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July 14, 2004

Writer's Block

Dear Vanessa --

Some of the reasons this blog enjoys throwing rotten tomatoes at Modernism:

  • Modernism claims to be radical and progressive when it in fact couldn't be more elitist. I've got nothing against radical art or elitist art per se, and nothing against progressive art either. But I do get annoyed when elitist art stomps around justifying itself as radical and progressive -- "good for the people," or "good for the unconscious," or "setting people free," or whatever.
  • Modernism is a secular religion-wannabe akin to Marxism and Freudianism. Secular religion-wannabes are always annoying and often destructive.
  • Modernism's batting average is terrible. I know the idea that 95% of art is always crap is widely accepted; sorry to say I don't agree. It seems to me that traditional art-making has a pretty darned good batting average.

A brief break to spell out a couple of assumptions I'm making: that Modernism descends directly from Romanticism; and that the styles that have followed on Modernism (po-mo, decon, etc) aren't the alternatives-to-Modernism they're usually made out to be but are instead extensions of it, attempts to keep the corpse alive.

Now, back to the jeering.

  • Modernism doesn't work by accepting tradition and context and then contributing what it can. Instead, it makes a point of violating context and tearing the fabric, all for the greater glory of showing off its own (supposedly redemptive) virtues.
  • Like Romanticism, Modernism seems to have addictive properties. Discovering it, you at first feel exhilaration and pleasure; so this is what Reality, experienced fully, is really like!!! For many, the search for this sensation becomes a soul-sucking addiction. Quickly, though, the high becomes scarcer, and soon the search becomes everything. Many people manage to kick the habit, thank heavens. Too bad that some of those who don't wind up as profs, teachers, journalists and critics, and then do their best to pass along the addiction.
  • Modernism has exacerbated the high-low clash that's such a tedious part of cultural life in America.
  • While promising deliverance and transcendence, Modernism in fact creates a lot of misery. Forget lousy Modernist architecture for a sec and think instead about the thousands of people stuck in creative-writing workshops. Let's admit that there's something sweet about their desire to take part in the art life. Yet in most cases, what they're being sold are approaches that make art-creation difficult if not impossible. And in many cases they're being steered into creating work that they'll never be happy with. Why aren't they being given basic and traditional, "here's how you get an idea on its feet" skills instead? In a short-fiction writing class, for instance: why aren't people being shown how to project and develop their ideas into actual narratives? Forgive me for suspecting that that'd suit many students far better than being taught how to create the usual nonnarrative autobiographical/lyrical/non-epiphany-epiphany thing.
  • Modernism has contributed a lot to the irrelevance of the fine arts to everyday people.
  • Modernism promotes the idea that art should be difficult, and that difficulty and complexity are in and of themselves good things, as well as prerequisites to deep and meaningful art experiences.
  • There's something about Modernism that refuses to stay put. It ain't a mere style -- no, it's the essential truth about things, the One True Church. I like pointing out that the original Modernist acting style was never referred to as "a method"; no it was The Method.

Anyway, fun to see that The New Yorker's Joan Acocella has come up with a fresh reason to razz Modernism: it contributes to writer's block. (The story is readable here.) By the way, those who are skeptical of this blog's claim that Modernism is an up-to-date version of Romanticism might want to notice that Acocella clearly agrees. Thank god for authority figures, at least when they happen to be on your side.

Fun question #1: When did writer's block first appear? Fun answer: circa Romanticism. Fun question #2: When did writer's block get markedly worse? Fun answer: with Modernism.

Some excerpts from Acocella's good piece:

Writer’s block is a modern notion. Writers have probably suffered over their work ever since they first started signing it, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that creative inhibition became an actual issue in literature, something people took into account when they talked about the art. That was partly because, around this time, the conception of the art changed. Before, writers regarded what they did as a rational, purposeful activity, which they controlled. By contrast, the early Romantics came to see poetry as something externally, and magically, conferred. ... In terms of getting up in the morning and sitting down to work, a crueller theory can hardly be imagined, and a number of the major Romantic poets showed its effects.

In the United States, the golden age of artistic inhibition was probably the period immediately following the Second World War, which saw the convergence of two forces. One was a sudden rise in the prestige of psychoanalysis. The second was a tremendous surge in ambition on the part of American artists—a lot of talk about the Great American Novel and hitting the ball out of the the bar rose, so did everyone’s anxiety, and the doctor was called. Many, many writers went into psychoanalysis in those years, and they began writing about the relationship of art and neurosis.

Anxiety over self-revelation was probably not as common in the old days, when the exposure was channelled through conventional forms (ode, sonnet) that masked the writer’s identity to some extent. In former times, too, art forthrightly answered the audience’s emotional needs: tell me a story, sing me a song. Modernism, in refusing to do that duty, may have a lot to answer for in the development of artistic neurosis. If art wasn’t going to address the audience’s basic needs, then presumably it was doing something finer, more mysterious—something, in other words, that could put the artist into a sweat. As long as art remained, in some measure, artisanal—with, for example, the young Leonardo da Vinci arriving in the morning at Verrocchio’s studio and being told to paint in the angel’s wing—it must have fostered steadier minds.

Modernism: not just bad for culture, but bad for your mental health.



posted by Michael at July 14, 2004


As much as I enjoy Eliot's poetry, I'm constantly reminded of Williams's comments about "The Wasteland" whenever I read him:

Then out of the blue The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust. To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I'm sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself -- rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated. Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world. And being an accomplished craftsman, better skilled in some ways than I could ever hope to be, I had to watch him carry my world off with him, the fool, to the enemy.

Eliot was an enormously talented poet, even if limited in his emotional range, but his insistence that great poetry should be obscure was most definitely elitist and, worse, absurdly wrong.

Posted by: mallarme on July 14, 2004 2:16 PM

I'm just wading into the whole Romanticism-Modernism issue, especially in the visual arts, and I must admit the degree of continuity between modernism and romanticism is larger (far larger) than the degree of contrast. However...there are some contrasts, although they occur in the same overall conceptual framework (e.g., Romanticism was aggressively anti-rationalist and anti-scientific, and Modernism likes to claim that it is pro-rationalist and pro-scientific, although I'm not a big believer in these particular claims.)

Perhaps amusingly, it had struck me that Post-Modernism is perhaps more purely Romantic than Modernism was (perhaps the chicken is coming home to roost!)

I'm almost beginning to think that the issue is one of insufficiently precise nomenclature and the lack of tight-enough definitions. It appears as if we're trying to overgeneralize and thus end up missing the sub-trends (or, possibly the counter-trends) buried within Modernism, Romanticism, etc.

To give an example from the "other" or "early" frontier of Romanticism, the movement seems to have arisen from, or first manifested itself in the form of, Lutheran Pietism, which arose in the second half of the 16th century as a reaction to the 30 Years War. That time was, of course, more famous as the era of Louis XIV, Newton, Liebniz, and thus the first flowering of what eventually became known as the Enlightenment. But underneath, churning away, we have this counter-movement, this anti-Enlightenment, that only begins to really show itself openly in the 1760s, a hundred years later.

It would seem that cultural history shouldn't just focus on the dominant strains in an era, but also the other, embryonic or hibernating strains as well. After all, Newton seems to have been a fully-paid-up alchemist and a mystic as well as a hard scientist; and the 18th Century was not only the era of the Encyclopedia but also Mesmer and a lot of wandering, self-professed Messiahs. No era is one thing thru and thru.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 14, 2004 2:46 PM

It's difficult now to appreciate fully the social context of Modernism. If it seems that Modernists, and I have to limit myself to literature here, are not sufficiently attentive to tradition, it is because that the social authority of those traditions severely tested in the early 20th century. Stable categories of religion, nation, race, gender, and class were being obliterated from every direction (and for many groups of people, quite usefully and importantly).

