A century, like any entrenched institution, runs on inertia and is inherently laggard. Even when commanded by the calendar, it will not easily give up the ghost. The turn of the century, as the wistful phrase has it, hardly signifies the brisk swing of a gate on its hinge: a century turns, rather, like a rivulet—a silky, lazy, unwitting flow around a silent bend. Whatever the twenty-first century (seemingly only minutes away) may bring, we, entering it, will go on being what we are: creatures born into, and molded and muddied by, the twentieth.

And the twentieth, too, did not properly begin with the demise of the nineteenth. When the fabled Armory Show introduced modern art to New York in 1913, the American cultural establishment (to use a term typically ours, not theirs) was in the governing hands of men born before the Civil War—men who were marked by what Santayana, as early as 1911, had already condemned as “the...


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