Modernity as a Cultural Style

"Modernity" or "modernism" are names historians give to the cultural and intellectual changes that began around the turn of the century and culminated in WWI. Modernity could mean simply technological change--automobiles, movies, telephones, electric light--but it could also mean social changes. Votes for women, the country's changing ethnic make-up, civil rights organizations for African Americans: all these suggested major changes in American society. "Modernity" could also refer to changes in culture--jazz and jazz dancing (click here to explore jazz culture in the twenties), amusement parks and in general the growth of leisure time industries, as well as artistic and literary movements that pushed the boundaries of how Americans understood their world.

Consider, for example, Marcel Duchamp's famous painting, Nude Descending a Staircase

Duchamp's painting reflects a world of movement, a dynamic world of shifting forms. Traditional portrature shows us the subject in a frozen moment, from one perspective. Modernist movements like cubism strained against this artificiality. The painter's subjects, they argued, were never really at rest. They shifted, moved, changed perspective. And even more, technologies like movies or the telephone allowed us to see, simultaneously, two or more different place or points of view. Cubist painters combined the full face with its profile, or the guitar from three angles, or like Duchamp, painted a portrait as a record of movement.

"Modernism" either deliberately, in the cae of painters like Duchamp, or more accidently, as in the motion picture, tampered with the basis of perception itself.