Sir Edwin Henry Landseer - The Monarch of the GlenWassily Kandinsky - Composition VIIAdolphe-William Bouguereau - First Kiss

Stravinsky - BalletsJames Joyce - Dubliners
After marvellous beginnings, the twentieth century witnessed the gradual evisceration of the arts. The dizzy, debauched decadence of the fin-de-siecle gave way to a hugely serious quest for meaning as the new century opened. Expressionism, Cubism and Dada tried to purge the salon excesses — the Bouguereau putti and Landseer’s deer. Artists joined an exploration that revealed new layers of meaning, and the stifling atmosphere of European high culture revitalized by every visiting culture. Civilized sophistication was challenged by the primal. But all too soon, the optimistic aspirations of the most progressive and richly talented artists — from Stravinsky to Duchamp, from Joyce to Kandinsky — were broken and wrecked by the Great War. Individualism was roped into the service of ideologies. The Italian Futurists joined up with Mussolini. Out of Dada came Surrealism with its Marxist-Freudian agenda. The last aspirational centre, the Bauhaus, was closed by the Nazis. Great art was made, but in technical execution and breadth of meaning it was decline and deconstruction from then on.

Franz Kafka - The Trial
Beyond the horrors of the Second World War, music, literature and the visual arts gradually lost their energy in a sort of Kafkaesque listlessness. The explosion of fascination that had begun the twentieth century had rigidified by its midpoint. Content collapsed in the search for purity of form. Abstraction of content became abstraction of form: thought became art all but divorced from objective reality. Architects designed machines that were unliveable in, while Behaviorist Psychology slammed shut the doors of perception. Minimalism meanwhile condensed Art into white squares upon white squares to a dazed infinity. The medium became the message, and the message was simple: life is an appalling accident, devoid of meaning, and only man is vile. This pallid reading of Existentialism coolly catastrophised all technical expertise and reduced the innovations of the founders of Modernism to regurgitated ratatouille. In truth, this was the most relevant critique possible in a world gone mad with consumerist selfishness to the point of genocide. But however valid this observational art was it failed to create change, to replenish the well-springs of compassion.

Boris Ieremeevich Vladimirski - Roses for Stalin Beyond the first world, the totalitarian ‘communist’ states abolished individuality, and with it art. In Russia, China and Cambodia, they stopped the clock and then smashed it. Kitsch became the paradigm for the socialist workers’ paradise. On the brighter side of the iron curtain, the capitalist world abandoned itself to a burgeoning popular culture. With the trickle-down of wealth — increasingly acquired by blithe exploitation of the Third World — the dominant forms were jazz, rock, rap, the movies, TV and eventually MTV. Soon enough, even the culture vultures ignored Stockhausen, and the general public fell asleep at Andy Warhol premieres. Only self-consuming coke-heads could sustain such a wasteland of accidie.

dvd: Orson Welles - Citizen KaneJames Joyce - UlyssesT. S. Eliot - The Waste Land
Sibelius - Symphony Number 5 and Violin ConcertoShostakovich - Symphony Number 5
Now deconstruction has reached its logical end: it has disappeared up its own analysis. A lost generation is left with few teachers who still remember the idealistically-expunged skills of yesteryear. Painting, sculpture, composition and poetry have all but shrivelled away for lack of nourishment. The great developments in drama have happened where money has been tricked out of the moguls of Hollywood or the blessed HBO. By the 1970’s, serious music was barely alive. The triumphs of Sibelius and Shostakovich were deconstructed in the conservatoires, rather than siring a new generation. The novel somehow embarrassedly disappeared in the twenties, after Ulysses, and public interest in poetry at Eliot’s elevated pastiche of Ulysses, The Waste Land.

And that very barren wasteland makes this the most exciting time for all artists. So much blank space to fill! So many dreams to awaken! The Dadaist debunking of art ready at last to be debunked. The old nonsense they ridiculed quite properly razed. New forms burgeoning and beginning to trip across the stage. Popular culture now in some places so refined that it readily equals the very highest of art, so providing bases for infinite recombining.

July 2005