[Partly edited December 8, 2008 and December 8, 2011]

20th Century Art, Music, and Literature

I've told you that one of the best ways to understand a society is to look at the art, music, and literature it produces.  Looking at the Baroque style tells you a lot about what is going on in the17th century.  Looking at the Rococco and Neo-Classical/Classical styles of the 18th century tells you a lot about that time period.  Looking at the Romantic and Realistic styles of the 19th century also tells you a lot about that century.

The artistic styles of the 20th century likewise tell you a lot about that century.  The problem is that their are dozens of different styles and movements in the arts in the 20th century, not just one or two that typify the century.  Nevertheless, regardless of style, one can point to three particularly distinctive trends in much (though certainly not all) 20th century art, music, and literature:

As an example, consider the development of atonal music in 20th century. 

Before the 20th century, serious music, even
the music of the  greatest composers, was pretty easy for the average person to  understand and enjoy.  Serious music followed common and easily understood patterns (e.g., the "I, IV, V, V7, I" harmonic pattern one finds frequently in popular tunes).

In the 20th century, however, many of the most important composers began to move away from these patterns toward what is called atonal music. Atonal music is music without a home key. There is a
pattern, but the pattern is not at all easy to recognize.  Composers working in this style prepare for themselves a 12 tone grid and then use the grid systematically in producing their compositions.

[See this excellent video discussing Schoenberg's method. If the linke is broken, try this Wayback Machine link.]

[My son Michael put together an atonal piece he calls Sleepers Speak and Dance.  A challenge to the music majors: listen to the piece and see if you can figure out why Mike gave the composition the title he did.  Looking at the printed score makes things easier. One of the problems with twelve-tone music is that, even a good musician often has trouble understanding what's going on without the score in front of them. ]

If one has an exceptionally good ear and special training, one just might be able to hear the patterns in 12 tone music. But Schoenberg doesn't even want you to be able to hear the pattern.  Obviously, this is music much less accessible to the average person--and even to highly trained musicians!  How many people listen to and enjoy the music of Arnold Schoenberg?  Not many many.  Even those that prefer "serious" music to poplular genres tend to listen more oftn to the composers of earlier eras, to the Bachs, Beethovens, Chopins and Motzarts rather then the Schoenbergs.

Twelve tone music also shows a clear tendency to glorify art itself.  What we are asked to admire here is the creativity of the composer, his ability to find new ways to use the 12 tone grid.

Also clear in atonal music is the tendency to undercut traditional standards and values.  The traditional idea was that music should have pretty melodies and beautiful harmonies. Composers, especially the Romantics, might occasionly use dissonance (disturbing combinations of notes), but they did so knowing full well that the effect was not particularly pleasant.  With atonal music, the situation is very different.  Playing a C and a C# at the same time creates what would traditionally have been viewed as dissonance--disharmony.  Schoenberg said that this might instead be what he called "distant harmony," and part of the composers art might be to create a context where sounding a C and a C# together is exactly the right way to complete one's harmonic pattern.

Another 20th century composer working in the atonal style is John Cage.  Cage studied with Schoenberg and produced some interesting 12-tone compositions of his own.  But Cage went on to devlop another musical style, aleatoric music.

Atonal music sounds like random sounds even though it isn't.  Aleatoric music sounds like random sounds because that's exact;u what it is! 
Cage used many different methods to produce random sounds. He used computers to generate random sounds, splashed paint over blown up staff lines, etc.  All this clearly violates the traditional idea that music should follow a deliberate pattern.
If fact, Cage challenges virtually all traditional ideas of what music should be.  In one of Cage's compositions (4:33) the composer sits down at the piano--and does nothing for 4:33!!!

Many other 20th century composers use the aleatoric style, e.g., Igor Stravinsky in his Rite of Spring. One critic described this work as "raw sound freed from melody and harmony," what most of us would call noise. 

[ Is noise music?  Cage thought so.  Here's a clip of Cage's Noise.]

In the visual arts too one can see the tendencies I describe.  Typical of 20th century art is the development of Cubism by artists like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. 

In Cubist art, the painter tries to combine multiple perspectives, looking at an object from duchampdifferent points of view and sometimes at different times.  Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a staircase is a good example.  The painting is impressive in its discovery of a way of conveying a sense of motion in a still image.  But the average person looking at a work like this can't even tell what it is!

The situation is even worse with a 20th century style called Abstract Expressionism.  In Abstract expressionism there are no recognizable objects.  What we are asked to appreciate is  the artist's use of color, line, composition.  We get the expression of an artists feelings--orr (perhaps) the results of purely accidental processes only partly under the artist's conscious control.

