Aristotelian mimesis (the theory that art imitates life) presupposes a state of true perfection in nature that all higher forms of human expression grope towards. The opposite, anti-memesis, suggests that true perfection in nature exists only because we (as artists) put it there. Life imitates art. So, looking forward to the post-COVID world, how will we react artistically to this period in history? Will our art fail to adequately express what happened, or will we conflate it with meanings that weren’t really there? Will we be overwhelmed, underwhelmed, or merely whelmed?
2019-20 will be a dot on the human timeline. A mere dot. Assuming our instinct for art hasn’t changed in a hundred years, how we were influenced by the Spanish Flu offers a hint at how we’ll react to the “China Flu” when it’s gone. But first, a rider. The Spanish Flu coincided with the Great War, killing at least 80 million people between them. Even with second and third waves of COVID hammering some countries, we’re only at 1.5 million deaths worldwide. I say ‘only’ just to highlight that the China Flu is incomparable to the Spanish Flu. Don’t let some snowflake tell you otherwise.
German writer Hans Janowitz returned from the war a pacifist, having served as an officer. He met Carl Mayer, a Jewish Austrian dramatist, in Berlin where they wrote the script for a film which Fritz Lang must have regretted abandoning. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) is quintessential German Expressionism, and the first true horror film. A bleak, unredemptive post-war tale of brutality, madness and betrayal, it reflects a resentful nation stunned at the loss of a war they’d been told — until the very last days — that they were winning. Instead, reeling under the yoke of reparations, they became international pariahs. Other dark gems like Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927) bloomed in this same blood-soaked ground, as did Fascism, hungering to restore the nation’s wounded pride.
Reversing the coin, F. Scott-Fitzgerald went to his grave never guessing The Great Gatsby (1925) would be hailed a masterpiece. It tells the story of an ambitious young man’s pursuit of the American Dream, his fall and apotheosis: in the end, he sees the moral decay behind the facade of wealth and success he coveted. Written at the height of the Roaring Twenties before the Great Depression and rise of Nazism, Gatsby illustrated the brash overconfidence and moral superiority of a victorious nation and the illusion that good times would never end. The novel mirrored Fitzgerald’s embrace of the decadent playboy lifestyle, but also his descent into alcoholism, depression and death at the ripe old age of 44, believing himself an artistic failure.
German painter Otto Dix was a realist who painted what he saw and remembered. Plagued by nightmares of his time in active service, Dix painted grotesqueries. Either mutilated and mouldering corpses lying in muddy trenches, or the gaudy, painted men and women he saw partying in the streets of Berlin. The Germans of the Wiemar Republic were so desperate to drink and dance their way through their national guilt, that they spurned the legless and disfigured soldiers that filled the streets. Dix was disgusted, and wrote: All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.
The juxtaposition of German film / American literature / German painting might illustrate the difference winning and losing makes. If your nation ‘wins’ this fight against COVID0-19, then it may tell many a sunny, boastful Fitzgeraldian lie about itself as the economy bounces and a post-virus boom lifts living standards. Australia seems likely to be in that group. I’m bracing for our Prime Minister to begin grabbing all the credit in the lead up to the next federal election. It will be awful, but not as awful as stacking the bodies of plague victims in the street.
Where do you live? Angela Merkel just announced further lockdowns for Christmas. The Swedish experiment was an abject failure. The Indian subcontinent is reeling to huge infection numbers. The US is sick from coast to coast with the dead and dying. But again, to put it all into perspective, the China Flu is incomparable to the Spanish Flu. But we’re also much less resilient. Will our art tell the story of how we came together to beat this thing, or will we just keep politicising and fetishizing it because we don’t give a shit whether the poor, brown people live or die?