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June 25, 2004

Guest Posting from Planet Friedrich

Dear Vanessa --

This just in from a former Blowharder:

I'm still gnawing away at Modern Art. Not very originally, I would identify at least four major sub-traditions in Modern Art: Social Realism, Formalist Modernism (Post-Impressionism through Abstraction), Symbolism (Symbolists-Surrealism) and Conceptual (Duchamp and his postmodern children.)

The problem is a huge fuzziness about the beginnings of all of these. Social Realism has antecedents going back at least as far as Caravaggio. Formalist Modernism is clearly related in various ways to Neoclassicism and Romantic painting, to say nothing of much older Japanese, African, and other sources. Symbolism is obviously almost undistinguishable from Romanticism. Conceptual art is essentially the use of traditional/historical strategies for communicating meaning in art applied to objects, words, behaviors, etc., rather than to representational visual symbols. In many ways, conceptual art is the 20th century version of history painting -- just without the draftsmanship.

Some of those questions, however, were just motivated by reading a lot of history in a short time and suddenly making what appeared to be obvious connections -- e.g., how is psychoanalysis related to "The Sorrows of Young Werther" or "The Confessions" or "Emile"? (Perhaps more awkwardly, how is psychoanalysis related to Spiritualism and Mesmerism? To European imperialism?) How is landscape painting related to the rise of Deism, Unitarianism and Rational Religion? Where exactly did Romanticism come from, and what's it about, exactly? That is, can it be related to underlying social/economic/religious/scientific trends?

By the way, it also dawned on me that it's not just a matter of "interpreting" art in light of social forces -- I think it can also work the other way around. For example, I was wondering why the French Revolution turned so savagely violent. After all, it came at the end of a century of significant material progress for the French (higher incomes, greater life expectancies, improved roads and infrastructure, etc.) The absolutist monarchy wasn't the nicest institution in the world, but it hadn't visited that kind of violence on Frenchmen in over a century -- really, since the repression of The Fronde. What exactly were they so pissed off about? And why were the French revolutionaries so eager to go to war with virtually all of Europe?

Then I thought of J. L. David, whose paintings are full of quasi-hysterical glorifications of moral harshness (Oath of the Horatii, Brutus) and of dead heroes (Marat, Bara, Lepellitier, etc., etc.). Obviously he was hitting the French where they lived, emotionally. And in David's personal and professional life, all the action came from a dichotomy between a desperate desire to connect with "good" father-figures and furious anger at "bad" fathers -- not surprisingly, as his own father was killed in a duel when he was an infant, thus leaving him orphaned and searching for substitute father figures like his architect uncle (bad), like his cousin Boucher (good), like his neoclassical mentor Vien (mostly bad), like the senior administrators in the Academy (bad), like Marat (very good), like Robespierre (good), like Napoleon (good), etc.

It dawned on me that French society at the time of the revolution makes a lot more sense thought of in David's terms -- i.e., a society-wide search for "good" father figures (even when, or especially when, they demanded sacrifices of their "offspring") and a furious anger at "bad" father figures. It also explains, or at least makes some sense out of, all the latent homosexuality and ultra-male chauvinism of Neoclassicism and of the whole revolutionary ethos.

And it mostly just dawned on me that this type of analysis is pretty much what Liberal Arts education should be about, no? Otherwise, it's just a jumble of novels, plays, books, pictures, etc.



posted by Michael at June 25, 2004


"Ay, caramba!"

not to detract in any way from the incisive post of the absentee blowhard, I can't help but ponder the implications of the Bart/Homer interplay over the years - big daddy as overwhelming pop cult, suffocating all us little kiddies, who just need a little guidance after all.

Posted by: playrink on June 26, 2004 1:13 PM

FvB - My take on Art and The French Revolution is that David, and the ideologs who ran the country (into the ground) were mutually reinforcing.
They (including David) were totalitarian intellectuals whose worship at the feet of "Reason" crushed, for a while, all of those moderating social interactions and inhibitions that keep the most vicious passions in check in most societies most of the time.
David just happened to be a totalitarian-intellectual with great draftsman skills. For a short while he managed to supress a long tradition in French painting celebrating joie de vivre (Boucher, and many many others -- having a mental block, can't think of the names) and a generalized healthy appreciation of ordinary sensual pleasures.
Soon enough The People turned to The Man On The White Horse, whose State Artist, Ingres, was a whole other kettle of fish.

Posted by: ricpic on June 27, 2004 3:22 PM

My goodness! Go away for a year and one comes back to find Two Blowhards being one blowhard plus an occasional Vanessa! Is the world turned upside down?

Posted by: Glenn "Mac" Frazier on July 1, 2004 8:38 AM

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