Every movement arises from a desire to make the world anew, but often ends up treading a similar path, says Paul Pensom.
In his book Constellation of Genius, Kevin Jackson tells us that in 1922 Ezra Pound announced a new age. Henceforth, he would date his letters "p s U" – post scriptum Ulysses. For Pound, Ulysses marked a new age; the modern world began in 1922.
Was modernism a rejection of formalism, or just a reformulation of it? At first the former seems more likely. The Futurists positively revelled in their execration of the old, and Dadaists cavorted in geometric costumes to symbolise their rejection of bourgeois values. Yet at the same time other modernists were sporting three-piece tweed suits and pipes. One thing is reasonably certain though: modernism’s validation and valourisation of mass production changed attitudes to mass production, from clothing to furniture, and helped dispel the stigma of the 'readymade' item.
“The past is inferior to the future. How could we acknowledge any merit in our most dangerous enemy: the past, gloomy prevaricator, execrable tutor?” Marinetti, 1909
It’s interesting that most uses of the word ‘formalism’ are pejorative, suggesting an inflexible adherence to rules. Modernism in many stripes was about abandoning such rules; witness Joyce’s aforementioned Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s experimentation. But conversely the other side of modernism was that of systematising. Much of the story of 20th century design and architecture was about rationalising the creative act into as near to science as possible. Not for nothing did Massimo Vignelli’s Unimark design team dress themselves in lab coats.
“Modernism was about abandoning formalism, but conversely it was also about systematising; rationalising the creative act into as near to science as possible. Not for nothing did Massimo Vignelli’s Unimark team dress themselves in lab coats.”
Despite this, the writing was on the wall for the modernist top-down model of cultural transmission. By the mid 20th century, the democratising forces of fiscal security and social mobility meant authority of all kinds was challenged. By the 1990s the web's exponential growth turned a trend into a consensus. The expert is now extinct, and the wisdom of the crowd is all; what’s below the line is as at least as important as what’s above it.
Modernism remains, though for the most part it's a gelded shadow of its former self. Divorced from a guiding ethos it is left wan and austere; a line or two of Helvetica Neue hitched to whichever big company wants a lick of Swiss cool this week, as if a stern Puritan minister were forced to sell trinkets from a market stall.
From this perspective, Modernist Formalism is truly indefensible: like a prisoner doggedly observing the lights-out curfew, when the gates have been opened and everybody else has left the building.