In Peter Biskind’s celebratory history of the New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a movie executive says of the late 60s: “It was like the ground was in flames and tulips were coming up at the same time.” That period is a classic example of the popular idea that turbulent times breed great art: the old norms crumbled and new energy unleashed. You might also think of punk rock or the popular art of the Great Depression. It is an attractive notion: it suggests that the world at least gives us a consolation prize when it turns to crap. It is intuitive, too: we know that individual artists are often at their most vital and ingenious when they are struggling to be heard, so why not en masse? But it is not actually true.
The idea depends on selection bias. Looking back, writers and film-makers favour work that is consonant with its times, which is why you might get the impression that, in 1969, Americans were listening to nothing but Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones rather than, say, Sugar, Sugar by the Archies. In the moment, however, urgent brilliance tends to coexist with lightweight escapism. It is well known that in July 1981, as civil unrest erupted in Britain’s cities, the No 1 single was the Specials’ uncannily prescient Ghost Town. Less well known is the fact that its chart rivals included the novelty medley Stars on 45 and Bad Manners’ ska version of the Can Can: songs that never accompany documentary montages of streets on fire.
Political art, it’s true, needs to grow in hard soil. We wouldn’t have Ghost Town, Guernica or The Grapes of Wrath if everything had been peachy. But most forms of artistic expression have a more complicated pattern of cause and effect. A technological shift, a new funding model, a vibrant local scene or the presence of a few visionary individuals can be just as galvanising as adversity. Hip-hop, for example, evolved out of the cash-strapped chaos of 1970s New York but couldn’t have done so without the novel availability of affordable turntables, samplers and synthesisers or the DJ culture of West Indian immigrants. All these different factors mean that each artform and genre has its own historical arc. Ask critics of movies, music, theatre, TV and visual art to pick their respective golden ages and you’ll find they don’t sync up.
If the 70s provide the strongest recent evidence for the flames-and-tulips theory, the great counter-example is the 90s: a decade of relative peace and prosperity in the west. At one end, it gave us acid house, alternative rock and a revolution in independent cinema; at the other, a milestone year for movies and the dawn of the golden age of TV. It may not have been a great vintage for social realism or protest songs but the 90s didn’t want for creativity.
The myth cuts both ways. Romanticising the inspirational power of poverty or anxiety can be tasteless (the singer Amanda Palmer was slammed for saying in 2016 that “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again”) and helpful to those who want to slash arts funding. At the same time, it’s an encouraging reminder of the tenacity of art. Even if it’s not true to say that dire times must inspire creative excellence, it’s always important to know that they can.