What will the new Modernism look like?
Everyone is familiar with the story of the riot that broke out at the 1913 Ballets Russes premiere of “The Rite of Spring.” The modernist choreography by Nijinsky introduced movements that were completely novel and strange: dancers moved heavily, turning their feet inward, pigeon-toed, instead of lightly with toes out, according to long custom. Igor Stravinsky’s clashing, dissonant music was filled with unfamiliar tempos and sounds. No wonder that the audience felt confused and challenged, having shown up expecting well-mannered dancers in tutus and tights, pirouetting to pleasant orchestral sounds.
1913 was also the year of the infamous Armory Show in New York City, which introduced Americans for the first time to European avant-garde art. Works shown at the show included Duchamps’ “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which one outraged art critic referred to as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Teddy Roosevelt himself declared “That’s not art!” Nonetheless, Cubism and Dada would inspire generations of artists to come. Many of the artists of the Armory Show are considered masters today: Duchamps, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Picasso, Kandinsky, Rodin and Rousseau.
Literature in 1913 was a hotbed of new ideas and innovations. James Joyce was working on “Ulysses,” T. S. Eliot was writing “the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Proust published “Swann’s Way,” Ezra Pound was writing verse. The writers, artists, and musicians working around this time are still famous today. It was one of the greatest outbreaks of creativity in Western history.
We commonly assume that the 1800s ended when the 20th century began. But in reality, the Victorian era lingered on for about a decade while the new century got on its feet. The 1910s represented the true beginning of the modern 20th century, with its innovations, shocks, defiances and creativity. Out went the horses and buggies, the corsets, top hats, tea gowns and gloves. In came automobiles, the Turkey Trot and the Foxtrot, women with bobbed hair, free love, Cubism, Dada, the Fauves, free verse, freedom from all the old constraints.
2013 will be the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show and “the Rites of Spring.” We are poised at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. What will the new version of modernism for the 21st century look like and sound like? It’s certainly already present here around us and perceptible to those who have been paying attention. Many people believe that it will involve a blossoming forth of innovative new computer technology that will extend into the various branches of art, literature and music just like the last round of Modernism did. The Computer Age will also transform medicine and the practice of science. But can it leave as lasting an effect as Picasso, Stravinsky and Duchamp, or will it fall short? Some of us will embrace the new paradigm, but others will turn away like the elderly Victorians did at the Armory Show, waving their hands in consternation and objecting “That’s not art!” In just a few more years, the emerging patterns and trends will become clear, and that will be when the 21st century truly supersedes the 20th.