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in religion, a general movement in the late 19th and 20th cent. that tried to reconcile historical Christianity with the findings of modern science and philosophy. Modernism arose mainly from the application of modern critical methods to the study of the Bible and the history of dogma and resulted in less emphasis on historic dogma and creeds and in greater stress on the humanistic aspects of religion. Importance was placed upon the immanent rather than the transcendent nature of God. The movement as a whole was profoundly influenced by the pragmatism of William James, the intuitionism of Henri Bergson, and the philosophy of action of Maurice Blondel. Modernist ideas were accepted in all or in part by many of the Protestant denominations, but there was also a reaction against them in the movement called fundamentalismfundamentalism.
1 In Protestantism, religious movement that arose among conservative members of various Protestant denominations early in the 20th cent., with the object of maintaining traditional interpretations of the Bible and of the doctrines of the Christian faith in
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. In reformed Judaism, especially among Americans, there developed a modernist movement resembling Protestant modernism. Within the Roman Catholic Church there was a movement specifically referred to as Modernism; it was condemned as the "synthesis of all heresies" by Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi (1907). Among the leaders of Catholic Modernism were A. F. LoisyLoisy, Alfred Firmin
, 1857–1940, French theologian, biblical critic, and leading exponent of biblical modernism. He was ordained (1879) a Roman Catholic priest and was (1881–93) professor at the Catholic Institute in Paris.
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 in France and George Tyrrell in England. Vital to the Catholic movement were the adoption of the critical approach to the Bible, which was by that time accepted by most Protestant churches, and the rejection of the intellectualism of scholastic theology, with the corresponding subordination of doctrine to practice. Many modernists applied the pragmatic method to the sacraments, to dogma, and to prayer. They considered the sacraments to have no reality as a divinely ordained means of grace, but valuable only for their psychological effect. These tendencies led them naturally to deny the authority of the church and the traditional Christian conception of God; a decree declared the beliefs heretical, ending Roman Catholic Modernism.


See M. Rancheti, The Catholic Modernists (tr. 1969); B. M. Reardon, comp., Roman Catholic Modernism (1970); A. R. Vidler, A Variety of Catholic Modernists (1970); W. R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976); G. Daly, Transcendence and Immanence: A Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (1980).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


A term meaning “just now.” The Modern Movement exemplified a conscious attempt to find an architecture tailored to modern life, and one that made use of new materials. It rejected the concept of applied style and the use of any ornament. It used concrete, steel and glass to help evolve an architecture directly related to construction methods. Exterior and interior forms were conceived and expressed as a single entity.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


any cultural preference for ‘the modern’, for contemporary thought, style, etc., especially in architecture, music and art. In architecture, the modernism of Gropius and Le Corbusier was associated with the celebration of functionality and a belief in Man's ultimate ability to control his surroundings. In the arts more generally however, modernism has often been associated with a rejection of‘realist’ paradigms (e.g. surrealism). Featherstone (1988) summarizes the basic features of modernism in this sense as: ‘an aesthetic self-consciousness and reflexiveness; a rejection of narrative structure in favour of simultaneity and montage; an exploration of the paradoxical, ambiguous and uncertain open-ended nature of reality; and a rejection of the notion of an integrated personality in favour of an emphasis upon the destructured, dehumanized subject.’ According to Frederic JAMESON (1984), modernism in this general sense involves a break with the paradigm of‘representation’ in theoretical discourse and in art, and a break with the ‘realist’ configuration associated with liberal capitalism. See also MODERNITY, POSTMODERNITY AND POSTMODERNISM, DECONSTRUCTION.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the principal trend in bourgeois art of the era of decadence. The first sign of a decline in artistic culture in the more developed capitalist countries was the academic and salon repetition of earlier styles, especially the heritage of the Renaissance, which became a primer of forms. Imitation of this kind is noticeable in art of the middle and late 19th century. However, the impotent repetition of traditional forms gave way to a militant negation of tradition—a phenomenon analogous to contemporaneous trends in bourgeois politics and philosophy. Petit bourgeois morality yielded to decadent amoralism, and the aesthetics of bloodless ideals borrowed from the artistic culture of antiquity and the Renaissance gave way to the aesthetics of ugliness. The belief in the “eternal truths” of class civilization was replaced by the antithetical illusion of false consciousness—that is, by relativism, according to which there are as many truths as there are opinions, “experiences,” and “existential situations.” With regard to history, every era and culture has, from the relativist point of view, its own unique “soul,” “vision,” or collective dream and its own hermetic style, which is not connected with any other style by a common artistic development. All styles are considered intrinsically equal and of equal worth.