I also think that you are constructing a bit of a strawman argument in your atttempt to find continuities between Romanticism and Modernism. Many, if not most, High Modernists were admittedly indebted to artistic forebears. Granted, you have to look at earlier works by Joyce, Woolf, etc, but if you look at DUBLINERS, for example, I think railing against a preposed breakage between Modernism and what came before expends unnecessary energy. (Eliot, if anything, was TOO caught up in connecting himself with the literary canon).

And as for the argument about Modernism contributing to the dichotomy between high and low culture, I must strongly disagree. If you look at the two emergent forms of popular culture in the early part of the 20th century, jazz and film, you will find that they are adamant features of many key modernist ideas and works. While the guardians of "high" culture were decrying these new mediums as vulgar and degenerate, they became foundational elements of the Modernist ethos.

I'm not sure where deliverance and transcedence were promised. At most, I think, Modernity sought to find new forms to represent new realities. Judging the success of this endeavour is a more difficult, and generative, task.

And, if we should be grateful to modernism for anything, it is the recognition that life is more complex than a petrarchan sonnet, more maddening than a portrait, more unjust than a novel of manners, and more interesting than we can possibly imagine.

In response to Acocella about modernism being responsible for a lot of the anxiety about art because of its desire for self-reflection and discovery: please. She does an enormous disservice on many fronts here, the most egregious of which may be the last hypothetical anecdote about Da Vinci in which the artist "takes orders" for art. The most amazing thing about any art, in my opinion, is timelessness and transcendence in spite of public opinion and the audience's demands.

And what precisely is she using as her yardstick for measuring the length and breadth of "modernity"? Here we go from the beginning of the 19th century up until the preeminance of psychoanalysis in the 1950s. That this range encompasses modernity, there is no question. That there is some kind of casaulity here, there are many questions.

Wow. Apparently I had a strong reaction to that. More to be said.

Posted by: skip26 on July 14, 2004 3:30 PM

Mallarme -- Eliot's a fun, paradoxical example, isn't he? A brainy friend of mine, a Modernist enthusiast, is obsessed with Eliot. I think that's because his work and thoughts seem both progressive and tradition-obsessed, both elitist and progressive. (This is all compounded by the fact that my friend is Jewish and Eliot was not the most Jewish-positive person around.) To me, that kind of messiness and self-contradictoriness are reasons to kind of shrug and let Modernism go. To my friend, it's all the more reason to go back to obsessing over it and proclaiming its importance. But he's much deeper than I am.

FvB -- Eager to be kept abreast as you make sense of all this. My fave book on Romanticism, not that I've read piles of them, is Hugh Honour's "Romanticism." Darned if I can remember many of the specifics of his argument, though. One of the important things Romanticism and Modernism share, IMHO, is the elevation of the artist figure. No longer a craftsperson, a supplicant, a service-provider, he's now the voice of god himself. The Artist's sensibility, his feelings, his thoughts -- they become the real material of the art. (How tired I am of the Artist's "Self.") It all seemed to me to peak around 8 years ago when the current lit vogue was for memoirs. Why not cut the intervening thing (formerly known as "the work of art," or maybe "fiction") out of the equation entirely and cut right to what counts: the artist? It seemed like a reductio ad absurdum of both the Romantic and the Modernist things.

Skip26 -- Wow, you really did tap into some energy source there. A few responses and musings?
* You write, "Stable categories of religion, nation, race, gender, and class were being obliterated from every direction." I'd suggest that the key thing that was lost was a belief in a stable god. Art (at least in the Modernist view) could no longer go on serving something else's vision; it had to become the vision itself. It could no longer serve religion; it had to become a religion itself. Which is why I think it's fair to refer to a break. As you point out, there's a big diff between "Dubliners" and "Ulysses." One's innovative but comprehensible in traditional terms, the other seems to be playing a different game entirely.
* I'll have to argue that I think it's quite fair to say that Modernism exacerbated the high-low quarrel, no matter the use a few painters made of film or media stuff. If you look at 19th century American art, for instance, it's quite striking how post-modern (in the loose sense) the scene was: high and low coexisted, they weren't (generally speaking) at war. Lawrence Levine's "High Culture/Low Culture" (I think I got the title right) is helpful here. Historically speaking, there was no real war between high and low until Modernism came to the fore.
* Where "complexity" is concerned, I think you're pointing out something important, which is also one of the diffs between trad art and Modernist art. I don't think Shakespeare, Dante or Lady Murasaki would claim that life isn't complex, and I don't think anyone gets the impression from their work that life is simple. What's different about Modernism is that it tries to model that complexity. (Which, I'd suggest, is further proof that Modernism was selling itself as a religion-substitute.) A sonnet, or any traditional form, may or may not be a simple thing, but its effect can be very complex. That hasn't tended to be the Modernist art-thing approach. The Modernist art-thing wants in itself to have that kind of complexity. Where the traditional art-thing was a kind of lens thru which you experienced (or didn't, what the heck) the Divine, the Modernist art-thing has by and large attempted to be, or maybe "embody" is a better word, the Divine. Admitting that there are many, many different ideas about the Divine, of course, from the Surreal unconscious to the architectural-Modernist Platonic/rational grid ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 14, 2004 4:26 PM


Definitely some fine points.

I think you are right that traditionally, the view is that modernity heralded the overthrown of religion as a source of meaning. However, it is crucial to notice the kinds of revolutions that were happening along the lines of gender, race, and nationality that were happening. Artistic innovation/resistance/experimentation was a key outlet for politically disenfranchised groups--women in both America and the UK, African Americans in the US, and the Irish in the UK. The myriad of new voices coming into the literary world made formal and thematic change unavoidable.

I wanted to make the point about jazz and film in terms of literature more than anything else. And I think, though I am not sure, that the reason the high/low art separation became more apparent during modernity is precisely because "high" artists considered "folk" arts at all. My perspective is that prior to this, most folk and popular arts weren't considered as legitimate sources for investigation by the upper class art-consuming world. Elizabethean and Greek theatre are probably the exceptions here, but art forms that required literacy or access to wealth were necessarily exclusionary.

I was going to make a similar claim about complexity and its relation to innovation. Those that can bend traditional forms to say something new have my highest respect. Your examples are poignant precisely because Dante and Shakespeare (I can't speak intelligently, or at least with confidence, about Mularski) only seem traditional now, but both were extremely innovative in their own time. Shakespeare's monologues are, in many cases, simply free verse. His sonnet form was itself an experiment on the Petrarchan sonnet. Put another way, the art that seems to last is not content to do what has been done before.

And yes, the moderns saw a void left by religious authority. If there is no knowable divinity, where is meaning to come from? Their provisional offer, as you suggest, is art itself. After all, writing is a process that creates meaning out of raw experience, so in a sense, meaning can be created.
This simple equation has created a lot of trouble, just as it can be quite liberating. It has allowed moral relativism to become a bit of a monster, but those who oppose moral relativism have to recourse precisely because of the kinds of observations modernism allowed--there are no stable, universal truths that we can use to guide our behavior and give our lives meaning. One way to read this is to suggest that the Moderns replaced God with Art. I choose to read it as an acknowledgement that we ourselves are the only ones that can infuse life with meaning.

Still not short, but not as long as last time.

