Monday, 14 November 2011

Modernism and Post-modernism: A bit of background reading


Modernism: A Very Short Introduction – Christopher Butler

Not sure what to make of this book. I think I came away with a few of the basic ideas behind modernism – use of modern techniques, a move away from simple representation, belief that art is a valid tool for explaining the world, attempts to rationalise /simplify art to reach basic truths etc etc, but I can’t help the feeling it was made vastly more complicated than necessary.

If I can write a press release that explains who,what,where,when,why and perhaps even how in around 30 words I see little reason to scatter a book with sentences in excess of 100 words long and full of subordinate clauses and jargon.  In a fully fledged text book you might (just) find this acceptable – but a short introduction? Perhaps I should be unsurprised in a book on modernism, which also seems to be associated with highbrow – raising art above the masses, discussing its meaning in complex terms and so on.

I understand that Modernism probably reached its apex in literature, but for a photography student the very heavy slanted to literature rather than the visual arts is a bit of an issue – and not having read any Joyce or Sartre or Proust this didn’t make it easier to follow. I certainly didn’t make me want to read any of this stuff, although it did pique my interest in Schoenberg and his 12-tone musical technique. Back to photography and I think I can extract from it why Ansel Adams, for example, could be regarded as a modernist, with his emphasis on photographic purity and the use of faultless photographic technique to provide insight. On the other hand, the book makes only a fairly brief reference to Stieglitz who was instrumental in moving photography away from pictorialism  - little of which I could gather from this read.

So – all in all a little disappointing. I don’t mind having to work at a book to understand the principles it is espousing or explaining, and I did manage to extract what I feel is the essence of modernism. That said I do object to the erection of barriers to understanding through the use of unhelpfully highbrow language in an introductory text, and couldn’t help feeling that at times the author was more concerned with maintaining the supposed intellectual exclusivity of modernism, rather than shedding light on its manifesto.

I’m reading a similar introduction to post–modernism next – it’ll be interesting to see if the writing style is noticeably different.

Discover Postmodernism - Glen Ward: Hodder: 2011

This is an altogether more accessible book - the language is simpler, the explanations clearer  - and, in truth I understand modernism better as a result of reading this book. In fairness to the other book some of this may be down to the very flexibility of the idea of post-modernism. Although it is generally concerned with some key themes - such as the lack of distinction between high and low culture, and the tendency to borrow from other works, post-modernism seems to vary depending on the art form, which means the book too is meandering and varied, all of which keeps it an interesting read. This is augmented by being written , at times in a rather funky style - 'Welcome to Planet Baudrillard' - which by it's very nature encourages to stick with the more difficult patches.

Do I understand modernism or post-modernism after reading these books? In truth  - no. But, I do at least have some knowledge of the drivers behind both, and a chance of making more intelligent comment in the occasional debate on the OCA forums :0)

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