Now, I believe, is a good time to continue our discussion of modernism. The Great War taught the people who survived it to see the world as a scary, incomprehensible place. The belief that science and technology would improve everybody’s lives was shattered when not only tanks but also biological and chemical weapons were used in the war for the very first time in the history of humanity. The war was incomprehensible, its motives and consequences confusing. So many people had died, and for what? In 1918, very few of the survivors could say that the war had been worth the sacrifice, the deaths, and the suffering.
The great realist project of explaining the world with the goal of transforming it had to be abandoned. Artists were as lost and confused as anybody else. After you see the massive destruction of a world war, it isn’t easy to believe that a great novel will, indeed, achieve a profound change in the way people live. The feelings of loss, confusion, and impotence brought by the war did not constitute a break with the years immediately before it. Already at the end of the XIXth century, there was a growing sensation that the world was becoming too complicated and dangerous. The World War contributed to the feelings that already existed and magnified them.
So if artists saw no more reason to create meaningful content, what remains? The answer is obvious: form. Modernist art strives to create an original, beautiful, exquisite form and mostly abandons the task of explaining what the increasingly complicated and confusing world is like.
See, for instance, a poem titled “Rain” by Guillaume Apollinaire:
The poem is visually striking. It defies our expectations as to what a poem should be like. And here lies the most important contribution of the modernist writers. Unlike their predecessors, they don’t strive to provide answers. More often than not, they don’t even pose any questions for us to answer. Instead, they offer us – the readers, the spectators – an opportunity to formulate our own questions and look for answers on our own. A modernist work of art requires that the reader / spectator invest as much effort into creating it. Without our active participation, this work of art will simply not happen. In case this sounds confusing, here is the perfect example:
Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” demonstrates perfectly what modernist art is all about. The first time you see the painting, you feel annoyed.
“What?!? What the hell is this?” you ask. “This guy is crazy if he thinks I will agree to consider this art!”
If you are a lazy, stupid person, you will stop right there, walk away, and never try to approach modernist art again. If, however, you are not entirely averse to intellectual exertion, you will eventually get over your annoyance and start asking questions.
“Why does this bother me? What did I expect this painting to be? What is my definition of a work of art and where does the conviction that this isn’t what art should be like come from? What are my expectations and how did they arise? What is the role of an artist? What is my role? Why did nobody paint this way before? And what can the future of art be after this?”
This painting that seems like one huge fraud at first can produce a plethora of insights if you give it a chance. This is the art of people who don’t expect to sit there passively and be entertained and / or brainwashed. This is the art of thinking individuals who strive to formulate their own approach to everything they encounter. Is it any wonder, then, that the totalitarian Soviet regime banned all modernist art and everything that resembled it?
[To be continued. . .]