The Paradox of Modernism and the New Modern Paradigm

True to the modern paradox: subjectively-realized values and the belief systems that incorporate them into society are as important to society as the reductive process that negates them. The end of modernism and its rebirth are implicit in the paradox of modernism.

Modernism is an all-encompassing term denoting the set of norms and beliefs that distinguish contemporary society from its historical precedents. As a cultural movement, modernism incorporated a paradigmatic shift that elevated the status of the individual and changed how people viewed their place in the world. It inspired capitalist democracies based on individualism, freedom, social equality, progress and the power of reason. America, as the model of modernism, provided constitutional guarantees and cultural environments supporting the rise of modern society.

The philosophic foundations of modernism were in place for over half a century when Modern art, modern society and the middle class developed as byproducts of the industrial revolution. The rise of modernism demonstrated how cultural paradigm shifts occur as adaptations to the introduction of new technologies, and not just in response to philosophical revelations. Society reconceptualizes its relationship to the changing world during such periods. The inspiration comes from the people. Philosophers and artists light the way, but they too are part of a larger cultural movement.  

The transcendental aesthetic response was an integral feature of Modern art. The profound experiences of art and religion gave meaning to life and shaped the emerging modern culture. Successive generations of cultural providers would unravel the belief systems of Western culture and the aesthetics of Modern art with awe-inspiring revelations and insights that integrated society into a rich culture with value and promise. Through the period of Abstract Expressionism in the arts, modern culture reinforced underlying assumptions that allowed society to acquire transcendental cultural experiences through the reductive process.

While modernism was based on the power of reason as the way to know the world, the underlying philosophy (based primarily on Kant’s transcendental idealism) incorporated the transcendental experience as a way to gain insight into the unknown world beyond the reach of reason. The art experience, as well as the religious experience, the experience of the sublime in nature, and peak cultural experiences occurring in education, sports and family -- these life-affirming events have always incorporated a transcendental element that distinguished them from everyday reality. They were an integral feature of early modernism.

The transcendental aspect of the cultural experience played a less obvious role as society neared the end of the late modern period. Deconstructionists determined transcendental knowledge did not offer insight into an ideal realm as had been assumed. This undercut the rationale of transcendental idealism and Modern art. For artists, the conclusions of postmodern theory would come as an afterthought; by the 1970s, the cultural environment and social conditions that produced the vibrant symbolism of Modern art had passed.

Meaningful culture still existed in art galleries, museums, churches, classrooms and in pop culture and music venues, but in most instances, the existential quality of the cultural experience had faded. The art object had all but lost the ability to evoke an aesthetic response. The enigma that enlivened Modern art had fallen prey to its own reductive methodology.

The postmodern period (1960-70s) marked the end of transcendental aesthetics, which was significant to the art community, but had no measurable impact on established ideologies and institutions of the day. It was evident at the time however that cultural values were fading and this would eventually spell an end to modern society as we knew it. Modern art was the proverbial canary in a coal mine; across the board, society suffered qualitative losses in cultural values in the second half of the 20th century.

Analytic philosophers negated the philosophic foundations of modern culture, but they did not provide new axioms for interpreting the world or for incorporating cultural values into society. It was outside the parameters of their working thesis. Society was set adrift in a disenfranchised modern culture. Modern art had come to an end, but the slow motion fall of modernism as a cultural movement would continue through the turn of the century. The philosophic foundations of modernism had been displaced but the vacant shell of the once-vibrant culture was held in place by established ideologies and institutions.

Deconstructionists of the postmodern period had additionally demonstrated that the world does not reduce to logical causes or translate into language. Our knowledge of the world is limited to what can be known through the metaphors of language and art. Presumably not their intention, these revelations cleared the way on multiple fronts for an eventual revitalization of cultural values outside the framing of transcendental idealism and the aesthetics of Modernism.

While the profound experiences of art and religion do not reveal insights into the underlying nature of reality as it was once believed, they do enrich our understanding of the world and integrate actualizing personalities into belief systems for finding meaning in life. Deductive reasoning dismantled Western philosophies responsible for incorporating ontological and aesthetic experiences, but it did not diminish the importance of culture in establishing a well-adjusted and well-actualized society.

Half a century after the negation of philosophical premises supporting Western culture and Modern art, another major paradigm shift is occurring. Once again, the inspiration comes from the people themselves as they incorporate new information and communication technologies into their lives. With striking parallels to the rise of modernism in the 19th century, the paradigm shift incorporates the democratic ideals and humanitarian values of modernism while restructuring its hierarchical social order and clearing away disenfranchised philosophical precepts.

Just as cultural flourishes followed the combination of new technologies and economic prosperity during early modernism in Europe and again in post-war America, the same phenomenon appears to be happening today as communities and subcultures generate cultural values in social environments enhanced by social media. The renaissance of community-based art is an example of the trend. The frequency and existential relevance of the cultural experience in Western culture is increasing as society makes the transition from television-based to internet-engaged culture. A revitalization of modern society is taking place at a grassroots level within internet-engaged subcultural settings.

The public dialogue, once the almost exclusive purview of corporate-owned mass media, is now played out over the timelines of social networking venues. The media feed is generated from within the group, independent of the biases of mass media, classroom or pulpit. A revolutionary culture is developing where everyone is a cultural provider within a community of variously-organized, overlapping, loosely-structured, internet-engaged subcultural groups.

Aspects of older media-driven pop culture become entries on the timeline specifically because of their relevance to internet-engaged popular culture. Comments and reposts are an indication of an entry’s value. Anything that strikes a chord within the group goes viral. Anyone’s good idea quickly becomes everyone’s good idea. Internet-engaged culture is driven by the initiative of participants in a peer group process. This is in distinction to the hierarchies of late modernism where culture trickles down from the top. The new paradigm reverses the order in a web-based scenario where content bubbles up from the masses.

The interactive group dynamics of social media favor the process of acculturation over assimilation. Assimilation is the process where minority cultures forfeit their ethnic identities as they are absorbed by majority culture. Acculturation is the process where groups adopt the beliefs and the behaviors of other groups as cultures merge over time. The engine of pop culture has switched tracks from mass media to social media -- from assimilation of the masses through the passive experience of television to the accelerated acculturation of a diverse and divided society through participation in social networking outlets and information searches over the internet.

Within the community of overlapping social networking groups, personal interests become socially responsible through a peer group process largely free of the animosity of historically based conflicts. As a central theme of social networking venues, entries evoke subjective content that reflects the values of the sender as representative of the group; entries may be provocative but they are seldom intended to be confrontational (within the group).

The modern paradigm that grew out of the 19th century industrial revolution has played itself out, but the spirit of modernism lives on. The paradigmatic shift to neo-modernism recasts central themes of modernism into a new context. When social responsibility and personal fulfillment (altruism and hedonism) become one through the acknowledgement of the internet-engaged group, common bonds are established and culture prospers. This basic tenet of modernism still holds true in the neo-modern age. It carries the promise of a cultural renaissance and the return of a more radiant cultural experience.

The accelerated acculturation process occurring through the group dynamics of social media suggests a multicultural society of kindred spirits where everyone contributes to the common good -- but there is no panacea just over the horizon. Ethical choice reflects socialization in a changing world. The best we can hope for is a functioning democracy able to cope with the sea changes of the 21st century.