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The Impact of World Wars I & II on the Arts

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  • 0:01 World Wars
  • 0:33 World War I and the Arts
  • 2:42 World War II and the Arts
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

World War I and World War II both dramatically impacted society, and their influence extended to the arts. Explore this connection and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

World Wars

It takes a lot to draw the entire world into a war. And with an event that affects so many people, there's a pretty noticeable impact on society. Kind of like how a giant meteor could impact the dinosaurs. Big difference. So, it's no surprise that the world wars influenced the arts in some dramatic ways. But does this mean that each war had the same influence? No. Two wars, two different impacts.

World War I and the Arts

The First World War started in 1914 with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Yugoslavian nationalist. Austria-Hungary ended up invading Serbia, and a decade of secret alliances between the major powers of Europe were instantly thrown into effect. In 1918, when it was all said and done, 9 million people were killed from over 25 different countries.

Many people blamed the war on aggressive nationalism, the greed of colonialism, and the quick rise in industrial technology. These ideas had been celebrated just before the war by groups like the Futurists, but after the war, art became more focused on the savage brutality to come from these forces. In Germany, former soldiers dedicated themselves to presenting the true nature of war in a movement called Neue Sachlichkeit, or 'New Objectivity'. Instead of glorifying war, these present a dark, savage, destructive experience.

Example of New Objectvity art

Many artists dealt with WWI by focusing on the destruction of the war. But not all of them. The Dada movement was founded on the idea that WWI was caused by the emphasis of reason and logic over emotions and humanity, and so they responded by rejecting any sense of reason. Dada art is irrational and absurd, inherently distrustful of tradition, and devoted to artistic and political anarchy.

Merzz. 53 Reed Bonbon

This is an example of Dada art. It's called Merzz. 53. Red Bonbon by Kurt Schwitters. This collage is made almost entirely out of pieces of junk Schwitters found on the street in trash bins. It is anarchist in that it relied on the pure luck of finding materials to use and absurd in the use of trash, as well as the title.

Dada helped art fully transition into the realm of the conceptual, which is art that is focused almost entirely on the meaning of the piece, not the physical appearance. The devastation of WWI prompted art to become more and more conceptual as people abandoned the traditions of the past.

World War II and the Arts

World War I was brutal and it left a lot of the world in shambles. This destruction prompted another rise in aggressive nationalism in several countries, and from 1939 to 1945 the world was plunged back into another war. World War II started with the Nazi invasion of Poland and ended with the use of atomic bombs on Japan by the U.S. Again, millions of lives were lost, and again, intellectuals noted the devastation of war. This led to a new wave in the philosophy of existentialism, which promoted the idea that existence is absurd and without inherent meaning. This idea was captured by artists like the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Giacometti's figures are little more than charred skeletons, partly reflecting the destruction of war, but also representing the cynicism of the existential movement. The figures appear lost, without purpose or guidance. Although this attitude did not last long, in the immediate years after the war, it was prevalent in many nations.

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