I’ve mentioned before on this blog the wonderful 1969 British TV series, Civilisation, written and presented by historian Kenneth Clark. It was Clark’s attempt to summarise the last thousand or so years of western civilisation not by focusing on its politics (who invaded who and when) but on its art.
Clark’s assumption was that great art provides the truest form of expression of a civilisation because it is not caught up in the triviality of fashion, the hysterics of day-to-day politics or the dogmatic belligerence of religious dispute. Great artistic movements also transcend national boundaries and so provide an object of study that corresponds to the level of civilisation, which is almost always supra-national.
Recently, I went back to the final episode of Clark’s series to find a reference and realised something I hadn’t fully grasped the first time around. Clark called the final episode Heroic Materialism and it is the one episode in the series where he expressly forgoes an analysis of art for something different. That something different is the railways, bridges and skyscrapers that we all take for granted in the modern world but which originated in England in the 19th century. The building of these enormous objects required genuinely heroic effort and they also implied a worship of mammon. Put the two together and you get Heroic Materialism.
The first thing to note about this is what Clark explicitly didn’t cover in his last episode; namely, pretty much the whole of 20th century art. No Picasso, no expressionists, no cubists, no Jackson Pollock or abstract art, no Stravinsky or Schoenberg, no modernist literature, certainly no conceptual art. Clark implied that these innovations, whatever their artistic merit, were no longer the primary expression of the culture in the way that Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare or Michelangelo were in times past.
If art was no longer the primary expression of the culture, what was? The answer was the aforementioned railways, bridge and skyscrapers. These were created not by artists but by engineers using the language of mathematics alongside the new materials that the industrial revolution had brought into being. This combination of mathematics and engineering created its own style.
Clark differentiated engineering from science because this was also the time when science, through Einstein and quantum physics, had begun to detach itself from everyday life and had even, both metaphorically and literally through the atomic bomb, become a threat to life.
It was engineering tied to capitalism that constituted Heroic Materialism and changed the physical world around us. The world that we still inhabit embodies the bourgeois ethic of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Bigger is better.
Shortly after mulling over the above points, I happened to be sitting in my car at a traffic light and looking across the road at one of the many new rail bridges that have been built here in Melbourne in the last several years. Suddenly, it occurred to me that these bridges are also the ongoing expression of Heroic Materialism.
Now you might say to yourself that a rail bridge is built for practical, utilitarian reasons and that is exactly how the government here sold them to the public. But I can tell you from direct experience that this is not true. The reason I had time to sit in my car and peruse the giant chunks of concrete across the road was that, despite the newly built rail bridge, the traffic at the intersection where I was sitting has only gotten worse in recent years. As far as I can tell, the rail bridge has made no noticeable difference to traffic flows and, in fact, the changes in the local roads that were made in order to build the bridge have made my general commute around the neighbourhood worse. By utilitarian criteria, the bridges are a failure.
What if we don’t really judge such bridges by utilitarian criteria at all? What if the bridges are built precisely because they are the expression of our deepest values, of Heroic Materialism itself? Here in Melbourne, we have spent tens of billions of dollars on rail bridges in recent years and have increased the state’s debt in order to do so. The official reason was to save people time driving in their cars. But any time that might have been saved by the bridges was quickly eaten up by the increases in population which means more cars on the road and more time sitting at traffic lights. If we actually cared about making people spend less time in cars, a cheaper and more effective way would be to have smaller cities but smaller cities contradict the bigger is better ethos that underlies Heroic Materialism.
The truth is that Clark was right, the bridges are built because they are an expression of our values. The State Premier here in Victoria, the man who became world famous during corona for telling people not to watch the sunset, has enjoyed great popularity in recent years and looks set to win an election again this year despite having given Melbourne the longest lockdown in the world. How is this possible? Because he gives the public what they want and what the public wants are large, public demonstrations of power in the form of rail bridges, rail loops, huge underground tunnels and skyscrapers.
The link here to corona is not accidental. The lockdowns and vaccines were also Heroic Materialism in action. They were Heroic Materialism applied to a domain where it doesn’t belong and doesn’t work but, again, that was not the point. The point is the expression of values. In that way, it was fitting that Melbourne had the longest lockdown in the world. That was only ever possible because people here really believe in the underlying ethic.
Heroic Materialism also explains other seemingly incongruous aspects of modern society. For example, why has the environmental movement shifted away from the local, communal, small is beautiful ethic of the 70s towards the save-the-planet ethic of recent times? Answer: Heroic Materialism.
We can’t possibly fix all these problems at the household or community level. That’s not heroic enough. No. We must build enormous wind farms and solar plants. The bigger the better.
The modern environmental debate now revolves around which ginormous technological solution will save us. On the right side of the political spectrum are those who say we should stick to coal and gas and on the left are those who think wind farms and solar panels will do it. Underlying it all is the assumption that heroic feats of engineering must be deployed.
Strangely enough, it seems both sides of politics have recently agreed that nuclear power will once again solve all our problems. Didn’t these people watch The Simpsons?
One of the side effects of Heroic Materialism is the feeling of powerlessness at the individual level. Heroic Materialism dictates that we formulate problems of such enormous scope that there simply isn’t anything a single person or even a small community can do about them. So, we must leave it to “the experts”. Gigantic projects also require gigantic injections of capital and thus behind the scenes are Mr Burns and his friends who fund the whole shebang and from whose point of view bigger really is better because their cut is directly proportional to the size of the transaction.
It’s the bankers and technocrats who run Heroic Materialism and always have. The de-humanising aspect of the ethic has always been its scale which seems expressly designed to make the individual feel as small and insignificant as possible. Just a cog in a machine. I noted with interest that the new Italian Prime Minister said almost exactly that during the recent election campaign in Italy. She spoke of “identity” and not being a “consumer slave” beholden to financial interests.
Those with a knowledge of history will recognise the tone of those words. Last time we tried to combat the problems of Heroic Materialism through politics it turned into an even worse version of Heroic Materialism much like the environmental movement has since it sold out in the 1980s.
And this is where we come back around to Kenneth Clark and to art. Art has always been concerned with the individual. Art took a backseat in the 20th century because the 20th century was the turning away from the individual and towards the mass, the crowd, the aggregate. As Heroic Materialism continues to falter around us every day, one of the silver linings for those of us who care about art is that we may see an artistic revival and along with it a return to the human and the humane.