April 28, 2017  

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Art of War Event Highlights Social Transitions between Eras

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How do art and war converge to reflect what it means to be “modern” in a given era? In the aftermath of the First World War, British men and women performed modern dances as a way to push the trauma of war to the past and craft Britain’s postwar identity.

During the Vietnam War, South Vietnamese youth who embraced Western fashion and rock-n-roll music clashed with older intellectuals over how to express South Vietnam’s modern character.

War’s ability to disrupt social, cultural, and political norms has meant that periods of conflict and their aftermath often have opened the door for artistic expressions of modernism that signify the transitions between eras. The art of war is a window on how soldiers and civilians have made sense of conflict and its transformative impact on societies and nations.

On Saturday, April 30, the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at The University of Southern Mississippi will team up with the Mississippi Museum of Art for the 2nd annual “Dale Center Art of War Day” featuring the exhibit, When Modern was Contemporary: The Roy R. Neuberger Collection. The Neuberger Collection includes work by Milton Avery, Romare Bearden, Alexander Calder, Arthur Dove, Helen Frankenthaler, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, David Smith, and others whose art documents “the evolution of modernism in the visual arts of North America.”

The event is free except for the optional purchases of lunch and Dale Center authors’ books.

The program begins at 10 a.m., at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson with a panel of Dale Center faculty fellows discussing concepts of modernism that relate to their conflicts of specialty. These include early modern Asia, the American Colonial and Revolutionary eras, the U.S. Civil War, the World Wars and modern Vietnam. The panel will be followed by lunch and a book signing, and attendees can enjoy a tour of the Neuberger Collection led by the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Director of Engagement and Learning Daniel Johnson. 

In the afternoon, Dale Center British historian Dr. Allison Abra will give the keynote address on modernism and dance in interwar Britain. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, many Britons observed that the nation had entered a dancing “craze.” War-weary men and women of all classes took to the dance floor in an effort to celebrate their victory and forget their traumas, performing a wide array of new dances that were self-consciously “modern.”

Building on dramatic changes to dancing styles that had commenced even before the war, the first years of the peace saw the social ascendency of the foxtrot, one-step, and other so-called modern ballroom dances, which provoked strong admiration in some and condemnation in others.

While modern dance and modernist bodily expression tend to be most strongly associated with the concert dance of Isadora Duncan, Maud Allen, and Martha Graham, scholars are increasingly acknowledging social or popular dance as another important expression of modernity. This lecture will explore the ways in which the movements and meanings associated with modern popular dances helped Britons grapple with who they were, and who they wanted to become, following a devastating war. 

Dr. Abra’s talk is based on her book, Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-1950, which is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. It explores the development, experience, and cultural representation of popular dance in Britain during the first half of the twentieth-century.

Dr. Abra examines the interactions between Britain’s dance profession, dance hall industry, and dancing public to show how the creation of specifically ‘British’ dances reflected anxieties about the impact of Americanization on British national identity between the First and Second World Wars.

Interwar Britain saw the expansion of commercial leisure, a redefinition of gender roles, and significant changes to the racial make-up of the nation as the growing global dominance of the U.S. challenged British imperial hegemony. In this chaotic international mix, an everyday practice like dancing provided a way for Britons to make sense of and test the social boundaries of their worlds.