Soviet dictator Nikita Kruschev described one abstract work as looking like what would happen if a little boy had done his business on canvas and spread it around when his mother wasn't watching. And, to the average person--maybe even to trained artists--this isn't so far from the truth.

There's an even greater challenge to traditional standards of what art should be like in a style calledlhooq Dada.  In Dadaist works (like those of Marcel Duchamp), there is a deliberate attempt to eliminate all previous artistic standards.  Take a dead, stuffed monkey.  Label it on three different sides "Portrait of Rembrandt," "Portrait of Renoir," and "Portrait of Cezanne."   And there's your work of art! Draw a mustache and beard on a reproductionfountain of the Mona Lisa, give the picture a title with a semi-obscene double entendre (the letters on the bottom are pronounce "elle a chaud au caul") and there's your work of art. Duchamp here (and elsewhere) is deliberately trying to destroy traditional ideas of what art should be like. "There's a great work of destruction to be done."  The great tool of destruction?  Often, it's humor. See his "Fountain" (left).

The Dadaist movent prepared the way for another movement in the arts, Surrealism.  Surrealism is a style, not just of painting, but of music and literature as well.  In some ways, Surrealism is the best example of trends I talk about.  

Surrealism's challenge to traditional standards clear.  The surrealists (men like Salvador Dali) say that what the rest of us regard as reality isn't truly reality.  There is a deeper reality in the subconcious mind, and true art should reflect that deeper reality. Notice the twist: what most of us would consider a distortion of reality is proclaimed by the Surrealists as the true reality. Surrealists incorporate automatism and accident rather than logical control as they create their artistic works.

Also,  the Surrealists tend to emphasize things the rest of us find disturbing in the extreme--and they tell us these these things are good!  Exceeding one's wildest imagination is the goal here--and nightmare visions, because they are so wild, are the epitome of beauty. "The marvelous is beautiful," they tell us.  "Only the marvelous is beautiful."

At the opposite extreme, there is Pop Art, a style that gives us, not unfamiliar images, but images that are as familiar as they can possibly be.  The most famous of the Pop artists is Andy Warhol.  Warhol gave us images from popular culture transformed into art: Campbell's soup cans, Coke bottles, images of Jackie Kennedy, images of Marilyn Monroe.  The trouble for us here is that it's hard to tell exactly what's going on.  What's Warhol's attitude toward popular culture.  Is he embracing it, or making fun of it?  Is this simply a continuation of Dada?  Hard to say.

In most of these artistic styles there is a deliberate attempt to shock the aesthetic sense, to produce something that will challenge existing standards.  In fact, in much modern art, the only value in a piece is its shock value--and the more shocking, the  more likely the art world is to regard a work as important. Robert Maplethorpe gives us pictures of homosexual men in various sado-masochistic poses--and we've got art.  Andres Serrano gives us a crucifix upside-down in a jar of urine: and we've got a work art.  One recent exhibit required viewers to walk over American flags in order to see the other images.  

This kind of thing was rare or non-existent in earlier artistic styles which usually tended to reinforce religion, patriotism, and traditional standards.  Only in the
20th century would such things be regarded as art.

20th century literature, too, reflects the trends I mention above. An excellent example, what's happened to poetry.

For most of human history, the works of the great poets were easy for the average person to understand and enjoy.  The average person living in ancient Greece would have had no trouble understanding and enjoying the works of Homer.  The average Roman would have had no difficulty understanding and enjoying the works of Catullus, Ovid, or Virgil.  The average person of the Middle Ages would have had no difficulty enjoying the Song of Roland. Clear up through the 19th century, serious poets could be read and enjoyed by almost anyone. 

In the 20th century, however, serious poetry took a turn away from easy accessibility.  Here's an example:
T.S. Eliot (1888–1965).  Poems.  1920.
12. Sweeney among the Nightingales
APENECK SWEENEY spreads his knees   
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,   
The zebra stripes along his jaw   
Swelling to maculate giraffe.   
The circles of the stormy moon            5
Slide westward toward the River Plate,   
Death and the Raven drift above   
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.   
Gloomy Orion and the Dog   
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;            10
The person in the Spanish cape   
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees   
Slips and pulls the table cloth   
Overturns a coffee-cup,   
Reorganised upon the floor            15
She yawns and draws a stocking up;   
The silent man in mocha brown   
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;   
The waiter brings in oranges   
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;            20
The silent vertebrate in brown   
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;   
Rachel née Rabinovitch   
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;   
She and the lady in the cape            25
Are suspect, thought to be in league;   
Therefore the man with heavy eyes   
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,   
Leaves the room and reappears   
Outside the window, leaning in,            30
Branches of wistaria   
Circumscribe a golden grin;   
The host with someone indistinct   
Converses at the door apart,   
The nightingales are singing near            35
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,   
And sang within the bloody wood   
When Agamemnon cried aloud,   
And let their liquid siftings fall   
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.            40

What's going on here?  Unfortunately, in order to figure it out, you have to know extraordinarily well images from classical literature and other sources--but, also, details of Eliot's personal life.  It turns out to be a great poem, but how are we to know?

