This movement began in the late 19th century and reached its peak in the period between 1910 and 1930. It tried to redefine various artforms in a radical manner. Leading lights within the literary wing of this movement include Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, H.D, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Franz Kafka. Composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky represent modernism in music. Artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and the Surrealists represent the visual arts, while architects and designers such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe brought modernist ideas into everyday urban life.
Modernism centres on its rejection of tradition. It emphasises the return of the arts to their fundamental characteristics, as though beginning from scratch. This dismissal of tradition also involved the rejection of conventional expectations. Hence modernism often stresses freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism and even primitivism. In many art forms this often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects. Hence the strange and disturbing combinations of motifs in Surrealism, or the use of extreme dissonance in modernist music. In literature this often involved the rejection of intelligible plots or characterisation in novels, or the creation of poetry that defied clear interpretation.
Many modernists believed that by rejecting tradition they could discover radically new ways of making art. Schoenberg believed that by ignoring harmony (the relationship between consonance and dissonance) he had discovered a wholly new way of organising sound, based in the use of twelve-note rows. This became known as serial music. Abstract artists began with the assumption that colour and shape formed the essential characteristics of art, not the depiction of the natural world. Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich all believed in redefining art as the arrangement of pure colour. The use of photography, which had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, strongly affected this particular aspect of modernism. However, these artists also believed that by rejecting the depiction of material objects they helped art move from a materialist to a spiritualist phase of development.
Other modernists, especially those involved in design, had more pragmatic views. Modernist architects and designers believed that new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete. Le Corbusier (born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) thought that buildings should function as "machines for living in", analogous to cars, which he saw as machines for travelling in. Just as cars had replaced the horse, so modernist design should reject the old styles and structures inherited from Ancient Greece or from the Middle Ages. Following this machine aesthetic, modernist designers typically reject decorative motifs in design, preferring to emphasise the materials used and pure geometrical forms. The skyscraper, such as Mies's Seagram Building in New York (1956 - 1958), became the archetypal modernist building. Modernist design of houses and furniture also typically emphasised simplicity and clarity of form, open-plan interiors, and the absence of clutter.
In other arts such pragmatic considerations were less important. In literature and visual art some modernists sought to defy expectations mainly in order to make their art more vivid, or to force the audience to take the trouble to think 'outside the box' of their preconceptions. This aspect of modernism has often seemed a reaction to consumer culture, which developed in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. Whereas most manufacturers try to make products that will be marketable by appealing to people's preferences and prejudices, modernists rejected such consumerist attitudes in order to undermine conventional thinking. The art critic Clement Greenberg expounded this theory of modernism in his essay Avant Garde and Kitsch. Greenberg labelled the products of consumer culture "kitsch", because their design aimed simply to have maximum appeal, with any difficult features removed. For Greenberg, modernism thus formed a reaction against the development of such examples of modern consumer culture as commercial popular music, Hollywood, and advertising. Greenberg associated this with a revolutionary rejection of capitalism.
Many modernists did see themselves as part of a revolutionary culture: one that included political revolution. However, many rejected conventional politics as well as artistic conventions, believing that a revolution of consciousness had greater importance than a change in political structures. Many modernists saw themselves as apolitical, only concerned with revolutionising their own field of endeavour. Others, such as T. S. Eliot, rejected mass popular culture from a conservative position. Indeed one can argue that modernism in literature and art functioned to sustain an elite culture which excluded the majority of the population. The Soviet Communist government rejected modernism on the grounds of alleged elitism; and the Nazi government in Germany deemed it narcissistic and nonsensical. The Nazis exhibited modernist paintings alongside works by the mentally ill in an exhibition entitled Degenerate art.
In fact, modernism flourished only in consumer/capitalist societies, despite the fact that its proponents often rejected consumerism itself. However, modernism began to merge with consumer culture after World War II, especially during the 1960s. In Great Britain a youth sub-culture even called itself "modernists", though usually shortened to Mods. In popular music Bob Dylan combined folk music traditions with modernist verse, adopting literary devices derived from Eliot and others. The Beatles also developed along these lines, even creating atonal and other modernist musical effects in their later albums. Musicians such as Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart proved even more experimental. Modernist devices also started to appear in popular cinema, and later on in music videos. Modernist design also began to enter the mainstream of popular culture, as simplified and stylised forms became popular, often associated with dreams of a space age high-tech future.
This merging of consumer and modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of "modernism" itself. Firstly it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Secondly it demonstrated that the distinction between elite modernist and mass consumerist culture had lost its precision. Many have interpreted this transformation as the beginning of the phase that became known as Postmodernism. And recently (2000) a new paradigm has been suggested, comprising not only Traditionalism versus Modernism but also a third group, called Cultural Creatives, who differ from both.
In some fields the effects of modernism have remained stronger and more persistent than in others. Visual art has made the most complete break with its past. Most major capital cities have museums devoted to 'Modern Art' as distinct from post-Renaissance art (circa 1400 to circa 1900). Examples include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Such galleries (and popular attitudes) make no distinction between modernist and post-modernist phases, seeing both as developments within 'Modern Art'.
In literature, modernist experimentation has remained comparatively marginal. Many critically-admired novelists retain fairly conventional approaches to plot and characterisation. Poetry has perhaps retained more characteristics derived from modernism.
Music has experienced a similar history, as modernism has merged with both traditional methods and with ideas derived from popular and non-Western forms of music.
In architecture the term 'modernist' had the most specific meaning, referring to severe and minimalist styles that rejected decoration. Again some aspects of modernist design persist within the mainstream of contemporary architecture, while its dogmatism has given way to more playful use of decoration, historical quotation, and spatial drama.
Experimental rejection of tradition in any of these fields now often bears the label avant garde, a phrase once almost interchangable with 'modernist'. The concepts separated in meaning during the 1960s when some writers declared that modernism had become so institutionalized that it was now 'post avant-garde'.