Cold War Modern

I went to the excellent Cold War Modern exhibit at the V&A museum, a very specific take on what’s usually called in Britain the “postwar” period, concentrating on design and art from 1945 to 1970. Muscle-flexing propaganda from Moscow (and to a lesser extent from Washington), nuclear nightmares, the space race, the successful revolutions against the west in Cuba and Southeast Asia, the less successful ones against both sides of ’68. Although there was plenty of work from America (Lever House, Dr Strangelove, Eames chairs), to me the more interesting were the Moscow apartment houses, the Czech glassworks, Le Corbusier’s avant-garde film made with Varèse and Xenakis.

But because of the remit of the show, literature and music — especially rock’n’roll — were largely missing. So I’ll use this opportunity to post these reminders to a couple of my favorite and still relevant cold war artifacts.

First, from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever….

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.

On the other hand, less overtly life-affirming, we have the Sex Pistols’ Holidays in the Sun, Johnny Rotten trying to take a visit to East Germany in 1977.

Well they’re staring all night and
They’re staring all day
I had no reason to be here at all
But now I gotta reason it’s no real reason
And I’m waiting at the Berlin Wall

Gotta go over the Berlin Wall
I don’t understand it….
I gotta go over the wall
I don’t understand this bit at all….

Claustrophobia there’s too much paranoia
There’s too many closets so when will we fall

Gotta go over the Berlin Wall
I don’t understand it….
I gotta go over the wall
I don’t understand this bit at all…

Please don’t be waiting for me

But this doesn’t capture Rotten’s manic, fearful delivery, standing among and watching the end of man. Is it safe on either side of the wall? Who is it that might be waiting for him? When will I be blown up?