Written by Patrick Green |
Studying English Literature has taught me many things, but one that stands out for some reason more sharply than anything else is that we’re obsessed with naming eras of literature and art. On the surface this seems arbitrary – why were the Romantics called Romantics when they didn’t actually write romances? Why are Modernists called modern when they came about over 100 years ago? And then there’s just too many artistic movements in the 20th Century to even keep track on; Cubism, Expressionism, Post-Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism… (you get the idea).
“On the surface this seems arbitrary – why were the Romantics called Romantics when they didn’t actually write romances?”
But it is more important than just giving an intellectual name to a group of people in order to immortalise them and their work. There is something of value to be gained from this naming obsession. Most significantly, it may help us in our current generation and moment to understand ourselves and our futures. (Unless you’re an aesthete, then all this is pointless).
“…it may help us in our current generation and moment to understand ourselves and our futures”
It’s important to understand that all these movements had a dialogue with one another, they weren’t random or isolated. They were often in fierce opposition to each other and even more often born out of reaction to another style. Indeed, it’s more complicated than that. Even within movements there were differences and factions, for instance Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne; both are considered Post-Impressionists, yet they differed in their own definitions of their art.
Van Gogh saw Cezanne’s work as too structured and form based whilst he shared Gauguin’s belief in the symbolic content and abstraction from the natural image. It is nearly impossible to keep track of all the different factions and sects within and without artistic movements.
But for all the differences they had, these movements also learnt from one another. Picasso was heavily influenced by Cezanne, calling him the ‘father of us all’ and Cubism is widely regarded as a development of Cezanne’s Post-Impressionism. So, using a few micro-examples we can see how movements influence and inform one another to create new and developed movements. Yet, we cannot settle at this – this cannot be the only form of artistic development. If it was, how would innovation come about? We would forever be imitating those that came before us.
“They refused to be subdued by the machine”
Something perhaps more important (and probably very obvious) in creating stylistic movements is the influence which the world around us has, the way we interact with it and the way it acts upon us. This is at the heart of literary and artistic movements throughout history.
Take the Romantics and the Modernists. The Romantics were reacting to an industrialising and modernising world which threatened the beauty they saw in nature. They refused to be subdued by the machine and continued to find beauty in the pastoral elements of life. The Modernists did the opposite; they responded to a world full of machines and industry; a fractured and frenetic 20th Century plagued with war and pollution informed an increasingly de-structured and de-formalised genre of literature and art. The disappearance of form and boundary in the world was reflected in the art produced.
“It was evocative of the madness and exuberance of the drug enthused lifestyle he inhabited”
Two more recent poets, whose lives overlapped, demonstrate this point excellently are Allen Ginsburg (1926-1997) and John Burnside (1955-present). Ginsburg was one of the great beat poets and was hugely influential in American literature, his poem ‘Howl’ an epic testament to an honest and gritty depiction of America during the 1950s. His poetry deals with glimpses of his life, people he knew, places he went. It was evocative of the madness and exuberance of the drug enthused lifestyle he inhabited. (Good examples are A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley and Dream Record: June 8 1995). J
John Burnside is a very different poet, but his difference shows the difference in his world. Burnside, a Scottish poet, writes of a quiet, half-obscured world. One with flashes and glimpses of life – he writes of the season’s effect on the landscape. He writes of what he saw, just like Ginsburg. (For examples read; Signal Stop, Near Horsley and 8 A.M. Near Chilworth). I understand that this is all quite simplified and basic, but it achieves its purpose in highlighting how a stylistic movement is implicitly linked to a moment in history, and significantly to an individual’s relation to that moment.
With this basic premise affirmed (that artists and writers reach out to the world around them and respond) it leads us to question where we are in the continual development of literature and art. What styles and forms will endure in 100 years and be remembered as defining factors? Which subsect of art will we fall into? Some have named this the ‘Transrealism’ era whilst it is largely accepted that we are ‘Post-Modern’. Yet it is usually in hindsight that styles are named. To even try and gauge this we must look at the world around us and ask what it may produce. Of course, for all of us this will provide a different answer.
“We live in doubt; doubt of our politicians, doubt of planets survival, doubts over faith and even truth itself”
We all experience the world in different ways and we come from different worlds in some ways. But there must be some common facets? Some of the main adjectives I would tentatively describe our world with (in its current state) would be: anxious, fractious, fragmented, polarised and electric. We live in doubt; doubt of our politicians, doubt of planets survival, doubts over faith and even truth itself. We live in an increasingly polarised and divided world (look to America and Britain alone to see this). We also live in a world which faces catastrophic and irreparable environmental ruin; dystopias are becoming a stark reality. Add these factors to a society which demands instant access to information, one in which attention spans are rapidly shrinking (I just checked facebook for the 10th time in 10 minutes) and I think we face a twilight era. Perhaps our moment will be remembered as a literary sunset, an end – to something? Follow that link and decide for yourself.
Regardless of the statistics, I worry that the literary and artistic present may well be looked back on as bleak in form and content, if not existence.