At least here we are left with some traditional elements poetic elements: rhyme, meter, memorable images.  But what are we to do with poems that abandon all these things, as much contemporary poetry does?  Well, we abandon them.  20th century serious poetry isn't easily accessible, and so most of us give up.

And most of us have given up on serious novels as well--or, at least, we've given up on some of those novelists the English professors would tell us are particularly important.  One such, James Joyce.

James Joyce was a pioneer of what is called "Stream of Consciousness" writing.  Here's an example from his "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

Chapter 1

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor's hornpipe for him to dance. He danced:

Tralala lala,
Tralala tralaladdy,
Tralala lala,
Tralala lala.

Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.

The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen's father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

-- O, Stephen will apologize.

Dante said:

-- O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.--

Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes.

Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,

Now this is impressive stuff, a great way of (in this case) presenting the earliest childhood memories of Joyce's central character, Stephen Dedalus (who, by the way, is basically Joyce himself very thinly disguised).  But, obviously, this is not the kind of stuff that is easy for the average person!  Even more difficult is Joyce's most famous work, Ulysses.

In addition to showing the tendency to be less accessible to the average person, Joyce's work shows the tendency to undercut traditional standards and values.  The plot of Ulysses runs parallel to Homer's Odyssey, and every character in the book has a parallel character in the Odyssey.  But the basic values are far different.  In the Odyssey, Penelope is the model of the faithful wife, waiting 20 years for her husbands return.  In Ulysses, the corresponding character, Molly Blume, is anything but faithful--and with Joyce's apprent approval.  Likewise, Joyce's "hero" (Leopold Blume) certainly isn't heroic in the traditional sense.

Further, Joyce's work show's the tendency to glorify art itself.  In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Steven Dedalus throws away his Catholic faith for a new religion: the religion of art.  For Joyce (and for many other modern artists/writers) art really is a replacement for religion, and we look to the arts for answers that people once sought in religion.

Another 20th century writer using the stream of consciousness style is Samuel Beckett.  Beckett worked with Joyce directly for a time (helping with Ulysses), and then went on to write novels of his own, e.g., Molloy.

[See here the  sucking-stone passage I talk about in class.]

Beckett's novels are filled with events with no logical connection.  "Absurd!" says the reader.  "Right!" says Beckett.  But life itself is absurd: much of what we do has no meaning, and literature should reflect the absurdities of life.

Beckett expresses even better his ideas on life in his theatrical works, works like Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot is perhaps the most famous example of what is called Theater of the Absurd.  The two central characters, Didi and Pogo, ramble on about this and that, and there doesn't seem to be much logical connection to the things they say or the things that happen to them.  But then, in the middle of the play there is a moment where we think we are going to get clarity:

"Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—or for night to fall.  We have kept our appointment, and there's an end in that.  How many people can boast as much?"


What are we doing here?  We are waiting for Godot to come.  Notice that Godot is GODot.  We are waiting for God--or, at least, a revelation of purpose of some sort.  But guess what?  Godot never shows up.  Message: there's not much point waiting to find out the meaning of life.  You won't find the meaning of life because life has no meaning.  Bleak, bleak, bleak stuff--except it isn't, or it isn't supposed to be.

Beckett subtitles his work a comedy in two acts (well, a tragicomedy says Wikipedia).  We are supposed to be laughing.  And that's what Beckett thinks we should do with life.  Since we aren't going to find any meaning in life, all we can do is laugh at its absurdities.  And do you see how important art becomes from this point of view?  It's our artists and writers who point out the absurdities, help us laugh at them and make life bearable.

Another master of the Theater of the Absurd style is Eugene Ionesco.  Both Beckett and Ionesco won Noble prizes, and Ionesco's plays were particularly successful.  The Bald Soprano had a more than fifty year run in one French playhouse (it may be running still for all I know).

One of my favorite Ionesco plays is  "A Stroll in the Air."