Posted by: skip26 on July 14, 2004 5:55 PM

The frustrating thing about this whole argument -- both sides -- is the ridiculous nomenclature. Is there some fundamental difference in aesthetics we're talking about? Or is it entirely a cultural thing? (Dangerous ground, because now you have to deal with classes AND race)

I'm not sure, Michael, but it seems your frustration is more with the times than the art itself, which you've quite carefully lumped into the categories of 'modernist' and 'not modernist.'

I think it is wise just to consider what every artist and art lover wants to get out of an art, since it keeps the whole situation in the realm of Well-Meaning. And that way you get your arguments straight, or at least in context. For instance, historically do you think there was a REASON for the so-called Romantic movement (I fail to see many aesthetic connections between the music, literature, architecture, sculpture, painting, etc. of the times)? Might it all have become a single continuity in reaction against our economically-driven society? How much have entertainment and art separated?

In any case, there's a lot more going on here than Modernism or Elitism or ____ism in any sense. You treat art like it's another commodity, and maybe that's all it can be now, but consider the reaction to this notion that so many modern artists of all breeds have had. Folks like Eliot were obviously very steadfast in their ways, and a few have tried to make bridges between science/commodity/entertainment and culture/elitism/art (e.g. Gershwin from pop and Schillinger, Copland from culture and Boulanger)...

Happily, it all comes down to whether something works for you or not. I find THAT argument a lot more cheerful and fun, often on a case-by-case basis; in that arena it seems all we have to consider is Expectation. For instance, "Ah haydid that movie Pi because tha' plot dinn' make no sense," or "Pynchon nearly crosses the line between cliche and utter unpredictability," and so on. I hope instead of relying on code words like Tradition and Modernism and Romanticism that save us the trouble of actually talking about art and its effect on our lives (something most obsessively "objective" or businessy types refuse to believe, hence Hollywood, pop music's complete control of the music world [they even separate the minutest differences between songs into entire genres, demonstrating further how far cliche can go -- and I bet that everyone now knows the difference between heavy metal, hard rock and arena rock, or between east-side and west-side rap...], and the huge gap between what is popular and what is most respected), we can at least begin to wonder about the cause and meaning of this "phraseology" (music man?).

Posted by: Eric Taxier on July 14, 2004 6:04 PM

"Secular religion-wannabes are always annoying and often destructive." Oh, indeedy.

Eric - "I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it!" is all well and good but one needs a vocabulary to write grant proposals...

Posted by: j.c. on July 14, 2004 8:04 PM

Although the post we are commenting on couldn't possibly cover all the ground regarding the roots of romanticism/modernism I find it striking that no mention is made of the rise of the bourgeoisie. It is ironic that although the central cry of many if not most who call(ed) themselves romantics/modernists is/was "Epater Le Bourgeoisie!" the fact is that the rise of those peculiarly individualist form breaking movements was tied to the rise of this class.
For what must have seemed like an eternity priests and princes, church and state, had set the rules of the game. The guild system which gave artists a degree of economic security existed to produce a steady stream of artisans who could effectively praise promote (propagandize for if you will) church and state.
The rise of the merchant/manufacturing class and its successful bid for an ever increasing say in the way the world worked (power in other words) effectively broke this system apart.
It "freed" artists (visual & verbal) but also left them much less economically secure (in many cases hardly viable at all) and less sure of what to do what to say with their talent at image or word. They became naked. This situation created (needless to say) immense anxiety. The wildness of expression that characterizes so much romantic and modernist art comes directly out of the unmoored situation the artist finds himself in.

Posted by: ricpic on July 15, 2004 8:30 AM

I just wandered in here, so you'll have to excuse me, but:

"Modernism has exacerbated the high-low clash that's such a tedious part of cultural life in America."

This high-low clash was already full-blown by the time of Modernism's ascendancy, 'exacerbated' by the thought of Matthew Arnlod (though further back, Marx and Engels obviously had a huge hand in discussing class issues). While it is clear that the claims made by (some) Modernists to reconnect art and life have since shown themselves to merely be retreats back into high culture, high modernism in painting didn't somehow drive a wedge between classes that weren't already sharply demarcated to begin with.

While I think it may be possible to put many of Modernist genies back in the bottle, this particular case is one in which Modernism (in the strict sense: beginning with post-photographic art, ie Impressionism) isn't the one to quarrel with. Generally viewing the art scene before 1912 (or whatever date you'd like to pick) as somehow "unified" among the classes is a convenient fiction, but has little-to-no-relation to the machinations of industrialism. Further, just because pre-Modern art may not have drawn class distinctions with the same colors as (say) Duchamp ultimately did, art objects have always been symbols of the élite. While I can understand being frustrated by the Modernist program, at the very least it acknowledged that high/low divisions, drawn in relief by the Industrial Revolution (and its incipient urbanization), were problematic. Indeed, it's a particularly American perspective to think that class distinctions don't apply to America.

Posted by: cb on July 15, 2004 11:10 AM

Skip -- Fun discussion, and thanks for further thoughts. I'm aware of the Standard Account of Modernism, although -- I'm assuming you're younger than I am -- it sounds like it's become more PC in recent years. I've just come to disagree with the Standard Account, and not out of crankiness but from living the arts life and doing a lot of spotty self-education.

A for-instance? As you write, it's common to talk about Modernism as a necessary response to big sex/race/etc changes. Yet which changes? And why should they have affected the arts in this specific way?

I can't see how or why literature should have gone Modernist because of what was happening with women, for instance. After all, women wrote tons and tons of fiction in the 19th century. What was it about women and 1910 that required fiction to change? And why in that particular way? I've never found the answers usually proferred to those questions convincing.

Jazz is another case. I know it's common for Modernism to claim jazz, but I've come to think that the claim makes no sense. What's Modernist about pre-bop jazz? Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were using traditional song forms and creating traditional entertainments, and the African-American taste for syncopated dance music is easy to trace back well into the 19th century, if not before. It makes more sense to me to say that jazz didn't go Modernist until bop.

FWIW -- and I'm assuming everyone's viewing me as a very untrustworthy commentator, although I'm happy to provide well-informed sources for my views here -- I've come to think that Modernism's best understood as a kind of market phenomenon. As Ricpic writes, for a variety of reasons, art was thrown into a kind of crisis, and had to come up with something new to sell. Given that traditional religion was losing its juju, resourceful artists came up with the idea of selling art as a replacement. (I'm not saying, of course, that it was thought out in this way, just that as far as I can tell it happened in this way.)

A question I'm not competent to answer (though I have my hunches) is whether Modernism is just another cycle in the ongoing Classical/Romantic sine wave that seems to characterize Western civ, or whether it's in fact a weird outbreak of something entirely different. FWIW, my hunch is that it's a combo of "something entirely different" crossed with "giving evidence of the Romantic impulse."

My hunch is also that the history of 20th century art is going to be drastically rewritten in the not-too-distant future, and that a lot of these conversations will thereby be rendered irrelevant. I suspect Modernism's going to be put in a larger context of art-making -- it'll no longer be seen as what real Art was all about, but simply as one of the many veins 20th century culture-producers worked. I can't see how this re-contextualizing of Modernism isn't going to occur, but then again I'm often wrong.

Eric -- Thanks for your concern, but I confess I'm not sure what your point is. You don't like conversations about art movements and art styles, is that it?

Ricpic -- Excellent points all, thanks.

