Fall 2014 – Weems Abstract

Does Modernism Remember? Can Anti-Modernism Forget?
Depolarizing the Past in Some 1930s Regionalist Manifestos
Jason Weems
Assistant Professor of Art History

University of California, Riverside

The question of the past has been central to formulation and critique of modernity. To proponents, history offered little more than a quagmire of intractable forms, means and ideologies to be overthrown in the service of progress and revolution. For skeptics, the past offered narratives and traditions that provided stability and comfort in the flux of tumult and change. During modernity’s productive phase, this polarity became inscribed at the fulcrum of modernizing activity. People embraced change or resisted it, saw the world anew or hewed to older visions, became agents of the future or conservators of tradition. Still today, this sense of antagonism endures as a central mythos of modernity and its so called opposite, anti-modernism.

Now as then, the modern/anti-modern construct is seductive for its clarity, urgency and (especially for modernists) its partisanship. What is less clear, however, is whether this model fully captures the overlapping, contradictory, and entangled understandings of the new versus the old shared by people in the negotiation of change. Looking at selected manifestos of 1930s American Regionalism—an artistic movement often taken to exemplify anti-modernist attitudes—this paper will explore the need to depolarize the place of the past in modernity. In doing so, it will also explore why such an antagonistic model came into being and continues to hold sway.

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