The Culture of the 1920's

Although in politics and economics the 1920's were predominantly years of conservatism and caution, in cultural life, these years were marked by bold innovation. In this decade, the "modern temper" finally triumphed, altering the character of science and the arts for a full generation. Yet the change was far from uniform. In each cultural area, words like modern or contemporary carried very different meanings. In physics, they meant relatively, plural explanations, and indeterminacy; in social thought, they suggested both a cult of the irrational and a meticulous concern for precise meanings; in literature, they conveyed the triumph of symbolic forms of expression; in the line arts and music, they signified a revolt against sentimentality and an inclination toward sharp tones and hard outlines. But in every instance, twentieth-century styles had a common scorn toward the preceding century: the cultural innovators rejected the lessons of their grandfathers and self-consciously chose new idioms of expression.

Toward the generation of their fathers, however, they frequently showed more respect. Actually, the cultural innovations of the 1920's were not as startling as they seemed to the contemporary public. Many--perhaps most--of them were the logical outgrowths of changes that had occurred a generation earlier. The twentieth-century revolution in physics had its origins in the 1890's, as did Freud's theory of psychoanalysis and Sch"nberg's twelve-tone scale. Indeed, in the last two instances, the innovators themselves found in the 1920's the wider audience that they had earlier been unable to reach. Such experiences were common in the immediate postwar years: ideas or modes of expression that before the war had appeared to be revolutionary or impossibly difficult now began to attract the attention and to win the allegiance of the general educated public.

The war itself, of course, contributed to this increased receptiveness to cultural novelty. The social and psychological shocks that four years of struggle had inflicted disturbed established patterns of thought and expression and prepared men's minds for new ways of looking at the universe. Again and again in the postwar years, men asserted that Europe's traditional culture had failed--that the leisurely cultural traditions of the European upper bourgeoisie no longer sufficed to express the new realities of life--that something sharper and more vital must be created to take its place. The result was a cultural and scientific outpouring of a richness that no other single decade in the century can match.

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