The modernist culture of the 1920s broke with the Victorian culture of the previous generations. World War I did not start the modernist culture but it did intensify it, and the modernist culture was spurred by an overwhelming pessimism in high culture. Modern culture was influenced primarily by five individuals: Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Dewey, and Marx.
Darwin’s theory of evolution rocked the Victorian world of science. Creation was replaced by evolution in the public schools. Freud’s psychology questioned the core virtues and beliefs about what causes man’s actions, and his theories survived until 1939 because elite writers embraced Freud in their literature.
Einstein’s physics changed the way people thought about the universe, but unlike Darwin, Einstein’s ideas were accepted by the general populous because everything he discovered was proven true. He was also more deferential to religion than Freud was. Even though Einstein proved the theory of relativity as applied to time, he argued that people should not start applying relativity to morality and life in general.
Dewey’s philosophy of modern education revolutionized the schools because he did not believe in studying the classics or western subjects. Instead, he believed that education was about experience and learning by doing. Marx’s philosophy of communism was adapted in part by the socialist party in America. His ideas influenced the elites in universities, literature, and popular culture.
Modernist culture also affected anthropology, literature, art, and music. In anthropology, Marguerite Mead of Samoa argued for cultural relativity: people should not judge between different cultures. She tried desperately to change the idea about race in the early nineteenth century. In literature, Faulkner’s novels were disjointed and skipped from character to character. Art was revolutionized by Picasso’s abstract focus on shapes and colors. Finally, the music of the modernist era contained lots of dissonance because musicians wanted to explore the structure of music and sound itself. All of these elements created a complete break in society from the rigid structure of the previous Victorian values.
– Hannah S. Bowers