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June 08, 2004

FvB on France, America, Modernist Art, etc.

He may have retired from blogging, but Friedrich von Blowhard is obviously powerless to keep his brain from its usual concerns. Here's something I've slapped together from a few of the recent emails my former co-blogger has sent me.

It will no doubt amuse you to hear that I am still reading about art, religion, France and America. To wit, I can't make sense out of the collapse of the French between the World Wars out of your notion of a highly disciplined bourgeois life made liveable by a measured (if psychologically central) indulgence in the pleasure principle. I can only assume that what you saw in the early 1970s was the result of the French having renounced their one-time world-historical role (i.e., the Grand Nation, the Revolutionary Nation, the Napoleonic Empire, Paris as the capital of the 19th Century, etc.) as exhausting and beyond their means. I suppose one could say that ambition had been beaten out of them by the World Wars, by their rather humbled position in the Cold War era, by Algeria, by Vietnam, etc.

My guess would be that the dilemma of the last three centuries for the French-- .e., what might be termed the post-Louis XIV era--has been that their fundamentally feudal culture has simultaneously been so out of touch with the needs of the modern world and yet somehow impossible for them to give up and still think of themselves as French. They spent decade after decade (really, century after century) trying to "fix the problem" without really changing anything that was a "core principle" (and working really hard, most of the time, to avoid acknowledging that they would never regain the glory days of Louis XIV). Every ambitious attempt to adjust to the modern world -- the attempts at reform by the 18th century monarchy, the Revolution, the Napoleonic "distraction," the Third Republic (which actually kind of worked, but only kind of), the Popular Front, their attempts at imperialism, etc., etc., kept ultimately blowing up in their face, either from within (because they wandered too far from their core, essentially feudal, conservatism) or from without (because other societies that had made better adjustments to the modern world kept kicking their asses.) Hence they raised the art of the public "argument" about what they needed to do to a much higher pitch than in any other society, which gave their country a uniquely intellectual form of amusement (but not just amusement; there was a serious problem that they needed to solve and it was a really tough nut to crack).

In their defense, I guess you could say that the French--rather heroically--kept picking up the pieces and trying again to master the Sisyphean task of reconciling feudalism with the modern world, and each failure seems to have helped them adjust, if only incrementally, in the next period (if only by reconciling them to the notion that "greatness"--that most dangerous of addictions--was further and further out of their grip).

I guess what I've just typed out is a sort of notion of history that's analogous to an individual's psyche--that is, sort of a mix of inner necessity and a shifting set of external problems. What you hold onto, what you've got to let go. Or at least, what might be the case if a person lived centuries rather than decades.

I'm reading a book by Colin Jones, The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (buyable here). In the opening, which deals with later years of the Sun King, it struck me that most of the tendencies you identify as quintessentially French were plainly visible in the old boy.

For example, you refer to French people getting up in the morning eager to get on with "being French." It's hard not to see a similar gusto for defining routine in Louis XIV:

The scheduling of court ritual was geared with minute exactitude to the daily routines of monarch, from the "rising" of the Sun King, in the elaborate ceremonies of the lever, to his 'setting' (the coucher). The royal chronometer was so precise, estimated the duc de Saint-Simon, the greatest memorialist of the reign, that an individual 300 leagues distant from Versailles could know exactly what the king was doing at any moment of the day merely by consulting a watch.

Also note the paramount (if flexible) nature of tradition trumping any amount of "theory":

[The Royal perogatives] were not, however, to be exercised arbitrarily. Bodin stated, for example, that the king's "absolute" authority was subject to the laws of God and nature. In the latter were grouped what Bodin referred to as 'conventions' and which from the late sixteenth century were increasingly referred to as "fundamental maxims" or "fundamental laws." There was no exhaustive or agreed list of these. Some were technical points about the succession: that the crown was hereditary, for example, accorded by primogeniture, and worn by a male and a Catholic. At the coronation, kings swore oaths which stressed the funamental laws, including the upholding of justice, the maintenance of the church in its rights, the banishment of heresy and so on. In the absence of the kind of written constitution which was introduced by the French Revolutionaries later in the century...other fundamental laws were less legislative fiats than customs, practices and procedures, hallowed by time and embedded in ritual. Their flexibility and informality meant that they could be subject to varying interpretation. Indeed, political life consisted in the ways those practices and rituals were conducted and interpreted, and the claims which they appeared to justify and legitimate.

