Perhaps thanks to my day job, which puts me in close proximity to each day’s market carnage and keeps my nose in the business section, I’ve been thinking a lot about troubled economy and what it might mean for the arts.
There is an accepted notion that poverty inspires art, and Wikipedia even has an entry for “starving artist,” so central is that idea to our perception of the artist (or writer or musician).
But there’s little use in speculating whether the coming years will inspire more or better fiction; these things are too subjective. Nonetheless, it seems to me that we are at a particularly fruitful moment for the fiction writer, on the cusp of big changes economically and politically and in the country’s prevailing mood. Yet we should not look for novels explicitly about what we are experiencing. I argued a while back that the expectation that fiction ought to explicate another great cataclysm in recent history, 9/11, was misguided in that fiction doesn’t typically “react” in such an obvious way.
I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world.
When writers succeed at this they come to epitomize an era because their fiction embodies the prevailing mood seamlessly. Too reach for an obvious example, F. Scott Fitzgerald did this with the 1920s. A more timely example: with Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck. On the non-fiction side, we would hope that among the flood of books arriving to dissect 2008’s historic economic gyrations, there will be another Barbarians at the Gate, perhaps the best business book ever written. The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.
In the world of film, meanwhile, the calculation is different. Hollywood’s approach is to divert rather than to emphasize or illuminate. A recent Financial Times squib suggests we should “expect a new era of movie escapism,” but points out that after several years of fare like 42nd Street and King Kong in the 1930s, the movie studios eventually dealt with the Great Depression with more realism. But this doesn’t mean that Hollywood will ignore the current crisis altogether. You’ve probably already heard the news that 20th Century Fox is making a sequel to Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film whose villain, the rapacious Gordon Gekko, became something of a hero. The working title is Money Never Sleeps, and The Economist engages in some speculation: “If [Gekko] is to be cast once again as a villain, the mind boggles at the possibilities. A mortgage broker? The genius behind collateralised-debt obligations? Dick Fuld? A naked short-seller? (Steady, ladies.)”
In the high-stakes art world, bankrolled by billionaire hedge fund managers, the 2008 collapse may prove to be just as severe as the one facing Wall Street. According to Reuters, the art market had stayed frisky despite the foreboding but now it appears that the drying up of millions once earmarked for conspicuous consumption is finally hitting the auction houses. The first stumble in what may turn out to be a free fall happened this month in London, at the annual Frieze Art Fair with “weekend sales that fell well short of the low estimates.” Bigger art auctions in the coming weeks are expected to confirm the trend. The extremely cyclical art market has had severe downturns before, most notably in 1990. Art fans will be wondering what rises from the ashes this time around and prospective collectors – those few who have money to spend – may begin seeing bargains previously unheard of.
What about music? I don’t know – and music is already so fragmented as it is – but one might reductively say that grunge was born out of early-90s malaise and punk out of late-70s disgust.
Speculation aside, the arts are both a mirror and a filter. The last few months have felt momentous, and next month will likely be even more so. There’s much to be inspired by.