“The Great Depression”, a term until recently relegated to history texts, is now once again appearing on the pages of newspapers. It is now, when comparisons between the global economic crisis of the 1930s are being echoed daily, that Dancing in the Dark appears. Penned by Morris Dickstein, this labyrinthine text of almost 600 pages attempts to chart the “crucial role that culture can play in times of national crises”.
Dickstein draws on a vast range of material – right the way from the Proletarian Novel to the Rockettes – to argue the importance of understanding that art is born out of its interaction with social reality which is not, as formalist critics try to claim, irrelevant, but necessary so that one can appreciate its full significance.
Although broad in content, Dickstein nevertheless manages to draw out habitual themes that mark many of the texts. A significant proportion of the book is devoted to dispelling the myth of the American Dream. Working his way through Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, La Cava’s My Man Godfrey and even Scarface he highlights how the notion of the American Dream is not only a product of individualistic optimism in times of desperation but also a class-based ideology that is commercially exploitative towards many.
Another current touched upon is the shared belief in the need for mass social action to better the conditions of people’s lives. Dickstein comments on how many writers and filmmakers showed (both consciously and unconsciously) “how old American individualism can’t really solve the economic crisis” and highlights the fact that “the only solutions are collective ones where people band together and recognise their common plight”. Whether this is through the bleak and sometimes dehumanising prose of Caldwell or the humorous and provocative Pins and Needles cabaret, the emphasis on the need for unity can be related to a sizeable portion of cultural output in the 1930s.
Through these considerations it becomes apparent that Dickstein is illustrating how the art of the 1930s was not just escapist. To him it reflects the most brutal aspects of human existence, especially in the rural areas, while at the same time showing people’s unrelenting resoluteness in spite of the incredible hardships they faced on a day to day basis. Art’s ability to humanise the social crisis into “narratives that everyone could grasp and feel” highlights its multi-faceted nature: at once aesthetically pleasing, uplifting and demanding. Incredibly well researched and timely, Dancing in the Dark reveals culture’s potential to galvanise whole generations, especially at times where there seems little hope – a message which resonates particularly well today, in the face of our own economic hardship.
Can existential dread also be funny?
Real interviews with the first casualties
A new book by James Poskett