Also note the importance of style (i.e., putting on a good face) to the French:

'People who think that [courtly rituals] are merely ceremonial affairs are seriously mistaken,' [Louis XIV] wrote in the memoirs he destined for his son. "The people over whom we reign are unable to penetrate to the core of things and base their judgements on what they see on the surface, and it is precisely on rank and precedence that they measure their respect and obedience.

And the importance of Louis the Great for subsequent French governments:

Yet the political heritage of Louis XIV would not be disposed of as easily as his biological body. His reign provided a kind of template of kingship which it was to prove extremely difficult to eradicate from the political consciousness of his successors and the statesman who served them. For most of the remainder of the eighteenth century [and well beyond!!!!-WM] politics would not be the anticipation of the Revolution of 1789--as historians sometimes blithely assume--but in dialogue with Louis XIV's reign. Even [though there was] a widespread wish to reform the overweening political culture of the "Louis the Great', it would prove extremely difficult to wash the Sun King out of the French nation's hair.

Heck, they haven't done it yet. One would actually guess that for the French, egalite is defined as letting every man play Louis XIV (if on a more modest scale). Perhaps it wasn't an accident that French women didn't get the vote until after WWII!

I can't claim to have this all worked out yet, it's a huge mass of material. But just stepping back and looking at the simplest outline of the situations, it kind of blows the whole notion that Modernism represented the same thing to everyone in the world from Russia to Japan sky-high.

That myth seems to have been perpetuated by museums who have collections assembled under the idea that Modernism is the art deriving from the Post-Impressionists (the MOMA story, concocted to justify the ancestral MOMA holdings, of course) and by Marxist scholars who want to explain what that art means, the answer unsurprisingly turning out to be a Marxist criticism of capitalist society.

Which is pretty weird, as it often seems that modern art has functioned as more of an escape from highly politicized environments, a private, non-political space than as a forum for political commitment. I mean, if you really want to do politics, I'd think you'd be far better off with representational art than with abstraction--a lot easier for the man in the street to decode. Who ever got more political than J. L. David?

Believe it or not, all this derives from your question in the blog about what happened to the American Renaissance. I've got some theories about America going, and I'm trying to understand the French case as a sort of control group or something. In other words, trying to understand Modernism in one country is one thing, but a theory should, I think, try to generalize to multiple cases. Basically, I'm trying to make sense out the following data.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries (c. 1885-1910) both countries were under a lot of tension despite fairly high prosperity. In the U.S. you had very high levels of immigration and industrial growth. In France, you had significant industrial growth (although nothing like the American situation, where America was rapidly becoming the equivalent of the whole rest of the world combined, industrially) and fear of another war with Germany (essentially over the imperialistic ambitions of both countries, esp. in Africa).

In both countries you had class warfare issues arising out of industrialization, leading in the U.S. to labor strife and in France to labor strife and an uptick in far-left politics. In America, upper-class politics moved towards Progressivism (i.e., reform movements led by traditional elites, to head off far left politics and to control the immigrant masses) and upper-class religion moved towards the Social Gospel (the mainline Protestant religious equivalent to Progressive politics, which largely accepted a scientific worldview, including evolution). Average Americans innovated via "fundamentalist" religion, the centerpiece of which was the founding of Pentacostalism (in L.A. in 1900!).

In France you had a growth of "extreme" politics on both the far-right and the far-left; religion marched on the far-right (which led to the dis-establishment of the Catholic Church by the center-left.) In philosophy, Comtean positivism was out, Bergson was in. Non-elite responses largely focused on unions and radical politics.

In painting, on the left America developed the Ashcan school (which was sort of an aesthetic arm of the Progressive movement) and on the right continued the American Renaissance. In France, on the right you had the continuation of Salon painting and on the left you had Modern Art. (I think the "capture" of religion by politics in France effectively killed off Salon painting, as it gave representational painting, even of ostensibly religious subjects, a fundamentally political aura.)

