Art, Anxiety and Alienation in the 20th Century

It is most certainly not the case that previous to the 1940s there was any lack of horror in the world. The insight into the kind of madness that could result in the Holocaust, however, could only be achieved secondhand. There’s an enormous difference between reading about the depths of depravity committed by Genghis Khan and actually seeing it for yourself in the newsreel footage of concentration camp survivors. The world following Hitler’s own extermination seemed a nightmare compared to the even the terror of the Great Depression. For the first time, society had to come face to face with video evidence that at the center of the human psyche is a light switch that can instantly be flipped to hurl us into the chasm of darkness. Making matters worse, previous to this we could be content in our knowledge that this darkness was the work of the devil. Following the rise of Hitler it became all too obvious that we didn’t need Lucifer to examine the bottomless evil capable of welling up within us.

The future seemed every bit as much a threat after World War II. Capitalism and communism swiftly engaged in a ridiculous pissing contest that left us all covered in a yellow sheen. Pessimism replaced realism; one could hardly view the future through rose-colored glasses without disciplining oneself to do so. It took an effort to hold out hope that things would turn out all right.

Anxiety became the rule of the day and this was expressed in the art of the latter half of the last century. All art took up the mantle of showing us a world that was just a little bit darker than the world we had looked at before the winds of war gathered into a tornado in Germany, Italy and Japan. Along with anxiety came alienation. These two dark views of the world resulted from the knowledge that for the first time in human history man possessed the power to extinguish the light of humanity in the blink of an eye. The philosophy of the day became existentialism, a worldview in which we must confront both the liberty and the horror of knowing we have free will. And with free will comes the acknowledgement that nothing is absolute anymore.

Literature’s response to the nightmarish society following World War II was to view the world as an absurd joke. Playwrights from Ionesco to Beckett and poets like T.S. Eliot presented universes where characters had to confront the fact that the universe may quite possibly be devoid of any meaning. The worst element of this nightmare may be that we go through it without our lives or actions having any meaning. In place of religious meaning, then, characters could make sense of the universe only through a willful and authentic attempt to wring meaning out of life all by themselves.

The fine arts were not left out. The response of painting and sculpture to the horrors of the world following World War II was to move toward abstraction. Since humanity was no longer as strictly defined as we had once thought—the argument that we are born good took a solid hit in the face of someone like Hitler—these artists began to shake up the human form and sometime even made it collapse entirely into abstraction. From the paint drippings of Jackson Pollack to the more representational works of Edward Hopper the overwhelming of modern art was of man attempting to find community in a world that seems to be designed for alienation. Check out Hopper’s most famous painting, Nighthawks, that one that shows the patrons inside a late-night diner. That painting tells you all you need to know about life in America following World War II. It tells a story about the search for intimacy in a society that could implode into a distant memory at the flip of a switch.

Alienation and anxiety can also be found in music and film. Film noir is the finest example of how movies addressed the issues; these movies are all notable for their view of an amoral world in which nothing has any real meaning. Dance in the latter half of the 20th century eschewed intimacy and duets in favor of free-form experimentation that many find chaotic. And why not? The world is chaotic. The finest example of anxiety and alienation in music isn’t rock or rap or jazz but the music of John Cage. What better symbol of the search for meaning that John Cage’s piece that requires a pianist to sit on stage without touching the keys, the only “music” being the ambient sounds shaping up around him.