The term Modernism applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the arts that emerged from the middle of the 19th century, as artists rebelled against traditional Historicism, and later through 20th century as the necessity of an individual rejecting previous tradition, and by creating individual, original techniques.
From the 1870s onward, the ideas that history and civilization were inherently progressive and that progress was always good came under increasing attack. Writers Wagner and Ibsen had been reviled for their own critiques of contemporary civilization and for their warnings that accelerating "progress" would lead to the creation of individuals detached from social values and isolated from their fellow men. Arguments arose that the values of the artist and those of society were not merely different, but that Society was antithetical to Progress, and could not move forward in its present form. Philosophers called into question the previous optimism. The work of Schopenhauer was labeled "pessimistic" for its idea of the "negation of the will", an idea that would be both rejected and incorporated by later thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche.
Two of the most significant thinkers of the period were, in biology, Charles Darwin, and in political science, Karl Marx. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined the religious certainty of the general public, and the sense of human uniqueness of the intelligentsia. The notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality. Karl Marx argued there were fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system-and that the workers were anything but free. Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would become decisive in establishing modernism.
Historians have suggested various dates as starting points for modernism. William Everdell has argued that modernism began with Richard Dedekind's division of the real number line in 1872 and Boltzmann's statistical thermodynamics in 1874. Clement Greenberg called Immanuel Kant "the first real Modernist", but also wrote, "What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century-and rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and perhaps with Flaubert, too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture)." At first, modernism was called the "avant-garde", and the term remained to describe movements which identify themselves as attempting to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo.
Separately, in the arts and letters, two ideas originating in France would have particular impact. The first was impressionism, a school of painting that initially focused on work done, not in studios, but outdoors (en plein air). impressionism paintings demonstrated that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. The school gathered adherents despite internal divisions among its leading practitioners, and became increasingly influential. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time, the government-sponsored Paris Salon, the Impressionists organized yearly group exhibitions in commercial venues during the 1870s and 1880s, timing them to coincide with the official Salon. A significant event of 1863 was the Salon des Refuses, created by Emperor Napoleon III to display all of the paintings rejected by the Paris Salon. While most were in standard styles, but by inferior artists, the work of Manet attracted tremendous attention, and opened commercial doors to the movement.
The second school was symbolism, marked by a belief that language is expressly symbolic in its nature and a portrayal of patriotism, and that poetry and writing should follow connections that the sheer sound and texture of the words create. The poet Stephane Mallarme would be of particular importance to what would occur afterwards. At the same time social, political, and economic forces were at work that would become the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and thinking. Chief among these was steam-powered industrialization, which produced buildings that combined art and engineering in new industrial materials such as cast iron to produce railroad bridges and glass-and-iron train sheds-or The Eiffel Tower, which broke all previous limitations on how tall man-made objects could be-and at the same time offered a radically different environment in urban life.
The miseries of industrial urbanism and the possibilities created by scientific examination of subjects brought changes that would shake a European civilization which had, until then, regarded itself as having a continuous and progressive line of development from the Renaissance. With the telegraph's harnessing of a new power, offering instant communication at a distance, the experience of time itself was altered.
Many modern disciplines (for example, physics, economics, and arts such as ballet and architecture) denote their pre-twentieth century forms as "classical." This distinction indicates the scope of the changes that occurred across a wide range of scientific and cultural pursuits during the period.