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Title of Assignment: “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” Virginia Woolf’s quote from her essay ‘Character in Fiction’ has often been used to signify the arrival of modernism in art and literature. Using all that you have studied throughout the course, discuss the relationship between the changes in society and art of the early twentieth-century, with particular reference to the division of high and low art.
It is beyond question that the changes in society in the twentieth century had profound effects on art and literature. This relationship between the cutting edge and the innovative development period of modern art and literature brought about a cultural movement called modernism which changed art, literature, music, architecture and drama. Modernists radically rejected tradition of the twentieth century. Also, there was a belief that science and technology could change the world for the better. (Wikipedia, 2019) Alternatively, I will also be examining the relationship between the changes in society and art in relation to the dichotomy of high and low art in the twentieth-century which reflected Theodore Adorno’s theories on the Culture Industry and Virginia Woolf’s attitudes to the modern age.
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On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the armistice of the Great War of 1918 marked a new age for all things new and modern. When previously the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an anarchy in Russia with the royal monarchy crumbling at the feet of Tsar Nicholas II. In Russia, society seemed to change significantly as Karl Marx encouraged the spark of the political movements to overthrow the capitalist and autocratic government with the belief in a deity collapsing as the movement of modernism promised a utopian world for the lost souls of the past. Suggesting that ‘On or about December 1910. Human character changed’ as society became more fragmented with religious and moral ideologies breaking down. This quote seems to welcome the arrival of modernism as a tune ringing in the ears of the lost souls searching for something new, something modern. Social change may refer to the notion of sociocultural evolution such as social movements like the Women’s Suffrage or the Civil rights movement. The twentieth century witnessed drastic movements towards the changes in the sexes, to the changes in avant-garde art and literature. However the division between the highbrows and lowbrows caused for many to believe that class has become a euphemism race. (Online-literature.com, 2019) Highbrows, middlebrows and lowbrows are not a social hierarchy but a framework in which culture is divided by its artistic merit. Highbrow is that of high artistic merit which is available only to be educated whilst lowbrow is mass culture such as Charlie Chaplin, Middlebrow culture formed when the middle-classes began to become better educated and wealthier and aspired to be highbrow. Therefore, the division of high and low art was evident in twentieth century society as there was a dichotomy amongst art and its consumers as modernism in art is considered to be ‘highbrow’ because these types of people were intellectually capable and artistically challenging but lowbrow art was produced for the masses for their entertainment. However, the high and low art had a grey area of middle brow art which was made for people who were seen to be fashionable and culturally literate. This shows that the relationship between the changes in art and in society was drastically different as art and culture was sectioned into a sociocultural hierarchy as not all forms of art was available to the masses such as high art.
Hence, Modernism was considered to be highbrow as it is an umbrella term retrospectively applied to art, literature, and philosophy of experimental and avant-garde nature of the early 20th century whereas modernity is the historical and technological changes at the start of the 20th century. Consequently, modernity was at the centre of all the changes in society and in art. This is because modernity brought about an modern era that focused on changing the social, technological, cultural and political evolution of society as well as paramount historical events such as The Great War from 1916-18, the 1928 female vote as well as the mass production of TV’s in 1926, Cinema Talkies in 1928 and the Penguin Paperbacks in 1935 which brought new technological advancements, economic prosperity and enabled entertainment for the masses with this modern era came an increase in urbanisation, literature and art as well as capitalism. This significant change in art and literature became rounded with a distinctive slogan well known as ‘Make It New!’ by Ezra Pond suggests that modernist artists wanted to create new, authentic art with meaning that reflected the drastic changes society and art was emerging through in the 20th century. The use of the word ‘New’ suggests that that modernism was all about using a new way to eradicate old traditions as the phrase ‘Make It New!’ alone becomes the driving force of replacing old cultures, old arts and old literature with new cultures, literature and arts. This means that the relationship between the changes in art was clearly reflected in society due to the exceptional works of many influential iconoclastic thinkers such as Virginia Woolf and Theodor Adorno questioned the dichotomies of art and society which influence the way we live. From the Adorno’s necessity for rethinking his theory of mass culture to Virginia Woolf’s psychodynamic approach to the stream of consciousness brought about a new era of social change that reflected the changes in nature, social institutions, social behaviours, or social relations. (Definitions.net, 2019)
Furthermore, Theodor Adorno’s theories on the culture industry reflected the immense changes in art, culture and society. Adorno argues that the modern world has fallen into the hands of an omnipresent and deeply malevolent entertainment machine which he called The Culture Industry as the modern films, TV, radio magazines replaced the void of religion to keep society distracted from understanding themselves and the political reality. This means that through the new developments of technology, art were now widely accessible to the masses. For example, In Russia in 1960-1964 Soviet televisions was widely successful in supporting the regime as in 1961 million of viewers watched a five-hour programme celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. This shows that all forms of arts changed during the twentieth-century as innovative movements of science and technology welcomed a new modern era across all nations. Theodor Adorno highlights that the period of The Culture Industry was the change that society and art needed to go through. This is because the new innovative developments helped to liberate the masses in society to gain access to the movements in art and culture and were previously unavailable to many in the past.
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Consequently, the relationship between art and society eventually did change as during the time period of December 1910, a modernist writer named Virginia Woolf saw the arrival of modernism as ‘that a rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg. Suggesting that the birth of modernism or the modern age was inevitable as society need to change and must adopt the new era of extraordinary developments in urbanism, technology, warfare, consumerism, and family life. (YouTube, 2019)Virginia Woolf used her literature to capture the extraordinary movement’s society and literature in the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf observed the changes in society and argued that ‘the charm of modern London is that it isn’t built to last—it is built to pass’ (YouTube, 2019) This implies that the modern era was like a fantasy and that which if society did not value this sociocultural change then society will go back to the ways things were in the past. This is because Virginia Woolf took a different approach to her own interpretation of modernism in society. As Virginia Woolf indulged herself into thinking beyond the reality but she dwelled on a character’s thought process in many of her inspiring essays and books. This is evident in one of her essays called Mrs Dalloway when she uses the stream of consciousness to portray Mrs Dalloway’s thought process as she writes in first person with ‘I am this, and I am that’. This shows that Virginia Woolf wanted to modernise literature and shift the reader’s thought process as the stream of consciousness is a narrative device that allows the reader to step into the shoes and minds of the characters. This unique and modern style of writing marked a new age for literature and changed the way society viewed literature from Charles Dickens in the ninetieth-century who often fantasied over food, clothes and welfare to Virginia Woolf in the twentieth-century focusing the reader’s attention on the psychological aspect of our minds and the way people think and interpret the world.
Therefore, to conclude the relationship between the changes in society and art of the early twentieth-century changed drastically. This is because in early twentieth century the belief that ‘God is Dead’ by Nietzsche allowed society to look towards a new form of hope and inspiration which allowed the roots of modernism grow out of moral, religious and philosophical traditions that seemed to trap modern ideas and movements. With the influential works of Virginia Woolf, Theodor Adorno, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell all helped to shape society and art to a new era of modernism. Therefore, it can be argued that the relationship between the changes in society and art and the division of high and low art was a stepping stone to the departure of modernism (En.wikipedia.org, 2019) and the arrival of post-modernism which is seen in the twentieth century to fill the void between high and low art but as society has changed many forms of art as it is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories.(En.wikipedia.org, 2019)
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