I see a connection, which maybe just means I'm weird, between Modern Art in France and Fundamentalist/Pentecostalism in America. Both emphasize an elevated mental/spiritual state, Pentecostalism by focusing on the descent of the Spirit and the speaking in tongues, Modern art by focusing on an "ecstatic vision." Both, it seems to me, are reactions against Godless Darwinian views of the world.

I don't claim to have this sorted out yet, but when I was in St. Louis visiting my sister, we took in their art museum, which is not bad. And when we got to the "Modern Art" rooms, I gestured and said to my sister, "I mean, come on, this stuff is brilliantly colored, fragmented, slightly's an acid trip! It's an alternative state of consciousness! It''s...religion!"

Frankly, I think the reason American hipsters got interested in Modernism was that it was a way out of the otherwise crushing dominance of positivist, scientific, rational, political views of the world. Wouldn't you have been looking for a way out, if you weren't inclined to go Pentecostalist?

And this is how FvB's brain spends its fun, free time.

posted by Michael at June 8, 2004


Comments, Part I:

Good to read more from Friederich. It sounds like he has a fascinating intellectual project underway, and I hope to see the result on dead-tree before too many eons pass by.

Here are some of my reactions. More will follow on a separate post, as they will be coming from a slightly different angle.

First, I really liked the observation on MoMA. No doubt this has been covered before in one way or another, but it is interesting how much influence one museum has had on American (if not world) "modern art". Might one assert that A. Barr and N. Rockefeller were as influential as P. Picasso?

Was this TOO MUCH power/influence? How wisely was it used? And, has MoMA outlived its usefulness?

Second, the observation on politics and art was also quite interesting to me. I suspect the observations on David can be extended to Grosz (spelling?), Picasso (his over-rated, as art in my opinion, Guernica), and more recent politicized artists.

The fact is, it seems to me, one cannot politicize abstract art any more than one can politicize music. (Yes, Beethoven's Erocia may have started as homage to Napoleon. But the music itself, absent knowledge of Beethoven's intent, has no instrinsic political meaning. I suppose the same might be said about any "social-realist" music that might have been created under Stalin; if there were no lyrics, it was just music.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 8, 2004 7:51 PM

Comments, Part II:

France is fascinating. Here are some observations as grist for Friederich's mill.

** France experienced an early "demographic transition" from high to low birth rates. This resulted in serious disparities in military manpower vs. Germany in the world wars. And there might well be other ramifications.

** The interwar period was strongly influenced by the huge proportion of French manhood killed, maimed, or otherwise wounded in the Great War; this needs to be factored into almost any discussion of France.

** France has been characterised as "resiliant" to disasters. (I'm read this assertion more than once, but do not recall it in any comparative analysis.) Certainly, the French did rapidly bounce back from 1870 war, paying off the Prussians and enlarging their economy. The early years of both the automobile and the airplane were marked by French technical dominance. (For the former, from 1890 to about 1915, the latter from 1907 to maybe 1918.) This corresponds to the Genesis period of "modern" art. France had its "Trente Glorieuse" (spelling?)-- the 30 years of strong economic growth and transition from rural to urban between 1950 and 1980, approximately. From about 1960 on, France has been a leader in aircraft design, train design, and atomic power generation, among other technical fields. So, we find busts of growth and more fallow periods: can these be related to the arts?

** There has been tension between Paris and the provinces, both politically and culturally. Centralization and individualism, maybe other contrasts. To what extent were the arts non-Parisian? And if so, when?

I might offer more grist, but will stop for now.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 8, 2004 8:12 PM

The rap on the French is that they are brilliant, but not "steady:" they don't follow through, they're not reliable.
In industry this translates into making a spectacular technological breakthrough without the followthrough necessary to convert that breakthrough into dominance.
There seems to be an aversion to compromise in the French spirit.
And an extreme aversion to plodding, to step by step seeing a project through.
They are a brilliant mercurial people.
What these observations have to do with France's difficulty with modernity I do not know.
Maybe an aversion to partaking in the modern phenomena of mass men, mass industrial projects? a preference for craft? the small shop?

Posted by: ricpic on June 9, 2004 12:23 PM

Jeez, this guy FvB is really a scatterbrain. Maybe after reading 2-300 more books he'll actually make sense out of all this.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 10, 2004 12:17 PM

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