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The Cultural World Of 1900
The Four Cultural Revolutions There is some debate, as there always is when a new century begins, whether the starting point for the twenty-first century will be technically 2000 or 2001. No matter: As in 1900 (or 1901 a new century brings with it the widespread assumption among ruling groups that the cultural pattern of the previous decades will continue unchallenged, and among radical observers outside the power elite, the perception that intellectual and artistic life is threatened with a great upheaval.
One hundred years ago holders of political place and wielders of great wealth were indeed aware of some economic clouds on the horizon. From 1873 to 1896 there had been a long and debilitating economic depression, affecting Western Europe and the United States and inevitably also societies on the periphery. At the beginning of the new century, various kinds of socialist movements and workers' organizations threatened the monopoly of power in the hands of the old aristocracy and the advancing industrial and financial magnates. Even the world's greatest empire, that of Britain, showed itself vulnerable when faced with the stubborn independence movement of Dutch farmers in South Africa during the miserable Boer War (1899-1902). Suppressed by Imperial Britain with much effort, expense, and embarrassment, the war portended the colonial powers' ongoing difficulty in countervailing national liberation movements. In the end the British pacified the Boers only by acceding to their demand for a legally mandated racially segregated society in South Africa, in which the indigenous black majority totallylacked political power. This official recognition of legalized racism was another dark forecast for the twentieth century.
The stability and peace of Europe were also threatened in 1900 by the increasing competition for hegemony among the great powers, signaled by armament buildups, squabbles over overseas colonies, and aggressive international postures.
Along with these visible signs of fissures in the power systems of lords, militarists, and capitalists, established in the nineteenth century, the beginning of the twentieth was also marked by the slow emergence in great cities of the cultural upheaval of modernism, which challenged the consciousness, mindset, and artistic imagination of the eighteen hundreds.
In 1899 the Viennese psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, found a publisher for his book The Interpretation of Dreams. Although it was actually released before the New Year of the new century, Freud persuaded his publisher to put a 1900 copyright date on the book because he thought it heralded a new way of understanding human behavior and consciousness. He was right: Freud's was a major voice of the modernist cultural revolution.
If twentieth-century cultural history has a unifying theme, it is that of modernism: the emergence of modernism, its impact in multiple areas as diverse as painting, philosophy, science, and anthropology, and how it evolved. And the foundations of this cultural revolution consist of what was happening in Europe around 1900 So critical was this development that we call the period in which we live the age of postmodernism because we are not quite certain what it is--or what else to call it. What we do know is that it follows on the modernist era, and that we are its legatees.
Exhibitions of the work of the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the painter Henri Matisse are examples of our persistent concern with modernism. Hardly a month goes by without a showing in a major American city of some form of modernist art. Cultural weeklies and quarterlies as well as university humanities departments devote much time and attention to modernist literature and its influence. Modernism in fact remains dominant in the publishing world, more than it probably does in the culture as a whole, continuing to have a major and not always fortunate influence on what is published in poetry and fiction. The physics and microbiology that are central to natural scientists are rooted in the modernist view of the world, and are inconceivable without it. Psychoanalysis, sociological research, and anthropological theory as taught in our universities are alike products of modernism. Modernism is one of the four great cultural revolutions in Western civilization since 1500. By "cultural revolution" is meant a great upheaval in consciousness, perception, value systems, and ideology that has affected the way we think of ourselves and our world, and that has had a seminal impact in literature, philosophy, religion, political theory, and the visual and performing arts.
The first of these cultural revolutions was the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which not only generated Protestantism but involved the reshaping of the Catholic Church as well. It produced the Calvinist ethos and the great manifestations of baroque art and music.
The Protestant reformers taught that all is dung and dross in comparison with Christ. Each individual is driven back on one fundamental fact of human existence, his or her relationship to God. The "works," or institutions, of the church pale into insignificance when confronted with this existential fact. The only redemptive force in human life was ultimately God's love of human beings, his creature. And the only liberty or righteousness of which human beings are capable flowed from faith in God. This was Martin Luther's Liberty of a Christian Man: "No external thing, by whatever name it may be called, can in any way conduce to Christian righteousness or liberty." Thus the Protestant Reformation, at the same time as it declared the awesome majesty and omnipotence of God, taught the incomparable dignity and privilege of the individual human conscience. No other civilization has so prized individual liberty and conscience. And this message has not entirely vanished in the twentieth century, even in the most adverse environments, in the gulag or Auschwitz.
The second legacy of the Reformation was John Calvin's doctrine, deriving from Jewish, early Christian, and medieval eschatological traditions, of the holy community. State and society should be controlled by the godly, by those who have demonstrated their reception of God's grace. Nineteenth-century liberalism, which drew heavily on Calvinist tradition, softened this doctrine into the belief that if good and idealistic men could only take over the reins of government, the problems of industrial society would be resolved. This assumption endures in the program of the Democratic Party, and the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The American Century. Copyright © by Norman F. Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.