The days when one could sit down with an easy mind to write an account of something called "modernism" are over. One might have thought that the opposite would be the case since it has become common, over the past 25 years or so, for writers on culture to insist that this term labels a phenomenon of the past. At least in the restricted field of art history, the closure of "modernism," thus detached from the original reference to the chronological present, might have been expected to have given the concept definability as a stylistic term. But it has not. Earlier definitional orthodoxies, such as that embodied in Alfred Barr's famous diagram of the history of abstract art, or Clement Greenberg's various formulations, no longer have their former power. The complexity, incompleteness, and hesitation that mark a notable recent attempt at a conceptualization, T. J. Clark's Farewell to an Idea, 1 suggest that the purported end of modernism has if anything made the task more difficult.
If we agree, in the search for a plausible minimum definition, to apply the label "modernist" to art which orients itself self-consciously to the social-historical reality called "modernity," the source of the problem is clear: there is agreement neither on the limits or the content of the historical period referenced nor on what to take as the "orientation" of artistic practice to the wider field of social experience. As Raymond Williams put it,
Although modernism can be clearly identified as a distinctive movement, in its deliberate distance from and challenge to more traditional forms of art and thought, it is also strongly characterized by its internal diversity of methods and emphases: a restless and often directly competitive sequence of innovations, always more immediately recognized by what they are breaking from than by what, in any simple way, they are breaking towards. 2
1 T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
2 Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989), p. 43.