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« Austrian LitCrit | Main | David Sucher, Day One »

August 13, 2003

Art--An Extension of War By Other Means?


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?

The End of the Commune, 1871; C. Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1872
(NB: these two pictures show the same part of Paris)

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.)

German Battery on the Move, WWI; W. Kandinsky, On White II, 1923

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.)

North of the Chongchon River, November 20, 1950; J. Pollack, Autumn Rhythm (No. 30), 1950

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.

(I’ll acknowledge, by the way, that the seeds of these movements were all around and struggling to grow before the war in question. But I would point out that they didn’t seem to find the soil in which to flourish until defeat in war.)

Of course, the "losing war" theory doesn’t explain everything. The tie between visual styles and defeat in war seems, at a minimum, to have been weaker in the more distant past, which may well reflect the pre-democratic isolation of the mass of the population from the institutions, if not the effects, of war. Still, positive examples to support this theory can easily be found. The High Renaissance was clearly brought to an abrupt end (and Mannerism enthroned) by the Sack of Rome in 1527, which signaled the end of the autonomy of the Italian city-states in a world of competing European empires. Rococo painting seems to have replaced French classical baroque painting as a consequence of the disastrous wars at the end of Louis XIV’s reign. French Romantic painting seems strongly connected with the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire.

The much greater impact of losing a war as opposed to winning one would, possibly, explain the lack of any particular impact on the artworld from the two Gulf Wars so far, other than a sort of increased complacency and hedonism. Of course, if extracting ourselves from Iraq proves more difficult than we hope, we may find ourselves "discovering" a new visual paradigm or two.



posted by Friedrich at August 13, 2003


How about Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass," generally considered the work which broke decorum and helped usher in the Impressionist movement? As I recall, that painting predated the Franco-Prussian War by about fifteen years or so.

Granted, the experience of losing a war could prompt a culture toward a major perceptual shift. (Though it doesn't always -- look at the former Confederacy after the American Civil War.) However, losing a war isn't the only thing that can bring about cultural crisis.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 13, 2003 02:21 PM

Mr. Hulsey:

I don't recall saying that war is the only issue that can shift tastes in the visual arts. But to assume that mass taste was altered because Manet exhibited "Luncheon on the Grass" at the 1863 Salon des Refuses is to enormously overstate the matter. As I said, all of these trends were present among art producers (in a small way) before the war in question, but radical shifts in the tastes of art buyers generally follow a major societal "shakeup"--like losing a war. And even after the Franco-Prussian War it took the Impressionists another 10-15 years to really achieve financial success. (Of course, the evolution of taste has speeded up since then.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 13, 2003 03:05 PM

Point taken, with much thanks.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 13, 2003 05:21 PM


I really liked this piece and I sliced about the top two thirds of it, minus the pictures, and shoved it up on my culture blog, not having had anything very clever to say myself yesterday. I hope you don't mind.

And, one of my more irritating serial commenters (one of those "I really enjoy your blog, Brian [patronising smile] but ..." merchants) had this gem to contribute to the debate:

"Correlation does not indicate causation. It may well be that an overly artistic culture cannot win a war."

So there we have it. Germany lost WW1 and WW2 not because it loved to fight but chose to fight too many people at once, but because it was too artistic. And America lost Vietnam because ...

I always said General Westmoreland spent too much time doing Abstract Expressionism and not enough doing military stuff.

And keep a sharp eye out for any US warriors in Iraq expressing an interest in minimalism. Next thing you know: quagmire.

Nevertheless ... Do you suppose there could possibly be anything to this reversal of the direction of your causal link?

And if there is any truth in it, what does this mean concerning the military responsibilities of cultural commentators in general and culture bloggers in particular?

THe serious argument against what he says is that you, unlike him, explain change in artistic style. He doesn't explain how change in artistic style is correlated with loss in war, if it isn't cause by it. He merely asserts a connection between artistic enthusiasm in a general way and warmaking incompetence, which might even be true, but doesn't really impinge on what you say, unless he thinks that Monet's Luncheon on the Grass did cost France the Franco-Prussian War. The French were so busy wondering whether to get excited about Impressionism that they forget to fight the war properly. Could be, I suppose.

Enough. I liked your piece and was convinced.

Posted by: Brian Micklethwait on August 13, 2003 08:36 PM


Feel free to rip off anything you want from 2blowhards. I know the feeling of being tapped out to well to grudge you anything you want to glom on to.

As for your serial commenter's notion that the relationship between cause and effect might be reversed, I have a hard time taking it too seriously. France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the "grand nation," the bully-boy of European power politics whose manpower reserves allowed it to menace Spain, Italy and Germany. During these centuries, France had no difficulty reconciling its status as a great power with its status as a great artistic center. It's military problems seem to have stemmed more from the genuine callousness of the ancient regime to the welfare of the average Frenchman, which of course led to the Revolution. Possibly as a result of terrible political instability during the 19th century, France's slow-growing economy even slower-growing population gradually eroded its position as the key European continental power. It's possible, I suppose, that both the economic and military problems as well as the artistic strengths of France after 1815 were both long lasting effects of a common cause --to wit, the peculiar nature of the French ancient regime. But that doesn't validate the notion that good artists can't fight--the Greeks, who were both the great artistic innovators and the toughest mercenaries in the Mediterranean for a number of centuries would seem to have disproved that once and for all.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 14, 2003 12:06 AM

any circumstance will affect artmaking practices.
Marcel Duchamp from the n ew york Dada movement is an example. he rejected all of the conventions of art with his readymades. Duchamp played a huge role in bringing about conceptual art and this was all before WW2. JOseph Beuys and the fluxus movement (post WW2) also are an example of artists going against the usaul reaction to war. Instead of painting brooding, dark , and highly expressionstic works as a reaction to war and its outcomes - they rejected it all and produced figurative works, performance art, installations.
war is always going on. just because it is common for war to occur, it doesnt mean artists should forget about their own concepts. Ed Kienholz is proof of this. his war memorial installation shows us how when we see war in the media or our young men are fighting far away - its life as usaual.
examine works by artists and art movements and you will notice that not every artist is drastically affected by war, even if it is a huge part of the current events and its always on the front page of the newespaper. another part of the artworld worth noting is Haiti. Hatian art is decorative and in no way avant-garde and there has been widespread violnce trouhgout Haiti since the 1950's

look at the whole picture

Posted by: mista smartarse on June 22, 2004 12:41 AM

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