Conservative modernists, though, the so-called academic painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, believed they were doing their part to improve the world. In contrast to the progressive modernists, conservative modernists presented images that contained or reflected good conservative moral values, or served as examples of virtuous behaviour, or offered inspiring Christian sentiment. Generally, conservative modernists selected subject matter that showed examples of righteous conduct and noble sacrifice that was intended to serve as a model which all good citizens should aspire to emulate...
Others would argue that the rapid rise of industrial capitalism in the 18th century had turned man into a selfish, competitive animal whose inhumanity was increasingly apparent in the blighted landscape of the industrial revolution. Rousseau had glorified Nature, and a number of modernists idealized the country life. Thomas Jefferson lived in the country close to nature and desired that the United States be entirely a farming economy; he characterized cities as ‘ulcers on the body politic.’
The position taken by progressive modernism came to be referred to as the avant-garde (a military term meaning ‘advance-guard’). In contrast to the conservative modernists who looked to the past and tradition, the avant-garde artist consciously rejected tradition. Rather than existing as the most recent manifestation of a tradition stretching back into the past, the avant-garde artist saw him- or herself as standing at the beginning of a new tradition stretching, hopefully, into the future. The progressive modernist looked to the future while the conservative modernist looked to the past.
Art for Art’s Sake was a rallying cry, a call for art’s freedom from the demands that it possess meaning and purpose. From a progressive modernist’s point of view, it was a further exercise of freedom. It was also a ploy, another deliberate affront to bourgeois sensibility. In his book, The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies, published in 1890, the progressive modernist painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, proposed that ‘Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it.’
New approaches to form and content were also being explored in music and literature. The French composer Claude Debussy explored unconventional harmonies in short compositions such as Prélude à l'après–midi d'un faune (influenced by Stéphane Mallarmé’s Symbolist poem), first performed in 1894, in which emphasis is placed on musical sound and tonal quality. In 1912, Debussy’s piece was made the basis for a ballet choreographed and performed by the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes in Paris. The following year, Nijinsky choreographed and danced in the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, which, in its complex rhythmic structures and use of dissonance, together with Nijinsky’s radically unconventional choreography, shocked and scandalized both conservative critics and the public. The event, though, established the basis for developments of modernism in music.
As in the visual arts, music also became less ‘representational’ and evocative (that is, associated with real–world themes, events, places, people, objects, ideas, or emotions) and more abstract and expressive. The Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg pioneered atonality, in which music is composed without a tonal centre or key, and later, in the early 1920s, developed the dodecaphonic or twelve–tone technique of composition.
By this time, the supporters of progressive modernism had triumphed over the forces of conservative modernism. For the next fifty years, the ideals and practices of progressive modernism dominated European and American history.