I’ve never been into the arts.
I have always been far more interested in history. In the course of my research, I have become increasingly convinced that each age of history is dominated by its zeitgeist which is the creation of a small group of elites who dream a big idea. It can be artists, poets, novelists, theologians, philosophers, psychologists. They are the creators of culture. They create the idea and the sensibility which enchants and dominates entire centuries or longer which gradually works itself out over time and trickles down to the masses.
The name that continues to pop up the most as the inspiration of Modernism is Charles Baudelaire who first used the term modernité to describe “the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience.”
“In his essay The Painter of Modern Life,Charles Baudelaire defines modernity by examining the interrelations of beauty, fashion, and lifestyle through the eyes of an artist. He sees beauty and modernity as intertwined, defining beauty as “made up of an eternal, invariable element…and of a relative circumstantial element.” Modernity is this inconstant element, the “ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and immutable.” Baudelaire believes that an artist can learn technical skills from old masters, but to make art beautiful, he or she must understand the nature of “present-day beauty.” The beauty of modernity, comes from “its essential quality of being present.” In other words, its inconsistency, its variableness in each moment. The ability to capture the beauty of the present day, Baudelaire claims, will ultimately make art “worthy of antiquity.” He suggests that artists break away from the academic style of painting (i.e. classical scenes in classical clothes), for the reason antiquity resonates with us today is that it was able to capture the beauty of its time. He claims that late 19th century artists cannot secure their place in history by painting someone else’s present. …”
To every age its own art.
This is straight from Baudelaire.
“In fact, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) could easily qualify as the template goths (and other bohemians) aspire to. He often dressed in black, dyed his hair green, and rebelled against the conformist, bourgeois world of mid-19th century Paris in both his personal life and his art.
His first collections of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), was prosecuted for offending public morals, challenging its audiences with its startling treatments of sex, Satanism, vampirism and decay. No wonder his words would one day be set to music by The Cure.
Aside from his writing, Baudlaire’s dissolute life was a checklist of boho credentials. He fell out with his family. He went bankrupt. He pursued reckless sexual experiments and contracted syphilis. He developed a drug habit. He associated with artists, musicians, writers and petty criminals rather than “respectable” people.
He outraged his family by having a mistress who was mixed race and probably illiterate. He refused conventional employment and made a precarious living as a writer, critic and occasional art dealer.
He wrote poetry which was prosecuted for obscenity and was adored by like-minded souls throughout Europe while being hated, even feared, by “straight” society. And then he died young, after years of serious illness and addiction, at the age of 46.
The following excerpt comes from American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:
“Modernism in the arts had its first stirrings in France. As romanticism ran its course, various individuals developed certain of its tendencies to extremes. In the 1830s, Théophile Gautier extolled the connections between beauty and uselessness and dismissed much of common existence as unworthy of existence. In the 1840s, Henri Murger first gave shape to the notion that true fulfillment only came in bohemian groups of friends, living for the moment and heedless of bourgeois norms of religion and morality. In the 1850s, Charles Baudelaire made poetry and criticism the central focus. He rejected the assumption that material progress would lead to moral progress, insisted on his right to see beauty in evil and to make art of corrupt material, defended the use of drugs that would heighten consciousness, and made the artist and his relation to the world a primary theme of art.”
Charles Baudelaire was a complex figure.
He has more to do with the spirit of our own times than John Locke. He translated Edgar Allan Poe into French and later became obsessed with Joseph de Maistre. What do you know about him?
Modernism isn’t a system. It is a sensibility and way of life. Baudelaire’s irresponsible libertine lifestyle is certainly familiar.