The questioning of fundamental cultural assumptions which
occurred around the First World War occurred again after the Second,
in response to the unprecedented horrors of the
Nazi Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Many
pondered the apparent paradox of the death-camp officials who
spent their evenings listening to Beethoven and reading Goethe
and their days slaughtering innocent men, women, and children.
Theodor Adorno, one of the era's most important cultural critics,
wrote that the Holocaust "demonstrated irrefutably that culture
has failed" and that "to write poetry after Auschwitz
is barbaric." Later, however, moved by the
poetry of Paul Celan written in response to the Holocaust,
Adorno wrote that "perennial suffering has as much right
to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have
been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write
Much of post-war culture, especially since the mid-1960s, has
distanced itself from from the mainstream of European and American
high culture, seen as running from Classical Greece or the Renaissance
through the "High Modernism" of the 1920's. Many artists
chose to align themselves, with varying degrees of irony, with
popular culture, as in the major exhibition of Pop
Art held at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 1963, exactly
fifty years after the Armory
Show and one hundred years after the Salon
des Refusés. Others, such as the international
Fluxus movement, revived some of the spirit of Dada, again questioning
the nature and function of art, while philosophical and social
thinkers, such as those associated with Deconstruction,
reconsidered some of the most basic assumptions of Western thought.
The new forms of culture which emerged are the subject matter
of this course. In the past twenty years, the term "postmodernist"
has gained widespread acceptance.