same thoughts that you expressed. Same with Dylan, the Beatles, and hundreds of others in the sixties.

The richness of art is not encapsulated in the barren framework that he describes. The Futurists were intellectuals that embraced one of the most fundamental Westerns traditions while embracing modernism.

"Focusing on progress and modernity, the Futurists sought to sweep away traditional artistic notions and replace them with an energetic celebration of the machine age. Focus was placed on creating a unique and dynamic vision of the future and artists incorporated portrayals of urban landscapes as well as new technologies such as trains, cars, and airplanes into their depictions. Speed, violence, and the working classes were all glorified by the group as ways to advance change and their work covered a wide variety of artforms, including architecture, sculpture, literature, theatre, music, and even food.

Futurism was invented, and predominantly based, in Italy, led by the charismatic poet Marinetti. The group was at its most influential and active between 1909 and 1914 but was re-started by Marinetti after the end of the First World War. This revival attracted new artists and became known as second generation Futurism. Although most prominent in Italy, Futurist ideas were utilized by artists in Britain (informing Vorticism), the US and Japan and Futurist works were displayed all over Europe. Russian Futurism is usually considered a separate movement, although some Russian Futurists did engage with the earlier Italian movement. Futurism anticipated the aesthetics of Art Deco as well as influencing Dada and German Expressionism." www.theartstory.org/movement/futurism/

Amusing to think that Futurism and modernism to this radical anti-Western school of art. "The Art Deco style manifested across the spectrum of the visual arts: from architecture, painting, and sculpture to the graphic and decorative arts. While Art Deco practitioners were often paying homage to modernist influences such as Cubism, De Stijl, and Futurism, the references were indirect; it was as though they were taking the end results of a few decades of distilling compositions to the most basic forms and inventing a new style that could be visually pleasing but not intellectually threatening.

The Art Deco style originated in Paris, but has influenced architecture and culture as a whole. Art Deco works are symmetrical, geometric, streamlined, often simple, and pleasing to the eye. This style is in contrast to avant-garde art of the period, which challenged everyday viewers to find meaning and beauty in what were often unapologetically anti-traditional images and forms."

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"The post-WW1 period saw Western intellectuals decisively reject the Western tradition."

I know. Women even get to vote. Hell, Blacks get to vote. It is the thin end of the wedge, I tell you.

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Columbian U historian Peter Gay, who has written about cultural history, has the definitive book on modernism. Internet screen scrape:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Gay
Gay's 2007 book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy explores the modernist movement in the arts from the 1840s to the 1960s, from its beginnings in Paris to its spread to Berlin and New York City, ending with its death in 1960s pop art.

Gay was one of the best lecturers I ever had. Note: he spent 24 years at Yale and "only" 21 at Columbia.

Pretty cool. The one volume Columbia History of the World, out of print, that he edited is one of my favorite books of all time. I re-read it periodically, along with the UK historian Roberts more modest one volume history of the world.

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Maybe a metaphor from biology:

I have read Robert Wilson and he claims that isolation is necessary for evolution of new species. New species often arise on islands or on other continents. It is said that the human race now mixes too much for evolution of new human species.

Could it be that de art magazines, art fairs, Documenta's and the internet mix too much for real shocking innovation?

On the other hand: in music there are still new strange trends. For example vaporwave (music of late capitalism) or metal ambient. See:
https://daily.bandcamp.com/features/vaporwave-iconography-column?utm_source=footer
https://sunn.bandcamp.com/album/d-mkirke

Something to be said for isolation. I note several musical artist I'm fond of made it a point to move to the sticks to avoid distraction as much as with nothing much to do, you have to get creative to make your own fun. We maybe too distracted/connected to really take a step back and create something new (I'd toss in commodification before an aesthetic sense can develop in there too).

But I think to focus on "shocking" is maybe a bit short-sighted. Intriguing is more compelling, more in the novel innovation sensibility.

And yes, there is tons of it. Mostly from the culture shock (the Japonisme discussion lays it out perfectly) of being exposed to things you won't find in Kansas.

