How did anxieties about progress shape late 19th and early 20th century cultural developments? What is cultural modernism?

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Western World felt that it was the new standard for modernity, a concept that assumes that certain scientific, cultural, political, and economic factors separated the West from the Rest, an event sometimes coined the Great Divide. Western anxiety about progress impacted cultural developments, particularly in art and science.

One example of this was poetry and art that placed the Western world at the forefront, often insinuating that only with their help can the rest of the world achieve modernity. An excellent example of this would be Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden." Check out the analysis and some key quotes from this poem in the linked eNotes page below! "The White Man's Burden," originally written as American justification for imperialism in the Philippines, assumes that it is the West's responsibility to bring westernization and modernization to the rest of the world. The following stanzas highlight how Europeans feel about their non-White counterparts:

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child

The half-devil (non-Christian) and half-child (non-modern) populations of the world must be missing out on modernization, so it became the West's role to bring it to them. This is the period of time where we see an increase in Christian missions to Africa and Asia, bringing Western culture, aid, and religion to the non-Western regions of the world. Part of this was anxiety about modernity, and it challenged traditional assumptions of how civilizations and/or groups of people should live, govern themselves, and define themselves.

Another example of this, with art, is how Westerners portrayed non-Western peoples. The attached picture below is a good example of this. Pear's soap, a brand of soap that is associated with the negatives of this cultural imperialism, shows that to be modern, and to belong to the progressive Western world, one must look like the Westerners. This is a period of time where racism took hold more than before, challenging assumptions that non-Western cultures could hold power or be modern. Part of this is a response to their anxieties about modernity; Western science, for example, was imagined as beginning with the Scientific Revolution, but realistically there are histories of science and culture that begin in non-Western locations that are deeper and richer than early modern European history. Modernity and Westernization was a response to this anxiety, and the consequence was Western cultural modernism.

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