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art in times of war

From: Richard Tomkins
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 25 April 2003


If only it could have happened some other way. But to the extent that art comments on life, perhaps an unintended consequence of war and an economic slowdown could be that art speaks with a more memorable voice.

During the long economic boom of the 1990s, it often felt as if the west had fallen into cultural oblivion. The heroes of the era were not great artists, writers or thinkers, but those who excelled at making and spending money - dotcom entrepreneurs, chief executives and celebrities.

It is tempting to suggest that peace and prosperity had left art with nothing to say. But in fact, things were often much worse than that. Cynically, art bought into the business world by becoming a branch of the marketing industry. A new generation of young British artists became adept at creating outrage by presenting pickled animals and soiled beds as art, then using the ensuing publicity to build their personal brands.

If the 1990s were artistically depressing, it was because they stood in such contrast to what had gone before. The earlier decades of the 20th century may have been the bloodiest in human history, boasting two world wars, the Holocaust and the brutal tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung: but perhaps it is no coincidence that they were among the most creative in human history.

As Orson Welles's Harry Lime famously noted in the 1949 movie The Third Man , Italy under the Borgias had 30 years of warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. Switzerland, in contrast, had 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace. "And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

In the turbulent 20th century, the artistic revolution that began with impressionism produced a riot of innovation as other movements followed one after another: futurism, expressionism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, socialist realism, abstract expressionism, minimalism and conceptualism.

Collectively, these movements became known as modernism. And it was not just art that modernism changed. James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Bertolt Brecht experimented with (respectively) new forms of literature, poetry and theatre. Music underwent astounding changes as composers such as Schönberg and Stockhausen abandoned the old system of tonality in favour of new musical forms.

And even if you never saw a picture, opened a book or listened to a piece of music in that era, you could not have missed the effects of modernism on architecture as the influence of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier transformed the urban landscape of cities around the world.

In the fat-and-happy late 20th century, however, modernism's revolution, like the ideological battles that had accompanied it, fizzled out. In its place came present-day postmodernism - significantly, an era that defines itself not by what it is, but by what it is not. It is "after modernism" but it has nothing it can call its own.

Unlike modernism, postmodernism is not underpinned by ideology or a striving towards some kind of Utopia. Lacking a sense of purpose, it treats life as an ironic joke. "Whatever" is its slogan. Idealism and greatness are derided as taking themselves too seriously: instead, contemporary culture draws its inspiration from advertising, consumerism, celebrity, schlock and kitsch.

It is an uninspiring platform for artistic creativity. A culture that celebrates fame but mocks greatness is unlikely to produce anything lasting, even supposing it can be bothered to try. A century from now, the past 25 years or so are likely to be viewed as a cultural and artistic wasteland.

But could the postmodernist joke be wearing thin? Soon after September 11 2001, some commentators rushed to declare the death of irony, only to be confounded when celebrity culture and reality television bounced back as if nothing had happened.

Yet cultural changes do not occur overnight: and if, as seems possible, the world is entering a more troubling and tumultuous era, one small consolation may be that art slowly crawls out if its rut.

There is scant sign of it yet, but you never know: just occasionally, after all, conflict can bring out the best in humanity as well as the worst.

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