Historically, modernism was a product of the revolt against the high evaluation of classical periods, against beauty of form and realistic representation in art, and ultimately, against art itself. Abstract negation was the most common principle of the avant-garde. In the words of the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, one of the theoreticians of modernism, the new art “consisted wholly in the negation of the old.”

The modernist movement may be defined in various ways, but the existence of a boundary between the new view of the artist’s task and the traditional system of artistic creation is universally recognized. There are disputes only about when this fundamental change in outlook took place: in the 1860’s-1880’s, the period of French decadence, or later, in the cubist period (1907–14). Modernist literature considers this change the greatest “revolution in art.” Marxist literature, however, adopted a negative position toward modernism as early as the late 19th century, viewing it as a manifestation of the disintegration of bourgeois culture (P. Lafargue, F. Mehring, and G. V. Plekhanov).

This evaluation of modernism by early Marxists appears to be contradicted by two facts. First, even though their creative works had many morbid characteristics, the 19th-century founders of modernism were very gifted poets and artists, whose works strongly affected the minds and feelings of their contemporaries. This point is sufficiently demonstrated by the work of the poet C. Baudelaire and the painter Van Gogh. There is an enormous difference between their idiosyncratic art, which seems to dangle over a precipice, and the consequences inherent in the artistic possibilities that they opened. As absurd as they were, these consequences were, nonetheless, the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the principles adopted by these artists. Although each generation of the new breed of artists repudiated their predecessors, the dissolution of art on the soil of modernism proceeded inexorably. The value of the artistic works created by any modernist school is inversely proportional to its distance from the origin of this process of disintegration. Needless to say, in art decadence proceeds at an uneven pace.

In addition, the evaluation of modernism as a phenomenon of decadent bourgeois ideology seems at first glance to be contradicted by its antibourgeois tone. As early as the mid-19th century the first exhibitions of modernist innovations were dramatically anarchic. Modernist works provoked rage among cultural philistines, who considered them an obscene attack on the hearth and the home. The decadent poets and the founders of the new schools of painting were penniless rebels or, at least, lone outsiders, like F. Nietzsche, the most influential thinker of this current. But the relationship between art and the public changes from decade to decade, and the contemporary works of the modernist avant-garde have found a secure place in the everyday economic and cultural scene of capitalism. By the mid-20th century the huge system of speculation and advertising had subjugated the artistic life of the capitalist countries. Gambling on the emergence of the fashionable schools that constantly replace each other has become part of the general, feverish stream of modern capitalism. Barrages of advertising create false needs and artificial demands for social phantoms, the possession of which (often an entirely nominal possession, as, for example, the ownership of a trench dug by an artist of the “Earth works” school in the Nevada desert) becomes an emblem of wealth. Paradoxically, despite all this, the rebellious character of modernism grows stronger, as, for example, in the “antiart” movement of the 1960’s, which was associated with the “new left.” The crux of the matter is that contemporary bourgeois ideology cannot continue to dominate human minds unless the spiritual anarchism inherent in it is extensively developed as the opposite of the traditional system of social norms. The antibourgeois character of modernist schools is evidence of the crisis of the bourgeois system, but, as theoreticians of the avant-garde such as H. Marcuse concede, all rebelliousness in the arts is “integrated” by the ruling system without any particular difficulties.

Nevertheless, modernism is not simply the creation of capitalist economics and propaganda. It has deep roots in the social psychology of the era of imperialism. It is no accident that the first symptoms of the turn to modernism coincided with the beginning of the “era of revolution from above” (F. Engels)—that is, the Caesarism of Napoleon III and Bismarck. The fewer the opportunities for the free, self-directed activity of the people, the greater the mass energy that accumulates in a society without finding an outlet and the greater the demand for “relief and “compensation” in various forms. Although modern theories of aesthetics that explain the meaning of all art in terms of this demand are untenable, they are partly applicable to the modernist schools, in which the artist’s illusory freedom to break up reality in the name of his own creative will is, in fact, psychological “compensation” for the complete lack of will of the individual, who is crushed by the powerful forces of the capitalist economy and state, from which he is alienated.

