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The future of modernism in a postmodern world|
By Celena E. Kusch
The title of a recent address by Dr. Charles Altieri, professor of English at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley, posed the question: Can modernism have a future? It was an unusual tactic for a plenary speaker to take at a conference boldly called New Modernisms, but for the nearly 450 scholars and authors who attended the conference, that question is one they have faced for more than a decade.|
Held in October at Penn States Nittany Lion Inn, New Modernisms marked the inaugural event of the newly formed Modernist Studies Association (MSA), a scholarly organization committed to the future of research into modernism and designed to ensure that the thriving new group of modernist scholars in a variety of disciplines do not let their fields pay modernism a premature farewell.
While the theme of farewells seemed to haunt the conference, speakers soundly refuted arguments like T.J. Clarks in Farewell to an Idea, touting the end of modernism in the midst of postmodern realities. According to Altieri, modernism is still capable of reforming the new possibilities of art, literature and other forms of cultural production.
Perhaps part of this debate about the future of modernism stems from continued discussion about the definition of the field. During her plenary address at the conference, Dr. Rachel Blau duPlessis, professor of English at Temple University, described modernism as people struggling with works of art in response to social rubrics found as new, citing the 20th-century new woman and new racial awareness as examples. Dr. Gail McDonald, assistant professor of English at the University of North CarolinaGreensboro and member of the MSA founding committee, humorously turned to a modernist author for a definition. Citing Edith Whartons The Reef, McDonald repeated Madame de Chantelles description of the modern: I believe thats what its called when you read unsettling books and admire hideous pictures, she said.
In general, modernism refers to a variety of art movements of the period from the end of the 19th century to the end of World War II. Modernism includes visual artists like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamps, composers like Igor Stravinsky and Claude Dubussy and the dancers and choreographers who brought their music to life, literary modernists like T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes and Samuel Beckett, a host of filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and innumerable artists around the world. The modernist movement dominated international cultural, social and artistic developments for more than 50 years.
Having enjoyed such prominence for decades, interest in modernism began to wane and critiques of it proliferated as growing numbers of critics turned their attention to the postmodern.
New Modernisms plenary speaker Dr. Susan Stanford Friedman, professor of English and womens studies at the University of WisconsinMadison, explained: The landscapes of modernism have been remapped after all the literary revolutions in the last 30 years, as scholars rejected the short list of traditional modernists who dominated the cultural landscape for so long. With the recent resurgence in interest in modernist studies and the recognition of new modernists and new modernisms that include more diverse voices and larger circles of artists, Friedman believes this is an historic moment and an opportunity to jam the machinery of unexamined assumptions about who and what is modernist.
Responding to the calls of these leaders in revisionist modernism, the Modernist Studies Association is devoted to the study of the arts in their social, political, cultural and intellectual contexts and, according to its mission statement, aims to develop an international and interdisciplinary forum to promote exchange among scholars in this revitalized and rapidly changing field.
Dr. Mark Morrisson, assistant professor of English at Penn State and member of the group of scholars who founded the MSA, commented: While there are many groups and conferences that reflect the many disciplines interested in modernismsuch as art history, history, philosophy and literatureup until now, there has been no single group taking an interdisciplinary approach to the social, political, cultural and intellectual contexts of the arts in the modernist period.
If the number of distinguished scholars who attended the first conference is any indication, it seems many leading researchers and artists agree with Dr. Houston Baker, professor of English at Duke University, who called the MSA an association whose time has arrived.
Along with Morrisson and McDonald, the executive board of the Modernist Studies Association includes Dr. Michael Coyle, associate professor of English at Colgate University and chair of the MSA; Dr. Cassandra Laity, assistant professor of English at Drew University; and Dr. Sanford Schwartz, associate professor of English at Penn State.
Schwartz organized the MSAs first scholarly outreach initiative, serving as chair of the New Modernisms conference. The conference was sponsored by the College of the Liberal Arts, with the support of Penn State Continuing Education, the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, the College of Communications, the Commonwealth College, the Research and Graduate Studies Office of the College of the Liberal Arts, the Jewish Studies Program, the Womens Studies Program and the departments of African and African American Studies, Art History, Comparative Literature, English, French, German and Slavic Languages, History, Music, Philosophy, Speech Communications, and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Additional support came from the English departments of Colgate University and the University of North CarolinaGreensboro.
Crucial guidance and support also were provided by Penn States Dr. Jack Selzer, professor of English, Dr. Don Bialostosky, head of the Department of English, and English doctoral candidate Marianne Cotugno, associate conference coordinator.
According to Schwartz, the conference was a positive step toward redefining the field and making it more responsive to current teaching and research: One of the aims of the Modernist Studies Association is to establish an ongoing exchange among scholars whose interest in modernism cuts across the multitude of associations devoted to particular disciplines, specific national traditions or individual authors into which the study of modernism has been divided.
Like many other revisions of historical periods, current modernist studies movements show increased interest in issues of citizenship, social change and cultural economics, turning to those models of the past to understand problems that plague society today. As Dr. Kathryne Lindberg, associate professor of English at Wayne State University, said in her response to Baker, there is a growing emphasis on the need to ethically encounter modernism in scholarship, teaching and research.
Indicating the MSAs embrace of such new approaches, Schwartz added, The theme of the inaugural conference was designed to take into account the extensive changes that have been taking place in the study of modernism in the last decade: the expansion of the modernist canon, particularly in light of recent concerns with gender, race, region and ethnicity; the postmodern revaluation of modernism; the new interest in modernism, science and technology; the reassessment of the sociopolitical contexts of modernism; the impact of new editorial procedures; the economics and marketing of modernism; and new approaches to the relations between the various arts and sciences of the era.
In his welcome address to conference participants, President Graham Spanier praised such efforts, saying, I am aware of the significance of this event to those whose work falls under the heading of modernist studies, and I know that this is a time of new interest and rapid change in the field. Its really a privilege for Penn State to welcome so many scholars who are revitalizing the study of modernism in a variety of contexts and a wonderful opportunity for our University to be supportive of the new developments in the field.
Schwartz called the event the first conference in a series of flourishing things to come, adding that one mark of the conference is that panelists and seminar leaders are of the same high caliber as the plenary speakers themselves. In the conference meeting room, a table of books written by conference speakers and participants ran the length of two walls.
Despite its ability to attract numbers of established scholars, the conference stressed the importance of innovations and upcoming scholarship. According to McDonald, the planners attempted to look at new modernisms by innovating not just the content, but the form of the conference itself. The conference offered many opportunities for dialogues, seminars, small groups and discussions. Planners stressed the importance of these alternative formats in order to encourage the production of new publications through more extensive and productive intellectual exchange. In fact, the MSA has been approached by a number of presses and organizations to discuss opportunities to produce journals, edited collections, other possible publications and important cross-disciplinary exchanges. The value of both the association and its conference was recognized in a cover article in the Nov. 5, 1999, Chronicle of Higher Education.
The conference also served as a model of interactive outreach by including a number of activities that combined scholarship and the arts. Spanier praised the conference for making many of these events open to students and the public and extending the reach of this effort in a special way. Public events included:
Recognizing the impact of the conference in establishing momentum for the new organization, Schwartz said an annual MSA conference will be hosted by different universities each year, including a location outside the United States every few years, and MSA leaders are developing a Web site to announce new publications, meetings and other initiatives in the field.
An outreach program of the College of the Liberal Arts