The End of the 20th Century

‘What if?’ That is a question asked often of the twentieth century, and as we head towards the centenary year of the outbreak of the first world war, it becomes increasingly important to ponder alternatives of a speculative world that might have been. History never ended.
One interesting argument for alternative events sees Britain do the unthinkable – not declare war on Germany. The likely outcome of that would have seen the Kaiser succeed. What then? One’s imagination has no bounds.
There would be no undue punishment meted out on the Germans, no Adolf Hitler, no second world war, no cold war, no grand ideological tussle and so forth. Generations of families would now exist and millions of people would not have perished.
One will never know and that is the curse of hindsight – a desire to seek out a different reality reminds us of the violence we’ve consciously wrecked upon one another; what pessimists might argue is, whether you are religious or not, the inevitable truth – original sin exists.
Optimists deny that downbeat assertion, stating that good always triumphs, and didn’t we, for example, defeat Nazism, didn’t we put a stake through the haze of false promises manufactured by Stalin and his loyal ideologues?
It is hard to say, which is why we continue to investigate. Liberal democracy might have triumphed but as the recent financial crisis revealed, the moral supremacy of western nations is, at times, pitiful. To what end are we attempting to reach when we let money dictate life?
A new exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Germany, examines this perplexing uncertainty and how lost we seem to be, the heavy weight of the last century clouding our judgement. Progress has been consistently stuttering away haphazardly throughout the entire start of the twenty first century.
With a paradox like the previous century, it is no surprise that we struggle to move forward. The museum notes that although the European Enlightenment is where the idea of man being in control of his own destiny originated – as well as giving birth to ‘scientific forecasting’ – the last 100 years was the proper realisation of utopian dreams and dystopian inevitability.
“It was the prodigious breakthroughs and milestones of the 20th century, the global cataclysms and vicissitudes from the First World War onwards that brought the future to the forefront of politics, science, the arts and everyday life.” The human condition is not without a sense of irony perhaps.
In the title of the show, which features works from Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman,Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Rainer Fetting, and Georg Baselitz, there is the line ‘the best is yet to come’.
Is that true? Most people live their lives in anonymity and while they may be prone to the odd moment or two of lamentation, the occasional exaltation of discontent, a whinge here and there, they get on. Yet for others, every breath is a struggle, the next morning always foreboding.
In the end, we must endeavour. The writer, thinker and politician Edmund Burke rightly said that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and that is an unmistakeable truth.
“The best is yet to come and won’t that be fine,” Frank Sinatra sang oh so beautifully. A great sentiment indeed; let’s hope he was right and that sooner, rather than later, we’ll get to see that.
‘The End of the 20th Century – The Best Is Yet to Come – A Dialogue with the Marx Collection’ at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Germany, runs until March 30th 2014.
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