Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


At the turn of the 20th century, Western culture in general can be characterized as subscribing to optimistic rationalism, a faith in human achievement and steady progress. Recent inventions such as the railway, electric lighting, the airplane, the motorcar, and advances in communications, plumbing, hygiene, and medicine all promised a new century of peace and prosperity.

But also emerging were unsettling intellectual revolutions: Einstein's theory of relativity, and the Freudian notion that the civilized rational aspects of the human being serve as a mere shell to the volatile buried urges in the psyche. The arts in the late 1800s had been departing from their formerly assumed function as mirrors to Nature and growing more subjective.

In the nascent field of psychology, Freud placed the ego at the mercy of the id. The world was unstable, and it seemed that one colossal Idea, or, failing that, one well-placed bomb, could bring it tumbling down. There was an almost titillating sense of imminent catastrophe. (Ross 37)
World War I changed the world not just externally with the redrawing of European map; faith in humanity and civilization was also shaken by the "brutal impersonality of modern machine warfare" (Morgan 2). 20th-century artists took the Romantic notions of artistic creation as a separate unique endeavor and the artist as a creative individual culture hero several steps further into the realms of alienation and idiosyncrasy. But even though 20th-century arts can seem generally characterized by ambiguity, instability, disorder, angst, and alienation, they also reflect energetic and inspired experimentation and fearless innovation.

Works Consulted

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

20th-Century Index