RA Forum Debate with Charles Jencks: Critical Modernism
26 March 2007
Reynolds Room; 6.30–8pm; £7/£4* (includes a drink)
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Leading architectural critic and theorist Charles Jencks, and John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, on Jencks’ newly published book Critical Modernism – where is post-modernism going?
This event offers the first public debate on this important book published by Wiley-Academy, which defines new directions not only in art and architecture but also in global culture, society, science and politics.
CRITICAL MODERNISM – where is post-modernism going?
After developing for thirty years as a movement in the arts, after being disputed and celebrated, Post-Modernism has become an integral part of the cultural landscape. Charles Jencks, the first to write a book defining the subject, argues that the movement is one more reaction from within modernism critical of its shortcomings. The unintended consequences of modernisation, such as the destruction of cities and global warming, are typical issues motivating Critical Modernism today. In a unique analysis, using many explanatory diagrams and graphs, he reveals the evolutionary, social and economic forces of this new stage of global civilisation. Critical Modernism emerges at two different levels. First, as an underground movement, it is the notion that there are many modernisms (not a single style or ideology). As far as the critical side is concerned, they react to two very different things: their own internal problems and the outside world as they find it, today globalisation and the terrorist debacle. In the arts it means looking critically at both the content and formal languages of creation, simultaneously, and it shares with Critical Theory the idea of exposing ideologies in order to enhance freedom, both of the group and individual. As far as the modernism side is concerned there is the usual commitment to progress, competition, and the romantic urge to overcome the previous generation. This results in a curious continuity and break, the swerve and the concealed repetition. Second, when these movements follow each other in quick succession, as they do today, they may reach a ‘critical mass,’ a Modernism2, and become a conscious tradition. After two hundred years of one modernism replacing another, this might result in a more reflexive movement, one mature enough to reflect on its own dark side while celebrating creativity, a tradition come of age.
Modernisms: The key polemics
I 3rd-5th century – Modernus. Early Christians proclaim their ethical progress over paganism.
II 1450-1600 – Moderna. Renaissance usage by Filarete and Vasari on the superiority of the classical rebirth, distinguishing the ‘good’ revival (buona maniera moderna) from the ‘bad’ contemporary Gothic.
III 1600-1850 – Battle of the Ancients and Moderns. Again ‘modern’ means improvement over the ancient, invention within the classical tradition. The famous “Quarrel” within the French Academy starts in the 1690s and lasts 200 years, while the British contrast progressive classicism with Gothic.
IV 1755 – Modernism as fashionable rubbish. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defines ‘Modernism: Deviation from the ancient and classical manner….Modern: in Shakespeare. Vulgar, mean, common. “We have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless.”
V 1900 – Modernism. a Roman Catholic movement examining tradition that was officially condemned in 1907 by Pope Pius X for atheism and having an exaggerated love of what is modern.
VI 1914-30 – Modern Movement. In literature the free verse, stream of consciousness and experiments by Pound, Eliot, Joyce and Woolf; in design the technical and social progressivism of those practicing the International Style; in the arts the isms stem from Baudelaire and include Dada and Surrealism.
VII 1930-50 – Reactionary Modernism. The movements led by Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and Stalin that accepted the modern notion of the zeitgeist and a progressive technology and mass production.
VIII 1960s – Late Modernism tied to Late Capitalism. The proliferation of formalist movements, such as Op and Conceptual Art, and the exaggeration of abstract experiments in a Minimalist direction eschewing content. John Cage in music, Norman Foster in architecture, Frank Stella in painting, Clement Greenberg in art theory, Samuel Beckett in literature, and the Pax Americana in politics.
IX 1970s – Post-Modernism. Stemming from the counter culture, was the double-coding of modernism with other languages to communicate with a local or wide audience. In literature, John Barth and Umberto Eco, in urbanism and architecture, Jane Jacobs and James Stirling, in the arts, Pop Art, Land Art and the content-driven work of Ron Kitaj, Mark Tansey and Damien Hirst.
X 2000 – Critical Modernism. Refers both to the continuous dialectic between modernisms as they criticize each other and to the way the compression of many modernisms forces a self-conscious criticality, a Modernism2. Skeptical of its own dark sides, yet celebrating creativity, it finds expression in cities such as Berlin that have come of age under opposite versions of modernity.
NB. Prefix-Modernisms, emerging in the last hundred years, contest a single, monolithic modernism
Preface: A Refolution in Five Parts from Critical Modernism – Where is Post-modernism Going? by Charles Jencks (124 KB)