In the late 1930s, amid a global economic collapse, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan, and an ugly U.S. nationalism that targeted asylum-seeking immigrants, abstract artists working in New York pondered the perennial question: What is the duty of the artist in troubled times?
The question was not academic. With thousands of Nazi sympathizers marching through Midtown Manhattan, Boston teenagers reenacting Kristallnacht by attacking Jewish-owned businesses, and politicians and preachers spewing messages of hate, the bonds of rational society were unraveling. And many feared that as bad as things were, the worst might be yet to come.
There seemed to be no way to escape a paralyzing sense of foreboding. And yet it was incumbent upon the artist to do just that, to rise above the daily headlines — which dancer Martha Graham said affected every muscle in the body — to transform and clarify the world they inhabited.
It wasn’t easy. When one is in the midst of tectonic historical shifts it is nearly impossible to grasp their significance, much less their outcome. And yet the artists in New York in the 1930s, and later in the 1940s when the full horror of those times became excruciatingly clear, found a way.
Today, in our own troubled world, artists from Los Angeles to Beijing, Moscow to Rio are grappling with similar questions. How does one write, paint, compose or perform works that describe this age without being consumed by it, without producing mere propaganda? How does one convey the simultaneous confusion and conviction, the anger and concomitant longing for calm — in short, the irrationality — with any degree of certainty? And how does one project through art a better path when the route is constantly shifting?
Faced with such a difficult task, many artists wonder if they are obliged to be chroniclers of their times. During periods of war, social strife, economic upheaval, massive industrial or technological change, is it the duty of the artist to record and reflect that chaos?
Yes it is, in part because it is impossible for a true artist to do otherwise.
Artists may work in isolation, but they are intrinsically messengers, their works communications. They also exist in a state of hyper-receptivity because every encounter and experience might produce material for the next sentence, song, photograph or canvas. Short of living in a soundproof windowless box, especially in an age such as ours, it is impossible for an artist to blot out the world.
But another, more important reason an artist must confront his or her time is that historically art and artists have explained and challenged, and that combination has produced greater understanding.
In the 1930s and 1940s, newspaper headlines, cinema newsreels, radio broadcasts and public service posters disseminated information around the clock. But those reports chronicled events. It was left to artists to ascribe meaning.
A young James Jones wrote his first novel, “From Here to Eternity,” describing the wreckage of lives upended by war. Oscar Hammerstein’s 1940 lyrics for “The Last Time I Saw Paris” evoked for generations the melancholy felt by those forced to flee Nazi advances in France. And two painters bookended the traumas of the 1930s and 1940s in their works: Picasso, with “Guernica,” which depicted the 1937 Nazi attack on the Basque capital of that name and the first “total” air raid in history, and Jackson Pollock, with his “drip” paintings 10 years later. In the wake of World War II’s atrocities, from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, Pollock painted the world as it was, a world destroyed but not irrevocably so.
Today, in our own world of blogs, bots and perpetual “breaking news,” it is left to artists to cut through the deafening noise as their forebears did in the middle of the last century — in a search for meaning and, most particularly in our case, in the service of truth.
Art can do that. Art can take up residence in our minds and hearts in a way a headline cannot. Songs, poems, paintings and film provoke, console, elucidate and elevate. It is up to each artist to find a way, and they must try. In the early 1950s, amid the Korean War and Joe McCarthy’s political witch hunts, painter Grace Hartigan said of her work, “I try to make some logic out of the world that has been given to me in chaos…. The fact that I know I am doomed to failure — that doesn’t deter me in the least.”
Hartigan and her fellow painters spent years searching for the best way to convey their era, and realized they could no longer rely on the literal people, places and things that had occupied artists for centuries. They needed to start from scratch, to find new images — a new visual language — to reflect and explain the time because nothing that had been employed before could possibly describe the devastation the world had experienced. In their studios alone, faced with a blank canvas, each painted the only thing they could trust at that broken moment — their own nature. It was a difficult personal journey, but it was not unlike the explorations that expanded the geographic reach of humankind. The artists who would become known as the Abstract Expressionists traveled so far inside themselves that they discovered a universe, and in so doing, helped a ravaged world recover by creating a new way to see.
Before his suicide in the spring of 1948, the French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud wrote a kind of memorandum to artists trying to navigate their way in a hostile world:
Of the writer, of the poet
Is not to shut himself up like a coward in a text, a book, a magazine
from which he will never emerge
But on the contrary to go out
Into the world
The mind of the public
what is he for?
And why was he born?