December 4, 2013

Modernity and Churchill, part I

I'm fortunate to be able to listen to audiobooks and podcasts as I work.

In The Last Lion by William Manchester, volume I, we follow the early life of Winston Churchill through Cuba, India, the Sudan, South Africa and then into his freshman years as a politician. All of this action occurred during the last decade of the 19th century and during the narrative, images of art history flashed in my head: Van Gogh, Lautrec, C├ęzanne... As Churchill became the First Lord of the Admiralty and the First World War was unleashed, images of Picasso and Braque paraded alongside.

Churchill's biography is hinged between the Victorian epoch and the birth of the Modern era. In art history, we learned that as the Industrial Revolution revved up, inventions and innovations altered everyone's life to the degree that existing conventions had to be scrapped and for a time, redrafted and redrafted until any hope of a stable new order was lost completely. Revolution succeeded revolution and art movement succeeded art movement with such acceleration that eventually the hope of the codification of a definitive and coherent art theory was lost completely at the end of the 20th century.

As I listened to the unfolding narrative of WWI, I realized with clarity something that I had known before but only dimly so: that art history should be taught in tandem with world history. The context of world events is a vital key to understanding the force that compelled the unfolding story of Western Art. The explosion of the modern cannot be understood without an appreciation of the impact of the discovery and implementation of electricity, communications both wired and wireless, the mechanization of transport and production, photography and flight. For example, Malevich conceived of abstraction after contemplating the impact of aerial photography, such was the impact of the disappearance of the horizon as the camera lens first panned earthward from the clouds.

The concept of the nation state was born in the middle of the 19th century and as the sun set on empire, Britain devolved their imperial possessions at the same time that the newly born nations of Germany, Russia and Japan tried to lay their claims to empire status. All armies had to do from time immemorial was to manufacture arms, whether swords or rifles, minimally train conscripts mobilized from their subject population and hurl their mass against their foes. The American Civil War (flash: John Singer Sargent) first indicated the modernization of arms in the use of better manufacturing that delivered better accuracy at longer range. This lesson wasn't absorbed by the time of WWI such that armies became deadlocked in trenches (flash: Beckman), casualties machined by automated guns. War compels an existentially driven innovation and imagination was trapped in the trench lines, able only to create technology that killed in static warfare, such as poison gas. (flash: Otto Dix.) It was Churchill that tried to innovate tank warfare, to employ airpower, and ultimately to try to overcome the deadlock by attacking Germany's rear via the Dardanelles --only to be foiled by a timid captain who didn't guess that the Turks were almost out of ammunition. It was Germany in WWII that developed the idea of dynamic attack (flash: Boccioni) with mobile warfare, the blitzkrieg, attacking countries whose minds were yet fixed in the mindset of the previous epoch, still too horrified by war to defend themselves (flash: Balthus) from others who were not.

Posted by Dennis at December 4, 2013 8:30 AM

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