Classic victim of a Ponzi scheme: Claire Foy in the title role in "Little Dorrit"
Writing about Europe just before it descended into the barbarism of the First World War, Eric Hobsbawm came up with a nonchalant sentence that any historian would have killed to have thought of first: "Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history."
Hobsbawm meant that if a European citizen had listened to official society he would have still heard confident voices proclaiming the superiority of European civilisation. Right up to the moment of its collapse into war, Communism and fascism, politicians talked about peace and prosperity, and establishment intellectuals assured their readers that progress would continue its steady march. If the citizen had turned to the arts in early 1914, however, he would have found an intimation of the chaos to come. Expressionism, Futurism, atonality, Cubism and all the other revolutions in style, form and taste foretold a disorientating future in which the old rules no longer applied.
The function of the artist as canary in the coalmine has long gone. It is unlikely that any historian will look to the arts of the first decade of the 21st century to find warnings of the economic collapse of the West.
I wrote in Standpoint, just after the crash of 2008, how revealing it was that the BBC drama department had to revive Little Dorrit because no modern writer had matched or thought of matching Dickens's dramatisation of a Ponzi scheme in operation. In Britain, and to a lesser extent America, novelists, dramatists and artists of all kinds failed even to glance at the riotous spectacle of high finance which was about to explode on their doorstep.