The definition of “Modernism” is “to question.” It's really quite simple, and rather amazing where this question can lead us.
It started in the 14th century and was a reaction to the church and prevailing governments. Emerging from the population of followers were a few who dared to question the conventional belief systems of the day. This group of people became to be known as “Modernists” -- the first political activists.
Being a Modernists means you are asking questions about standard practices and belief systems. Instead of quietly following the scripts our culture hands you, you are seeking answers -- or perhaps a more personal definition. This is an important distinction from other movements. For example, whereas a Post-Modernists (those who “know” something) may say “God is Dead,” Modernists would ask, “Does God exist?”
Quite understandably, artists flocked to the spirit of Modernism and you can see all realms of creativity touched by its spirit over the centuries. Think about the painting of Jackson Pollack, the literature of Ezra Pound (“Make it new!,” he proclaimed), the food of Ferran Adria, the music of Phillip Glass. These artists did not recreate the past. Instead, they made history. Their works were acts of finding truth for themselves in the complacent bays of mainstream society.
The United States itself is an act of Modernism. Descended from those who left their homelands to create a new country that values free speech and the art of questioning, we Americans, by birth, are Modernists.
Living in Palm Springs, I am surrounded by Modernism. More specifically, Mid-century Modernism, a time period of this movement roughly between the years of 1948 -1962. Post WWII America. The Baby Boomer generation. The idealism and optimism of America literally rendered in architectural form. Architects flocked here to create a utopian society -- back when architects believed they could solve all of life’s problems with a sheet of glass and a 2x4.
When viewing the work of these architects, we step beyond simply admiring it for its aesthetic. Instead, one should ask what the architect was questioning -- and value the work on whether or not they achieved a satisfying conclusion.
The biggest misconception of Modernism is that it is an aesthetic -- that it has “a look.” When people walk through a Corbusier home, it is not uncommon to hear viewers exclaim, “But, it is just so cold. I couldn’t live that way!” The trained ear knows when they hear this that the viewer is not understanding the work. Corbusier was not fashioning a project that was meant for you to live in. He was creating art that challenged the definition of what living is: What does it mean to live?
The WORST bastardization of Modernism is adding “warmth” to it. “Warm-Modernism” is a word I hear rolled out a lot lately: A reaction to the all-white rooms people associate with the movement. It’s a genetic hybrid. A Frankenstein. Purely motivated on aesthetic and pleasing people. It doesn’t ask questions. It adds sugar to the medicine -- so much so that the medicine is lost and all you are left with is sugar. It is a confection that doesn’t ask questions. It is the fast-fashion of the design world, offering a superficial taste of a trend to the consumer without any of the integrity of the original. It’s an offense equal to neutering Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Modernism is a philosophy. The ingredients that the artists use to facilitate the exploration of an idea can vary -- by all means, it can be made up of stainless steel tubing and leather like a Breur chair, a piece that questioned whether “good” furniture needed to be handmade, showcasing the techniques of modern industrialization. Or it can include an age-old technique, as artist Hella Jongerius did with her exploration of “What is Delft?" by showcasing the Dutch blue and white handpainted pottery in new and innovative ways that more clearly allow us to see the ingredients that make up this iconic craft.
The movement of Modernism goes in waves. It generally rears its head in times of political repression, perhaps because the act of Modernism is an act of protest against social norms. It challenges the status quo by seeking truth.
I recently discovered myself as a Modernist. I moved to Palm Springs to learn from the archive of the Masters, to see if this movement was still alive … or if it could be awakened from it dormancy.
I live by the tenants of Modernism in my everyday life. I question the foods I eat, how can I make food more delicious, more healthful, more affordable, more earth-friendly, and more economic (both time-wise and financially). I ask these questions of all things in my life. My clothes. My furnishings. Hell, even my dish soap is an act of questioning in my home.
Through Modernism, I distill who I am and what I value. It is on display. Its narrative explains perhaps even better than I could who I am and what I believe. It is true authenticity.
When you look at my home, or the projects I create, it would be a shame to compliment them on the way they look. Instead, ask: “What is he questioning?"
The answer may surprise you.
Written by: Jon Call
Edited by: Melissa Rayworth