CB -- Thanks for stopping by and joining in. I wouldn't claim, of course, that art was somehow unified prior to 1912, merely that the kind of open warfare between high and low that's such a common part of the cultural scene these days wasn't anywhere near as loud in 19th century America as it's been since. The Classical and the vernacular in architecture coexisted quite happily, for instance; Shakespeare was common currency and was delivered from pre-vaudeville stages as well as from higher-class stages. The idea that "real art" had to be created in defiance of mass art (yet somehow also for the sake of the general good), or that "subversion" and "innovation for its own sake" were automatically good things, or that commonly-held traditions were oppressive -- all of which have been artworld commonplaces in the 20th century -- weren't terribly widespread in pre-Modernist times. The kind of sniffiness we often see on the part of avant-garde connoisseurs these days also wasn't common in pre-Modernist times. As you write, there's always been different kinds of art, and different classes have always enjoyed different kinds of art. But Modernism introduced an element -- I'm not sure what it was -- that made people more touchy about art-class differences than, to my knowledge, they'd ever been before.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2004 1:04 PM

I think what often comes up in the popular (ie non-scholarly) reconsideration of Modernism is a rejection of the rise of Concept (in all of its nuanced connotations) in conjunction with a rejection of Modernism's claims. I think that the "re-writing" you speak of is already happening: a variety of critics are actively engaged in re-reading Abstract Expressionism as being at least engaged with art tradition--Pepe Karmel, among others, is actively examining Thomas Hart Benton's presence in Pollock's art, for example. I think it's difficult for even conceptual artists to reject art outright (as many early anti-artists claimed), and that the existence of Conceptual Art (taken as a broad category, including various kinds of mutually exclusive anti-art) is both far more dialectical (in the strictest sense of the word) than previously considered; a rejection in order to refine, rather than an outright rejection. I think that most respectable critics do think of canonical modernism in this way, but that many get caught up in the polemics of classical v. theoretical approaches to art.

As for class distinctions, however: I think I will have to agree to disagree. While distinctions of class may have been more subtle in their actual visual presence in art, they were undoubtedly there. I think it's difficult for Americans to understand the depth and intransigence of class difference in Europe, such that questions of "heightening" those distinction are nonsensical. A preliminary thesis as to the way this difference came over the exiles might be that it is contemporary to a birth of a true high class in America (robber-barons, Fordism, etc, leading to a landed class).. But that thesis remains highly unworked out.

I think part of the problem here is our conflation of the two dominant but distinct strands of Modernism in art. L'art pour l'art of Formalism is very closely knit with some earlier art (consider Wolfflin's diachronic view of post-Renaissance art, where artists vacillate between two stylistic poles, refining older styles in reaction to contemporary ones) and that it shouldn't be confused with the Duchampian (among others) rejection of "art" outright. These are two simultaneous but distinct programs within Modernism that cannot be conflated. While early 20th century formalists certainly camped out in "high" culture circles (though art crowds have, I think, largely internalized those formalists), later formalists (Gerhard Richter is a good example) do not necessarily do so. Similarly, while "Anti-art" does, on a certian level, necessitate a close relationship with "shock," this doesn't mean it's a high-culture endeavor: consider Act UP!'s early 80s work on AIDS or Barbara Kruger's work during the same period: neither stand on the point of thumbing their nose at the 'masses,' but remain powerfully accessible anti-art.

Posted by: cb on July 15, 2004 2:15 PM

Good points again.

I think you are right to question the sort of teleological spin given to most artistic movements, i.e. X happened inevitably (and demonstrably) because of Y. For my part, I don't buy any argument about culture that uses words like "required" or "inevitable." Art is made by people, and people, at least in my worldview, make choices about what kind of things they produce or find interesting. To take the issue of women's fiction and modernity, I think you have a case that literature didn't HAVE to change. However, the forms of women's writing, mostly novels of manners and courtship, didn't really have space for say working-class women (as Stein tackled in THREE LIVES), African American women (best tackled by Hurston), or women that were dissatisifed with being only a wife/mother (too many to name, but THE AWAKENING is an interesting case of a traditional work that ultimately cannot accomodate the needs of Edna Pontellier). So while more conventional forms and techniques probably could have accomodated these previously unrepresented appearances, it makes a great deal of sense to me that these writers had a proclivity to pull at forms that, to that point, had not addressed their experience.

My point about jazz what a bit different that you seem to have taken it. My point was not about the status of jazz as a modern form (though that's a fruitful discussion), but that it was a folk art that high-artists, especially literary and some visual, embraced. This was intended to be a counterexample to the previous claim that modernism exacerbated a break between high and low arts.

Perhaps a useful distinction to make is between the Modernism of the 1910s and 1920s to the later modernism and early postmodernism of the 1950s and 1960s. This can sort of trace the trajectory of modernism from experimentation to apotheosis; in the early days, no one really knew what was happening and vectors of influece were all over the place. Later, the practice of modernity became more codified and I think I agree with you that it also become more totemic at this point. One case example is Joyce who, while widely-admired during the 20s, was not yet the high-priest of Modernism that he would later become.

Can you tell that I am on vacation this week?

Posted by: skip26 on July 15, 2004 2:24 PM

I see a major intellectual problem with most of the comments above giving Michael some grief: Their collective sin is a degree of ignorance of what preceded Modernism. For example the argument that Modernism is worthwhile because Modernism did various good things that hadn't been done before. The problem with this argument is that most of good stuff listed had been done before. To wit, the idea that championing the cause of minorities against the majority (or of the powerless against the powerful) was an absolute core concept of Romanticism (which, in a lot of ways, began in the 18th century as a sort of revolt of the culturally downtrodden--i.e., the Germans and the rest of the non-French world--against the cultural elite--i.e., the French and their snotty Enlightenment.) The notion that the artist was supposed not to imitate, but to create from his or her inner will (or, in some instances, to express God's will flowing through him or her) is not original to Modernism, but is--you guessed it--a Romantic concept in its origins. The anti-Positivist philosophy of Bergson, which was so significant to advanced art of the early 20th century is largely a retread of the ideas of Fichte and other Romantic philosophers. I mean, this list can go on, and on, and on. The post-modern idea that all the great narratives have collapsed? Again, the notion of there being no stable, deterministic, consistent world view was enunciated by, and was one of the key concepts of...Romanticism. Virtually all of Freud was derived from ideas that were common currency during the Romantic era (the unconscious, the will and its tensions with society); his main contribution was to somehow get people to take these ideas as science. (I'm still a little unclear how he pulled that off.) And Marx, whose doctrines are often held to be central to the Modernist Project (political version) is, of course...bada bing, bada boom...clearly a Romantic thinker.

The REAL question, in my mind, is why Modernism turns out to be be generous) un-historical in its claims and its self description? And why is this strange un-historicality so central to the whole Modernist ethos? I think that goes a long way to explaining Michael's suspicion of the whole Modernist drum-beating...and my own.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 15, 2004 3:56 PM

I'm guessing that I am the "ignorant" griefer in the above (am just vain enough to think so).

And if you are calling me out because of my lack of knowledge about Romantic philosophy, you win. My knowledge of that is 5 years old and spotty even then.

Having said that....
"Championing the minority against the majority" of course is much older than modernity. I would not argue that there is something particularly new about this. But if you look at the record, and here I have to limit myself to the literary record for that is what I know best, that something new was happening during modernity as it relates to race and gender is absolutely undenidable. Yes, before there was Douglass, Wheatly, Austen, Eliot, Rossetti, Dickinson, and others. However, the explosion of new voices and perspectives in the early 20th Century in literature is startling. It has quite a bit less to do with simple "championing" of the oppressed--in fact, the central disagreement among the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, generally acknolwedge to be the epitome of African American artistic modernism, was precisely a debate about where Art should overtly champion black people or represent black experience with all of its blemishes, ambivalences, and pain.

