Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 8, the spirit of the age

August 28, 2008

During the 1920s, between two of history’s most destructive wars, Europeans and Americans found that the machine was a powerful a metaphor for the rapid changes occurring in Western society. Reyner Banham wrote an influential book called Theory and Design in the First Machine Age that remains one of the best treatments of the birth of the Modern Movement in architecture. Since then, historians have more or less canonized the early 20th century as the apogee of the machine age that began during the the late 18th century in Britain. If that era had a zeitgeist, or guiding spirit, few would dispute that man’s romance with the machine was a part of it. Charlie Chaplin caught it in “City Lights,” and Igor Stravinsky reluctantly accepted its shadow over “The Rite of Spring.”

A few prescient futurists then predicted that machine technology would dominate intellectual, scientific and even artistic production for the remainder of the century, but all would underestimate the scope and universality of its force. No thinker, not even Freud, would recognize the dark undercurrents of technological futurism in the years before the explosion of the first A-bomb. And, after the mini-computer became a necessary tool in the first information age, technology crept into human consciousness like a virus invading the body’s tissues. It disappeared beneath layers of false hope for a future made perfect by the machine, only to be replaced in 2001 by ambivalence and fear. It was no coincidence that the Unabomber and Al Qaeda emerged just prior to the millennium to confront technological imperialism with a new kind of terrorism.

One of the reasons that technological determinism, and thus Modernism, should have little influence on 21st century ideas of progress is that they reflect humanity’s Faustian bargain with perfectibility and positivism. Virtually all of science has come to question kind of certainty that once appeared inevitable in the empiricism of the late Enlightenment in Europe. Karl Popper attacked the Vienna school during the first half of the last century and was proven correct in the second half. The latest theories about the origins of the universe are grounded in the murkiest corners of Quantum mechanics, a muddle even to the smartest young minds. But the most startling and important discovery of the 21st century was the sequencing of the human genome–recognition that no machine could be as powerful or interesting as a human being.

A second powerful indictment of industrial progress came in the form of a small book published by Rachel Carson in the 1960s. To recognize that the entire earth was being systematically destroyed by chemicals and other environmental toxins that were by-products of technology caused nearly every progressive thinker in the world to re-evaluate his/her values. Yes, there are those who continue to believe that humans will win the race to save the earth via new technology alone, but most of us are looking elsewhere for solutions to the largest crisis of our generation.

But if it is not enough that scientists and philosophers have abandoned the zeitgeist of machine marvels, look at the most creative artistic minds of the 21st century and you will find only a few (mainly architects) who look favorably on Modernism as an ideology for making art. Since I am a classically trained singer as well as an architect, I follow music assiduously and believe that we are in one of the richest periods in history for classical composition and performance. A recent article in The New Yorker by John Adams, who many believe to be America’s next truly great composer, demonstrates that an artist educated in one of the hotbeds of Modernist avant-garde music, Harvard University, could renounce his teachers and embrace tonality and traditional world music in his mature work. Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, is in touch with the most provocative and salient ideas in today’s music, and professes no allegiance to Modernism whatsoever. Indeed, he believes that his entire artistic persona was formed by rejecting the empty, ugly abstractions of the avant-garde.

The concert halls and opera houses of the world are overflowing with enthusiastic audiences after decades of disgruntled subscribers complained about the effrontery of atonal works by the lions of academic Modernist composition–Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and Pierre Boulez among others. Tan Dun of China is but one of a new group of composers who use folk idioms, serial techniques, western diatonic harmonies and virtually any sound available in their compositions. Critics such as Alex Ross of the New Yorker refuse to continue the old debate about the zeitgeist in music, instead looking at the work’s intrinsic craft and emotional appeal. Novelists have embraced narrative forms and realism anew, to the praise of readers and critic alike. Poets employ complex rhyme and meter, as in the work of Paul Muldoon of Princeton. Many painters have abandoned abstraction altogether in pursuit of more complex emotional and intellectual expression that is only possible through traditional realism.

If architecture is “frozen music,” why must it resist the cultural forces that have taken the other arts toward the spirit of this new age of environmentalism, organic analogies, and open systems of design and information? Romancing the machine as architects continue to do only removes them from the most pressing human issues of the day–the disease and degradation that are destroying the world’s organisms at an unparalleled rate. Why not embrace the totality of solutions devised by designers of the past and present, without prejudice? Strip away the ideology of a long-dead world view and look at the planet as a giant organism, not a giant machine, and we may yet discover the path to survival.

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