May 10, 2010

How waves of violence lead to better artistic production

If the "wild times" theme I've been exploring here for awhile is on the right track, then not only should we be able to guess what cultural differences we'd see between safe vs. dangerous times, but we could predict how much more dangerous one environment was compared to another based on their differences in cultural output. To simplify perhaps too greatly, it seems like the culture treats deeper matters, in a sincere way, and with emotional appeal during dangerous times and grows obsessed with superficial things, in an ironic way, and with a distaste for emotional appeals during safe times. At least that's the picture from the most recent rise and fall in crime rates (roughly the '60s through the '80s for the rise and the '90s to the present for the fall).

I asked readers to use that picture to guess what the other two major reversals of the downward trend in violence have been since about 1500. Everyone except for Sid wimped out, but he came pretty close in guessing the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars. The first major increase occurred from roughly 1580 to 1630, and the second from about 1780 to 1830. Data from that far back don't allow a precise carving of boundaries, so there might be a margin of error of at least 5 and maybe 10 or so years, but there is a consistent pattern for many European countries where the homicide rate shoots up in the late 16th / early 17th C. as well as in the late 18th / early 19th C. See here for graphs (just the ones for England, Scandinavia, and Germany / Switzerland).

What two major artistic breakthroughs would have led you to guess those time periods? The hints about deep subject matter, sincere treatment, relative lack of caricature, timeless and universal appeal, packing an emotional punch, etc., obviously point to Shakespeare, but it includes the Elizabethan period broadly. And aside from some boring stuff by Ben Jonson and the like, that period arguably lasts through the Metaphysical poets as well (at least for the traits mentioned before). Paradise Lost might throw some people because it belongs too, but it was more anomalous for its zeitgeist, whereas Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, and the Holy Sonnets all fit into a larger phenomenon. The second period is even easier to guess because it was so much more widespread, recent, and productive (in sheer volume) -- namely the Romantic revolution. In the previous post, I also noted that there was an apparent surge in violence during the 14th C (it's not as clear as the other cases), which you could easily have guessed using Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

Isn't it remarkable -- compared to the periods above -- how little work in this style came out during the 15th and most of the 16th centuries, for the majority of the 17th and 18th centuries, and from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries? Most college graduates with a liberal education would struggle to name anything that has stuck in their minds between Chaucer and Shakespeare. In a typical survey course, you'll read a fair amount of post-Metaphysical yet pre-Romantic literature, but aside from Milton it's pretty boring to the average reader. By and large it's too snarky of a period, and while Swift is too hilarious not to still enjoy, I remember almost falling asleep while reading Dryden, Pope, et al. for my intro English class.

It's no coincidence that during these safer times, following an unusual period of surging violence that made people focus on the big picture for once, forms like the mock-heroic dominated. That's basically every comedy movie made since the post-1991 fall in danger and wildness. Sure there's the occasional success like The Big Lebowski, but overall the form is dull, predictable, instantly dated, and just annoying to anyone outside of the tiny in-group that's satirizing some other minuscule rival tribe of theirs. Jesus Christ, give us something we can sink our teeth into! You can still take an unlikely hero, point out his shortcomings, and make the story more farcical by having the fate of the world depend on his efforts -- just ditch the endless mockery, make the character sympathetic, and have fun with the story. Suddenly, you get a movie like Stripes instead of Will Ferrell as a NASCAR racer.

After the Romantic movement died, the return of intra-elite status-jockeying didn't employ the more refined attacks of the previous safe-time era, but most of that Naturalist and Realist stuff is old wine in new bottles. What elite cabals were competing over in their status contests had changed -- no longer how ridiculous so-and-so's wig looked, or how poorly somebody struggled to master diction. Now the elites fought over who could best take paternalistic care of the benighted masses and provide a voice for the voiceless -- that other elite group is just so clueless about policy, I mean when will they ever recognize how brilliant and noble our side is?

It's true that during the recent crime wave, there was a lot of talk on this topic, continuing an unbroken trend since at least the beginning of industrialization, but it still had a more Romantic ring to it. During the '60s through the '80s, people were going to cast off the chains of the oppressed, make "Hey buddy, I got your back" into policy, and in general do what naturally felt good doing. None of that impulsive idealism comes across in Dickens. It's more of an extended political cartoon, replete with caricature, to savage his rivals the political economists. During the '90s and 2000s, we've returned to this mode of political debate as a petty contest over which side is clever vs. clueless, more than a grand debate about who is moral vs. immoral. Before, Republicans were supposed to be evil and world-conquering -- during safe times, they're supposed to be stupid and provincial.