I don't disagree with the claim that modernism owes a terrific debt to the romanticism, such is the nature of culture and history. I am making no case for modernism being somehow superior to modernism, but I am challenging the diminuation of the import and continued relevance of literary modernism.

Most literary movements tend to de-historicize themselves. Consider the following quotations about literature: it "has arisen as it were from a new birth," "great spirits on the earth are now sojourning," "the dawn of a new era, a new impulse had been given to men's hands," and "it was a time of promise, of renewal of the world--and of letters." These all come from romantics thinking about their own time as being somehow apart from the normal course of history (Shelley, Keats, Shelley, and Hazlitt respectively).

One more thing to question that modernism is merely derivative. Consider the fundamental conception that literary romantics had about the work of art, that "if poetry comes not as naturally the leaves to the tree it had better not come at all" and that "a great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother's womb" (Keats and Shelley). Perhaps they are trailing the philosophy of their times (literary discourse generally trails philosophy by several decades it seems to me), but this is fundamentally different than the modernist perspective of art. I see the formal and thematic experimentation of the moderns as an acknowledgement that art is not organic or natural, but a human construction subject to all the problems of any built artifact.

Friedrich's final question I think is relevant to every period of artistic change. The location of the artistic process as being primarily in the imagination seems to be just as ahistorical as anything the moderns do on this point. Part of the answer, I think, is that any innnovator, be it in poetry or petroleum, tends believe that they are a part of something new, something other than what has come before.

Again, I appreciate the discussion greatly.

Posted by: skip26 on July 15, 2004 5:24 PM

At this point, I think we're arguing subtleties, so if you want to go out for a beer, I'd say this is probably a good time.

But if we're going to do the subtleties thing, okay.

I will grant you that many Romanticist trends continued and no doubt reached higher heights 140 years after Romanticism burst on the scene c. 1760 than the heights those same trends had reached in, say, 1800, but they are the same trends, none the less. While the Harlem Renaissance couldn't have happened in 1820, all over Europe previously culturally disenfranchised voices were being heard. In short, people had gone further along the road, but it was essentially the same road.

The quotes about "something new walking the earth" of the Romantics, while a bit over the top, are IMHO more accurate describing the extent of their break from previous tradition than are many similar statements regarding Modernism.

Also, I think you're slightly missing the point of the quotes extolling the organic nature of (good) art by Keats and Shelley. Perhaps the key philosophical idea of the Romantics (in contrast to previous Rationalist philosophy, including that of the Enlightenment) is that of the primacy of the creative will (which may be the artists, or may be God's) which does not have to accommodate itself to any pre-existing, all encompassing schema / reality / scientific or philosophical system because all such schemas and systems are artificial and untrue. The emphasis on the unconscious and the organic in creation wasn't that true creation was obligated to flow from such "natural" sources, but rather that if it did flow unconsciously or apparently-organically, it meant that the artist's mind wasn't force-fitting what came out into some pre-existing category or system (such being the tendency of the conscious mind, as the Romantics were well aware.) But the idea that a work of art could be "artificial" or "contrary to nature" wouldn't have surprised the authors of many Romantic works that quite deliberately violated both logic and previous artistic conventions.

Incidently, I ain't making this up; quite a few academics consider Modernism a sort of re-examination or continuation of the Romantic "project," albeit with a sort of rationalist/Enlightenment gloss tossed in on top.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 15, 2004 6:01 PM

Well, I'm having a lot of fun comparing notes. I think my one real disagreement here may be with CB, but maybe not. If I understand CB right, he's arguing that ... there were class differences in 19th century American art? Is that right? Well, sure, I can't imagine anyone who'd dispute that.

What I'm suggesting is that Modernism added to the traditional mix something that aggravated any and all art-class rivalries. (Rather in the way that psychotherapy throws a person's conflicts into high relief, come to think of it.) I'm not sure how this can be disagreed with. I mean, all you have to do is look at, oh, for instance, poetry, music or art. In 19th century America, the art that the National Academy championed was perfectly accessible to everyone, even if it was at the same time high-class stuff. (I don't know of any evidence of people with popular tastes protesting the work at the National Academy, or feeling insulted or put-down by it.) The most serious music was perfectly listenable to anyone with standard ears. Highclass poetry was readable and understandable by anyone. High-class architecture wasn't routinely mocked by the people who worked in those buildings. Classes existed, but there was a kind of continuity, and the artistic language spoken in high-class arty circles wasn't hugely, categorically different than the language spoken in the popular press, or in sensational literature.

Compare that situation to today: the sneers and anger (on both sides) about the Whitney Biennial; the total lack of interest most Americans, even well-educated ones, have in arty-intellectual music; the existence of a poetry academy that champions poetry that virtually no one reads but other poets. And someone's going to suggest that Modernism had nothing to do with this situation?

Anyway, I took a plunge into a reference shelf and came up with some quick stuff a few might find interesting, from a series called "American Decades." Here's a description of the American art gestalt in the decade 1900-1910 -- ie., right before Modernism hit.

Americans in the first decade of the twentieth century ... were content with, and even contentious about, tradition in the arts. The 1800s had finally produced internationally recognized American writers, painters and theatrical impresarios; the continuing classical revival in architectural design maintained a tribute to decorum despite 19th century structural advances... The so-called custodians of culture found security in the excellence of the status quo: hope for the future was based on the enduring reputation of the past.

Sounds dull and boring, right? But here's some of what that gestalt/ethos/whatever was managing to accomodate: the birth of mass marketing, the Arts and Crafts movement, early jazz, ragtime, the cakewalk, the Ziegfeld Follies, Isadora Duncan, Bert Williams in "In Dahomey," early narrative movies, vaudeville, the blues, Tin Pan Alley. In other words, the "genteel tradition" coexisted with the burlesque house and much more. Blacks, women, immigrants, sexual stuff, techology, even self-expression had space. (Interesting to note that people of all classes attended vaudeville shows.) I dunno: hardly seems like a repressive time at all.

Here's the same series describing the advent of Modernism:

Behind these changes were artists, many of them young and college-educated, who discussed spirituality and the new psychology of Sigmund Freud, and who believed that meaning lay in the expression of the inner self ... Alfred Stieglitz spoke for most of them when he explained that his art was "the subconscious pushing through the conscious, driven by an urge coming from beyhond its own ... trying to live in the light, like the seed pushing up through the earth." This new wave of creative talents thought that their work could solve social and political problems; painter Robert Henri believed that art would "keep government straight, end wars and strife, and do away with material greed."

Interesting about that young & idealistic & often college-educated thing, no? Not exactly a movement of the people, by the people, or for the people, whatever its claims. (Incidentally, a book that needs to be written is "the influence and importance of trust funds on Modernist art.") Given that Modernism has always been an exclusive club -- it's generally found to be something one needs to be educated to manage access to -- I have a hard time picturing this development as (despite its rhetoric, despite how it's been sold to us) anything but an art in love with its own ideals, and (in terms of being accomodating to many population groups and points of view) considerably less open than the culture that preceeded it. Which isn't to say I don't love a lot of Modernist art....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2004 6:24 PM

I definitely see your point, I just bristle against claims of a more "universal" or "accessible" art existing before the advent of Modernism (as an art movement), because art has never been and likely never will be a democratic enterprise (a comment which, you rightly might point out, does not necessarily apply to literary movements, but I'm not as up on Modernism in literature). I suppose what I'm saying is that I take exception specifically for artistic Modernism, though I do think the case of poetry is a specifically tricky subject, as there *is* a lot of background you need to know to understand, say, Blake (though you could just as easily say the same thing about other Romantic poets), which is admittedly almost a century before Modernism's appearance.

