Ongoing Upheaval

I had the most curious experience during my second look at The Great Upheaval, the imported show from Guggenheim’s Collection at the AGO.

The first time through I more or less bought into the official story of this show, an impressive assembly of art for the period 1910-1918.  There are overlapping stories.

  • politics
  • art
  • collectors building a collection

First time through, my big conclusion concerned the parallel narrative of the assembly of the Guggenheim Collection—a canny assembly of art that cleverly assessed the best and most important movements of the time—and the background context of political & artistic movements.  We go through the artworks a year at a time, encountering them in the  linear stream of chronology without the superimposition of layers of interpretive museology.

And speaking of linear, the show’s design echoes that perfectly linear space, the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  I get that it’s more of an ascending helix than a straight line, but I’d rather encounter art in a gentle spiral pattern rather than a truly linear space such as an airport terminal or a train station.

I’d left aside the real question connecting the history of the art & the politics of that period.  We knew that the First World War began in the middle of this period.  While the show covers roughly eight years, from 1910-1918, the period from 1914-18 is a surprisingly small part of the show. Each year from 1910-1913 merits a big space. And then the second half of the show is jammed into one little room. Jammed? no. Sparsely displayed, because even in that one room comprised of four years, there’s really not so very much on display.

I had assumed a kind of parallel narrative, where the war gets in the way of culture, stopping anything tender or sensitive, imposing a new brutality in its place.  The paucity of art for the second half of the period was an apt reflection of what was happening. Either art was no longer a priority for a world at war, or artists were dying off in the trenches.

Yet the second time through, I sensed another way of seeing this period, one that was far more troubling, particularly once i s aw the disturbing echoes of our own century.

First time through?

I thought of war as external to the show, a kind of nasty obstacle.  And more to the point, I thought of the “upheaval” as the series of avant-garde movements in the different European cities.  I figured that all that upheaving stopped dead in the presence of the Great War, the War to end all wars and to end all art.  So of course war was a perfect pretext for artists to fall silent.  War seemed to require a break in the cultural discourse, whether as a result of the guns drowning out the gentler voices of musicians & painters, or because those artists lost their audience, their preoccupations, and in the end, many of them also lost their lives.

Ah but what if war is not external at all?  The last room of the show includes several paintings where the ugliness of war is very close to the surface, if not an explicit participant in the conversation.  No, the cannons weren’t really speaking anymore than paintings or statues speak.  And the soldiers were not making artistic statements.

The Great Upheaval?  Really a series of upheavals, revolutions, explosions against a staid society.  A series of movements seeking to redefine the possibilities of art.  And I can’t forget that this is the beginning of something altogether different in art. Speaking of the helix shape, the art-world has been on a downward spiral ever since.  The upheaval was a fundamental questioning of culture itself, a movement away from everything art had once been (thinking of values such as representational, decorative, explicit, or commercial) towards more problematic and ambiguous objectives.  Among the artists mentioned in passing was Arnold Schoenberg, whose ideas are the cornerstone of a musical movement resolutely turning its back on the audience.  Cubism is certainly another such movement, leading the artists into brave new directions, often at the expense of easy popularity.

Especially intriguing among these movements is the group known as the Futurists.  Their aesthetic is one that seems to have been the most enduring of the last century. They celebrate strength and the manifest destiny of science moving towards an ideal future.  Ideal for whom? Ah, that’s a good question.  War and power were ideals some futurists clung to, a cluster of values pointing towards Mussolini and the fascists.    This aesthetic, valorizing powerful machines & sleek buildings that point to the future, sometimes seems to have a life of its own.  There’s an unexamined infatuation with the future, progress, machines and power, all as ends in themselves.  If we notice how the contention between the various manifestos and avant-garde positions resembles a debate, if not an actual war, in a real sense the futurists won the great upheaval, if not the entire century.

Walk into any store selling media devices and you’re in a kind of watered down futurist temple.  Listen to the news and you’re really listening to a kind of futurist sports report, tallying the competition in several key arenas (economy, technology and the biggest sport of all, namely war).

In the century since the upheaval, I can’t help wondering.  Has the upheaval ended? Or is it merely working its magic?  Are we now seeing more honest versions of what was merely hinted at in the artwork of the last century?

  • Life-style reality TV?
    It’s a celebration of raw media power, people so iconic, so important that we’re supposed to genuflect to their every bodily process.
  • The preponderance of violent films?
    an infatuation with power and pure strength.  Notice for example the trailer for the film Pacific Rim, merely the most extreme recent example of an ongoing competition to make the biggest and most spectacular celebrations of life and death.
  • Science fiction?
    I grew up reading sci-fi, so I’d plead that there are several different versions & flavours. But nevermind the books, look at film.  I am very conflicted by much that I see on the big screen, a prostitution of the possibilities and ideals of the texts adapted in films.

The catalogue for The Great Upheaval is a wonderfully inexpensive book, selling for less than $20 (plus tax) at the AGO bookstore.  There’s much there to ponder. The more I look the more I see its relevance to our own time.

And the show continues until March 2nd.

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