I think this also explains why, apart from the artists whose popularity remains constant (either high or low), some go through fashion cycles. The most obvious example is Jane Austen, the lone holdout against the larger Romantic era that besieged her. Judging by how often she's mentioned in the NYT, her popularity began shooting up in the mid-1990s, just as the culture was making the shift from dangerous to safe times. One half of the rejection of the urgency-driven culture was to act like a spoiled brat -- hence alternative music and The Daily Show. But that left another half wanting to laugh and smile while still rejecting emotionalism and yet not primarily by snickering at a rival tribe, and Jane Austen filled that niche (not just her own works, but popular adaptations like the 1995 movie Clueless, which is a lot less heavy than teen movies from wilder times).

So in general, it seems like periods when violence swings upward produce more enduring works of art. My hunch about the mechanism is just that when you perceive life to be cheap and short, you shift your priorities to focus on short-term survival and reproduction rather than long-term security and stasis. No time to chortle at the other tribe being lampooned on TV -- we've got to protect each other against a common threat and then go do what it takes to make some babies! It is clear which approach to art all future generations have found more exciting.


  1. You have a good point. Another example is to compare Virgil with Ovid. Virgil lived in an era of unceasing violence and civil strife, and even if his Aeneid is heavy-handed at times, he reflects the genuine hopes and anxieties the Romans have for the civil wars finally ending, as well as the vertigo of now living under an Empire. Ovid wrote a generation later, after the new norms of the Empire had set in and the Romans enjoyed Pax Romana. His work satirizes Roman religion and state, while being more preoccupied with fun, light, meaningless love affairs. Virgil wrote about the agony of lovers parting ways because of necessity; Ovid wrote about how to successfully initiate a break up.

    With artists, though, there can be individual exceptions. Wagner's work is profoundly emotional, Romantic to the superlative and so serious that it's on a league of its own in being satirized (

    However, he lived from 1813-1883, a time period of relative peace and security. He was just exceptionally brilliant and sensitive to the vast changes of industrialism and the futility in so much of life. He was also a stubborn, dominating jerk. If you live in a cynical age, being intelligent, sensitive and bullheaded about your views shields you.

  2. This post reminded me of this famous brief speech from Orson Welles (24 seconds) in the legendary movie, The Third Man:

    He pretty much declares the same sentiment you have: violent times beget great art and excitement.

  3. This relates to what Arthur Koestler called the Tragic and the Trivial planes of life:

    "The ordinary mortal in our urban civilization moves virtually all his life on the Trivial Plane; only on a few occasions – during the storms of puberty, when he is in love or in the presence of death – does he suddenly fall through the manhole and is transferred to the Tragic Plane. Then all at once the pursuits of his daily routines appear as shallow, trifling vanities, but once safely back on the Trivial Plane, he dismisses the realities of the other as the products of overstrung nerves or adolescent effusions. Sudden catastrophes–famines, wars, plagues–may shift a whole population from the Trivial to the Tragic Plane, but they soon succeed in banalizing even tragedy itself, and carry on business as usual among the shambles."

  4. What does this mean for the artist?

    Does it mean that during safe times a new Shakespeare would go unnoticed and brilliant works dealing with grand themes would be passed over until the times become more violent?

    How much affect then does all this have on the artist?
    Does it also mean that a great artist living in safe times is likely to waste his talent on self pleasure, despair at the trivialities of others and generally have little or no creative drive?

    And thus how much potential great works are lost this way?


  5. "What does this mean for the artist?"

    On the supply side, I think a genetic talent doesn't grow up in the right environment and ends up wasting his skill satirizing rival elite tribes. Even if he really wanted to, it's hard -- probably impossible -- to force yourself into the on-the-brink mindset when you know full well how safe things are.

    I'm not sure about the demand side. Even during the post-Elizabethan, pre-Romantic period they all recognized how much better Shakespeare was than others who were more in line with contemporary tastes.

    But that's just detached appreciation. They weren't really hungry for it, or else none of the farcical stuff would've caught on. It's like how people now, if you quizzed them, would answer correctly that Help! or Thriller are better albums than anything in the past 20 years. Still, they don't listen to them more and are more supportive of recent junk.

  6. Can someone provide a good starting list of works and authors that were done in wild times.

    Shakespeare is an obvious candidate and I am reading MacBeth at the moment.

    But who else is there? I am interested in writers, playwrights, poets and philosophers.

  7. clearancepost11/7/17, 8:26 PM

    I saw Hamlet Pr: of Denmark played: but now the old playe began to disgust this refined age. John Evelyn 1661


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