What happens to culture in a period of economic crisis? How do artists, writers, film-makers and performers respond when a so-called credit crunch turns to apparent capitalist meltdown? Such issues have recently taken on a new pertinence, as buried memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s resurface and trigger fears that we are entering a similar period.
As Morris Dickstein points out in his preface to Dancing in the Dark, "the 1930s offer an incomparable case study of the function of art and media in a time of social crisis". American artists responded to that crisis in a multitude of ways, producing a paradoxical scene of "great cultural spectacle against a backdrop of economic misery".
Dancing in the Dark examines some of the contradictions of the era in a broad and often sweeping glance through its most familiar cultural productions. The first section focuses on the landscape of poverty in proletarian realist fiction and poetry, on hard-boiled crime movies and on images of tenant farmers in fiction and photography. Part two examines the cultural depiction of deflated myths of success and upward mobility in film, fiction and theatre.
In the third section, Dickstein turns to the spectacle of elegance in the musicals and screwball comedies of the era, concluding with a look at the Art Deco design that helped create a backdrop of luxury and abundance. Part four concludes with an examination of popular front aesthetics in art, movies, music and particularly "folk-inspired" expressions of collective feeling, most notably in the songs of Woody Guthrie. As Dickstein shows, such a culture "could traffic in harsh exposure, warm empathy, fizzy distraction, or energetic uplift".
Looking at the 1930s in this broad way leads Dickstein into some obvious difficulties. Analysis is often sidelined to the retelling of so many narratives. For the non-specialist this may be a pleasant digest of a wonderful array of key feature films, novels, artists and performers, yet for anyone more familiar with the cultural output and scholarship of the era this reiteration of "top hits" and familiar stories provides little that is new.
At best, the book synthesises a wide array of works and previous studies; at worst, it repeats the generalisations and catechisms of past scholarship with stock ideas and phrases, many now outdated such as the claim that "most observers agree that women fared better than men during the Depression". Dickstein has clearly fallen into the trap of using histories to write his history: apart from a brief look at Zora Neale Hurston and Ginger Rogers, women writers and artists are sidelined all over again in his focus on the oft-remembered "forgotten man".
While it is often sprawling, the book's worst problem by far is the tendency to treat all forms of culture with the same critical brush. Can a Hollywood film, the product of so many creators and part of a huge profit-making industry, really convey a social or political message in the same way that an artist or poet does? Were those artists funded by a government welfare programme conveying ideas in the same way as a Hollywood songwriter?
With no consideration of the medium, Dickstein sees all culture seemingly "emerge" as a narrative of the crisis in a process that appears to lack any of the conflict or tension (between Government and people, between artist and industry or between classes and races) that we know was there at the time. Similarly, while it is notoriously difficult to know how audiences respond to popular culture, to Dickstein an audience zeitgeist is unified and uncomplicated. Yet assumptions about the collective mind based on readings of commercial entertainment rarely hold up on closer viewing.
Dickstein is at his best when he links trends and themes across decades and takes the long view of Depression culture, one that was informed by cultural shifts in the 1920s and which in turn informed the culture of the postwar era.
His warm and informal survey clearly conveys a pleasure and enthusiasm for the culture that hard times produced, one that could be both starkly bleak as well as startlingly beautiful. Yet if, in L.P. Hartley's famous phrase, "the past is a foreign country", Dickstein's book is not the map by which we will find our way home. It will, however, provide us with some - not unpleasant - familiar company to while away the time until recovery comes.
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
By Morris Dickstein
W. W. Norton, 576pp, £22.00
Published 20 October 2009