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Fractured Times

Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century


Eric Hobsbawm


London: Little, Brown, 2013

Hardcover. xv + 319 p. ISBN 978-1408704288. £25.00


Reviewed by Nicholas Deakin

University of Birmingham


In this posthumous collection of essays and reviews, Eric Hobsbawm pursues various themes from his previous work but adds a plangent note – a lament for the decline of the high culture of the Central European bourgeois world of his childhood and early youth. This was the time when Berlin and above all Vienna – and its Jews as the supreme exemplars of its values – set the tone for that culture and propagated its once much-admired values across the civilised world.

Hobsbawm is particularly concerned by the failure of cultural modernism in the second half of the twentieth century to rescue and renew that high culture, Bildung. He puts this failure down, in part, to the poisonous aftermath of Hitlerism – the division of Mitteleuropa, the expulsions suffered by the Volksdeutschen and the consequent loss of the central role of the German language in determining and perpetuating cultural standards. Hitler’s other legacy, the scattering of the intelligentsia who were the standard bearers of that culture to the Anglo-Saxon countries, first to Great Britain but eventually primarily the USA, failed, he suggests, to generate any compensating legacy in the high arts – though the natural sciences are, as he acknowledges, another story.

Why has modernism failed? Hobsbawm suggest various reasons – principally, that it has been subverted by liberal capitalism, and by scientific and technological innovations in communications, leading to mass consumption of crassly populist forms in music, film, art and design. The ultra-individualism of the twenty-first century has no place for the Bildung of the later nineteenth, nor for its twentieth-century descendant, modernism, so all that was once culturally solid now melts into air. And the decline of left-wing political movements, which once provided some shelter for the high arts, compounds the problem, now that the forward march of labour has been diverted down commercial highways. State funding and nurturing of modernist tastes in architecture, sculpture, music and theatre under social democracy has failed in its educational mission and its legacy is now being rapidly eroded by cuts in public expenditure. As for the situation in Eastern Europe when “actually existing socialism” ceased to exist, the less said the better.

Hobsbawm can find few grounds for modifying his pessimism. Jazz, whose iconoclastic virtues he once celebrated through his alter ego Francis Newton, has passed through the same crisis as classical music and opera, with much the same result – apparently incapable of renewal and so retaining only a small, ageing cohort of enthusiasts, alienated from the cultural mainstream and any public support. Alternative popular forms like the music festival, he ventures to suggest, might offer some hope of providing the common basis for innovation which engages a significant public in experimentation. Hobsbawm also toys with the notion of salvation through collective addiction to sport, giving the ill-chosen example of the French football World Cup victors as an apparent symbol of national solidarity based on the team’s ethnic diversity – a unity that soon dissolved into acrimony.

It is arguable that some of this is overdrawn. By concentrating on music, Hobsbawm does not engage with the similar debate in the theatre, where in London, at least, the subsidised theatre has until now succeeded in blending populism and the pursuit of high culture, retaining a wider public for innovative productions of traditional texts and providing secure careers for classically-trained actors (though this may not long survive the Coalition Government’s cuts). And as the annual Booker Prize longlists show, modernist narrative forms in fiction still enjoy considerable popularity among readers.  

Moreover, viewing the origins of the cultural high arts mainly through a central European prism understates the role played elsewhere by the commercial bourgeoisie during the nineteenth century in promoting the those arts in places like Chicago and Manchester. In tracing the transition to modernism his account also downgrades the significance of Paris, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, as an alternative focus for modernist experiment, especially in literature and painting but also in music and architecture. Paris was, of course, eventually dethroned by New York as the natural location for modernism in the arts, but not before producing a body of work whose appeal survives and often successfully bridges the gap between high and popular art. It is sometimes possible to catch a faint echo in Hobsbawm’s writing of the traditional German view that when it comes to culture the French are incurably frivolous.

More seriously, Hobsbawm also has little to say about the role of Stalin and the anti-modernist turn in Soviet culture. This is a pity, because Hobsbawm had in the recent past produced some informative essays on the socio-cultural role of communism that could well have been included. He celebrates enthusiastically the pioneering role of the Russian constructivists in framing modernist visual images for the twentieth-century world. But he passes over the end of literary experiment under proletkult, the notorious denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as ‘muddle instead of music’ and the banishing of the modernist architects, their ambitions pushed aside in favour of the monstrosities that still desecrate the Moscow skyline. Hobsbawm does touch on some of this in his review, included here, of the exhibition ‘Art of the Dictatorships’, which demonstrated that out of the three twentieth-century dictators, Mussolini come closest to being a friend of modernism, achieving some decent architecture and acquiring some erratic support from the futurist artists and poets – for whatever that was worth.

Other essays in this collection explore themes familiar from Hobsbawm’s earlier work. Heritage is one, as in his essay on the seminal collection, The Invention of Tradition. Here, he reflects on the changing role of the intelligentsia, once so important as trend setters in arts and culture, but now finding that with near-universal literacy and the onset of mass communications their authority as cultural critics has been fatally eroded.

Another return to a familiar theme is the essay on the American cowboy first discussed in successive editions of Bandits. The continued universal attraction of that image, actually a distorted version of the realities of the American West, and the appeal it still projects of a frontier spirit, with self-reliant individuals often animated by a divine mission, presents a puzzle that Hobsbawm cannot resolve. (Also the fact that, as portrayed in Karl May’s westerns, they appealed so much to Adolf Hitler.)

A further similar conundrum that he also thinks it worth exploring is the growth of evangelical Christianity, especially its political role in the USA. Hobsbawm surveys with some perplexity American ultra-individualism at prayer, its protagonists preaching, often powerfully and effectively, to the blue-collar victims of the new great depression brought about by the crisis of neo-liberalism but expressing their frustration in politically conservative forms.

The common feature in his explanations of all these developments is that it is all down to the corrosive effects of American capitalism – mass culture dumbing down the public’s responses and promoting a bogus “libertarianism”, in which the anger of the exploited is canalised into an ideal view of what ought to be possible, rather than addressing the reality of the increasingly unequal distribution of power and material resources (George Packer’s brilliant collection of vignettes in his recent commentary,The Unwinding, is powerful confirmatory evidence of this view).

Nevertheless, it is still possible to feel that the pessimism that pervades much of his material is overdone. A large audience does exist for the high arts in western democracies – witness the huge crowds at “blockbuster” exhibitions of the work of great artists from the renaissance and baroque. Pop art as a potential rival has increasingly been shown to lack stamina, a passing fashion now that the YBAs are middle aged and post-modernism has lost the power to shock. Even music – despite Hobsbawm’s repeated reference to the ageing and class-bound character of Wigmore Hall audience – has more recent developments to show on the other side of the ledger. Alex Ross’s brilliantly combative study of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise, generated a series of concerts under that name on London’s South Bank which pulled in full houses for the great modernist masterpieces. Charismatic conductors from Simon Rattle to Gustavo Dudamel regularly commission and perform new music. Imaginative music education schemes like El Sistema are producing a large cohort of young instrumentalists comfortable with performing and listening to “classical music” (though not yet, alas, in Britain). Even those audiences at the Wigmore now show unmistakable signs of renewal. As for the intelligentsia, though their influence as critics may indeed have diminished from Hanslick’s great days, they are still capable of subjecting absurdly hyperbolic references to popular culture’s reach and value to justified derision.

So while there is no mistaking the depth of feeling behind it, Hobsbawm’s lament may yet turn out to have been premature. Meanwhile, we should be grateful for this final contribution to an important debate, perhaps not ground-breaking, as he so often was, but well up to his customary high standard.


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