At one point, the central character, a writer named Berrenger, mourns the utter meaninglessness of life. He says he used to take pleasure in saying ther was nothing to say, but that, now he is so sure he was right, he can't even do that anymore.  Again, bleak bleak stuff.

But that's not the end of the play: it's the beginning!  Berrenger goes out for a walk, and ends up "strolling through the air," essentially, flying.   Ionesco's message: when you see the absurdity and meaninglessness of life, don't give up in despair.   Take a leap--with your imagination.  And, once again, one sees how important the arts become from this point of view.  Since life has no meaning, it's our imaginations that give us the most we can hope to get out of life, and those people who inspire our imagination--well, let's have a round of applause for them, shall we?

Closely related to the Theater of the Absurd are the works of existentialist writers like Jean Paul Sartre.  Albert Camus is my favorite of the existentialists, and I used to like Heinrich Boll.  However, the most famous of these writers (and the one I talk about in class) is Jean-Paul Sartre.

In the years after World War II, Sartre was treated basically like a rock star in France.  His philosophical works, plays, and novels were extraordinarily popular.  Eventually, he was offered a Nobel prize for literature--which he turned down.  His was surrounded by thousands of admiring young people.  What did he have to offer?  A special flavor of the existentialist philosophy.

There are several types of existentialism, but Sartre's brand is what's called atheistic existentialism.  It begins with the idea that there is no God.

Now we have looked at atheistic philosophers already: Comte and Marx, for instance.  But Sartre differs greatly from earlier atheistic philosophers in his attitude toward the godless world.  For Comte and Marx, the idea that there was no God was liberating--a thing to be celebrated.  For Sartre, it was a very bad thing that there was no god.  If there is no God, there can be no universal standards of right and wrong.  If there is a God, what God says is right is right, what God says is wrong is wrong.  But if there is no God, all ideas are subjective--and that makes our lives very difficult.  How can we know what to do, how can we confront difficult ethical decisions if we have no objective standards of morality? Sartre's version of existentialism seeks a way out of this dilemma, offering a way of making moral decisions in the absence of objective standards of right and wrong.

Sartre says that, before taking any action, we should look deep within ourselves to discover where our own true values are, and then should act accordingly.  If we do this, we will have acted in "good faith," authentically.  If, on the other hand we do not look deeply within ourselves or if we fail to act in accord with that which is deepest within us, we will have acted in "bad faith," inauthentically.

Now this seems a plausible philosophy of life, similar to Polonius's advice in Hamlet, "This above all to thine own self be true."  But what happens when one tries to apply this philosophy?

When I was in high school, I really liked Jean-Paul Sartre--especially his plays. One of Sartre's books was called "St. Genet, Actor and Martyr."  It's about another French writer, Jean Genet, a writer Sartre greatly admired.  I figured that, if Sartre liked him, Genet must be something special.  There were no Genet books in the library, so I went to the bookstore and ordered a Genet book, "Our Lady of the Flowers."

It's the only book I have ever burned.  The book is filthy, featuring the most degraded and degrading stuff imaginable. So why did Sartre like it?  Because Genet wrote about what he *really* thought, what he *really* felt.  Genet was, therefore, "authentic"--and therefore good: good enough so that we should call Genet a saint!  Note the tendency to stand traditional ideas on their head!

In Sartre's personal life, too, the existential philosophy led to an inversion of the usual moral standards.  As Sartre looked within himself he saw a couple of things.  He admits that he is unable to love.  He admits that, as far as sex is concerned, incest appeals to him.  His books and plays often applaud incestuous relationships.  And in his personal life--well, Sartre had a long-time live-in girlfriend, Simone de Beauvoir--his wife in everything but the legal sense.  Simone's young women students would often come to their home--and Sartre would seduce these young girls one after another.  Horrible behavior in a conventional sense--but, from Sartre's point of view he was acting "authentically."  He really wanted these girls, and so, the "right" thing to do is to act in accord with what he just happened to find deepest within himself.

[Simone de Beauvoir was the leading French feminist writer of the time, and, when she died, French feminists proclaimed that they owed her "everything."  Part of what they owed her a breaking down of the standards women can expect from the men in their lives.]

Interesting also is the political philosophy Sartre's existentialism leads him to adopt: Marxism. How is it that being "authentic" leads one to adopt such a brutal philosophy?  My guess is that Marx, and many other modern artists and literary figures, are drawn to Marxism because of their hatred of the "bourgeoisie," and everything associated with middle class values.  An awful lot of modern art and literature is an attack on middle class values, an attempt to shock the bourgeoisie.

