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Eric J. Hobsbawm

Eric J. Hobsbawm, Prospect magazine offices, London, ca. 1998. Photo: Julian Anderson/Eyevine/Redux.

FEW HISTORIANS OF OUR TIME have earned as many bouquets for their professional work and brickbats for their politics as Eric J. Hobsbawm, whose death on October l, 2012, at the age of ninety-five generated extensive international commentary. Magisterial is an overworked adjective, but in his case it was fully deserved, as he was the master of a vast array of sources from the era of capitalist industrialization, nation building, and imperial expansion in Europe, which he fashioned into synthetic narratives of compelling force. This is not the time to revisit his many accomplishments as a scholar—most notably his epic trilogy about the “long nineteenth century” (The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 [1962]; The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 [1975]; The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 [1987]) and narrative of “the short twentieth century” (The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 [1994])—or comment on the justification, or lack thereof, for his unrepentant embrace of Communism until its bitter end. What I want to do instead is recall an isolated episode in his distinguished career in which he focused his attention on the visual arts: the 1998 Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture he delivered at the National Gallery in London in memory of the founder of the publishing house Thames and Hudson. Brought out as a little book in 1999 titled Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes, it was Hobsbawm’s most ambitious foray into art criticism.

Although known for his acumen as a music commentator (he published widely on jazz), Hobsbawm was not an expert in the visual arts. He disarmingly begins his lecture by admitting that he is speaking “simply as a historian of the twentieth century, who has tried to reflect on the relations between the arts and society.” Perhaps this was excessive modesty, as his friend Karl Miller was to recall him as “an aesthete” with an “extensive and sometimes surprising” interaction with the arts. But whatever his credentials, Hobsbawm was never reluctant to express his strong opinions about the matter at hand.

Behind the Times, in fact, offers a sweeping and unflinching indictment of aesthetic modernism—which Hobsbawm doesn’t distinguish (in the manner of Peter Bürger) from the avant-garde—for having “patently failed.” He accuses it of a “double failure,” the first of which was its inability to “express” modernity itself, since he sees no “compelling logic” in the explosion of new movements, with artists being able to “change styles like shirts.” The second failure of visual modernists was their inability to keep up with technological changes, which were better developed in other media: “The history of the visual avant-gardes in the present century is the struggle against technological obsolescence.” Here, rehearsing Walter Benjamin’s well-known argument, he singles out painting’s stubborn adherence to the authenticity of the unique work in the face of technological reproducibility.

But beyond these alleged failings, Hobsbawm adds, were other signs of the decadence of the visual arts in the twentieth century. They became an esoteric minority interest: Paintings were created largely for private consumption, and public spaces were no longer decorated by monuments or ornamentation. When the visual arts became weapons in the Cold War defense of a bogus individual freedom against “totalitarianism” and then capitulated to the capitalist marketplace—Warhol and Pop art are the unsurprising examples—they lost whatever subversive edge they once might have had. But from the very beginning, Hobsbawm suggests, their impact was blunted because they broke too radically with tradition and severed their connection with a mass public. Once the visual arts made that fateful decision and abandoned their ability to communicate, Hobsbawm ruefully concludes, they were “necessarily on the way to nowhere.”

In contrast, Hobsbawm argues, the truly revolutionary twentieth-century art was cinema, “achieved by the combined logic of technology and the mass market, that is to say the democratization of aesthetic consumption.” As a result, producer David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939), he argues, is ultimately “a more revolutionary work” than Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, and Walt Disney’s animations “were both more revolutionary than oil-painting and better at passing on their message.” Their visual innovations “were accepted by the masses because they had to communicate with them. Only in avant-garde art was the medium the message. In real life, the medium was revolutionized for the sake of the message.”

He does, to be sure, acknowledge Nikolaus Pevsner’s argument that there was a subordinate current of avant-garde visual art, descended from William Morris and continued in the Bauhaus, that did attempt to harness the energies of modernist experimentation for progressive purposes. Invoking John Willett’s celebration of the link between the early Weimar avant-gardes and Soviet Constructivism, he admits that for a brief moment a promising mix of radical politics and technological innovation was brewing: “There was a way in which they could break with the crippling tradition of art as the production of irreproducible artifacts by artists pleasing only themselves. It was by recognizing the logic of life and production in industrial society.”

But, we have to ask, was there an inherent “logic” to the industrial age, and was it always progressive simply to “recognize” it? Tellingly, Hobsbawm acknowledges—without seeming to appreciate how it undercuts his argument—that the most effective use of artistic strategies made by those who acceded to the demands of modern life appeared in capitalist advertising and product design. Not all art that understands its main function to be communication necessarily sends the right message. Hobsbawm is thus forced to conclude that “as even the Bauhaus discovered, changing society is more than schools of art and design alone can achieve. And it was not achieved.” Measured against their exorbitant redemptive pretensions, or at least those that Hobsbawm attributes to them, the avant-gardes of the high-modernist era must thus be condemned for having squandered their chance to make a real difference at a time when social and technological innovation was transforming the world.