As for class, take Seurat's La Grande Jatte: white people, dozens of dottily-painted, middle-to-upper class white people. Obviously, this isn't to say that Seurat should have somehow overcome his historical moment, but while his images are less abbrasive in their presentation, there is a subtle hegemonic move here, a conflation of sublimity and class. Even when artists do deign to drop a few strata down (Manet's The Absinthe Drinker comes to mind, as does Cézanne's Le Paysan), members of other classes become other-than-the-artist, "types" to be examined. In short, élite art is nothing new. I suppose that these examples are more "understandable" as art than Duchamp's readymades, but class difference is very much inscribed in both practices.

I suppose, though, that as regards America pre-Modernism, you do have a good point. But I would hasten to add that of course movements obsessed with the status-quo are populist: all they deal in are movements that have been thoroughly internalized by the general culture. Popular movements like that in America didn't disappear, obviously, they just stopped masquerading as the avant-garde.

Posted by: cb on July 15, 2004 8:03 PM

Um, CB--

I hate to break it to you, but it is generally accepted that many of the "middle to upper-class white people" in Seurat's La Grande Jatte are supposed to be prostitutes and pickpockets, who are "passing" for bourgeois; this invasion of what looks like a middle-class utopia, this class-instability is, in many art historians' minds, the actual subject of the painting. Also, La Grande Jatte was painting as a pendant to Bathers at Asnières which is a picture of a bunch of working class stiffs (some of whom appear to be unemployed and just killing time) hanging out on what looks like the opposite bank of the river from their social betters. If you place the two pictures side by side, with the "Bathers" on the left and "La Grande Jatte" on the right, they effectively make one image, with the river.

So let's not be too sure that 20th Century Modernists were the only people who ever noticed class distinctions. Seurat appears, although very little seems known of his private opinions (except on art) to be quite a social realist, with a leftist slant.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 15, 2004 8:23 PM

Oops, back to the lab with that one, I suppose.

Posted by: cb on July 15, 2004 9:14 PM

excellent, more ideas to ponder...

I guess we're just going to have to disagree about the extent of artistic plurality between 1820 and 1920. Friedrich thinks the difference is of degree; I think it is a difference in kind (now does that make our disagreement one of degree or kind....hmmm....tricky).

And I quite think I get the Shelley, but perhaps I emphasized the wrong point. My point was precisely that this idea of the work of art as, to use the crucial phrase of literary romanticism, the "spontaneous flow of powerful emotion," discounts the degree to which literary writing is in fact absolutely artificial; it is a language artifact. The modernists were rethinking precisely this model and many of their efforts made the constructedness of language the focus the art itself. Put in the offered language; the distinction between artificiality and untruthfulness is a phantasm. In their quest for unmitigated, direct expression, romantic writers, especially the poets, located the source of artistic creation in the imagination of the individual writer, and tried to minimize the influence of external forces. Modernism, for all its foibles, tried to account for the nature of subjectivity which is unavoidable altered by the external by making those influences transparent, with varying degrees of success.

A couple of interesting things to consider that cropped up in the last few posts....
The first printed use of the word jazz was in 1913. The first jazz recordings were made in 1917 and it wasn't until at least 10 years later that jazz could be considered as penetrating the national, let alone international, cultural sensibility. The blues were even less well publicized and embraced as anything more than race records into the 1930s. This was demonstrably a post WWI phenomena and it seems difficult lump it into the first decade of the century.

I think it might also be helpful, in the ongoing debate about the state of high and low arts in the 19th century, to say something about the state of literary studies at that time. To say nothing of the fact that college education was almost exclusively the realm of privileged white men, literary study itself, until the late 19th century, was limited to Latin, Greek, Philology, and Rhetoric. Literature in English was seen as being of secondary import to the Classics and it wasn't until after World War I, even into the 1930s, that English departments became common in both English and American universities. So yes, if you were literate, and in 1870 20% of Americans were illiterate, you could read literature in English. However, the classics, the pinnacle of the literary arts, were still unavailable to you (unless you were among the 2% the population that went to college in 1900). I just can't see the argument that this doesn't necessarily create a fissure between the literary tastes of the elite and the available literature to the masses (the literacy rates come from Education Department Study on adult literacy that only goes back to 1870, the university structure stuff comes from Graff's PROFESSING HISTORY, which is an interesting, if pretty dry, read).

Posted by: skip26 on July 16, 2004 1:05 AM

A specific thought and two general ones.

First, what Shelley said about the creative process in _Defence of Poetry_ was that it works in two stages. There is the moment of inspiration; the idea comes, and that's generally not the product of conscious work. It just comes.
The second stage is composition, and that's the conscious process, in which the poet uses a range of techniques, all of them conscious, artificial, derived from a long tradition, and so on, to try to give a coherent form to the original idea.

The result is inevitably an art work that fails to catch the pure intensity of the original inspiration. On the other hand, the original conception was formless and not communicable without the application of formal conscious technique to create the art work that others can then see, read or hear.

That's a paraphrase of a fairly long Shelleyan argument.

My impression from reading remarks on their own creative processes by poets and composers in particular, but also by other artists, is that Shelley is giving a fairly accurate and practical description of how the best stuff comes to be.

And the importance of inspiration, the sudden, unexpected arrival of an idea that "you can do something with", is not a Romantic idea, particularly. There are reasons why poets always tended to speak _very_ nicely about the Muses, for thousands of years before the Romantic period came into being.

Maybe a lot of 20th century art was produced without a rhetoric concerning "inspiration": things like serial or aleatory music, New York conceptual art, and other Modernist atrocities/tediosities, were produced without "inspiration". It shows, doesn't it? Uninspired art can be a bit uninspiring.

A more general point is that it's unwise to generalise about "the Romantic movement", because the term covers a wide range of artists in different forms (music, prose, poetry, painting etc), in different countries, with different backgrounds, interests, ideologies, and so on.

Take "the Romantics were passionately antiscience".

Which Romantics were those? Shelley was passionately pro-science, not only in his poetry but in his reading and in practical experimentation, mainly in chemistry and electricity. (And no, despite TJ Hogg's account, the evidence is that he wasn't just playing around.)

Wordsworth and Coleridge said that scientific language would become a suitable language for poetry once its terms became part of ordinary speech; but even so Wordsworth sneaked praise of Newton into the _Excursion_.

But William Blake was antiscience, and so was Whitman, if Whitman was a Romantic.

And probably the majority of the actual real Romantics didn't care much either way; science wasn't their field of interest, but they didn't denounce it, either. Was Victor Hugo "antiscience". Or Delacroix? Or Liszt? Of course not; it just wasn't one of their central themes.

The second larger point is that neither history nor art divides into a series of movements, each reacting against the former movement. (That's a Hegelian idea, probably, that has shaped the thinking of people who are not generally Hegelians.)
Modernism did indeed evolve from aspects of Romanticism. AND Romanticism evolved naturally from the Enlightenment. It was not a "revolt against" the Enlightenment but a natural evolutionary development from it.

The important differences are in aesthetic style (a return to lyric verse forms, rather a primary diet of heroic couplets or Alexandrines, for example; or musical compositions that more freely changed in mood, or key, than earlier music).

