You are here:   Civilisation >  Screen > They Never Saw The Crash Coming

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.

View Full Article
Edith Grove
February 29th, 2012
12:02 PM
Enjoyable writing but you seem to see the BBC drama department as an indicator of contemporary writing, of art, but it hasn't fulfilled that role for forty years. And aren't we now starting to live through Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel, Bonfire of the Vanities?

December 13th, 2011
10:12 AM
This article has stuck in my mind. It seems to be a projection of the author's failure to predict the riots in England. As they were happening. I feel it is unfair in both its demands on and evaluation of the arts. Dickens was writing about events a generation previously. That is hardly prescience The transgressions of comfortable elites are at the core of later Ballard. And it is a mistake to assume that the forms of artistic critique (or prediction, which really is not the job of the arts) in the early twenty first century must resemble those of the nineteenth. A cosy art of familiar moralising would not be a realistic bow wave for or response to the crash. Which leads us back to Hirst's skull...

November 7th, 2011
5:11 PM
didnt have a chance to see little dorrit will see today

Dave Weeden
November 3rd, 2011
5:11 PM
"The Modernist movement, whose emergence Hobsbawm described, inculcated the notion that politics, foreign policy, war, business, money and work were not fit subjects for respectable artists." Are you being serious? The movement which produced Ezra Pound, whose 'Guide to Kultur" rambles on about usury? The movement which included Wyndham Lewis and Robert Graves who both wrote splendid autobiographies about their war experiences? The movement which produced Picasso, whose 'Guernica' is a timeless polemic against war? Modernism runs through Steinbeck, who definitely wrote about class, work, and money. "Writers imagined every kind of powerful person presiding over every kind of disaster, except powerful bankers presiding over a financial disaster or the leaders of the European Union presiding over an economic one." Martin Amis, 'Success', 'Money'; Alan Hollinghurst, "The Line Of Beauty", Christopher Brookmyre, "Quite Ugly One Morning", Jonathon Coe, "What a Carve Up!" Of course, these are mostly about Thatcher's years, and with the exception of Amis were written some time after the period they described. That's because writers need time to digest and mulch events before turning them into fiction. However, there are contemporary writers who are popular and have been adapted for other media who write about these very things. There's really not much point in writing a novel about the collapse of the European Union: it would be science fiction if written now, and likely to look quaint at best by the time it reached the first reviewers. Lastly, at the cinema on Tuesday, I saw trailers for Tower Heist and Time and That's two films out next week which are about the rich squashing the poor. And films take a long time from script idea to release. The zeitgeist looks pretty healthy to me.

Sir Graphus
November 2nd, 2011
12:11 PM
Artists said nothing, because they are inherently left wing, and a Labour govt was in charge.

November 1st, 2011
10:11 PM
+1 for dirigible :-)

October 31st, 2011
1:10 PM
"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." For The Love Of God...

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.