The Shock of the New

I’m not as much of a history buff as I’d like to be. But I think I know enough to reckon that we should all care and think about World War I than we currently do. World War II was really something, don’t get me wrong – the star-studded cast, the pyrotechnics, a bang-up script, etc. But it was a sequel – an exploitative, crowd-pleasing addition to the narrative set in motion by World War I – a bleaker, more fatalistic work. Critically acclaimed, but a box-office bomb. The modern world limped into existence from the fields of the Western Front. In politics, in philosophy, in literature, and just about everywhere else, slates were wiped clean. The old ways of thinking and creating meaning had just killed millions. And so new ways of thinking and creating meaning had to be crafted.

The Shock of the New is a 1980 documentary series on the development of modern art written and hosted  by the late former TIME magazine art critic Robert Hughes. It is accessible as hell and a must watch for anyone who doesn’t “get” modern/abstract art, but would like to in large part because it does a fantastic job of placing works – placing entire artistic movements – within their historical context. This is only one way of looking at things, of course, but it’s a good entry point. Full Disclosure: I haven’t finished the series. I’m not even close, actually. But I have seen the early episodes, where Hughes takes viewers through the ideas behind the movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism- and explains how World War I fueled the impulse towards abstraction:

[O]ne can indicate what the war did to culture. The fact that its reality was incommunicable to non-combatants…opened a vast gap of experience between the ones that had fought, mostly young men, and their civilian elders. Thus, the war started the first of the exacerbated conflicts of generation that would mark modern culture right through to the 1960s. …After the catastrophes of Verdun and the Somme, this generation – or at least those of it who had done time in the trenches – knew that it had been lied to. Its politicians had lied about its causes, and a compliant and self-censoring press had seen to it that very little of the realities of war, not even a photo of a corpse, had found its way into any French, German, or British newspaper. Never had there been a wider gap between official language and perceived reality.

That gap was made manifest in art that was, in a word, difficult. The Dadaists and abstract visual artists influenced by the events of World War I weren’t subverting the existing modes of expression. Those modes of expression had been subverted by the war itself, which, in its ineffable horror, gave writers and artists license to do new things with language and form. Some of those things (ie pop art way down the line) ended up being stupid. Says Hughes, anyways. Watch the series and decide for yourself. It’s worth it. You’re closer to “getting” art than you think.

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