And yes, there is tons of it. Mostly from the culture shock (the Japonisme discussion lays it out perfectly) of being exposed to things you won't find in Kansas.

What, like Thomas Hart Benton?

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Wilson is, of course, right about isolation being necessary for actual new human species. But we are evolving in subtler ways: we are more resistant to endemic diseases like malaria, our body temperature is decreasing (because we suffer fewer infections), and we are getting weaker because our way of life does not reproductively reward physical strength. We may also be getting smarter (because our way of life does reward intelligence) or stupider (because the least capable are still able to survive and reproduce in our affluent society); only time will tell. I believe the evidence weakly favors smarter.

And red hair is disappearing (darn).

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I'd say it's because they were the only humans to truly live in 'the future'. The idea, so to speak, of the future as ever onwards progress ended in the 1970s. It only lasted half a century. We realised we should be a bit more pessimistic.
But i don't think this means you can't create great work, you just can't do it in music, film, and certainly not in painting. To experience the great works, look for the new medium. You're already a bit late if curious about video games, all the great, brave works of passion and vision there have peaked in the 90s.
What the even newer mediums could be, i have only a few hunches about.

Anime still looks like a thriving modern medium. Unfortunately I don't know much about it.

And videogames, at least in components - music, graphics. I have attended concerts where they played the classical music made for videogames.

At least until the SJWs drive out all of the aesthetes in the field and replace them with the same radical detritus.

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Anime has its own trends, and has never been particularly profitable on its own, so it tends to cater to certain sub-cultures that have shown willingness to spend. Unfortunately, this often leads it to have periods of conformity; recently with Light Novel adaptations (you can usually tell those by when the titles are full or multiple sentences) or isekai (transported to another world) stories that tend to devolve into power fantasies. The latter, at least, seems to be petering out in a way, with less of the straight-up versions coming out and more that try to play with the formula. The former actually started really strong (Boogiepop, Haruhi) before the rash of poorly done imitations tried to cash in.

Of course that kind of thing happens in all creative fields, and it isn't like it hasn't happened in anime before either (see all the poorly done Evangelion clones).

Anime does have the advantage that there are some strong auteurs, who have built up enough social capital to get experimental and put out some really interesting stuff. I really would have like to see what Satoshi Kon would be putting out now if he hadn't died young, for instance, but Ikuhara, Yuuasa and Oshii are all still around, and the KyoAni model looks like it's going to be very enduring.

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Modernity breeds conformity and conformity discourages creativity. Look no further than tech, which breeds conformity while claiming non-conformity. Conformity is the dirty little secret of tech.

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Not likely today. Technologically, there was no way to cheaply distribute images in colour or high resolution except in bulk to experts, until around this time. Culturally, they were coming out of an incredibly censorious world that was changing quickly; you could be educated before the First World War and still be alive for "Hair". There was also a lot of deliberate mass population movement on ethnic or religious grounds in the first half of the twentieth century to bring about these encounters. So now we have all this revolutionary work as a cultural foundation.

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Another rehearsal of the adventures and moral vacuity of upper-crusty chattering classes in dear old England.

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A really good read on this whole concept is Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence". He tracks the cycles in everything from religion to art to detective fiction to government... from initiation to serve a goal or purpose, though evolution, and to the point where they ultimately reject - or at least are incapable of performing - the original intended function.

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The problem was that only B&W photos were any good. Have you ever looked at old books about Picasso? I never liked a Corbusier building until I saw a few in person - he actually used a lot of color, but the photos republished again and again were b&w. By the way, crazy ol' Dr. Barnes was right about color photography for his time.

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To people in their 50s, the Sleaford Mods sound quite shocking,

They're probably frauds, but they sound novel and convincing, which is all you want.

I recently got pointed to this show by GG Allin. This is really extreme punk performance art. It's still shocking now. Watch if you dare (ignore the TED Talk intro, that's just beautifully ironic).
https://youtu.be/CVRRUZmp7ec

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