The fate of art expresses a profound contradiction in modern bourgeois civilization: the dominance of an enormous mass of dead, abstract labor over the world of concrete consumer values and the qualitative different work of the people—work that is akin to the art of earlier periods. As the creative productivity typical of former times declines, the artist suffers more and more from an overload of dead knowledge of ready-made forms. This results in quests for something formally new, a morbid dread of repeating what has already been done, and an abstract cult of contemporaneity unknown in the previous history of art.

Modernism is a special psychological technique by means of which an artist strives to overcome the consequences of the ossification of culture by isolating himself within his own profession. He sees the chief meaning of artistic creation not in transforming the surrounding world in the name of a social ideal but in changing the means of depicting or “seeing” the world (for example, the “new optics” of the Goncourt brothers). “In the not-distant future, a well-painted carrot will effect a revolution,” says the artist Claude in Zola’s novel The Masterpiece. Thus begins a series of formal experiments by means of which the artist hopes to subject to his will the flood of deformed “contemporary life,” or, in cases where even this is impossible, to reconcile art with life by negating all the attributes of real being, including the possibility of any kind of representation of reality (abstract art) and the very function of art as a mirror of the world (pop art, op art, minimal art, and body art, for example). Consciousness abdicates, striving to plunge into the world of things, of unthinking matter.

This abdication is the source of two features of all modernist art: hypertrophy of the artist’s subjective will in the struggle against a hostile reality, and the fall of the ideal boundaries of the human subject under the pressure of the meaningless flow of things. Schools of modernism constantly vacillate between the extremes of rebellion and of restoration of the rigid “discipline” of their predecessors, between abstract innovation and a return to archaic tradition, between the irrational and the cult of dead rationalism. Continuous change in external symbols is inherent in modernism, but it would be a mistake to interpret this change exclusively as a search for new forms. Neither the deformation of reality nor a total refusal to depict reality in abstract art should be considered invariable traits of modernism, whose only constant feature is a frantic stream of reflection that refuses to stop as it continually replaces one model of “contemporary life” with another. The very same forms may be rejected as vulgar or considered the ultimate in refined taste. Even academic techniques and the precise representation of reality become symbols of modernist art, not when they are taken in their direct or usual sense but when they are interpreted as signs of the irony of the sick consciousness.

The schism between modernism and the “naive realism” of the majority of the people, the covert polemic of the artist against reality as reflected by the human eye, grows relentlessly. In modernist theory the reflection of life is considered an obsolete cliche. In modernist practice art loses its representational qualities and becomes a system of signs expressing only the artist’s viewpoint. These signs are supposed to bear as little resemblance as possible to any optical effect. Thus, in painting, which plays a leading role in the growing modernization of the arts, sand, cement, tar, and even real objects have become substitutes for paint. In modernist poetry the word has lost its importance as a screen on which spiritual content is projected and has acquired the value of a material fact—that is, the aural effect is all-important. The distinction between musical tones and everyday noise has been eliminated in modernist music.

The social role of the avant-garde grows despite the lack of artistic value of its creations. In its role as a safety valve, modernist art provides the stifled spiritual energy of society with an illusory outlet. The juxtaposition of the avant-garde with the “mass culture” of the majority works to the advantage of the ruling class in dividing the nation. The social demagoguery of the imperialist era is provided with bellows for fanning the hatred of the unenlightened masses for “egg-heads” who threaten the spiritual health of the people. Avant-gardism, which gives prominence to the negative, anarchic side of bourgeois consciousness, is two-sided—that is, it includes ultraleftist tendencies in the arts and philosophy, as well as “right-wing radicalism,” which leads to extreme reactionary tendencies and chauvinism (chernosotenstvo).

As a phenomenon of bourgeois ideology, modernism expresses primarily the moods of the petit bourgeois stratum, which is materially and spiritually oppressed. If disillusionment with capitalism leads the artist to participate in the struggle of the popular masses, then there is hope that his modernist prejudices will be conquered in the rising wave of democracy and socialism. However, anarchic rebelliousness alone never rises beyond the bourgeois horizon. For this reason, the feverish activity of the futurists and other avant-garde movements at the beginning of the Great October Socialist Revolution met with Lenin’s strong displeasure. He tried to force this stratum out of the educational institutions of Soviet power, replacing it with a higher level of the intelligentsia that had been no more than neutral only the day before. The announced intention of the modernists to toss the obsolete classics “overboard from the steamboat of modern life” in the name of the proletariat was condemned by the Leninist party and by the people’s deputies in the Soviets. A genuine cultural revolution has nothing in common with a movement for the destruction of the old culture and the creation of a modernist “anticulture.”

