August 13, 2003
How losing at war changes painting

I'm feeling all cultured out at the moment. So here's Friedrich Blowhard to take up the slack for me:

Glancing over the newspapers of the past six months or so I've noticed an almost complete disconnect between the "arts" page and the front page – that is, between the arts and the war in Iraq. (I understand many artists have expressed opinions about the war, but I don't see much difference in the art being produced.) This got me to thinking about the relationship between war and shifts in “dominant” visual styles. The historical record would suggest that it's more accurate to say that it’s not war, per se, that alters visual styles, but rather losing a war.

For example, there weren’t a lot of wars between 1815 and 1914 in Europe. By far the biggest was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Is it an accident that Modern Art first started to flourish in France (the loser country) during the era immediately following that defeat?

While Germany, the victor of that war, wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Modern Art until … after its defeat in World War I, when it took over from France as the leader of Modernity (think the Bauhaus, abstract painting, etc., etc.)

In the original posting there are pictures to illustrate these transformations. So far so good. However, I'm not quite so convinced by these examples.

And how about the “takeoff” of Abstract Expressionism in the U.S – which didn’t happen in a big way until the Korean War and its aftermath? (To say nothing of how AbEx had been “fertilized” by European refugees from countries already defeated in WWII.)

And the practitioners of Minimalism and Conceptualism would seem to owe a major debt to the Vietnam War – if the U.S. had been triumphant in that one, I suspect we'd still be looking at versions of Abstract Expressionism.

First, a quibble. Korea was not a loss for America, was it? More like a draw, I would have thought. Still, an unsettling collective experience, and not at all what Americans must have been hoping for, especially after those tiumphant Inchon Landings, which provoked the Chinese into joining in and snatching victory away from the USA. Vietnam was certainly a loss, whatever Kevin Kline may have said about it in A Fish Called Wanda – "It was a draw!!!!" Although John Cleese was also wrong that "They wupped your arse!" It was more a case of the USA winning, and then getting fed up and going home. But a loss, even so.

More seriously, I don't quite see the cause and effect processes at work so clearly. Maybe it's that the closer you are to a culture – and I'm a lot closer to the USA since WW2 than I am to 1880s France or 1920s Germany – the less these Grand Narratives of this causing that jump out at you. After all, the history of art, as the Blowhards themselves make a point of emphasising repeatedly, is a lot more complicated than those simple grand narratives. And that's especially true in America, where so much of the unofficial story remains invisible – or else is visible but unwelcome – to the official guardians of the Grand Narrative. America and the totality of its "culture" is just so much bigger than any "art" book is likely to tell you.

Still, Friedrich Blowhard is a deal closer to the USA than I am, and he sees it, and that must count for a lot.

Basically, I think he's right.

I wonder if anything similar applies to popular art, or whether we're only talking "official" or "high" art here. I have the feeling that popular art is more detached from the triumphs and tribulations of official and "national" policy, but that could be wrong. After all, they supply most of the dead bodies when a war goes wrong.

Anyway, a fascinating post, and a typical illustration of why I think the 2Bs are the business and I'm just a hanger onner, culture-blogging-wise. (And yes you're right. Another favourite movie of mine is Capra's The Apartment. "I guess that's the way it crumbles. Cookie-wise.")

I can't resist adding that Friedrich's title for his posting – "Art An Extension of War By Other Means?" – made me think that what the posting was actually going to be about was sculduggery at the Venice Biennale, or some such, with National Arts Bureaucrats bashing into each other with all manner of dirty tricks to make their guys come off best and to prove that the other fellows' artists are second-raters. Like all the shenanigans that goes into picking the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other time, maybe.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
Category: Painting