The composer John Adams has said we do not live in a post modern era. It is instead post style.
What he meant was that an artist can draw on a variety of styles and stir these into the pot together. A contemporary painter can use pop or comic book figures, photographs from a family past and paintings from Leonardo Da Vinci all in one work. Paul McCartney can become a classical composer and Billy Joel can play Schumann. Multimedia artists can mix just about anything for creative effect.
I had the benefit of a father who was the age of most people's grandfathers. He could remember when things were quite different. He pointed out that society used to be very segregated. Upper crust people simply did not mix with those below them. The word "society" itself meant an elite group that was very protective about who became a member and who did not.
Furthermore pop art and classical art were worlds apart: one was in the dance halls, the other in the concert halls. A lot of effort was devoted to maintaining these distinctions.
But even in the early part of the century the urge to merge had gained steam. In the twenties one could have heard Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in a concert hall (composed in 1913) which was a blending of classical and primitive traditions. Or Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) which was a blending of jazz, classical and the French impressionist music of Debussy and Ravel. Earlier in the century Picasso had already shattered painting with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Duchamp had declared that a bicycle wheel could be seen as art. Movies were making the limited world of theater available to a large audience and radio was bringing all kinds of music to everyone.
Today we live in an era where a myriad of boundaries have been breached. The various classes can often mix with minimal problems, the divisions between men and women are crumbling, the gap between what used to be called the "races" (meaning black, white, Hispanic and other ethnic groups) and even between straight and gay or good girls and bad girls are fading.
I am not so naive that I think these divisions have disappeared. The country club mentality and the debutante way of thinking are alive and well. To walk into these worlds one must still have the "best" credentials. Nevertheless the gap between those on the right side and the wrong side of the tracks is not as great as it used to be.
Today in the arts as well, many barriers have fallen. Painting and sculpture often seem inseparable, jazz is now played on classical music stations. It is not unusual to go to a music festival (as I did recently here in North Carolina) and listen to: 50's black music, modern heavy metal, Cajun, jazz, country and rock and roll. High fashion is often inspired by peasant dress.
The contemporary artist has the luxury of using all of these marvelous art forms and combining them in striking ways. There are no limits. Few people now insist that "this simply is not done." It is post style.
WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED SO QUICKLY?
Modern society has overturned assumptions and barriers that have persisted for thousands of years. There are a variety of reasons why in about 200 years western cultures with sharp divisions have become what we see today.
The inclination is to think of this as a kind of progress, in particular the progress of democratic societies in which more and more people are included in the benefits and protections a government offers. Certainly this is true but it is only one of a number of reasons and not the most important.
Although a book could easily be written on this subject, I would suggest the following reasons: The three wars in this century meaning WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The empowerment of women. The rise of mass media and mass marketing. And the improvement in health care that has increased life expectancy by 50%.
The mass armies that were raised for WWI and WWII meant that people of all stations in life were thrown together. Even ethnic groups served although they were in segregated regiments such as the black Tuskegee Airmen and Japanese Nisei soldiers in the US Army. Women worked as men at demanding jobs building planes and tanks. And everyone one was a target of the enemy: soldiers, civilians, old men, women and children. With the cold war, everyone could be killed by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). All of these forces tended to downplay differences and emphasize what people had in common.
Dwight Eisenhower is a prime example of how war can elevate a man from a humble background in Kansas to supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe and then the most powerful man in the world as president.
Mass media and mass marketing means that when I flip though the hundred or so channels on my TV, I go in seconds from high brow culture to pop culture from symphonies to country music. When I turn on the radio, I slide between dozens of different art forms and types of discussions that live side by side on the radio band.
Mass marketing means that rich or poor we tend to use the same everyday products, the same breakfast cereals and the same toothpastes.
The empowerment of women has meant that women can choose the life they want. They can get an education, hold well paying jobs, be single, even have children as a single mother or choose not to have children as a wife. And they can divorce their husbands. The rigid roles and few choices for women are now gone.
Life expectancy is probably the least understood. In a society in which people die young it is the rules of the culture that endure and continue. In a society in which children do not die at an early age and people live into their seventies, individuals are more secure and have more power and more sustained influence.