March 1, 2017

Artist/Soldier: Dan Carlin's Armageddon


My experience learning art history is probably similar to the majority of artists who relied on art education as the singular introductory portal or authority into that body of knowledge. The problem with this is that we had only learned about the churn of successive generational gestalt solely within the prism of art's agenda. We didn't learn in parallel the general background of each epoch that set the stage for each historical turn, outside of the generic high school history class, a rushed chart of the peaks of dates and signal events to be memorized, bases tagged and soon to be forgotten with the onset of the next years' curriculum. To learn such an abstract schema of a historical narrative, one can only glean a faint trace of the urgency felt so keenly in each era, the ground from which art had formulated its agenda.

Listening to the podcasts of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, Blueprint for Armageddon, my mind flashed the slides projected in my art history classes. The impact of the Industrial Revolution on the logic of war. The push back against Classicism by nascent Modernism with the Impressionists. The clairvoyant anticipation of the absurdities of Modernity via proto-PostModernists such as Alfred Jarry. The significance of the Nation-State and its' ability to raise the stakes of war, making human life as cheap and expendable as ammunition. The depth of disgust in the paintings of George Grosz. The thousand yard stare of Max Beckmann. And especially Dadaism.
Listening to the 19 hours of Carlin's Armageddon -his vivid narrative of World War I- enables us to grasp just what Dadaism is in the depth of its' feeling.

Carlin described WWI as a historical estuary, where the opening act spotlit a French calvary whose uniforms and deportment was an accurate picture of Napoleonic era a century earlier. The final grisly scene is dressed in grays of miner's uniforms, chromatic clouds of toxic gases and lurid macabre horror that I can only pathetically fail to suggest here. One needs at least 19 hours to merely approximate what carnage might have meant in that particular historical moment. If the frightfulness of war is its' only restraint, then the expansion of scale enabled by modernity -and this is what Carlin's 19 hours will render vivid for you- will find it's tentative conclusion in the 20th century's formulation of MAD. MAD, mutually assured destruction has been characterized as a plateau of madness that has kept us safe in the past century, an abstraction kept so that we might remain sane.

I like to capsulize the definition of Modernism and PostModernism by saying that 1) they were born Janus faced as one with the sunset of Classicism, 2) to be Modern is to reconcile the things one makes with the life one lives, 3) that Modernism tried to touch G-d via material means, 4) and PosModernism pointed to everyday life via conceptual means. This is all too tidy after all. This allows us to think about modernity but not necessarily to FEEL modernity. It doesn't capture the screaming birth of modernity, the dilation of frightful inhumanness and desperate hope. It doesn't render vivid the slam of the acceleration of change. We live a life of faster velocity today but we don't feel the multiplying gravities of acceleration that made WWI and the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries what it really was.

Take the time to listen to Carlin's six podcasts, and think along with me, about the images that flashed on the screen of our old art history classes.

Posted by Dennis at March 1, 2017 1:29 PM

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