What is the questionnaire?

“What is modernism? What should Latin American art be? What is your attitude towards art today?” Such are the questions posed to artists and writers through the questionnaire, a ubiquitous genre issued by magazine editors to their contributors to assess a community’s shared political or artistic purpose.

While the questionnaire can be traced to the paragone of the Italian Renaissance, wherein the merits painting and sculpture were actively debated, it first appeared in newspapers starting in the late 19th century. While some of these questionnaires focused on aesthetic preoccupations, such as the 1905 Mercure de France questions, “Is Impressionism finished? Can it renew itself?” others mined the intersection of art and politics, like the 1926 “Negro in Art” questionnaire in Crisis. As modernists adapted the questionnaire to suit its various projects, it also playfully reinvented it, as in the case of the 1929 Little Review questionnaire that culminated with the question “Why do you go on living?”

Because modernist magazines enabled communities to form across geographic and cultural boundaries, they also generated anxiety about a group’s shared purpose. While the manifesto is prescriptive, the survey is often retroactive; the two serve as bookends for an editorial project or print community. Questionnaires functioned as transnational communities’ print proxies, revealing both the individual and collective concerns and reinforcing their alliances. Such a means of self-assessment persists, as evidenced by October’s 2009 questionnaire on contemporary art.

As I continue to work towards theorizing the genre, I am also creating an index of all the questionnaires I can find and would love your input!

-Lori Cole

8 responses to “What is the questionnaire?

  1. Lori–Q. D. Leavis sent a questionnaire to a lot of novelists and wrote about the results in Fiction and the reading Public.

    (I think this is a very interesting topic, by the way.)

  2. Thanks, Bob! I’ll check out the reference and keep you updated on the project as it progresses.

  3. As I recall, she never prints all the responses but summarizes and quotes from them to support her case against popular fiction. But her papers must be somewhere (Cambridge?) and this material might be among them.

  4. Lori,
    Two questionnaires strewn afar:

    The first is Marx’s Workers’ Questionnaire from 1880, esp given the connections between manifesto and avant-garde that Janet Lyon and to a lesser degree Martin Puchner make.

    The other is only kind of one, not fully. It’s on the very first page on Modernism and its Margins, eds. Geist and Monleón (1999?). It’s from a Valencian mag Taula de Lletres, talking about another mag Hélices, asking whether the avant-garde can be provincial.


    • Gayle,

      These are so helpful! I’ll track down the one that mentions Hélices, a magazine I’ve come across. My list of questionnaires is really coming along!



  5. Etienne Blue Lambert

    I was in David Earle’s periodical studies class this Fall and I used a questionnaire from the magazine I chose to study during one of my presentations. David suggested that I ask if you would be interested in taking a look at it. I find it interesting with regard to your post because the questionnaire is set up in such a way that each question’s answer is the content of an article in the magazine. Although it is a science/technical magazine, there seems to be a type of anxiety about not being up to speed on the latest scientific and, more specifically, technological developments of the time. Additionally, there is most definitely a reinforcement of and support for a nerd alliance of sorts because the magazine runs sci-fi serializations that basically amount to a story that is written to present a dilemma-solving gadget or show how the inventor can overcome evil with one of his ingenious creations. In the back of my head I have been trying to reconcile the ways in which science, technology, and sci-fi overlap with modernism since there is an overlap in some of their preoccupations so I am glad David pointed me toward your post because it has given me a different way to think about some of what is going on in my magazine.


    • Etienne,

      Yes, I would love to know more about this questionnaire, particularly since my own research has directed me towards more traditional political/aesthetic questions. This one really demonstrates the popularity and reach of the genre.

      I apologize for my delayed response, but I would love more information if you have it, and would be happy to suggest more research on the magazine as a community-building enterprise (which certainly includes techies).

      Good luck with your research,


  6. Pingback: MagMods Questionnaire 3 | Magazine Modernisms

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