The price of peace is stagnation

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So far, the highest-grossing films of 2024 are a sequel derived from an old novel (Dune: Part Two), the fourth in a series (Kung Fu Panda 4) and, in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, the fifth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise, the 13th in the King Kong franchise and the 38th in the Godzilla franchise. 

Hollywood, always the least interesting thing about LA, is spent. But, it can retort, who isn’t? Look at the music world. A pop song is still a four minute-ish event with a recurring hook, as it was in 1960. Look at tech. An ever-slimmer phone is a step forward, no doubt, but not in the sense that refrigeration or air travel was a step forward. Once you hear about the “great stagnation” in ideas, you can’t stop seeing it. Even in interiors — the open-plan kitchen-lounge, the mock-industrial surfaces — little changes. 

The challenge is to explain why. Peter Thiel blames, among other things, state regulation. The economist Tyler Cowen says the curse of rich societies is to have digested all the low-hanging fruit long ago. 

There is another answer. It comes to me amid the 150th anniversary of the first Impressionist exhibition. The ultimate cause of stagnation is peace. As well as being the worst thing our species does, war is a creative spur. Several decades without an existential one might have had a drying-up effect on the western imagination. 

Travel back for a moment to the world of the Impressionists. It is 1871 and France has fallen to Prussia. People are eating zoo animals to survive. When the victors proclaim a new unified state of their own, the venue of choice is not Berlin but down the road at Versailles. Because that isn’t spiteful enough, the indemnity levied on France amounts to around a quarter of its national output. 

Given this context, the question isn’t how Claude Monet and his friends broke through. It is how they could ever have been stopped. The established order — including the Salon de Paris, with its strict policing of art — was discredited. For the punters, not just the artists, old certainties were now negotiable. Visible brush strokes, non-aristocratic sitters: when you have eaten elephant for dinner, these breaks with painterly convention seem less scandalous. 

It isn’t the first time that a change in human thought or expression has followed a period of shattering violence. After England’s civil war, there was a flowering of science and, in Isaac Newton, a world-historical individual. The industrial revolution came just after the Seven Years’ War. The link between the Great War and Modernism, between the Somme and “The Waste Land, needs no going over. (Wittgenstein took notes for the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a soldier.) And then there is Vietnam. Hollywood’s last golden age, the 1970s, is inseparable from America’s last conscript war.

It is hard to establish cause and effect. Wars are so frequent that one can always be tied to a chronologically adjacent invention. Still, the west’s Long Peace more or less maps on to the stagnation that Cowen and others describe. And it is possible to theorise how war might serve as a stimulant. First, the trauma forces the imagination into new and strange places. Second, the resulting ideas are easier to sell because the ruling ideas are so tainted with blood. Third, the violence itself often gives rise to some kind of technical innovation.

In The Third Man, Orson Welles’s character observes that, while the warring states of the Italian peninsula gave us the Renaissance, serene Switzerland produced the “cuckoo clock”. (Harsh on Rousseau and Le Corbusier, that.) The film came out in 1949. A human lifetime later, he could be describing the entire western world. I am writing this on a MacBook that is much the same as the laptop I first owned a generation ago. People watch episodic TV shows, as they did in 1990, even if they do so on-demand. We who dine out most nights wait, in vain, for a new direction in the restaurant world. I now see all this sameness as the (dirt cheap) price of prolonged peace. I have no certainty that a war would be a creative stimulus, just a nauseous feeling that we are due to find out.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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