In recent weeks, we have been exploring the idea of historical cycles in which each age of Western history is dominated by its Zeitgeist which fundamentally reshapes our civilization as it works itself out over the course of about 80 to 150 years before collapsing in exhaustion in a crisis.
It seems that each age is dominated by an idea which develops into an elite consensus which over the course of time trickles down to the masses. Eventually, it hardens into a crude popular form, society begins to crack, dissent grows and violence erupts. The final act occurs when an undercurrent of thought leaps into the mainstream and becomes the new idea that dominates a new elite consensus.
I’ve described the last five cycles as Renaissance (worldly), Reformation (heavenly), Enlightenment (secular intellect and materialism), Romantic (secular emotion and idealism) and Anti-Romantic (repression of spirit). Each cycle is also a reaction to the idea of the previous cycle. A time traveler would not see a linear development of history so much as great breaks that separate these distinct historical epochs.
As I thought about the post-World War II era, I began to think about what to call this age of history we are currently living through. It is clearly a repudiation of Romanticism. It is “Anti-Romantic.” It developed from its roots in the avant-garde in the early 20th century, steadily grew before it became mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s, “implanted” during World War II, reached a critical mass in the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and has become increasingly dominant ever since.
“Into this brew came a wholly secular new force in American life: bohemian modernism. Taking root among a small cadre of highly-educated radical WASPs in Greenwich Village, New York, the “Village Renaissance” gave birth to the first fully-formed Left-modernist cénacle, the so-called Young Intellectuals. Among the innovations pioneered by this group in the 1912-17 period were modern art and theatre, “slumming” tours of ethnic ghettoes like the Jewish Lower East Side, and, thanks to Carl Van Vechten, the habit of travelling to Harlem to hear black jazz.
Expressive and interesting ethnics were contrasted with the stale Anglo-Protestant majority. Randolph Bourne, a prominent Young Intellectual, distilled the new ethos into a powerful oikophobia in his seminal 1916 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Trans-National America”:
In 1976, Daniel Bell wrote that “the life-style once practiced by a small cenacle . . . is now copied by many . . . [and] this change of scale gave the culture of the 1960s its special surge, coupled with the fact that a bohemian life-style once limited to a tiny elite is now acted out on the giant screen of the mass media.”
“New York has always been an international city, but in the 1910s its residents became acutely aware of their home as the place where North American and European cultures collided and produced something profoundly new. Fluid exchanges across national and ethnic boundaries distinguished New York as it eclipsed Boston as the nation’s cultural capital. The Armory Show was one of many sites where residents recognized themselves as makers of a cosmopolitan culture. Union halls, settlement houses, universities, and even Coney Island also shaped the new sensibility. Critic Randolph Bourne had New York in mind when he wrote in 1916: “America is coming to be…a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.”
Immigration made trans-national New York possible. In 1910 forty percent of New Yorkers were foreign-born—most from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe. They joined other newcomers: white-collar workers employed in skyscrapers; artists and intellectuals gathered in Greenwich Village; and the activists who made New York a center for urban reform and radicalism. These people spoke different languages and were often at odds. But together they created a dynamic, innovative culture that defied fixed conceptions of personal and group identity.
Many key players in that process were German Jews: Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement; Armory Show organizer Walter Pach; and the Seven Arts critics Waldo Frank, James Oppenheim, and Paul Rosenfeld, among many others. Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture sponsored Lewis Hine’s documentary photography, which depicted immigrants respectfully as fellow citizens. …”
We’ve been living through the Modernist Age. Some of the key themes of modernism are “art for art’s sake,” taking aesthetic delight in endless novelties, experimentation in form, self absorption, rejection of the past and tradition, cosmopolitanism, presentism and expressive individualism.
This is when and where the current decadent “mainstream” originated: among the Young Intellectuals in Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1910s. There were parallel incipient modernist movements all over Europe at this time. As we have previously noted, Adolf Hitler despised these people who he considered subversives and waged a personal crusade against “degenerate art” which was burned in the Third Reich. Hitler was a Romantic in his tastes. He was a man of the 19th century.
Modernism has colonized art, architecture, poetry, music, film, fashion, philosophy. It has taken over the social sciences. It dominates our entire culture. It has become so mainstream and has trickled so far down to the mass level that it has become invisible. It is everywhere.
The Left Modernist archetype:
There is nothing new about these people. In fact, they are the conservatives of our times even though they think of themselves as “progressives.” This obsession with novelty and progress defined as rejection of norms is typical of modernism. They are the culmination of a century long trend.
Note: In our times, we don’t need a place like Greenwich Village to gather and share and develop ideas into a new culture. We can communicate over the internet.