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Forget the flattery and consider the defining moment of Modernism

Everything has its defining moment these days.

Every week there is a defining moment in fashion; every month a literary prize; every year a car of the year. The whole process, including awards for new buildings, already exceeds the number of recipients available. Like Saddam Hussein's parliament, it ends up with more seats than candidates and every candidate sure of a seat. At one level all this may simply be the invisible hand of capitalism at work, creating employment for public relations firms, but one thing it certainly is not is history.

History is something you make, not something you save. If it does have defining moments they are not the product placements that our awards and commemorative plaques have become.

The Industrial Revolution is a good example. Historians agree that there was such a thing and that it utterly transformed Britain between the 18th and 20th centuries, but by no stretch of the imagination can 200 years be described as a 'defining moment'.

At most, it is a cautious generalisation. Not that it can be entirely dismissed for this reason - as we can easily see if we try to sharpen our focus on its component events and begin listing precise dates for the building of canals and railways, the launching of ocean liners and the completion of fireproof warehouses, as well as the erection of the Crystal Palace. In this sense, the more precise we get, the further from the truth we stray, until in the end we have to fall back on something like a non-momentous generalisation in order to be able to discuss the matter at all.

Does the problem of the defining moment disappear if we substitute a looser phrase like 'Modern Age' for 'Industrial Revolution'? To some extent it does, but mainly because it opens the floodgates to art history. As a result, the defining moment of Modernism has come to be hailed not only as the prefabrication of the Crystal Palace in 1851, but in the rear view of a house built in Vienna in 1912 and the arrival of non-representational art in the galleries of Paris.

It has also, of course, been identified with the 1903 flight of the Wright brothers'biplane; with the success of the first Benz automobile in 1886; with the appearance of the 32-knot Turbinia at the 1897 Spithead Review; with the deaths of Captain Scott and his companions in Antarctica in 1912; with the first successful flight across the North Atlantic by Alcock and Brown (which ended in a crash-landing in Ireland); with the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic from airport to airport by Charles Lindbergh in 1927;

with the explosion of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima in 1945; and most recently with the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001.

Setting aside the last two, which raise questions of another kind and should perhaps be excluded for being more PostModern than Modern, it now behoves me to produce my own contender for the defining moment of the Modern age. It comprises a single photograph of a man wearing a parachute descending from an airship over Roosevelt Field at the New York City end of Long Island. The airship in question is the R34, a British copy of a German Zeppelin, and the date is 6 July 1919. The parachutist is Major Pritchard, the first man to arrive in America by air, having boarded the airship four days earlier in Scotland.

To cross the Atlantic by airship and arrive in America by parachute! Surely nothing could be more futuristic, more functional, more poignant, more 'Modern' than that.

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