Creativity thrives in times of upheaval, and many of us now certainly feel the ground shifting under our feet. For the foreseeable future, we’ll be living with and governed by a “whirlwind of negativity,” as the artist Sylvia Maier terms the phenomenon. How will this continuing climate of uncertainty affect the ways we conceive of and produce art and culture in the time to come?
“I am finding words are failing my mouth, leaving me in an increasingly non-verbal state of existence,” wrote the artist Katya Grokhofsky shortly after Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 victory. “Fingers twitching, feet bound, dust settling in my eyes and ears, my languages are not sufficient.” Welcome to the shock event, engineered to jar the political system and civil society, causing disruption among the public and the political class that aids the leader in consolidating his power. We can gain some insight by looking back in time to other moments of crisis and chaos, such as the Crisis of the Third Century or Weimar Germany. While Trump is not a Roman emperor or the führer, the story of how the arts responded to a democracy in peril holds lessons for our day.
Born from Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) is often thought of as a cultural golden age. It may call to mind images of personal emancipation and creative experimentation. Gay-friendly nightlife; the aural stimulation of twelve-tone music; the visceral impact of Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz; the drunken rush of modernity, and its dystopian potential, as immortalized in experimental films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”
Some of this incredible vitality shows the imprint of trauma. World War I laid bare the inadequacies of visual and other language to render the scale of the horror and its effects on human minds and bodies. “I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible,” wrote the French lieutenant Alfred Joubaire from the front, unable to draw comparisons with any known reality. The aesthetics of dismemberment, conflict, and shock visible in so much Weimar culture express this search to find a new modern language that contained within it the violence and “ugliness” of the world revealed by the war.
At the same time, Weimar was a place that bred visionaries: men and women who looked resolutely forward and believed a new and better society could rise out of war’s ashes. Architecture became an important site of this big-picture thinking. For Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, the modernist building was a “crystal symbol of a new faith.” But over the Alps, the Italian Fascists, too, created modernist forms as the parallel of political authenticity. “Fascism is a glass house,” reflected the architect Giuseppe Terragni. Only later would fascism’s fans realize that its windows were one-way only, meant to keep them blind while allowing the leader full surveillance of his people. It’s not surprising that artists such as Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini, both of whom grew up in this period, adopted Neorealism in rebuke of the interwar’s grand designs, radical experimentalism, and Futuristic sleek forms.
Weimar’s creative burst came, above all, from this extreme instability: the collision of past and future, left and right, poverty and prosperity. Everyday life became uncertain and difficult, as inflation rendered German currency worthless and accusations of a “lying press” took hold. As the historian Peter Gay wrote, Weimar culture was fueled by “anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom…it was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano.”
Weimar’s creative burst came, above all, from this