Sunday, 8 August 2010

Art and Life

The relationship of ideas to the world is a complex one, that it is not clearly understood; though the problem appears to be have been resolved many times; and millions of books have been written about it. Each new generation tends to shift the majority view: in one era it will be ideas that are all important, hardly influenced by the environment; while the next may emphasise the role of economics, or of Neo-Darwinian selection, to determine what we think. And so it goes on! The dialectic proceeds, both between epochs and within them (there is never a monopoly at any one time; there are always counter currents, which can be the source of the next shift, creating a new cluster of dominant ideas).

Hegel’s theory of history may be too abstract and formulaic, but if we limit it to the interplay ideas and reality, and make it more concrete and less systematic, then it does have a lot of plausibility and truth. Each period will have an ideological atmosphere, or climate of opinion, which will predominate; and because of its own shortcomings (which are inevitable), and the changing underlying reality, it will decline and be replaced by another; and so on and so on. And at some point in time there will be a creative revolution, linked to major changes in the environment, which leads to a huge shift in outlook, and the creation of a new theology or paradigm – examples include Christianity, the Reformation, and the first scientific revolution. Of course, how these changes in the world and changes in the ideas are related to each other is the big question, which no one really knows for sure; outside lots of speculative theories and individual insights.

Despite this uncertainty, and the changing fashions of intellectual history, the constancy of the question, at least since the 19th century, does suggest that such a relationship exists. So, whilst we may be unable to conclusively prove the case either way, as the causal factors are unknown - is it ideas? is it the environment? – we can at least work on the assumption of some intimate link between the two. Our task then is to trace some of these connections, which may enrich our understanding, both of the ideas themselves, and the wider world.

In Vision and Design Roger Fry, reacting against the positivist trends of the 19th century, and what he regarded as its excessive realism in art, looked to return to the older masters to find his aesthetic fulfilment – in the general feel, the overall design of the artwork. He wanted works of art that existed as art objects in their own right, not sophisticated copies of the mundane reality – the internal mechanics of the painting, for example, its overall shape and form, its relationship of colours and tonalities, were more important than fidelity to appearances. Central to his view was the idea that the work should have a unity (and a purpose). Clive Bell went even further. The work of art, like moral actions, should have no end but itself! Like an island in the middle of the sea, or a Leibnizian monad, it should be completely self-sufficient; only then could it give full aesthetic (and moral) effect. For Fry, more nuanced and sophisticated, it was this sense of unity, of form, that produced the strongest aesthetic emotions; and which the Post-Impressionists, or so he thought, were returning to the art world.

In his The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism T.S. Eliot also talks about the importance of a self-contained piece of work. Discussing Sir Philip Sidney’s belief in the three unities - of time, of place and of sentiment - he disagrees only that there are three: ‘…we must observe that the Unities are not three separate laws. They are three aspects of one law…’ For Eliot this one law allows for a make shift unity, which will depend on the relevant strength within it of each of Sidney’s three unities.

Developing this idea, and dealing with the English aversion to it, he quotes Butcher on the Unity of Action (akin to Eliot’s sentiment):

First, in the causal connexion that binds together the several parts of a play – the thoughts, the emotions, the decision of the will, the external events being inextricably interwoven. Secondly, in the fact that the whole series of events, with all the material forces that are brought into collision, are directed to a single end. The action as it advances converges on a definite point. The thread of purpose running through it becomes more marked. All minor effects are subordinated to the sense of an ever-growing unity. The end is linked to the beginning with inevitable certainty, and in the end we discern the meaning of the whole.’

Compare with Fry:

…it is not a beauty of expressive parts but the beauty of a whole… It is the unity and not the content that affects us.

… in our reaction to a work of art there is something more – there is the consciousness of purpose, the consciousness of a peculiar relation of sympathy with the man who made this thing in order to arouse precisely the sensations we experience. And when we come to the higher works of art, where sensations are so arranged that they arouse in us deep emotions, this feeling of a special tie with the man who expressed them is very strong. We feel that he has expressed something which was latent in us all the time, but which we never realised, that he has revealed us to ourselves in revealing himself. And this recognition of purpose is, I believe, an essential part of the aesthetic judgement proper.

There are many similarities – they look at the world in a similar way. However, the differences are also instructive. I’m with Eliot in stressing the poem as the repository of our reactions, rather than its creator. Though Fry’s analysis does raise a very interesting question: just what is trapped inside great art? Is it a form of energy, of feeling, of another’s personality, of will….?

…the three dimensionalness of his forms…manages to give to his forms their disconcerting vitality, the suggestion they make of not being mere echoes of actual figures, but of possessing an inner life of their own.

Fry’s mistake, equating the artwork with its creator, is the very one you would not expect him to make! ‘It is the unity that affects us.’ If that is true, why bring in an outside “purpose”, or some creator? By doing so you remove some of the work’s integrity. And he is not needed - for whilst this “sympathy” originates from a living person, the actual cause is from the object itself. For something within the artist has been transformed by the act of creation and manipulation of the material: and it is to that transformation that we respond (see Eliot’s and Knights’ comments in Flowers are Lovely When you Laugh at Them). Fry, by conflating the art and the artist, misses this process of transformation, which seems to be the source of art’s energy, and thus misinterprets the peculiar nature of artistic creation – which is akin to emotion, but not reducible to it (see Eliot in The Uncertainty of the Poet).

Here is Eliot:

If poetry is a form of ‘communication’, yet that which is to be communicated is the poem itself, and only incidentally the experience and the thought which have gone into it.