One example, a play we did at Stanford in the 1970's, Fernando Arabel's "The Architect and the Empire of Assyria."  The play was designed to shock, featuring nudity, simulated cannibalism, references to drinking urine and playing with excrement, sado-masochistic priests, pregnant nuns, and blasphemous lines.

But did it shock?  Hardly. The audience, for the most part, loved it.

"Shocking the bourgeoisie," a strategy adopted by so many modern audience, didn't work in the way that they intended.  It did result in the breaking down of standards: if the great "artists" didn't have to follow the rules, why should anyone else?  As the new standards filtered down into popular culture, the mediocre, banal and insipid was replaced but stuff that was equally mediocre, banal, and insipid--and debasing at the same time.  

This was not the way it was supposed to be.  20th century artists musicians and writers did want to break down traditional standards, but the idea was always that this  would be done to put up something better in their place.  And this just didn't happen.  Plenty was destroyed, but little worthwhile came out of the ashes.  Instead, the result of most of these 20th century artistic movements has been despair, perversion, suicide, misery--not least for the artists themselves.  You see, the people I have been talking about, for all their talent, were not very nice people, nor very happy people.

Pablo Picasso was a tremendous success--about as successful as an artist can be.  He had young women throwing themselves at him, all wanting to sleep with this great genius.  Picasso was the kind of guy who likes a cigarette after sex.  And what he would do is that, instead of reaching for an ashtry, he'd put out his cigarettes on the body of  the young woman he was sleeping with.

Psychologically healthy men do not treat women like this, and the absolutely awful way so many of the great "artists" of the 20th century treated women is strong evidence that they were not happy campers, and that there was something seriously wrong in their approach to life.  There seems to be a wrong turn--and it's easy to guess exactly where that wrong turn came.

Sartre wrote a short autobiography he called "The Words."  He describes his early years and his early education in the Catholic schools of France. He once turned in an essay on the Passion, the crucifixion of Christ.  It had delighted his family, but it was awarded only a 2nd prize.  He was disappointed not to be first, and said that this disappointment drove him into prayerlessness.  He "maintained public relations with the Almighty, but privately ceased to associate with him."

"Only once," says Sartre, "did I have the feeling he existed.   I had been playing with matches and burned a small rug.  I was in the process of covering up my crime when God saw me.  I felt his gaze inside my head and on my hands.  I whirled about in the bathroom, horribly visible, a live target.  Indignation saved me. I flew into a rage against so crude an indescretion, I blasphemed like my grandfather: 'God damn it, God damn it, God damn it.' He never looked at me again.   

This, it seems to me, is the wrong turn taken, not just by Sartre, but by much of the 20th century.  We live in a society that has turned it's back on God, that thinks there's something immoral and even illegal in talking about God. In this class, many of you are uncomfortable whenever I bring up religious subjects, and perhaps you think I'm doing something wrong.  But I want you to consider something  exceedingly strange about our society.  I could stand up before a class and swear like John Paul Sartre (God d----) and nobody would bat an eyelash.  I could stand up and blaspheme like Arabel (God's gone crazy...).  And nobody would do a thing about it.  But suppose I talked in a different way about God.

 Suppose, instead of saying god d--- all the time as so many people on this campus do, I used phrases like, "Glory to God", "Praise the Lord."  "Praise be to God."  I'd get into trouble, wouldn't I?

Suppose I told you that you ought to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength.  I'd get into trouble, wouldn't I? And suppose I told you that the only life worth living was a life lived in obedience to the word of God.  I'd get into trouble.

And when my students come to me, as they often do, with tears in their eyes over the latest tragedy in their lives, carrying burdens so heavy that it breaks my heart--suppose I told them what I would so much like to tell them about, a God who knows every burden they carry, and wants to dry every tear, and to give them lives of joy and peace and happiness--I'd get into trouble, wouldn't I?

And if the shoe were on the other foot, as it so often is, and after another dreadfully difficult day where I am struggling to keep up, if I wasn't really up for a lecture, and started class by asking students to take a few minutes to pray for me, well, I'd get into trouble, wouldn't I?

And so I won't do any of those things. But I will tell you this.  Ideas have consequences.  Every major development in history begins with a set of ideas.  The French Revolution, the Holocaust, Stalin's reign of terror--all began with ideas, ideas taught and spread in university classrooms. Some of you are bored with ideas: but remember that it makes a real difference which ideas win out.  And remember that, every time you step onto a university campus, you are stepping on to a battleground--and battle for student hearts and minds--and, perhaps, for their souls as well.

Good luck on the final exam.