Friday, August 22, 2008

Modern Meanings for Modern

Modern Art

When I write an essay in which chronology is important (The Life and Works of Professor X, etc.) I always find myself in a quandry over when to use the word "modern" and when to use the word "contemporary."

Both words have multiple meanings, and the funniest thing about these words is that both can refer to times long gone or to the present time. Let's ignore the Webster definitions. The scholarly definitions for these words come from art, from criticism, from philosophy, from historians.

"Contemporary" is the easier word to use correctly. Its use is still fairly close to how Webster would want us to use it. The scholars have let it be the word that the general popuation can continue to use when they mean "something that looks like it was made recently" or "something that is hip to the times." It also still retains its meaning of "a person who lived and worked at the same time as another person." This is how we usually find it in essays.

The first meaning I gave for "contemporary" becomes a problem however, when you start to talk about art or literature or any of those other subjects that have their critics and their words with Capital Letters (which may or may not have been accepted as words with no capitalization by now -- to further complicate things). "Contemporary art" is what a layperson would call art made today. A scholar has to find the right word -- is it postmodern? antimodern? It's certainly not "modern art," even though that is what many more lay persons would call it.

So we've arrived at the first accepted definition of "modern." Actually it's not that easy. If you call it "Modernism" you're talking about art and culture in the first half of the 20th Century. If you call it "Modernity" you're taking it all the way back to the 17th Century. The time period for "modern" varies from discipline to discipline, but we can say for simplicity's sake, that it's post-renaissance and it's not what's happening today.

Modern Chairs

There is no moving wall set up for "modern" however. It's not as if fifty years from now "modern" will be altered to include up to the 1990s. By then we were postmodern. "Modern" will always stop around 1950 for many. And it will never stop for others. So what do we do? Do we keep appending "post" every few decades until we're postpostpostpostmodern? We chose poorly when we chose "modern" as the name for any time period. Future historians will have to overhaul us.

Antimodern is one I just learned. Means what it sounds like it means. I like that in a word/movement/philosophy. But not everyone is keen on antimodern.

Do you ever look at the shelves of survey books on literature or philosophy? There are so many with the word "modern" in the title. I am never sure what I'll get when I pick one up.

(Early) Modern Philosopher

I looked up what the philosophers think is modern on Wiki (I have it on good authority that Wiki is 66.6% god. And the human part is always honest about its failings.):

They use a lot of ambigous terminology on purpose! They can't decide amongst themselves what "modern" really is. You'd think philosophers would be engaged in an ongoing 'lectic about the true meaning of "modern." I'm sure Modern is floating around up there somewhere with Plato's Beauty and Equal. We won't know the essence of "modern" until we love the right little boy.

While looking online for doctoral programs in literature that offer an emphasis in criticism, I had all but given up on one university -- until I discovered that all of their literary criticism and theory courses were under the heading "Modernism." It was not even a sub-department of English lit. They have their very own professors of Modernism.

I'm not going to go so far as to make up my own definitions for various prefixed and suffixed versions of "modern," but I have been doing some research to make sure I use the most appropriate form for any given subject or time period. And if a professor has a problem with that, I'm going to ask for an essay (with sources) from that professor on how to use the word "modern." Or at least to be directed to a handbook on it.

Perhaps I should contact the Modern Language Association? Maybe they'll know what to do about this mess.

Modern Language

1 comment:

  1. The title of your entry reminded me of a conversation I once had with my mentor about what constitutes art. Abstract seems to have become the new "modern" or "contemporary". Truthfully, I don't understand it.

    I have a day-by-day calender at home about the most common errors in English usage. It's by a guy named Paul Brians. I'm continually amazed by how complex our language is. For example, I haven't ever really thought about the differences between modern and contemporary. They're so closely related to each other that it's easy to forget they have different definitions.

    Webster definitions are quite dull. The real fascinating story behind words lies in their origins. I'm so glad you decided to do a blog about this topic.

    I feel quite the dunce. I had no idea that the word modern had so many different usages. If I'm understanding it correctly, modern is the more accurate phrase to use when discussing art.

    It is wonderful when words mean exactly what it sounds like they mean.

    I had a good laugh at your comment on Wiki. My brother is so addicted to that site. Half the time, I don't know whether or not to believe what he tells me because he's always siting that as his source.

    Now there's a whole field of study called Modernism? My head is spinning.

    Great post as always, one that's bound to stick with me for days.



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