What is it we want to say about the Twentieth century? What might
others say centuries hence? What makes it different from any other?
What issues from former centuries are still present, either as a
difficult legacy, or a promise unfulfilled, or a nightmare as yet
forestalled but still an ominous possibility? And, given these
questions, what is the role of Art, literature and film that is also
unique? A preliminary answer to that question might be posed as
follows: because “answers” have less and less credibility in a more
and more subjective world view, Art in the Twentieth Century
develops more and more sophisticated ways to ask more subtle and
more challenging questions.
What the Twentieth Century needs, in other words, is not more
answers, but better questions. And there is a deep urgency to this
concern since some of the worst episodes of the Twentieth Century–
Imperialism, World Wars, Genocide, Fascism, the Atomic Bomb, the
neo-Imperialism of globalized capitalism–all come from people and
institutions “sure” that they have the answers and therefore
determined to ignore (or worse, eliminate) whoever challenges
The most dangerous attitude of our time is not uncertainty but a
false certitude presented as “the way things need, should or have to
be”. Such a false certitude is often backed up by force to protect the
people promoting it from doubt.
A good deal of Twentieth Century Art is devoted to suggesting
alternative “realities” so that being told “that’s just the way it is”
can be countered with “but how did it get that way?”.
In other words, a traditional belief in “essentialism”–that things had
some fundamental essence that could be discerned, gets replaced by
“constructivism”–a sense that the “meaning” we think is “inherent”
in the thing, has actually been placed there by us, and represents
what we need to see, and what we want to find, rather than
something essential and separate from us.