Somehow, in the field of culture as elsewhere, the results of bourgeois society and historical progress, long conceived as a co-ordinated forward march of the human mind, were different from what had been expected. The first great liberal historian of German literature, Gervinus, had argued before 1848 that the (liberal and national) ordering of German political affairs was the indispensable precondition for another flowering of German literature. After the new Germany had actually come into being, the textbooks of literary history confidently forecast the imminence of this golden age, but by the end of the century such optimistic prognoses turned into glorification of the classical heritage against contemporary writing seen as disappointing or (in the case of ‘modernists’) undesirable.
In the European battle between ancients and moderns, engaged at the end of the seventeenth century and so evidently won by the moderns in the Age of Revolution, the ancients – now no longer situated in classical antiquity – were once again winning.*
These words from the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm on artistic currents running through roughly the period from 1875 to 1914 feels particularly pertinent today. The background context to this push and pull within what was then thought to be high culture was the beginnings of plebian culture as it would be recognised today. This was a time when coordinated mass advertising campaigns, cinema, theatre, cartoons, and all manner of populist art suddenly sprung up from the fertile soil of industrial era printing technology and capitalist production.
It might have been obvious to thinkers of the time that orchestral symphonies, high poetry, opera, and fine art were self-evidently superior to this new mass culture, but as the above account shows, it was far from given that the higher arts had a future to offer, at least one distinct from the past. It took a world war of apocalyptic import to shatter this stalemate, ushering in an age of Dada, German Expressionism, jazz, and germinal blues that would shape both mass and high culture for the rest of the century, thus rendering such distinctions a meaningless holdover of a bygone age.
The point in briefly drawing attention to these thoughts from Hobsbawm is not to simply draw an analogy between then and now. Although it is true that the glorious new world we were promised following the end of the Cold War never came, and we instead experienced a continuation of what Mark Fisher called the “slow cancellation of the future”. Society at large has only just begun to reacquaint itself with the fact that progress is not a given. Cultures sometimes move backwards, or not at all.
But the germinal thought in comparing the present to the years running up to the first World War is perhaps more positive. Crass as it may seem to draw a note of optimism out of the crisis of capitalism, a global pandemic, war breaking out in mainland Europe once again, and the impending collapse of environmental stability, the same was attempted in the years following the slaughter of millions between during the First World War.
Now as in the years running up to World War I we have been attempting to wrestle with various forms of mass participation in the arts. Today it is not the very idea of mass culture that is novel but mass participation. Namely participation in the creation and evolution of culture. Platform capitalism along with home studio setups and affordable software has allowed an unprecedented degree of creative freedom and audience access, simultaneously allowing a huge populace to engage in the critical process. Then as now there is panic as to what this means for the existing hierarchies of artistic valuation and distribution. Then it was the future of “high” culture that was a stake, now it is the idea that culture is still capable of submitting to the requirements of consumer capitalist hegemony. The old power structures, on the point of collapse, engage in ever more ruthless tactics to shore up their position in the face of this existential threat. And then, as now, the idea that culture naturally progresses is far from a given.
What led the avant garde artists forward was therefore not a vision of the future, but a reversed vision of the past. Often indeed, as in architecture and music, they were eminent practitioners of the styles derived from tradition which they abandoned only because, like the ultra-Wagnerian Schonberg, they felt them incapable of further modification. Architects abandoned ornament, as art nouveau pushed it to its extremes, composers tonality, as music drowned in post-Wagnerian chromaticism.*
Then as now, progress – when it occurs at all – takes the form of perfecting the imperfectible, offering footnotes and addendums to past projects all but completed.
There is a new scent on the air however. Whether it is born of the simultaneous collective crises suddenly gripping post industrial societies, or culture reaching some kind of critical mass, whereby the sheer weight of content placed on the shoulders of the populace means that something had to give way eventually, it is too soon to say.
The revolutions in culture of the 21st Century have largely been structural and technological. Art may no longer be capable of mass resonance in the way it had just learned to be in the years leading up to 1914. But what is strikingly apparent about art in the current century is the means of its production, exchange, and how its meaning and value is contested, all of which have been changed beyond recognition by social media and its surrounding infrastructure.
The actual shape of art produced in this period – notable outliers aside – has either remained in alignment with or been made in direct reference to the post war decades leading up to 2000. But in the last three years or so those anomalous data nodes are becoming more numerous, more expressive, and most importantly, resonating in a more obviously meaningful way than the relentless empty fanfares surrounding the surviving geriatrics of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. These words may well come back to haunt me, but it is beginning to feel like the present belongs to actual residents of the present once again, and not merely the ghostly visages of a past we wish to return to.
It may be lamentable – and ultimately moot in the face of environmental catastrophe – that crises of such earth shattering consequences are required to shift the cultural dial even this much. But ultimately, culture is still fundamentally understood as a reflection of the reality as we collectively experience it, and it’s impossible to go through such a period of sustained instability without having it profoundly impact various forms of self-expression.
*Hobsbawm, E., (1987), The Age of Empire, Abacus