There are many things to say about Hobsbawm’s supercilious dismissal of the “failures” of modernist visual art, but perhaps the place to begin is with his own confession that his analysis is “not about aesthetic judgments on the twentieth-century avant-gardes, whatever that means.” His backhanded sneer at the relevance of such judgment to the issue of what art does in the world recalls some of the least admirable moments of the utilitarian tradition’s hostility to Romanticism or the campaign of socialist realism against bourgeois formalism. It lacks any appreciation of the complicated dialectics of aesthetic autonomy and heteronomy, of form and content, that defines art in our era, understood both on the level of the individual work and the institutions of art, as Adorno, for one, made abundantly clear. To measure success or failure according to the sole, instrumental criterion of an extra-aesthetic project of redemption is a bit like belittling Giotto’s innovations in painting for not having helped bring about the Second Coming.

Equally flat-footed is Hobsbawm’s one-dimensionally negative generalization about the outdated modernist fetish of uniqueness and authenticity. In the first place, it ignores the influential argument of Rosalind Krauss in her 1985 book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths that a number of major avant-garde artists were performatively challenging the aura of singular authenticity through various media. But more important, it also fails to consider the costs of abandoning the unique work’s resistance to the leveling implications of fungibility, a resistance that in fact prevents it from being smoothly absorbed into the identitarian logic of capitalist exchange.

No less problematic is Hobsbawm’s celebration of cinema as an antidote to the hermetic impotence of avant-garde visual art. There were, of course, great hopes vested in cinema during its early years, and Benjamin was among those who believed that it would somehow serve to revitalize perception and play a role in the political radicalization of the masses. Although some contemporary theorists, the late Miriam Hansen among them, have continued to make a case for that potential, it would be very difficult to show that mainstream cinema, however much it may have expanded visual experience, has escaped the logic of capitalist commodification more successfully than has esoteric art. Whatever Hobsbawm may mean by the “democratization of aesthetic consumption,” it cannot be easily equated with a stimulus to radical social change. Take his curious example of Gone with the Wind, whose “revolutionary” credentials, “speaking technically,” he compares favorably with those of Guernica. Nowhere does he tell us what those technical innovations were, nor does he pause to consider for what substantive “message” the medium’s advancements were mobilized. In a 1999 Radio Four show on Behind the Times with Hobsbawm and the Tate Gallery’s Frances Morris, moderator Melvyn Bragg attempts to fill in the gap by blustering that the film somehow alerted people to the plight of black slaves in the South. Hobsbawm lets the claim pass without demurring, but of course Gone with the Wind was anything but a protest against Southern racism. In fact, it has often been likened to that other far more technically innovative (and far more ideologically flawed) masterpiece Birth of a Nation (1915), as a romanticization of the antebellum South and a demonization of the alleged evils of Reconstruction. Hattie McDaniel’s self-sacrificing “Mammy” and Butterfly McQueen’s hysterical, childlike “Prissy” were far from role models for later generations of civil rights activists.

Hobsbawm’s uncertainty about the ideological implications of this one film may seem trivial, but it is, alas, the only specific example he offers. (He does juxtapose an image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893, with a still from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin [1925] to imply that the latter’s naturalistic depiction of intense emotion was somehow superior to the former’s expressionist version.) Rather than offer a serious defense of his argument, he resorts to belittling the impact of the visual arts in comparison to the movies through philistine asides, such as the observation that “no painter known to mainstream art history has ever been in the running for an Oscar.” The larger problem is that his invidious comparison of Selznick to Picasso is of a piece with his murky invocation of “revolution” as a term referring variously to technological change, the transformation of perceptual experience, the extension of aesthetic consumption to the masses, and radical social transformation. What makes Behind the Times such a problematic exercise is its unstated nostalgia for a moment when significant segments of the aesthetic avant-garde and the political vanguard were in uneasy alliance, and both could mobilize the rhetoric of revolution to define their overlapping vocations.

In voicing his disappointment with avant-garde art, was Hobsbawm displacing what must have been his much more profound disillusionment with the political movement he never could decisively abandon? In his autobiography, he admitted that “emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical of the USSR.” If separation from that hope proved too painful, why not unload all those decades of political exasperation on another vanguard, whose utopian aspirations also proved futile? Behind the Times ends with Paul Klee’s lament from 1924: “We don’t have the support of a people. But we are looking for a people. That is how we began, over there at the Bauhaus. We started with a community to which we gave all we had. We can’t do more than that.” To which Hobsbawm, looking into the mirror, adds, “And it wasn’t enough.”

Martin Jay is Sidney Hellman Ehrman professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.