At the time of the October Revolution of 1917 memories of the high point of democratic realism in Russia were still vivid. In contemporary capitalist countries the consciousness of the artist and of his public is under pressure from a firmly established economic and cultural system hostile to realism. Thus, the struggle for realistic art, which is associated with progressive social forces, is especially complicated. However, the existence of modernist prejudices in the consciousness of the artistic intelligentsia is not an obstacle to political alliance with the artistic intelligentsia. Modernist art must not be classified as “good” or “bad,” but artists can be differentiated according to their political sympathies and the presence in their work of a genuine striving to reject formalistic “revolutions in art.” It is important to understand that participation in such “revolutions” does not bring the artist closer to the people’s movement but moves him farther from it. Such an understanding is the decisive difference between Marxist aesthetics and R. Garaudy’s brand of revisionist “20th-century Marxism.” The firmest alliance between the artistic intelligentsia and the people, which is crucial for the victory of democratic culture throughout the world, can be achieved only under the banner of socialist realism.


Lenin, V. I. O literature i iskusstve [collection], 3rd ed. Moscow, 1967.
Plekhanov, G. V. Soch., vol. 14. Moscow [no date].
Lunacharskii, A. V. Ob izobrazitel’nom iskusstve, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1967.
Modernizm: Analiz i kritika osnovnykh napravlenii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1973.
Theories of Modern Art. Edited by H. B. Chipp. Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1970.




a trend in Catholicism that arose at the turn of the 20th century. The proponents of modernism, who diverge from the position of the church on a number of questions, criticized certain aspects of the doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church and advanced a system of views directed at adapting Catholic doctrines to modern social conditions and the contemporary level of science. The most prominent representatives of modernism have included A. Loisy, L. Duchesne, and M. Blondel in France; H. Schell in Germany; G. Tyrrell in Great Britain; and R. Murri and A. Fogazzaro in Italy.

The basic tenets of modernism are that religion is created by man; the Bible is not a god-inspired book; Christ was not the son of god but a Jewish messiah and the founder of a religious movement; the eternal essence of Christian dogmas should be differentiated from the concrete historical form of their manifestation, which depends upon the development of society; the church should reject the most primitive superstitions, such as belief in miracles, the Devil, and suffering beyond the grave (but at the same time, of course, modernism did not reject belief in the supernatural). Some representatives of modernism, such as Loisy, rejected the dogma of the infallibility and supreme authority of the pope.

In 1907 the Vatican condemned modernism as a “synthesis of all the heresies” in a decree by Pius X entitled Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi. The most prominent modernists were excommunicated from the church, and their works were included on the Index of Forbidden Books. In 1910 the Vatican introduced an antimodernist oath for persons being ordained into any clerical rank, professors at Catholic theological institutions, those serving in episcopal courts, and others.

Having condemned modernism, the Catholic Church was itself faced in time with the necessity of recognizing changing world conditions, the evolution of the consciousness of the broad masses of believers, and the advances of science and social progress. Questions of “renewal” were the center of attention at Vatican Council II (1962–65), which gave impetus to the further modernization of the church.

Currents analogous to Catholic modernism have also become widespread (especially since World War II) in other religions, including Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam. With the aim of reinforcing the severely undermined position of religion, their proponents demand the “renewal” of the dogma, worship, structure, and practice of the churches.


Le Roy, E. Dogmat i kritika. [Moscow] 1915. (Translated from French.)
Kerenskii, V. Rimsko-katolicheskii modernizm. Kharkov, 1911.
Sheinman, M. M. “Modernizm i modernizatsiia v katolitsizme.” In Ezhegodnik Muzeia istorii religii i ateizma, Moscow-Leningrad, 1958, vol. 2.
Belen’kii, M. ludaizm. Moscow, 1966.
Velikovich, L. Krizis sovremennogo katolitsizma. Moscow, 1967.
Mchedlov, M. Evoliutsiia sovremennogo katolitsizma. Moscow, 1967.
Babosov, E. Nauchno-tekhnicheskaia revoliutsiia i modernizatsiia katolitsizma. Minsk, 1971.
Kurochkin, P. Evoliutsiia sovremennogo russkogo pravoslaviia. Moscow, 1971.
Ashirov, N. Evoliutsiia islama v SSSR. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a 20th-century divergence in the arts from previous traditions, esp in architecture
2. RC Church the movement at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries that sought to adapt doctrine to the supposed requirements of modern thought
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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