Modernism and its Melting

 Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at least a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.

Paul De Man

Stella's Modern Show
Stella's Modern Show

We’ve met and passed that departure. Today we see that future, and it was then.

A trip to the Stella Modernism show yesterday convinced myself once again, as if I needed convincing, that I’m not a modernist. At one point in my life, I did believe in the notion of individuality, perhaps the greatest tenant of modernism, as supreme. With age, I have become a classicist of sorts; the goal should not be to begin the world anew with every artists hand, but to harness as much of the knowledge from the past as possible in order to see as far (and as accurately) into the future as possible.

Modernism, in the sense of the show, spans an entire century, and that century mark is what defines an antique. While most of the things in the show were less than 100 years old, it seems clear that “modernism” is not contemporary, and in this sense it is forever bound to a specific period of time.

I suppose that were I alive in 1929 or 1939, I might have been a modernist. Modernism, as a train of thought, depends on recreation, but as a design it concerns itself largely with things that move, whether at place or in space. The best modern items are not lamps, sofas or planters, but clocks, radios, telephones and trains. This is where modernism was most at home.

As I revisited modernism yesterday, it seemed so tired. The more I thought about it, the more firm was my conclusion that modernism is dead. It had to be. Items of a modernist design are being purchased for nostalgic reasons, taken home and put into spaces where they are mixed with designs of a traditional nature. More central to the psychology, however is the fact in its path of recreation, modernism would one day by necessity destroy itself. As Marshall Berman noted in All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, “Once the developer has cleared all the obstacles away, he himself is in the way, and he must go.”

Chrome Lawnmower, Offered by Barnard, New Hope, Pa
Chrome Lawnmower, Offered by Barnard, New Hope, Pa

Modernism had its time and place, it was needed for a “great leap forward,” dare I use those terms! Now technology and life is changing so fast, it’s more important that we find ways to keep rooted, lest we spin away in a whirl of technology. Technology that changes so rapidly, its forms–say in fancy Apple Computers, are only casing that gives the only possible form to technology that changes so fast form can’t follow. Moreover, the quest of our age is smarter, smaller and better– not big, new and fast. (Federal furniture seems smarter, smaller and better to me!) Things with those definitions will, in the near future, enter our lives in forms that look little different from those we are familiar with. Today, if modernism was still here, we could say that it is air.

Berman again: “Even in the most highly developed parts of the world, all individuals, groups and communities are under constant relentless pressure to reconstruct themselves; if they stop to rest, to be what they are, they will be swept away.”

And in conclusion, one from Lewis Carrol: “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is


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