Art and the First World War


  • John Molyneux


Art reflects society. This statement, which is based on a core proposition of historical materialism, is fundamentally true - all art has its roots in developing human social relations - but it is also a condensation of a very complex interaction. This is because the social relations that art reflects are antagonistic relations of exploitation, oppression and resistance. So we should also remember Brecht's words that ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it'. In Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance art ‘reflected' society in that a huge amount of it was commissioned by the church and religious subject matter was predominant. But this didn't stop Michelangelo, for example, using an ostensibly religious subject, such as David, to express both revolt of the people of Florence against rule by the Medici bankers and homoeroticism. Rembrandt ‘reflected' the early bourgeois society of the 17th century Dutch Republic by painting numerous portraits of Dutch burghers but also drew attention to, and showed his sympathy with, the outcasts of that society in his etchings of beggars. Constable ‘reflected' the industrial revolution sweeping Britain at the time not by painting factories but by painting the English landscape as a rural idyll, much as Wordsworth and Coleridge took off to the Lake District. William Morris expressed his hatred for late Victorian capitalism by celebrating the visual culture medieval Europe.