But Enlightenment ideas, for example that political power should come from the people themselves by some sort of voting system, that truth does not come from a religious hierarchy or necessarily from revealed religion at all, that "all men are brothers"*, that people should be free to speak and publish without persecutuion, that people should be free to accept, proselytise or reject any religious or political belief, that imprisonment or execution should only follow a fair due process, and so on: that is pretty much the ideological program of the Enlightenment, and of the Romantics too. (Subject to the caveat about there being many different Romanticisms. But it's a fairly safe generalisation.)

Hegelian thinking might make us see history as a series of zigzags: thesis, antithesis, Enlightenment vs Romanticism, or Romanticism vs Modernism. But history mostly doesn't zigzag: it flows.

* "Alle Menschen" is a phrase that no longer has the universalist ring that it once held. Shelley wrote, "Can man be free if woman be a slave?", but most Romantics weren't much more "enlightened" on sexual politics than their Enlightenment predecessors. Though I'd argue that feminism is a product of the Romantic period: to the Romantic period's credit, of course.

Posted by: Laon on July 17, 2004 3:28 AM


If you are referring to me as a victim of the Hegelian model, I think you are mistaken. If you refer to my earlier comments, you will see that I am offering, very tentatively, a model of many interpenetrating social trends, some that are temporarily dominant and some that are temporarily submerged, so to speak. To illustrate this I pointed out that Romanticism first manifested itself in the form of Lutheran Pietism in the second half of the 17th century--long before the Enlightenment (essentially, a particularly aggressive form of Rationalism that accepted only knowledge derived from reason and experience and denied the validity of knowledge derived from inspiration or tradition.) Hence, I have a hard time accepting that Romanticism "grew out of" the Enlightenment. I don't think it axiomatic that cultural trends such as the Enlightenment or Romanticism or Modernism grow out of the artistic practice of the immediate past; I think social conditions change (quite often as the result of war--note the role of the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars in promoting Romantic art and the role of the Franco-Prussian war in promoting Modern art); and, as a consequence, "submerged" trends (that have often been hanging around for quiet a while) rise to much greater prominence.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 19, 2004 12:14 AM

You're right, Shelley does account for the technical side of writing in the "Defence." My impression of this has always been that he considered it a kind of "necessary evil" that was required to do creative work, an obstacle to a true rendering of the poet's soul. This is quite different from the attitudes of the modernists toward technique, process, and form.

There also seems to be a real resistance to periodization and description of movements/groups/eras here. And of course, any conceptual model is always going to be insufficient to capture the totality of any zeitgeist, ethos, spirit, etc.

A Hegelian worldview probably is too pedantic, though in my opinion only as pedantic as a "flow" model of history and culture is unhelpfully nebulous and ethereal. I guess I can't see history and culture as being either entirely reactionary or entirely continuous. In my experience, culture defies any set model or theory, and the best we do is approximation and hypothesis.

What does flow mean exactly? It feels to me like an observation about writing that cannot articulate a particular problem or strengh ("This just doesn't/does flow").

If we are going to try and make sense of the past, we are going to have to create language to do so; we are going to have to break things down into discrete and manageable units; we are going to have to try and find relations and differences between these discrete units. Otherwise, we can only think of what has come before as a kind of cultural reservoir, without form and without useable meaning.

Posted by: skip26 on July 19, 2004 3:21 PM

Sorry; work has suddenly started making unreasonable demands on my time and energy, chiz chiz, so it's taken longer to respond than it should have, for which I apologise, and it means I won't have time to write what the topic deserves, for which any sensible person will, on the other hand, offer up their grateful thanks.

First, on flows and zigzags, the "flow" metaphor, as in "river", allows for evolutionary change over time, including occasional dramatic changes in direction, though they are rare. Therefore it's a good metaphor (having nothing much to do with "go with the flow"), while a set of terms that stress movements and counter-movements, and sees change in terms of revolts and reactions rather than evolutions, is in most cases a bad metaphor.

Obviously no sensible person would want to be accused of Hegelian thinking, but I think it's a habit we've all acquired in thinking of successive movements as being in opposition to, reaction against, each other. That framework tends to encourage people to fit their observations to fit the framework.

I'd suggest that the record shows that the ideas and the ideologies of most of that minority of the Romantics who were concerned with such things as philosophical ideas and political ideologies (most weren't, or at least it wasn't a central or important theme in their work) were basically Enlightenment ideas.

As I've said, those ideas include such things as the idea that the State should be based on some version of voting democracy rather than hereditary rulers, that there should be freedom of thought, and speech, and printing press; that people should be free to choose or reject any religious belief, and to express that choice if they wanted to; that some sort of fair justice system should be established, without arbitrary imprisonment, execution or other similar abuses.

These were new, brave and exciting ideas. I still think they're brave and exciting, which is why I think both the Enlightenment and Romantic periods were splendid periods and overwhelmingly of benefit to every sentient being on the planet, though both offered their share of bad ideas.

For example many Enlightenment figures still believed in some sort of "benevolent despot" model, involving a wise though unelected ruler. The democratic ideal is probably more strongly and consistently espoused by the Romantics than the writers and other artists of the Enlightenment period. But that only reflects the reality that democracy was an audacious idea, and often mildly against the interests of the people who had the leisure to write. It took a while for it to become a default choice for anyone of "philanthropic" bent. The Romantics simply had the advantage of coming later.

But if you want to argue that there was a Romantic philosophy in some more technical sense, that (for example) the Romantics rejected rationality as a technical tool in philosophy, then I think you're going against such evidence on the point as has been left by the small number of Romantics who actually cared to address such issues.

What you do have with the Romantics is a very noticeable change in artistic style, involving greater flexibility in form, most notably in music and poetry. Another characteristic is greater freedom in the expression of emotion. (Though the importance of even that, as a difference or contrast between the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, has been much exaggerated; the cult of "sensibility" was a phenomenon of the Enlightenment.)

But it does not follow, from the fact that the Romantics thought expression of emotion was vital in aesthetics, that they thought rationality was bad in other contexts, such as weighing up the claims of (supposedly) revealed religion, or debating how the just state might be constituted.

I've noted, not in relation to this thread, that people who claim the Romantics were anti-rational often do so by citing various people as Romantics who were not part of the Romantic movement. This can even extend as far as bringing in people like Martin Heidegger or Franz Fanon as Romantics. (I can't see how Marx was a Romantic either. He was not part of any aesthetic movement of any kind; his interests, concerns, style of thought, etc, were not those of any group of the Romantics that I'm aware of. He lived at the same time as some of the Romantics. Well, Milton Friedman lives at the same time as many post-modernists.)

Given that the Romantics were an actual historical movement with actual members, the best way to work out the philosophical views of the Romantics is not to decide on some doctrines and then count anyone who adhered to those doctrines as a Romantic, but rather to approach the question as an empirical one. The word "Romantic" refers to an aesthetic movement, or collection of different movements, whose earlier members include people like Wordsworth and Coleridge in England, or Novalis, the Schlegels, Tieck and so on in Germany (the mid-1790's is a more commonly accepted starting point than 1760, though obviously there were proto-Romantic stirrings earlier than "Lyrical Ballads" and the Jena Circle), and whose later members include, say, Hugo or Brahms, and which was basically a spent force by the mid-1880s.

Therefore the way to answer the question, "What were the philosophical views of the Romantics" is to consider them on a case by case basis: the philosophy of the Romantics consists of the philosophical views that the actual Romantics held.

