American modernism like modernism in general is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation, and is thus in its essence both progressive and optimistic. American modernism is an artistic and cultural movement in the United States starting at the turn of the 20th century with its core period between World War I and World War II and continuing into the 21st century.
The idea that individual human beings can define themselves through their own inner resources and create their own vision of existence without help from family, fellow citizens, or tradition is a large trend. The general term covers many political, cultural and artistic movements rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
David Harvey’s definition of modernism, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity, is grounded in and evolves from Baudelaire’s essay, The Painter of Modern Life, as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one-half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable,”. He draws attention to the “paradoxical unity” in this definition; the American modernist movement expressed the short-lived and the unchanging aspects of a cultural and political upheaval from the late 19th to the better part of the 20th century. Most modernist works were publicized before 1914, which made it a pre-war movement; however, America along with the countries involved in world wars, modernism "needed the desperate convulsions of the great struggle, the crashing of regimes it precipitated, to give [it] the radical political dimension it had hitherto lacked." Within the context of America's involvement in two world wars, its economic depression, the rise of socialism and the threat of democratic capitalism, “intellectual and aesthetic” modernism presented a philosophy to break free from. In the 1960s, people grew “antagonistic to the oppressive qualities of scientifically grounded technical-bureaucratic rationality....”.
Modernism—in general—evolved from Enlightenment philosophies, yet rejected all historical reference. “Modernity”, writes Harvey, “can have no respect even for its own past...”, it must embrace a meaning collected and defined “within the maelstrom of change”. Enlightenment thinkers collectively gathered the individual efforts working “freely and creatively for the pursuit of human emancipation and the enrichment of daily life”. Early modernists married to the Enlightenment ideal—the progressiveness, the break with history, the embrace of the “transitory”, the “fleeting”, and the “maelstrom of change”—yet, with the lacuna of war, these optimistic views were abandoned.
Out of the vestiges of war-times, modernism became wary of the “relation between means and ends” as socialist governments began to take form. With ties to the rejection of history, modernists attached to the idea of “creative destruction”. In order to make something new, the old must be abandoned and/or dissembled. Much of this concept of “creative destruction” is mirrored in the cubist movement. The historical contexts of reality as a basis for idealism (as apparent in Enlightenment thinking), becomes a blurring of the lines and angles of reality, and the rejection of idealism. Modernists embraced machinery, language as a mechanism for communication, as the bastion of political and cultural rationality. From this evolved definition, “it meant that, for the first time in the history of modernism, artistic and cultural, as well as ‘progressive’ political revolt had to be directed at a powerful version of modernism itself”.