As a reaction to the grand pathos of Romanticism, the Impressionist sought a different sensibility. First as a movement of paint, and then expanding into the other creative arts, the Impressionist suggests rather than depicts their subject. Atmosphere trumped drama. The commonplace replaces the sensational. Though the movement makes its first appearance in the nineteenth century, its broader implication was the direction it pointed the arts toward - the cusp of "modernity."
The wave of optimism that marks the opening of the twentieth century is abruptly interrupted with the shocking reality of the First World War. It would be the first of a serious of brutal and bloody events that would mark the century. As old traditions are brought into question the arts seek a new and unprecedented aesthetic. Eventually, Existentialism is coined to describe the philosophical thought of an age of seemingly "infinite potentialities" and a people "condemned to be free."
Three distinct sensibilities dominate the early century as artists
and musicians each seek to mark the direction the arts will take after the
death of Romanticism. Cubism with its multi-faceted geometric configurations,
Expressionism with its pure, even raw explosion of color, and Surrealism with
its exploration of the mysterious unconscious, were each attempting to define
the authentic aesthetic of the age.
Confounding these attempts at "the new" was a reoccurring theme of primitivism which interjects itself countless different ways. For some, the wave of the future was through man's primordial past.
Not unlike the disorientation of an agrarian society being eclipsed by an industrial one, so today man faces the pains of an waning industrial age giving way to an information age. Common assumptions of the past no longer hold true, but still uncertain are what assumptions will replace them. If the worldview of the past two centuries was formed by the factory, then what are the implications of a computer driven age? Will networks replace neighborhoods? Will the technology create a Toffleresque fragmentation of society, or will it be more in tune with the Orwellian vision of "Big Brother?"
If the last half century were to have a creative credo it would be: Anything goes. The obsession with the untried is ever present in this age of experimentation. In a sense it is the truest Existential conclusion. If each individual is to define themselves through an "infinite potentiality of choices" then no rules may be considered absolute. Throwing paint at a canvas is no better or worse than the most Davidian application - each being simply another choice. In time even the "bad" provides the bases of a new sensibility of expression. Adding to this exploration of the new is the shift of focus from Europe to the United States as a result of the Second World War. The creative arts would never be the same.