A smart, lively, and astoundingly comprehensive panorama of practically every major European and American intellectual movement of the 20th century.
Art journalist Watson (Sotheby’s, 1998, etc.) offers a Hit Parade of political forces and personalities, discoveries and revolutions, modernism and postmodernism. Thematically organized chapters present the century as a vivid narrative that sweeps from Mendelian genetics and Max Planck’s theory of electromagnetic radiation to the explosive emergence of Schoenberg’s atonal compositions and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from the Harlem Renaissance to the outbreak of WWII, from The Organization Man to multiculturalism and postcolonialism. The readability comes at a price: some reductiveness is inevitable in a single-volume overview of a subject as complex as the 20th century, and many interesting countertrends and secondary figures had to be omitted—but not all that many. At times, the format necessitates flat, simplistic judgments, the kind that students quote trustingly. Watson announces unequivocally that the “six great philosophers” living at the turn of the century were Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Bendetto Croce, Edmund Husserl, William James, and Bertrand Russell—and that, as far as novelists are concerned, Saul Bellow will prove “the standard against which all others will be judged.” Yet far more controversial and problematic material (such as the human potential movements of the 1970s, deconstructionist philosophy, and the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s) is handled with disarming subtlety and intelligence. Watson’s emphasis on European and American culture may eventually prove a more serious limitation if the demographics of the coming century shift the world's gaze to developments in Asia and Africa. Nonetheless, the sheer quantity of accurate, fair-minded information and thoughtful analysis results in an invaluable resource for at least the near future.
Watson has achieved the near-impossible: a concise reference that is also intellectually compelling—and a fascinating read.