Feb 23, 2009, 07:56AM

Now is like then, but then is not like now

The economic situation is more and more similar to the Great Depression. Will contemporary art mirror the 30s as well?

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece by Sean McCann, an English professor at Wesleyan University, titled “Will This Crisis Produce a 'Gatsby'?” A rather provocative headline, yet the article doesn’t answer the question. Indeed, the last paragraph states, in perfectly gray tones,

It is not yet clear whether the current economic disaster will produce anything like the profound transformation that shook the U.S. during the Great Depression. Our own crises of belief are likely just beginning. If we are fortunate, however, we will have a generation of artists and intellectuals like those of the 1930s to help us imagine our way past confusion.

The article ends with an academically quaint—or quaintly academic—wish: good writers producing good literature with Gatsby-ish meat on our nation’s lean bones. It is one thing to understand economic history, to find parallels between today and the 1930s in America or Japan in the 1990s; it is quite another to assume the art of the 30s is in some way a baseline for art made in economically challenging times.

Perhaps I am quibbling with the article’s headline and thus the assumptions a reader brings to the article. McCann deftly highlights the general arc of cultural output in the 30s:

The road novels, documentary books and gangster films of the 1930s depicted the myth of social mobility as a bitter cheat. The era's screwball comedies viewed it merely as delightfully laughable. But all suggested that the Depression had left a core feature of American ideology in disarray, and thus emphasized the extent to which the traditional American language of personal ambition was open to redefinition. That opportunity would be seized on by a cohort of artists and intellectuals who took the crisis of the Depression as a chance to cast the idea of social mobility less as a framework for individual striving and more as an occasion for collective action.

America today is indeed in the midst of an untangling, for the better and for the worse (it seems like only the latter, right now). This untangling, though, is paired with the unstoppable burgeoning and intertwining of the Internet, Information and Digital Ages to the point where the current recession is mapped in real time with instantaneous analyses (again, for better and for worse). The dissemination of ideas, of culture in general, is so vast that I find it hard to believe a single novel or group of novels—or plays, or works of visual art—could possibly bring unknown light to our situation. Doubtless, 50 years from now, there will be standouts—a particular series of blog posts, a novel, a graphic novel or a film—that offer themselves as high-water marks, or at least signposts that offer a, um, triangulation of sorts.

The Great Gatsby was not a hit until decades later, in the 50s and 60s, on the other side of the Depression and the Second World War. And for all the good our hyper-informed culture does us, the only litmus test for the ages is time.

  • I agree with you about time being the only real test of greatness. Does anyone in 2009 remember Booth Tarkington? He won two Pulitzer Prizes (to Hemingway's one), in 1919 and 1922, and yet I doubt either of those books is required reading in a single college course. That's why I'm always wary of book critics - they write for the present when the real question is the future.

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