The term “modernism” designates a movement in art, literature and music, beginning in the 19thC and lasting into the 20thC, ending approximately with WW II.

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Art which is modernist may possess the following 12 characteristics:

  • it is psychological in nature and attempts to render individual consciousness or a more subjective reality
  • its depiction of time and/or narrative is not necessarily chronological or external, but rather non-sequential, non-linear, more internal and subjective
  • the modernist “self” is represented as tragically and irrevocably fragmented and isolated
  • consciousness is presented as active, as creating reality and thus, by implication, the reader of modernist texts becomes an active producer rather than passive consumer of meaning
  • it represents a relativity of perspective or more than one “true” and valid point of view; e=mc2
  • its ultimate “meaning” is open, indeterminate, ambiguous
  • it is humanist and/or existentialist, often calling into question the existence of a Christian God
  • it can appear somewhat despairing or bleak in tone
  • it attempts to break out of established convention and tradition, particularly that depicted by realism
  • it draws attention to its status as art, without any over-riding ethical or moral orientation; it is “art for art’s sake”
  • it foregrounds an awareness of the problems of representation and epistemological and ontological questions
  • its form is often employed to convey its content


Altieri, Charles.  “Modernism and Postmodernism.”  The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and

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Poetics.  Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F.Brogan.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane, eds.  Modernism: 1890-1930.  New York:  Penguin, 1976

Cuddon, J.A. “Modernism.”  Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.  New York:  Penguin, 1992.

Faulkner, Peter.  Modernism.  New York: Metheun, 1985.

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