STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
25 Science and Culture
History cannot be studied in a vacuum. The twentieth century will be remembered as a century of wars—world wars, civil wars, wars of independence, and imperialism. It may also be called “the century of arts and letters,” given the vast production of both, often in reaction to the chaos and flux of the world. What is especially interesting, moreover, is the role of scientific and technological advances, and of the interactions between culture and science.
World War I (1914—1918) saw the last use of the cavalry and the first use of tanks, mustard gas, airplanes (though mainly for reconnaissance), and water-cooled machine guns. In a sense, it used modern technology to perfect impersonal and efficient killing, changing the nature of warfare forever. World War I redefined the map of Europe and left a “lost generation” of disillusioned and cynical people. The Spanish Civil War (1936—1939), a “dress rehearsal” for World War II, served as a testing ground for saturation bombing. World War II (1939—1945) used new technologies to destroy a generation of German and Russian men, and much of European Jewry. World War II displaced vast numbers of people and weakened societal hierarchies.
Wars for independence from imperial overlords—in Indochina, Algeria, and other emerging nations in Asia and Africa—occupied much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Wars during the twentieth century, however, produced remarkable cultural responses, changed gender roles across the board, and refined industry so that in peacetime its mass production capabilities coupled with the rise of advertising created a consumerist society.
Just as the development of the moveable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the early Renaissance (about 1450) contributed to the spread of literacy, education, and humanistic thought, and eventually to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the creation of mass media (radio, television, computers, the Internet) and mass transport (the automobile, airplanes) led to irreversible globalization. Nowhere were continuity, causes and effects, connections, and synergy between arts and sciences more visible than during the twentieth century.
Culture and science are, above all, cumulative, with the whole frequently being greater than the sum of the parts. Purpose helps to determine this synergy. From earliest times, for example, art had a purpose: It progressed from being ritualistic or being used to keep records of events to becoming decorative as well. All these elements came together during the Classical era, when art also served propagandistic and political goals. Monumental architecture and art became ever more prevalent, and they reflected the ideals of an era. During the Middle Ages, artwork was often instructional—used to educate a primarily illiterate populace. With the Renaissance focus on humanism, art became realistic and the purview of not just the upper classes, but of a growing middle class. The content of painting, for example, shifted from large-scale religious, mythological, and historical images to smaller scenes of still-life, portraits, and people involved in everyday activities.
While there is evidence of decorative artwork (specifically, of jewelry) during nomadic prehistory, it would take settlement, the result of, among other things, the Agricultural Revolution in the Neolithic and following periods, to witness permanent decorative arts, made for dwellings and ritualistic or religious sites. Settlement itself gave rise to specialization and division of labor; that is, it promoted the production of surplus goods, like foodstuffs. Surplus food meant that not everyone in a community had to participate in the production of food; they could follow a different path. This allowed the development of an artistic “class,” supported by farming and governing classes.
The use of various metals, particularly of bronze, gave rise to better weaponry and permanent art. Roman discovery of concrete led to durable architecture. By medieval times, art had become both dulce et utile (“pleasing and instructive,” a phrase Horace coined to describe literature). During this period, the performing arts—almost entirely under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church—served to entertain and educate. Due to the advances in mathematics and engineering, the intertwining of art, philosophy, religion, and science let churches evolve into beautiful, colorful, tall, Gothic structures, which were aimed at showing that contemplation of beauty led to contemplation of the divine.
In addition, Renaissance advances in mathematics; patronage from the upper classes, the church, and the merchant class; and the use of new techniques (linear perspective, for example) made possible the creation of realistic artwork. Art and performing arts became accessible to larger numbers of people through the creation of public theaters and museums, and the use of professional actors.
By the twentieth century, advances in science inspired artists to not just use everything that had developed in the preceding millennia, but to go beyond traditional techniques and purposes, and to use them in new ways and for new ends. Perhaps most famous is the impact of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on art. The ideas of all points of view being possible, of a four-dimensional space-time continuum, and of “modernism” as recasting our view of reality led to radical interpretations by artists. In a world in which war became “normal,” artists used art to express politics. Artists objected to growing nationalism and imperialism, most notably in the works of Expressionists (Henri Matisse) and Cubists (Pablo Picasso), and in Futurist and Bauhaus architecture. The opposite also occurred. Art was used to express pro-war politics, in the form of the propagandistic art that supported World War I and World War II war efforts. In the second half of the twentieth century, art, especially that of Pop Culture, set about to portray human existence, both cynically and realistically.
How does one “read” a work of art? What is the medium, and how does it reflect scientific innovations? What subject or theme is represented, and what is its historical, social, religious, or political significance? How does a work of art reflect the culture or philosophy of the era in which it was produced? What recognizable symbols, stereotypes, or archetypes are present in a work? What is the artist’s purpose? Is it:
• to produce a realistic image?
• to record a historical event?
• to make use of new techniques that might well reflect scientific theories?
• to serve as propaganda or satire?
• to express feelings about social or political issues?
To understand literature in the twentieth century, it is useful to look at the development of the novel. The Renaissance, with its considered human center, allowed for realistic narrative, using characters taken from the real, or contemporary, world. It was written in prose and in the vernacular. In short, it was accessible. By the 1700s and into the late 1800s, the historical novel dominated the literary landscape; it portrayed characters realistically and began to have protagonists who were not royalty. Novelists began to take a moral stance; authors like Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James contended that novelists could construct an entire civilization, but needed to do so with an eye to demonstrating a sense of justice and commitment.
As the twentieth century unfolded, authors like Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Luigi Pirandello, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce continued to feel a sense of commitment (Joyce added a sense of alienation and absurdity)—often combining traits of the historical novel with their personal perceptions of the world about them. Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, wrote: “In 1914 in the background of one’s life and one’s mind there were light and hope; by 1918 one had unconsciously accepted a perpetual public menace and darkness and had admitted into the privacy of one’s mind or soul an iron fatalistic acquiescence in insecurity and barbarism.” There is a vast war literature that clearly shows this climate of opinion. (Perhaps the most famous work of this nature is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.)
The twentieth-century novel, in general, took on a pessimistic, dramatic narrative tone and was notably self-centered. Following World War I and II, however, novelists began to demonstrate a sense of social obligation and a belief in the power of the individual to effect change. Once again, art-as-politics became the norm. As a result, literature became a means to express the ideas and ideals of various movements: feminism, equal rights, independence from colonial or imperial powers, and pacifism, for example.
The value and use of fiction as a historical resource is much debated among historians. Deciphering an author’s purpose, intent, and even ideology is important in evaluating works of fiction that react to historical events or eras. It is worth bearing in mind this quotation of professor and author Lynn Hunt: “It may seem that the past is by definition over, but the past is always changing because historians and the purposes of history are changing too. . . . Every new age looks for an understanding of its place in time, and without history it would not have one.”
To think about:
• How do you “read” art? Choose a painting, piece of sculpture, photograph, building, or public work (a bridge, for example) and explain how it reflects an idea or an era.
• Why do novels get banned?
• Is film noir a reflection of the modern world?
• How has mass communication affected our perceptions of other cultures?
• Which scientific advance of the twentieth century would you consider most useful?
• Which scientific advance of the twentieth century would you consider most destructive?