100 Years after the Great War
In the century that has passed since the First World War, Europe has undergone a transformation from an industrial to a post- industrial society. The impact of the industrial revolution, and reflection upon this theme, is now the subject of numerous exhibitions and events being held this year to mark the outbreak of the war a hundred years ago. Belgian publicist and curator Kurt Vanbelleghem has noted a distinctive parallel to our present time.
The First World War can, without a doubt, be characterised as a shrine to the industrial revolution. The preceding, less devastating wars that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century saw a great deal of experimentation with new forms of warfare, in which the numerous inventions of an industrial society were transformed with a view to creating the most destructive impact possible on the enemy side.
The discovery of petroleum and combustion engines, paired with the invention of steel, contributed in turn to the invention or further development of tanks, canons, submarines, warships and aircraft. Thanks to the production of electricity and the invention of the telephone, information could be disseminated faster than ever, while the newly developed railway network ensured the necessary and continuous supply of munition and soldiers to the front. The deployment of the new working class, characterised by exploitation and alienation, had a hitherto unprecedented impact on the entire concept of warfare and led to inhuman indignities with regard to the strategies proposed by commanders-in-chief.
Following the First World War, various social experiments were carried out worldwide in an attempt to understand how the immense pool of creativity and knowledge amassed in the nineteenth century could possibly have culminated in one of the greatest massacres in the history of mankind. The Western world responded by establishing and further expanding a welfare state that would reach its apex in the 1960s and 1990s.
Following the doctrine of neo-liberalism, this welfare state is now rapidly being dismantled. We now live in a post-industrial economic reality in which we are directly influenced by the relocation of the manufacturing industry within the context of globalisation. The service sector is also subject to this centrifugal force. This has resulted in a society that is afraid of losing its privileges and alarmed by modernisation and alternatives. Populist political views and related media constantly impress on us that things can only take a turn for the worse; that we need to focus on preserving what we have and that we can only operate within those confines to safeguard our standard of living.
It is remarkable that these factions lean heavily on creativity, which is being propagated as the concept upon which the next economic revolution hinges. The problem is, however, that this creativity is being defined solely within a strictly conservative economic philosophy and is therefore contingent upon a high degree of dedication. There is little space for autonomous creativity; to the contrary, barely any funding is being reserved for this on the pretext of a necessary implementation of far-reaching savings in the cultural sector.
In all its vehemence, the First World War was caused in part by the dominant influences exerted by a social system that was directed by liberal economic policy and in which creativity, human values and knowledge were transformed into banal commercial values. A century later we find ourselves once again in a conservative-liberal context that echoes a similar adage.
Belgian cultural philosopher Pascal Gielen proposes that, today, it is with all certainty the task of the artist to show that all that is, could easily be otherwise or could, in any case, have been otherwise in the past. At this point in our history, looking back on the horrors of 100 years ago, this task is not reserved solely for the artist, but for all people who, out of an autonomous desire, wish to stimulate critical reflection and experimentation in themselves and in others.
- Ravage. Kunst en cultuur in tijden van conflict (till 1-09-2014), Museum M, Leuven, Belgium
- Expo 14-18. It's our History! (till 26-04-2015), Royal Museum of the Army and of Military History, Brussels, Belgium
- Sauve qui veut. Des musées mobilisés, 1914-1918 (till 6-07-2014), Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai, France
- Les désastres de la guerre. 1800-2014 (till 6-10-2014), Louvre, Lens, France
- All events Limburg 1914-1918 on www.limburg1914-1918.be
- All events ‘14-18’ in de IJzerstreek on www.flandersfields.be/nl/evenementen-2014-2018
- All events Das Rheinland und der Erste Weltkrieg on www.rheinland1914.lvr.de
-All events 100 Jahre Erster Weltkrieg in Aachen