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 poems."

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.

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