Modernism–A Working Definition??

Modernism is a cultural movement which rebelled against Victorian mores. As we have discussed in class, Victorian culture emphasized nationalism and cultural absolutism. Victorians placed humans over and outside of nature. They believed in a single way of looking at the world, and in absolute and clear-cut dichotomies between right and wrong, good and bad, and hero and villain. Further, they saw the world as being governed by God’s will, and that each person and thing in this world had a specific use. Finally, they saw the world as neatly divided between “civilized” and “savage” peoples. According to Victorians, the “civilized” were those from industrialized nations, cash-based economies, Protestant Christian traditions, and patriarchal societies; the “savage” were those from agrarian or hunter-gatherer tribes, barter-based economies, “pagan” or “totemistic” traditions, and matriarchal (or at least “unmanly” societies).

In contrast, Modernists rebelled against Victorian ideals. Blaming Victorianism for such evils as slavery, racism, and imperialism–and later for World War I–Modernists emphasized humanism over nationalism, and argued for cultural relativism. Modernists emphasized the ways in which humans were part of and responsible to nature. They argued for multiple ways of looking at the world, and blurred the Victorian dichotomies by presenting antiheroes, uncategorizable persons, and anti-art movements like Dada. Further, they challenged the idea that God played an active role in the world, which led them to challenge the Victorian assumption that there was meaning and purpose behind world events. Instead, Modernists argued that no thing or person was born for a specific use; instead, they found or made their own meaning in the world. Challenging the Victorian dichotomy between “civilized” and “savage,” Modernists reversed the values associated with each kind of culture. Modernists presented the Victorian “civilized” as greedy and warmongering (instead of being industrialized nations and cash-based economies), as hypocrites (rather than Christians), and as enemies of freedom and self-realization (instead of good patriarchs). Those that the Victorians had dismissed (and subjugated) as “savages” the Modernists saw as being the truly civilized–responsible users of their environments, unselfish and family-oriented, generous, creative, mystical and full of wonder, and egalitarian. These “savages,” post-WWI Modernists pointed out, did not kill millions with mustard gas, machine-guns, barbed wire, and genocidal starvation.


Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (The American Experience–Social Sciences), The Honors College of The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York, Fall Semester 1998. Send email to
Last modified: Friday 25 August 2000.

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