Penman No. 403: Bad Times, Good Art?

Penman for Monday, December 21, 2020

IN MY last column, I wrote about how art and literature respond to times of great distress, like plagues and wars. My spoilsport proposition was that—against most expectations—crisis and chaos are not the best environments for great art, not just because the artists are too busy just trying to survive, but because it takes time, distance, and reflection to integrate, to re-order, the experience of falling apart.

Citing previous examples like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I said that this current pandemic will surely be the stuff of both bestsellers and ponderous novels, but the best writing about it will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come.

If you need more proof, consider this: the best war stories were written long after the wars they dealt with. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, about the War of 1812, came out as a book in 1869. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the Civil War, was published in 1895; World War I’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929; Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II-era Slaughterhouse Five in 1969; and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-era The Things They Carried in 1990.

That’s not to say that artists don’t or shouldn’t immediately respond to the tumult swirling around them. Something traumatic like plague and war can be both material for, and instigator of, great art.

The one outstanding example that comes to mind is Picasso’s Guernica, made in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The story goes that Picasso was in Paris working on another commission when he heard about Franco’s bombing of the town of Guernica in April that year, whereupon he shifted his attention to producing the now-iconic antiwar painting, which he finished in five weeks. 

Another oft-quoted story is that of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 6 in C Major, which came to be known as the “Leningrad Symphony,” was premiered in Russia during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in July 1942, and became a kind of anthem of Soviet resistance. In the more cinematic retellings of this episode, it is said that the Germans realized they would lose the battle when they heard the symphony being played by a ragtag band of Russian musicians on the radio.

On the German side, there’s the story of the Berlin Philharmonic persisting in recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the finale from Wagner’s G?tterd?mmerung despite the Allied forces knocking on Berlin’s gates in April 1945.

These examples, with their heroic if not tragic overtones, seem to suggest that in periods of great disorder and distress approaching chaos, artists of all kinds rise to the occasion and summon up their finest talents in the service of—and here one is tempted to say “humanity,” but I am more inclined to say “order,” which is inherent in every artist. The desire for justice, for example, is a form of outrage over the disturbance of some natural equilibrium, a sense of fairness, and bringing music into the battlefield is a willful imposition of structure and narrative into the cacophony of war. These creative outbursts in the middle of the fray are also affirmations of one’s higher consciousness, a civilized rejection of the easier option to submit to brutishness.

This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s insightful description of how art works as “a minimum of order compatible with a maximum of chaos.” The artist’s impulse is to bring method into the madness, to see pattern and narrative in the mess of things. 

Sometimes art has responded to war in the most striking ways. There was a very close relationship between Cubism and the development of military camouflage in the aftermath of World War I, with Cubism providing the inspiration for the abstraction of natural forms, culminating in the so-called “Dazzle” ships whose wild geometric designs, by the marine artist Norman Wilkinson, were meant less to hide ships than to confuse U-boat rangefinders.

But for all these illustrations of disorder as the handmaiden of great art, I suspect that they are exceptions, and that the more commonplace product is that enemy of good art, cliché. 

Dystopic times invite posterization, where subjects can either be romanticized or demonized. There’s that overwhelming urge to settle for the literal or cartoonish depiction of the obvious, which would be hardship and pain, violence and sorrow, over and over again. I’ve often pointed out to my writing students—long before the pandemic—that the easiest thing to write is a lament about how terrible and unfair life is, and how awful one feels. Walk into any serious art gallery (real or virtual) and you’ll see that most works by young artists are predominantly dark and gloomy.

I’m not suggesting that we get all Pollyanish and paint an artificially happy world; but I do expect great art to be transcendent and complex, to move beyond the immediate and the literal and to remind us of the need for beauty and hope amid the suffering. Michelangelo did that with the Pieta, which is not only about a son’s passing but a mother’s deathless love. 

Bad times and bad things may even prefigure or provoke some inner good, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”