Eric Hobsbawm was a historian and a lover of the arts, a Marxist—Communist for as long as there remained a party of that name to take his subscription, then a professed social democrat—and an Englishman who was also a Viennese Jew of a certain age. These are the subjectivities at work, in varying combinations, in the twenty-two lectures, book reviews and other essays that make up Fractured Times. The matter of the book, in Hobsbawm’s opening words, is ‘what happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society’ after 1914, when the characteristic social class formations of the European bourgeoisie in the previous century had passed away. In fact, the book is more diverse and more varied in its emphases than that flat, singularizing pronouncement encourages readers to believe, and could hardly be otherwise, given its temporal span (1964 to 2012) and the occasional character of most and perhaps all of its constituents, half of which began life as spoken performances at museums, galleries and festivals.

Another force of diversification was the matchless curiosity of the author. The ‘culture’ of the title touches on all the important current meanings of the term: the classic high traditions of the arts and literature in Europe but also the historic avant-gardes of the early twentieth century and mass forms such as rock music or the Hollywood western; the ethos of science at the mid-century, as differently embodied in the careers of Joseph Needham and J. D. Bernal; the everyday phenomena of generalized commodity production; the mingling and remaking of symbolic behaviours of all kinds in the great migrations of the twentieth century, and the significance of globalization today; the changing patterns of public authority instanced in the contrasting destinies of the interventionist ‘free’ intellectual in the metropolitan world and the zealots of ‘public religion’, fundamentalist and disciplinarian, since the 1970s.

With great range and the generalizing requirement associated with guest lectures for occasional, non-specialist audiences, inevitably, come selectivity and strict economy of illustration. Europe is the main location of the book, and especially its German-language heartland. The culture that is its chief concern is aesthetic rather than conceptual, involving the pursuits of concert halls, galleries and theatres rather than universities and libraries. Within this bias towards the arts, there are further strong gradations of emphasis. Thus, opera is vividly present here, but there is little about literature or non-musical drama, even though a brilliant portrait of Karl Kraus and Die Fackel, his ‘lifelong monologue addressed to the world’, makes a large exception. Music is everywhere in the book, but not so composers or performers, who are sighted relatively infrequently, and then sometimes only indirectly: Beethoven is named, but only as a ‘name’, a scrap of general knowledge unlikely to disappear from the cultural database of the twenty-first century. Cinema is a key exhibit in Hobsbawm’s general argument, but seldom brought to the foreground, while television has an improbably minor part to play. In all, nevertheless, together with more closely focused studies of European Jewry and of class, gender and the significance of ‘youth’ in the late nineteenth century, these texts make a book rich in cultivation and learning, predictably strong in general assertion and sprinkled with arresting detail. It is also a book with a definite unity, though not quite in the terms that Hobsbawm’s overture proposes. For if we note that the earliest of these texts, a book review in the Times Literary Supplement, dates from as long ago as 1964, we then need to add, for clarity, that the next-oldest came fully three decades later, and that the greater part of the collection (two-thirds) was written after the turn of the century. This is late work, much of it post-dating Hobsbawm’s memoirs, Interesting Times, and late in a sense that goes beyond chronology, entering the substance of the writing.

The ‘fractures’ of the title are multiform. They include the estrangement of painting from its historic function of representation, with a consequent loss of significant audiences; and the twofold isolation of the devotees of the classical concert repertoire, who have been deserted by younger generations while themselves continuing to resist new and unfamiliar work in favour of a small catalogue of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century favourites. Other fractures are evident in those artistic disciplines where artisan craft traditions have not been adjusted for an environment geared to large-scale reproducibility. The apparent incommensurability of achievement across disciplines and, more so, registers of artistic practice is a fracture of the most general kind. However, for all its privileged status and aptness as a metaphor for observable cultural conditions, fracture is not the master-trope of the book it names. That distinction belongs to the overwhelming natural power of water. Hobsbawm’s language is insistent: ‘the present creative flood is drowning the globe’; it is ‘uncontrollable’, an ‘engulfment’, a ‘spate’, an ‘inundation’; a succession of ‘tsunamis’ past and to come. This new deluge is the spontaneous culture of developed capitalism today.

Hobsbawm framed his analyses as a social historian rather than a critic or theorist of culture or any art—not even jazz, which he wrote about for the New Statesman in the 1950s. His primary interest is in producers and their audiences, and in the changing articulations of technology and market that structure their histories, and all this in a spirit of comparative empirical inquiry. Fractured Times is a Marxist book about modern European culture that has no index entries for Adorno, Marcuse or Williams. Georg Lukács appears once, but only as a new kind of bourgeois: the son set free by parental subsidy to pursue a higher calling. Walter Benjamin appears in several guises, however, and most relevantly as the theorist of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and an inspiration for Hobsbawm’s reflections on the mixed fortunes of the arts in the twentieth century and since. The general case he makes here is straightforward. Technological reproducibility in the arts creates the possibility of mass markets, which, in turn, become the means of artistic viability in any given instance. Where these conditions are well matched, the cultural environment is favourable. Thus literature in its broadest sense, which has for five hundred years been adapted for the large-scale reproducibility inherent in moveable type, has flourished and continues to expand. Music of all kinds and vintages has been well served by the development of recording and broadcasting technologies, while film is the creation of mechanical reproduction and, despite the challenges posed by successive extra-cinematic forms of screening—television, home video and now digital and web-based innovations—has survived, the most successful art form of the twentieth century, into the new millennium.

Big architecture thrives on special terms as signature or legacy, in the grands projets of politicians and the tower-building mania of chief executives in the new centres of capital, though not sculpture, now that statuary has lost its place in the symbology of public spaces. Painting is worst off, having flailed, faltered and lost its way since the late nineteenth century. Objectively at risk of functional redundancy since the invention of photography, easel painters and muralists launched successive departures from the received forms of pictorial representation, with diminishing returns. After all, ‘a camera on a footplate can communicate the sensation of speed better than a Futurist canvas by Balla.’ Painting clung to artisanal norms of production and associated conceptions of the lone artist in historical conditions where mass reproducibility and collaborative work processes were becoming ever more widely the norm, with the paradoxical result that it now survives mainly as an art of homage or self-regard, the commissioned portrait in oils. (The market in investment art is another matter altogether.) In the visual arts more broadly defined, Art Nouveau showed what could still be achieved, especially when aesthetic principles were associated with strong social commitments, as in the creative lineage that ran from William Morris to the Bauhaus. However, this was not the typical case, and Art Nouveau failed because of its resistance to industrialism and its techniques—which the Bauhaus came to embrace on programmatic grounds, as did the assorted practitioners of Art Deco in a spirit of commercial realism. The musical avant-gardes of the past century have fared no better than their counterparts in painting, in Hobsbawm’s judgement. Schoenberg and his disciples failed to win over the existing audience for the central tradition of classical music and never assembled a significant new following for their innovations; jazz forfeited its popular audiences when it made a turn towards art music; the preference of the great majority of younger enthusiasts is rock and pop.

This is a mixed report, discipline by discipline and tradition by tradition, and characteristically hard-headed in manner. It is accompanied by a synoptic assessment, a background report quite general in reference and not at all mixed. Hobsbawm’s theme now is the historic dissolution of the conditions of artistic experience in the sense handed down from the nineteenth century as ‘culture’. That culture was a call to high seriousness: