The twentieth century has focused its artistic attention on progressive modernism, to the extent that conservative modernism has been neglected and, indeed, derided as an art form. The so-called academic painters of the nineteenth century believed themselves to be doing their part to improve the world in presenting images that contain or reflect good conservative moral values, examples of virtuous behavior, of inspiring Christian sentiment, tnd of the sort of righteous conduct and noble sacrifice that would serve as an appropriate model toward which we should all aspire to emulate.
The new world order reflected in academic modernism was seen by the progressives as merely supportive of the status quo and offered a future that was little more than a perpetuation of the present. The conservatives wished to maintain existing institutions and preferred gradual development over radical change. The progressives, on the other hand, were critical of institutions, both political and religious, as restrictive of individual liberty. Progressives placed their faith in the goodness of mankind, a goodness which they believed, starting with Rousseau in the eighteenth century, had become corrupted by such things as the growth of cities.
Others would argue that man had been turned into a vicious, competitive animal by capitalism, the corrosive inhumanity of which was plain to see in the blighted landscape of the industrial revolution. Rousseau had glorified Nature, and a number of modernists idealized the country life.
In contrast to conservative modernism, which remained fettered to old ideas and which tended to support the status quo, progressive modernism adopted an antagonistic position towards society and its established institutions. In one way or another it challenged all authority in the name of freedom and, intentionally or not, affronted conservative bourgeois values.
Generally speaking, progressive modernism tended to concern itself with political and social issues, addressing aspects of contemporary society, especially in its poorer ranks, that an increasingly complacent middle class, once they had achieved a satisfactory level of comfort for themselves, preferred to ignore. Through their art, oil paintings that showed directly or indirectly the plight of the peasants, the exploitation of the poor, prostitution, and so on, the progressives repeatedly drew attention to the political and serial ills of contemporary society, conditions they felt needed to be addressed and corrected. Fundamentally, the intention was to educate the public, to keep alive in the face of conservative forces the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality through which the world would be made a better place.
The position taken by progressive modernism came to be referred to as the avant-garde. In contrast to the conservative modernists who looked to the past and tradition, the avant-garde artist consciously rejected tradition. Rather than existing as the most recent manifestation of a tradition stretching back into the past, the avant-garde artist saw him or herself as standing at the head of a new tradition stretching, hopefully, into the future. The progressive modernist looked to the future while the conservative modernist looked to the past.
The rejection of the past became imperative for the progressives with the advent of the World War which signaled for them the catastrophic failure of tradition. The senseless, mechanized carnage of the “Great War” starkly showed that modernism’s faith in scientific and technological progress as the path to a better world was patently wrong. For the Dadaists, World War One also signaled the failure of all modernist art. It could be claimed that Dada in fact marks the emergence of a post-modernist cast of mind.
Today, we would characterize progressive modernism, the avant-garde, as left-leaning and liberal in its support of freedom of expression and demands of equality. Since the eighteenth century, the modernist belief in the freedom of expression has manifested itself in art through claims to freedom of choice in subject matter and to freedom of choice. It was in the exercise of these rights that the artist constantly drew attention to the goals of progressive modernism in Landscape Art.