Since 1914

In August 1914 cataclysm engulfed Europe. Huge armies fought over the possession of a strip of mud a few miles wide. Whole regiments were sacrificed like fields of stubble before a blaze. The physical devastation was unprecedented. The same devastation raged through the hearts of everyone touched by the conflict. Millions of lives were lost, and with those lives the hope of a generation. This had the most profound effect on culture in all of its forms.

After centuries of steady progress, the Arts had swept along in a speeding, triumphant daze in the decades leading up to this overwhelming disaster. The years between the Prussian occupation of Paris, in 1870, and the outbreak of this seeming Armageddon saw the emergence of Impressionism, Seurat’s Divisionism, Art Nouveau, the seminal work of Gauguin and van Gogh, which led in turn to the outburst of Expressionism and Fauvism, then Futurism, Cubism in its many forms, and the inevitable beginnings of abstraction.

The greatest innovation came in the ten years before the guns of August 1914 opened fire. Matisse and his equally unique accomplices launched Fauvism in Paris. Die Brücke, Nolde, Modersohn, Rohlfs and so many others crashed through barriers in Germany. Picasso and Braque created Cubism, which in turn generated three principal schools within a couple of years. In Italy, Marinetti advocated the burning of museums and the avid pursuit of haste, gathering a brilliant crowd of artists, including Boccioni, Severini and Balla. Soon after the Fauve show, Paul Delvaux deconstructed the Eiffel Tower in a beautiful series of paintings. He was joined in his experiments by Francis Picabia, Fernand Léger, Stanton McDonald Wright and Sonia Terk. In New York, Joseph Stella celebrated the Brooklyn Bridge. In Russia, a host of artists threw away convention, from Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism to the Rayonists. And Marcel Duchamp strode on to the world stage to pre-empt every possible variation the future would hold — through Op, Pop, Dada, Surreal, Ephemeral and Conceptual. They were dizzying times.

This great outpouring of creativity was hamstrung by the War of 1914, and the carnages it initiated — including the secret war that raged on in Russia after the Bolshevik take-over. A swathe of significant talent was scythed away, leaving those who remained shattered and exhausted of hope. The survivors were dismayed by the sheer waste: the absolute inhumanity of the War. Those like Kandinsky and Chagall who had returned to Russia — a great powerhouse of creativity before the War — saw their every ambition crushed by fanatical new leaders who declared their work immoral, and suppressed it.

Kandinsky had founded the remarkable Blaue Reiter group in Munich in 1912, with his friends Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter, Paul Klee and August Macke. Marc and Macke were consumed by the war. Although he was a Swiss, Klee too had been dragooned into service. Before the war, they had spoken of a coming apocalypse, but their fears were outmatched by the brutal reality.

In psychological terms, the First World War was a trauma that created universal depression. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was inevitably rampant. Humanism died alongside humanity on the battlefields under a pall of mustard gas. It was no longer proper to celebrate, and what celebration there was seemed brittle — the attempt of broken people to forget, through drunkenness and gaiety. An Art devoted to anything but mourning would have seemed like a comic routine performed at a funeral. And a generation could not pass before the next enormous calamity stalked out from the ruins of the first. The trauma of the First War continued unabated in the Russian Civil War, and in British attempts to subdue the new colonies in the Middle East (including the first ariel bombardment of civilians, in Iraq), followed by the Italian attack on Ethiopia, and the Fascist war in Spain, leading into the great conflagration called the Second World War.

Perhaps the Victorian era was so artistically hopeful because it was still possible to lie about moral standards. This supposedly morally strict era was quite the reverse of its myth. In Victoria’s Empire, it took years of protest to bring in an age of sexual consent. And that age was twelve years. Child prostitution was a commonplace of Victorian times. Infants were forced to clean chimneys or slave in mine shafts. But it was still permissible for artists to celebrate humanity, as well as to delineate human horrors. After the slaughter of the First World War it became much harder. After Auschwitz it seemed impossible. Art that suggested any human virtue became questionable. How was it possible to view human endeavour as anything more than grasping self-interest? The high arts gave in to the same fragmentation as those poor war-torn regiments. Art became a commentary on the inhumanity of man, or an attempt at sterilization: the surgical removal of individuality. As if humane behaviour would somehow be realized by melting into the mass of humanity. As if warfare was a consequence of intelligence rather than stupidity.

The high art that rose up from the people was thankfully less affected. It is strange that the very people who had actually suffered the longest were able to create a hopeful art form — American music. Jazz became the vital virtuoso music of the twentieth century, in spite of the conservatoires. Blues, Gospel, Soul and Rock spoke the aspirations of the common man — still downtrodden in the Capitalist world — not the arts-for-all of the supposedly Communist countries. The Civil Rights movement was powered by song, not by the weighty aspirations of opera. The movies developed into the leading visual art, leaving a largely sterile and rulebound painting to turn into a publicly ignored form of tradeable token. Bladerunner has touched far more lives, and stimulated far more thought, than Mondrian’'s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Curiously, Mondrian recognised the power of Jazz without comprehending the tiresome limitations of his own neo-plasticism.

