Web Design Worldview (Part 2): Modernism Deconstructed
April 23rd, 2008 in Web Design Worldview
by: Matthew Griffin
In the , I introduced the what and why of worldview development in design. Now that we have a clear understanding of worldview and its elementary parts, we will move on to analyze three common worldviews. In this article we will be considering the modernist worldview—what it is, where it came from, and its practical consequences in design. The purpose of these critiques is to demystify the ideas we encounter every day in design. When we know how to extract worldview from high-sounding design philosophies, they lose their mystique. Our minds are then liberated to apply a holistic Christian worldview. After deconstructing modernism, we will move on to postmodernism, and then the common hybrid worldview.
What Is Modernism?
In its simplest form, modernism is a worldview that elevates human reason to the place of God. It proclaims objective truth in science alone and finds this truth immanent in every facet of existence. Sola physicum gloria, one might say. Modernism always starts with a materialistic explanation for humankind's origin. This is how it answers the first big worldview question—how did we get here? The answers to the second two questions (What went wrong? How do we fix it?) vary quite a bit from modernist to modernist. Fortunately, it's the answer to the first question that impacts this worldview the most. We will discuss that impact but first we need to take a look at the history of modernism—although I suppose "history of modernism" is somewhat of a contradiction.
The Origin of the Modernist Worldview
To understand modernism, we must start by looking back to the spirit of the 19th century. In the first half of the 19th century, the industrial revolution was mechanizing tasks that only humans had been able to perform up to that point. New scientific discoveries were rocking the foundation of our understanding of the world. Naturalism was on the rise. Rationalism was trouncing the ground that been cultivated by the renaissance and the romantic period. All these changes were the churning stew that became modernism. In 1845, the most influential writing of modern times cut the final chain holding modernism back and unleashed a flood on the world. I'm speaking, of course, of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Darwin proposed a feasible mechanism by which the origin of life could be explained without the need for an all-powerful God. The effect of Darwin's new theory rapidly spread to the major spheres of human life. Unified naturalistic philosophies were developed by philosophers such as Neitzsche and Rousseau. The core unit of civilization, the family, was reconsidered. Governments were realigned. In essence the whole world shifted gears. And, of course, design was was changed to match the modernist worldview.
Modernism Applied to Design
The modernist worldview inspired a number of important and lasting changes in design. Although principles of functional design had been developed in classical Greek and Roman cultures, the renaissance had focused almost exclusively on aesthetics. Modernism, with its mechanical view of he world, revived the definition of design as a functional discipline. Modernist graphic design movements began gradually stripping away the purely ornamental aspects of their designs to lay bare the functional essentials. Their perception of beauty was found in grids, in unity, and in mathematical symmetry. Piet Mondrian, possibly the greatest voice in early modernist design, once wrote that art would "disappear in proportion as life gains equilibrium". By this he meant that man's evolution would eventually render aesthetics obsolete.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1921, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London.
Black Square, 1915, Oil on Canvas, State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg
It's also interesting to note that the modernist worldview tended to have the same affect on design movements even when they developed in isolation. For example, the early Russian constructivist designers had no contact will their fellow modernists in the futurist and de Stijl movements, but similarities in their design styles are uncanny. That's not to say that worldview is the only factor in style development, but I think it illustrates that it can, in fact, affect it.
The height of modernist design occurred somewhere in the middle of its progression toward purity. As long as a vestige of transcendent beauty was left in modernist design movements, they did very well. But as they moved toward their ultimate conclusion in design, ironically, the design that was built on rationalism became less and less rational. I consider the point of modernist despair to be embodied in the work of Kasimir Malevich in which a pure black square on a white canvas is presented as the ultimate representation of design.
Today, there are very few pure modernist designers. But we still see the effect of their design philosophy everywhere we turn. Anytime we talk about grids, or symmetry, or white-space, or functional design we can thank the modernists for their contribution to our work. What the modernists taught us (unintentionally, I'm sure) is that there is real beauty in order. Their commitment to function and unity produced some very inspiring works. As Christians we have to be able to recognize these good qualities and separate them from the destructive worldview behind them. In the end, the problem with the modernist worldview is the same as the problem with most worldviews—you can't live it, not really. When you work it out thoroughly and apply it to every area of life, it doesn't work.
The Gaping Hole in Modernism
The modernist worldview ultimately fails because it denies basic aspects of humanity that have been embedded by God. A world in which utility, function, and unity are the only truths can be proposed in theory; but it doesn't work in reality. Humans were designed to enjoy and create beauty, to love and be loved, to appreciate diversity. When these integral parts of our being are written off as illusion, the utility and function that modernism elevates so high begins to break down. The transcendent concepts that modernism denies actually support the utility and function that it so loves (or prefers, I should say). This creates an irreparable break in the thought system of the modernist worldview.
Postmodernism to the Rescue
There was, of course, eventually a backlash against the utilitarian design of the modernists. It turns out, people don't like to live in concrete jungles and drab surroundings. In the wake of the revolt, postmodernism quickly moved in to fill the gap. It takes almost the exact opposite approach to design as modernism. Reviving the spirit of romanticism, it holds all truths as completely subjective—the product of individual taste. There is no overarching truth or meta-narrative. Postmodernism is the subject of the next part in this series.
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