- Andy Warhol from America.
Modernism the rise of at the turn of the 20th century encapsulated a number of changes in the American mindset that had been brewing throughout the later half of the 1800's. As the world digested Darwin's work on evolution and Spencer's application of it to the society, America began to believe in the power of science to cure the social ills brought about by industrialization. The trend towards secularism that started with Emerson became more pronounced as alternate academic disciplines rose to solve social problems and take the place of the church. Sociology, psychology, and cultural anthropology became fields of study in the academic world, and universities, which had sprouted like weeds during the late 1800's, shook off their connection to the church. By the 20th century, the enlightened man of science was no longer the poor farmer or news writer who invented on the side. Education was no longer reserved for the common man. As industrial society became more specialized, continuing education was practiced in universities and the discoveries of science were enshrined in museums.
As the safety net of religion dropped, Realism and Naturalism emerged as new literary movements in America, but Modernism and its elevation of art to a religious practice soon overshadowed both forms. Emerson's avocation of a new art of self-reliance to replace the old view of the Church, allowed him to throw his support behind Walt Whitman, who called for a poet to save America and heighten their mindset. The Modernists set out to create a new art that encapsulated the mindset of people and not the physical description of them. They focused on the mental aspects of existence and thus, only art with layers of meaning was considered, "high art," and as a result, art became classed and elitist. The Canon, as we know it today, was influenced greatly by what the Modernists considered to be high art. Their perceptions also lead to less diverse theater audiences and a general trend towards considering theatre among the high arts. Bigger theatres were built where chiefly "legitimate" theatre was only displayed and the smaller houses where left to the "crass" vaudeville acts. Shakespeare and opera, both popular and much parodied entertainment in the early 1800's, had become part of a high culture by the end of the century. Art was also classed off and enshrined like holy relics in museums of grandiose structure built in Beau-Arts style. Art also gained new classifications as all that was not deemed "high" art was classed off into other categories like "folk" and "pop," and "mass" culture began to correspond to "low" culture.
At the same time, commercialism grew in American culture. No longer where small farmers producing for a limited regional population. Companies blossomed and manufacturing improved so that commodities could be produced quickly and cheaply. Transportation also increased and those same products could now be shipped over long distances. People began to buy more and more of their needs. People also migrated to cities, so they were not producing physically as much as they were consuming. Victorian households became cluttered with the explosion of new manufactured products, which were often cheap versions of upper class decor. Vast new arrays of products were produced with many different variations, and brand loyalty was sought. Competition increased for companies and the advertising market rose. Advertisements often focused on the problems of social climbing in cities and strived to point out that one could move up socially by an intelligent purchase. As economic gaps widened in the late 1800's and trusts were built, those newly rich from the manufacturing boom where criticized by the public as elitists determents to democratic society so they tried to seem closer to the people and their societal concerns. How did they accomplish this little trick? They donated money to universities, libraries, museums, and the like bringing the cycle full circle.
Altogether, Americans moved from a primarily agricultural society with democratic and religious loyalties to a more secular society that lived in urban areas and purchased their social position. It is this latter state that is embodied and celebrated in Modernist artwork and literature.
This was the world of Warhol's youth where art was enshrined, commerce solved all ills, and truth was found in a textbook. The perception of Modernism and its assumptions arched over this world and Wahol sought to alter that perspective. In three ways he challenged the concepts of Modernism and modernist art. He changed the subject matter and way in which art is made prompting the question of what exactly is art? He altered perceptions about what makes up an artist leavening the public wondering who exactly is an artist? And he shattered cultural concepts about how art should be displayed. In these three ways by premiering his art out of museums in small shows with live bands and interactive exhibits, parading the commercialism of culture, commodifying his art and comodifying himself, Warhol challenged the modernist perspective and won, becoming one of the most recognizable artists of the 20th century.
Last updated 05/25/2001