Take the English Romantic poets, as one example: the young Wordsworth and Coleridge were deeply influenced by Spinoza, while the older Coleridge became a Kantian. Shelley merged Platonic idealism with Humean scepticism, with an interest in the early linguistic philosophers of the day, Tooke for example. Keats showed little sign of interest in any philosophical ideas, beyond imbibing basic Rights of Man philosophy. Byron was more in Samuel Johnson's mould, holding all idealist philosophy (particularly the Continental forms) in entertainingly expressed ridicule and contempt. I doubt if John Clare had any philosophical interests at all; nor, for different reasons, did Thomas Moore, Southey or Hemans. William Blake is actually the only Romantic I can think of, of any country or period, of whom it could be said that he rejected reason as a guide to truth (as opposed to valuing the intuitive in aesthetics, which is a quite different thing). And Blake's influences in that regard were principally religious rather than philosophical: the Bible and Swedenborg.

Do the same for any other group of Romantics and you will find broadly similar outcomes: an eclectic bunch, some with philosopohical interests, some without (except in the sense that anyone has a "philosophy", which is not what we mean, I think). The ones who do have philosophical interests or views seldom fit into any particular philosophic "school", though they may fit into an aesthetic one. And go through the names of their principal philosophical influences, and the names that come up most often are Enlightenment figures. This would be true even if you counted Fichte and Rousseau as Romantics (I'd count Fichte as an Enlightenment philosopher who taught and influenced the youngest German Romantics. But his influence was complex, and perhaps comes mostly in the form of the early German Romantics accepting that the issues that Fichte identified as important in philosophy are indeed the most important or interesting issues; but they tended not to accept the conclusions concerning those isues that Fichte suggested. None of the German Romantics could be called Fichteans, I think.)

Rousseau is a borderline figure. He is certainly an Enlightenment figure, but he is also cited as a Romantic. Me, I'd suggest that as a philosopher he was an Enlightenment figure (meaning he showed a commonality of interest and approach with his philosophical contemporaries; though his majoritarian democracy differed from Voltaire's faith in 'enlightened despotism', for example, and this was an important consideration in his greater popularity with the younger generation). While as a novelist and autobiographer Rousseau was a Romantic figure.

But Rousseau's bridging position is perhaps a good example of my wider point: the philosophical roots of the Romantic period primarily derive from the Enlightenment, while the aesthetic practices of the Romantics are more distinct from those of the Enlightenment, though even then there are important continuities.

Sorry for typos, etc; people are making faces at me because I'm supposed to be producing something money-making and less interesting, so I'm gonna hit "send" and hope it makes sense.

Posted by: Laon on July 21, 2004 8:54 AM


To answer these questions definitively is well beyond both my learning or the amount of time I've got to invest (I too need to make some money in the relatively near future.) But in the most casual, mental-doodling fashion, let me mention a few points:

As to Marx, he wrote adolescent poetry focusing on apocalyptic disaster scenarios, which I understand were largely exercises in justice being rained down on the corrupt society of his youth. A very good case can be made that the progression he posits for society in "Kapital" prior to the final uprising of the proletariat (the falling of wages, the rising of unemployment, the general worsening of conditions for everyone other than the devilish haute-bourgeoisie), to say nothing of the final once-and-for-all moral cleansing of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the same vision tricked out in the guise of scientific socialism. Also, Marx's whole life's work, his disregard for mere facts, his politics, etc., suggests that he considered himself to be exercising his Romantic "creative will" and that he was guided by the Romantic notion that values are not to be meekly accepted from tradition or relevation but rather boldly created. (Per a point I was making above on the continuing vitality of the Romantic trend to this day, I can't abstain from pointing out how utterly Romantic Existentialism was.)

I agree that some of the notions of Romantic politics were taken from the agenda put forward by the Enlightenment, but only some--or rather, there was no consistently definable Romatic politics. (Surely you wouldn't leave out old Burke, who was hardly a supporter of the Enlightenment agenda, when summarizing Romantic politics, now would you? And he's not the only oddball by a long shot.) But that raises another issue that confuses things; the cultural trend that first articulates an issue strongly usually forces representatives from other cultural trends to respond to that issue in the way that it has been defined, even if they aren't coming to it from the same place at all. In that fashion, I believe most of the political space of Romanticism had been pre-empted by other cultural trends that had gotten there first, so to speak (i.e., Absolutism, Enlightenment, etc.)

Again, I would say that it at least seems to me that it would make more sense to discuss these matters in terms like "the Romantic Trend" than to discuss "the Romantic Era", which of necessity truncates and de-historicizes the whole discussion. Romanticism, even fairly tightly defined Romanticism, existed before the Romantic Era and continues to exist to this day. The same, of course, can be said for the Enlightenment Trend (which clearly existed prior to the publishing of the Encyclopedia or the birth of Voltaire and which is still floating around today.) However, there are also other trends floating around in the culture-space as well, although being without a name they're hard to discuss. For example the culture trend in French life that included Jansenism and also seems to have motivated The Terror and some aspects of the Napoleonic era--there was some real (and widely felt) desire to embrace a form of ultra-masculine harshness, discipline, etc. in French life that I can't see being easily explained in terms of either the Enlightenment or Romanticism. Our nomenclature is just too limited or undeveloped to really account for a lot of pretty evident trends.

P.S. I agree with you that Rousseau was much less a Romantic than a man of the Enlightenment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 21, 2004 11:03 AM

TGIF, at least in Oz. Re Burke, he supported the American Revolution, so he wasn't opposed to Enlightenment ideas on democracy per se.

The French Revolution was a different case, though; a lot of its observers who supported democracy were still appalled by that horrible shambles followed by tyranny. Liberals in England and Germany considered the French Revolution a disaster, not because it was democratic but because it set back the cause of democracy. It provided a powerful argument against democracy for decades, in Europe.

Burke's reaction, of bafflement turning to disgust, was not uncommon among people who nevertheless supported many of the ideas behind the revolution. My take is that based on the French experience Burke rejected revolutionary change, but not ideas like democracy, freedom of speech, etc, within a framework of social continuity. In that sense the dispute between Burke and Paine was (arguably) more importantly about means than about ends. Arguably.

Moving to common ground, I absolutely agree that there is a tradition of "hardness" and "ruthlessness" that is neither Enlightenment nor Romantic, which has long roots and which no doubt contributed to various 20th century horrors. Naming it and tracing its roots and development would be a useful project.

Still on common ground, let's rasberry Modernism one more time. While the Enlightenment and Romantic periods both produced art of more or less infinite merit in all the categories then existing, Modernism brought us some ordinary novels, killed off the audience for poetry, made a joke of the plastic arts (the collective shrug, over the fire in the Saatchi collection, is an example) and gave us the ugliest architecture and the most excruciatingly awful music ever perpetrated by any culture in the history of this planet. And I say that having have seen Bollywood musicals made in the 1970s.

So it's good to see you dancing on modernism's grave. I had a similarly satisfying experience on a Venetian island last year, involving much wine with lunch, and, on wandering away from my companions, accidentally finding the grave of Ezra Pound. And you know, it wasn't so much that he was an antisemite and a Fascist, though that helped; but more than anything else, it was for the Cantos.

And since I've wandered this far off the point, two doggerels spring to mind: Byron's on Castlereagh:

Posterity will ne'er survey
A finer grave than this: -
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, Traveller, and ----.

And Conquest's on Pound:

Said Pound, "When writing a Canto
It becomes a sort of portmanteau
Of any old crap
That occurs to a chap
Plus masses of pig-Esperanto."

Posted by: Laon on July 23, 2004 5:45 AM

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