Modernism’s predecessor 

Enlightenment thinking was based on the belief that there was a rational, scientific explanation for everything that existed, in a universe that had been created by a divine being called God. In other words, there were certain absolute truths, a reliable language with which to express them and a secure set of rules for an ordered life.
Of course, faith and science did not always coexist in harmony and there were disputes and tensions, but there was an overall sense of order and confidence and a certainty about the meaning of life. Humankind had an existence and a purpose, both of which could be explained. 

A breakdown of certainty

As the twentieth century started, however, that sense of certainty began to disappear, as the values and norms that had shaped the Western world for so long began to be challenged:
Religious certainty began to diminish and the consensus of faith began to break down after the horrors of the Great War (1914-18)
Class divisions, extreme poverty and social unrest led to increased political activism and (in Russia) to bloody revolution in 1917
Economic collapse in Europe and the United States during the mid-1920s and early 1930s increased the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.
The respect for authority and the established methods of dealing with things disappeared to be replaced by the assumption that there had to be a new and better way.

The Modernist perspective

Picasso cubist paintingThe concept of Modernism challenged previous assumptions against exposure to modern, urban, industrialised life. Whilst a belief in scientific rationalism was retained, many Modernists felt religion held back understanding, whilst realism was an inadequate way to make sense of the world. 
The carnage of the First World war and the exposure of corrupt imperial leadership (as in Germany and Russia) shattered the idea that there was a coherent way of apprehending the world and paved the way for all sorts of experiments in the arts:
  • Modernist buildings did not seek to replicate the architecture of the past – the art deco style tried to create sleek exteriors and interiors which utilised ‘industrial’ materials
  • Modern novels dispensed with the omniscient narrator and explored stream of consciousness styles and unreliable narrative viewpoint
  • Modern paintings shattered established notions of perspective and beauty. Abstract art abandoned accurate representations of objects either slightly, partially or completely. It is associated with movements such as cubism, expressionism, surrealism, expressionism and futurism.
  • Modern music broke with traditional expectations of harmony.
There was a greater consciousness of the individual within the group, who was expected to question previously unchallenged assumptions as they tried to establish meaning for their lives. The focus in modernity was ‘newness’ and a belief in the possibility of progress.

The impact of science

For many people, scientific advances challenged a traditional, religion-based view of the world, which saw human beings as being made in the image of God:
  • Biology appeared to suggest that human beings are not fundamentally different from other living organisms
  • Physics appeared to suggest that human beings are simply living mechanisms
  • Chemistry appeared to suggest that human beings are merely a particular combination of chemical elements.


In the light of scientific advances, the idea of Existentialism gained ground. This philosophy challenged traditional attitudes, viewing the world as a meaningless, absurd place, in which human beings are disorientated and confused. A central belief of existentialists was that human beings were non-rational individuals who created their own values and worked out for themselves a meaning for their lives.
Existentialism became particularly popular in the years following the Second World War and it influenced other disciplines, such as drama, literature, theology and psychology.

Challenges to scientific rationalism

However, as the twentieth century developed, the scientific bias of Modernism itself was challenged. Many of the new rulers who had overthrown dynastic empires were no better:
  • The rise of nationalism in Germany led to the barbarism, mass murder and genocide during Hitler’s brief rule in Europe during the Second World War (1939-45)
  • Disillusionment grew within – and with - the Soviet Union after Stalin had turned Russia into a totalitarian tyranny
  • The outwardly prosperous and affluent societies of Western Europe and the USA in the 1950s and 60s actually masked the spread of spiritual emptiness.
Eschewing the sense of social consensus resulted in a greater fracturing of society. Racial and ethnic tensions, together with struggles for sexual and gender equality, caused at best social unrest and at worst war, famine or genocide in many parts of the world. 
Meanwhile, rapid advances in science and technology, together with the development of cinema, television, computer technology and mass communication systems, did not equate to social ‘progress’.
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