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Issue 159


On Eric Hobsbawm's Fractured Times

BY Houman Barekat in Critic's Guides | 18 NOV 13

Eric Hobsbawm, 1989

In The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), the slim, spare companion volume to his fin-de-siècle opus The Radetzky March (1932), Joseph Roth tells the story of a young Viennese man, Franz Trotta, who returns from the Great War to find his world turned upside-down. Faced with a general scarcity of goods, his mother has taken to using sulphur matches to light the candles at home, while his wife Elisabeth, sporting ‘a high-necked green blouse with a floppy collar and a masculine tie’, has struck up a peculiar friendship with an alarmingly short-haired female university professor. The two women have embarked on a business venture in arts and crafts, into which our perplexed protagonist is duly and pointlessly enlisted. They draw up prospectuses, order in garish lemon-yellow furniture, curtains and exotic ornamental lamps. The elderly Frau Trotta pours scorn on her daughter-in-law’s ‘crazy necklaces and rings, those modern gewgaws [...] all jagged, and brooches of fir’. Her objection is one of fundamental ethics: ‘Once you start making valuable-looking things out of worthless material! Where’ll it end? Africans go around in sea-shells, that’s another matter. If you cheat people – fine. But these people try to make something virtuous out of the deception. Do you understand, boy? No one can persuade me that cotton is as good as linen, or that you can make laurel wreaths out of pine cones.’

The enterprise fails, but the episode is instructive. Cheap trinkets may have been around forever, but the development of the trade in ephemeral knick-knacks into a sophisticated commercial economy, overlapping interior design and fine art and aimed at the mass consumer, was a novel phenomenon; its enervating confusion was a hallmark of the jarring new modernity that had emerged from the cataclysm of World War I.

This tension between modern mass culture and traditional sensibilities is one of the central themes in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century (2013), a collection of some 22 lectures and essays spanning the last decade of Eric Hobsbawm’s long and remarkable life (he died in October last year at the age of 95). The story of 20th-century culture is of a piece with the story of its politics: namely, it is concerned with the emer­gence of the people onto the world stage, first as political actors and then as consumers. As Hobsbawm explains, the framework of the arts at the start of the century was designed to serve a 19th-century bourgeois elite for whom the arts were an exclu­sive preserve; the institutions and the standards of the conventional arts were set by and for them. The mass economy of the 20th century gradually eroded that inheritance, with the result that the cultural landscape of the 21st century comprises an awkward hybrid of those old and new worlds.

The commercialization of artistic production, with all its attendant contradictions, has long been a focal point for critics of bourgeois culture. We need only recall the satirical title of the art journal in Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1867) – L’Art Industriel (Industrial Art) – to remind ourselves that it was under scrutiny long before the so-called people’s century. The travails of the journal and its editor, the hapless Monsieur Arnoux, were Flaubert’s way of poking fun at the bumbling hypocrisy of the class that spawned him. But it is one thing to cast a wry smirk at the pretensions of bourgeois dilettantes, another thing entirely to watch the culture you know and love slide into obsolescence. One senses, in Hobsbawm’s discussion of the marginalization of classical and operatic musical genres, a deeply personal chagrin. When he speculates that large swathes of the classical canon might some day be archived electronically, to be occasionally accessed like old manuscripts in the British Library, only the most fervent optimist would dismiss it as dystopian science fiction. A lot of good – or at any rate important – culture is disappearing because its audience is literally dying out.

Taking its place is a dazzlingly heterogeneous mélange that appears totally incapable of being shoehorned into anything resembling a contiguous orthodoxy or conventional canon. For the historian, who tends by instinct and training to see things in terms of posterity, such saturation presents an existential quandary, as Hobsbawm invites us – in his essay ‘Heritage’ (2012) – with characteristic flair to consider: ‘How much of the great simul­taneous circus show of sound, shape, image, colour, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience will even survive as a preservable heritage, as distinct from changing sets of generational memories occasionally revived as retro fashions? How much of it will be remembered at all?’

The last century witnessed nothing less than an industrial revolution in cultural production, driven by the twin motors of technological progress and mass demand. The effect, says Hobsbawm, was to condemn art to a similar fate to that of the horse, whose function was rendered obsolete by the advent of the automobile and the tractor. Photography and mechanical reproduction pushed aside easel painting, before the triumph of the modern consumer society finally relieved the avant-garde of its historical role; from the 1960s onwards, it persisted only as an ironic commentary on the bankruptcy of art. That latter message has worn rather thin after half a century: a small and largely isolated transnational coterie of artists is still carrying the torch, but as a group they have largely outlived their usefulness. The important artists of the 21st century are to be found in the advertising industry, where the old values of technical skill and creative engagement still count for something, for better or worse, so that, as he wrote in ‘The Avant-Garde Fails’ (1998): ‘the real revolution in the 20th-century arts was achieved not by the avant-gardes of mod­ern­ism, but [...] by the com­bined logic of technology and the mass market, that is to say the democratization of aesthetic consumption.’

At the same time, the development of advanced capitalism up to and including the present phase continues to render people surplus to the productive process, in ever-increasing numbers. This, then, is the paradox that lies at the heart of Hobsbawm’s analysis: in the very century in which ordinary people be­came empowered as consumers of cultural production, they became deracinated from the process of production. Their work situation may be precarious, but they are free to watch a multitude of films about how that makes them feel. The century gave with one hand, and took away with the other.

To extrapolate towards a general narrative of decline for the arts is to lose the thread. In the UK, the Conservative-led coalition government is currently bent on downgrading higher education funding for arts and the humanities in favour of science and engineering. The public debates on this have produced a lot of speciously egalitarian, populist, anti-intellectual and even downright macho discourse about the pointlessness of studying Shakespeare or the Performing Arts. Even if one accepts the pernicious premise that the primary purpose of higher education is to service the needs of employers, it seems a curiously short-sighted policy, quite at odds with the prevailing economic agenda.

For it was precisely as a showpiece for the creative dynamism of post-industrial Britain – the horrible buzz-word circulating at the time was ‘UK PLC’ – that last year’s London Olympics had the politicians and economists drooling in unison. It was, we were given to understand, a vindication of the vision of those who insisted that Britain would carve out a space for itself as a world leader in what are broadly termed the ‘creative industries’; an economy founded on what Maurizio Lazzarato has termed ‘immaterial labour’ – ‘labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity’. Once the workshop of the world, Britain would now be its marketing department.

However vapid and disposable the end-product of a pr or advertising agency may be, it draws from the same well of cultural capital as many other, more edifying pursuits. Its currency is the total heritage of a tradition of structured learning in the humanities, from the visual arts to theatre to English Literature. In an increasingly technocratic media landscape, the utility of the arts should come to be understood in the same way as mathematics is in the sphere of civil engineering – as part of an acquired language of communication and understanding. This is nothing new – traditional educationalists have always seen it in more or less these terms – but one suspects that unless the message is presented in appropriately utilitarian language, and couched in terms of neo-liberal exigency, it is unlikely to get through.

Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the Irish Times and the Spectator. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books).