Among the intelligentsia, trauma gave way to unremitting cynicism. Depression persists when the mind can think of nothing but depression. And depression is simply the absence of hope. For decades, hopeful Art has been dismissed as ‘sentimental’, but this is entirely untrue. Human feeling is not represented solely by the rage and despair of depression, and a nihilistic culture has only a brief future. Life itself withers when hope fails.

Periodically, cultures collide and create serendipitous mutations. Jazz drew into itself the Delta Blues tradition, Jewish folk song, refangled Troubadour ballads (initially out of Islam) [see my article on Sufi Blues for more about this], Irish and Scottish jigs and reels; all transformed through the remarkable musicianship of a generation of classically-trained New Orleans’ Creoles (ostracised overnight from the White community by the disgraceful Jim Crow laws). The stale rules were thrown out, and through the living, breathing genius of the likes of Louis Armstrong a beautiful new form came to life, and enlivened the world. None of this came from a textbook, but nor did any of it reject the past. The real suffering of the Blues and the sheer joy of living came together to make Art, and damned the weight of guilt that drags us to the grave.

Picasso and Braque drew upon Cézanne and Benin bronzes and, in Picasso’s case, Iberian art. Fresh events occur at the crossroads of cultures. But that crossroads can also be between the past and the present. The Humanism of the Renaissance came about with the introduction of Classical texts to Mediaeval Europe by the Arabs. Degas, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were greatly influenced by Ukiyo-E prints made in previous generations in Japan.

Returning to the analogy of the victim of depression, a cure can sometimes be affected by reconnecting the depressed individual to memories of better times. Contrary to old-fashioned notions of therapy, dwelling upon the trauma of the past does not tend to improve the emotional state — far from it, it is more likely to generate false memories of even greater trauma, which then impact ever more deeply. Much art of the last century equates to morbid brooding.

The past must be reconciled, but it is always time to move forward. Painting is not dead. It has merely been sidelined by the marketeers. The art of Damian and Tracey is absolutely relevant. It speaks of the Age of Feuilleton, predicted so long ago by Herman Hesse, where journalism and cynicism seem to have eviscerated art. We live in Goethe’s Age of Prose, at the decaying end of a civilization. So therefore at the burgeoning beginning of the next civilization. Dada was meant to be a clearing away, not a form of itself.

The installations of the early ’90s spoke of the admirable artistic resistance to Russian censorship. They were actually rooms made for parties, in defiance of the totalitarian regime. The import of more recent installations is more tenuous. Of course, Art should expand into every possible place. There is no need to take a stand against the brilliant insights of the Saatchi squad. But there is a need to connect back, and to move forward. Not simply to emulate past Art, but to use it to inspire new, living forms. Despite Stalin, Shostakovitch was able to do this. John Tavener creates newly by amalgamating Orthodox music and Renaissance Polyphony in a contemporary setting. Arvo Pärt’s thoroughly modern work also harks back to Early Music.

In painting, sculpture and architecture, it is time to return to the discoveries of Kandinsky, Boccioni, Sant Elia, Gaudi, Matisse, Monet and so many others who should stand at the beginning of a tradition not at its end. A huge seam, perhaps the largest ever discovered, was abandoned, unmined. Abstraction, for instance, teemed with possibilities before the First War, but by the 1920s had become so hidebound as to permit only geometry or angry mark-making. The subtleties of lyrical abstraction, seen for example in the work of Mark Tobey, were almost lost. This art must be ‘non-objective’ — nothing in it must look as if it refers to the physical world — it must be rid of technique, impersonal, ‘universal’ so that anyone can make it.

Of course the deepest ideas should be explored in Art, but it is peculiar that dogma became the centre of art — an art form in itself — by first consuming individuality. Karen Horney’s notion of the Tyranny of the Shoulds is significant to anyone who wants to live in this age of angst, and most especially to artists. We live in a time when Art focuses on the social should-nots, rather than upon the false rules of art-making. The barriers overthrown are too often simply barriers of repulsion (I annoy therefore I Art). The message becomes the medium. Marinetti was wrong. Let’s keep the museums, but let’s burn the rule book.

Art can be life-affirming or life-denying. It can describe inhumanity and still be life-affirming, with the desire to expose evil. But it all too readily simply externalises the mental condition of the artist, void of profundity. Since van Gogh’s ear-splitting there has been a public perception that artists live on the razor’s edge between genius and insanity. In truth, despite frequent eccentricity, great artists are not often insane. But there is a pathetic fascination with the work of those who were, and a demand for eccentricity verging on insanity from the current artist. And with the rise of televisual culture, personality is everything — not however the personality of the work, but of the artist. This bodes badly for the future of our culture. Obviously, high art has remained a preserve of the cognoscenti, and deliberate obscurantism keeps it so.

A complete human being expresses a complete range of emotions. The same is true for a complete art form. Horror stalks the world. It always has, and it always will. We live on a wheel of suffering, as the Buddha so sagely observed, but there is a maturity that is able to comprehend suffering as a part of our existence, not its totality. Integration is everything, and great art reaches not only to the depths of tragedy, but also to the very heights of beauty.

April 2004