Could I suggest that the difference between them is that Fry looked more to art to fill his religious feelings; while for Eliot religion existed outside his poetry – witness his later confirmation in the Anglican Church?

Here we have two artists, working in different media, and sharing similar perceptions and ideas (about art, at least). Even their examples and influences are reflected in this common sensibility. Both look back to older models – Eliot the Metaphysical poets; Fry the pre-Renaissance painters; and the French - for inspiration. And they were not lonely eccentrics: many artists and intellectuals were thinking along the same lines at this time.

How do these ideas relate to their outside world? of industrialisation and the state; of commerce and scientific progress? For the developments of the previous two centuries were advancing at a phenomenal rate, changing both the technological and the social landscape. Wouldn’t you expect the artist’s sensibility, and their ideas, to reflect these changes, formed by the most powerful forces in the land – by science, by industry, and by bureaucracy? Shouldn’t this be the model for our bohemians:

A rational person is methodical and precise. He is tidy and orderly, above all in thought. He does not raise his voice, his tone is steady and equal; that goes for his feelings as well as his voice. He separates all separable issues, and deals with them one at a time. By so doing, he avoids muddling up issues and conflating distinct criteria. He treats like cases alike, subjecting them to impartial and stable criteria, and an absence of caprice and arbitrariness pervades his thought and conduct. He methodically augments his capital, cognitive as well as financial. He ploughs back his profits rather than turning them into pleasure, power, or status. His life is a progression of achievement, rather than the static occupancy, enjoyment, and fulfilment of an ascribed status. (Ernest Gellner)

As the history shows, the artists resisted becoming simple clerks and employees. Why?

This question is enormous, and the answer would require a treatise; if not several. But perhaps we can identify some key factors:

• Continuing decline of Christianity
• Exhaustion of Realism/Impressionism
• Strain of modernisation and industrialism
• The threat of mechanical science and positivist social science
• The rise of bohemia and the independent artist
• Socialism and Communism
• Inadequate means of representing technological change
• Breakdown of the mechanical worldview
• Nostalgia
• Nationalism

Continuing decline of Christianity
Humans need a sense of purpose, both in their own lives and in their wider society. Religion provides this, emotionally and intellectually; and in practice through its rituals and organisation. Europe’s religion, Christianity, was under great strain by the end of the 19th century – for two hundred years it had suffered diminution, and now it was at breaking point; both intellectually and socially. In his Secularizaton of the European Mind in the 19th Century Owen Chadwick shows how the intellectual scepticism of the 18th century, and the following century’s social and economic trends, had by the 1890s affected the general populace; Secularism, the poor man’s Enlightenment, had become the dominant posture. By the 1930s Christianity was broken; to replaced by range of smaller sects (Communism and Fascism the two most important). Eliot captures this well when discussing Mathew Arnold and I.A. Richards: the former intent on creating a moral substitute for revealed religion; while the latter considered the religious question settled; Christianity had gone the way of pagan Rome.

But we still need religion. For we still need a sense of purpose, and society needs an organising principle – to give meaning and legitimation to itself and its citizens.

In this fluid and unstable situation there was plenty of material, and many opportunities, to form new religions. Art was one of them; and many people became converts, Fry amongst them – that hankering after purpose, provided by a creator…. There were others more evangelical: Clive Bell was a fanatic, and thus even more explicit - art is a religion!

Even without the urge to turn art into a deity there was still the need to express the immaterial or ‘spiritual’ world. The old symbols were discredited, or had lost their power; so new ones had to be created. The first Europe wide attempt to do this was the Symbolist movement, which later broke into a bewildering number of groups and tendencies. The Symbolists, and their successors, were trying to capture the numinous, though seeing it from different perspectives, and with no agreed ideas on how to represent it. It? The ‘spiritual world’; or absolute reality; or the thing-in-itself. Take your pick. I prefer Schopenhauer’s The Will, of which we nothing, except it is without time, space and causality.

Van Gogh saw this spirit in nature. Gauguin used a synthetic approach, mixing up all the religions into a new decorative art; which itself becomes the emblem of that spiritual realm.

(Writing to Van Gogh about Le Pouldu) Seeing this every day fills me with a sensation of struggle for survival, of melancholy and acquiescence in implacable laws. I am attempting to put this sensation down on canvas, not by chance, but quite deliberately, perhaps by exaggerating certain rigidities of posture, certain dark colours etc… All this is perhaps mannered but what is natural in art? Ever since the most distant times, everything in art has been completely deliberate, a product of convention…

… in art, truth is what a person feels in the state of mind he happens to be in. Those who wish to or are able to can dream. Let those who wish to or are able to abandon themselves to their dreams. And dreams always come from the reality of nature…(Paul Gauguin)

Ideas; feelings; imagination; and a certain something – an atmosphere. You can’t put this on a table and dissect it. Think of cutting up a Raphael to get to its essence, to reduce it all to its chemical composition, or its pigments and lines! And even more importantly: this atmosphere can only be rendered by the creation of something new, an artificial convention dreamed up by the artist. That is, one reality is captured by creating another, different one; an equivalent, which has equal power (compare with Hume in the Enquiries, who says that our thinking has to work by analogy, as we can never know the thing itself. He also sees beauty has something that cannot be analysed only experienced).

The rise of Symbolism, the most important art movement of the time, tried to fill the ‘spiritual’ gap; but encountered its own problems as the results failed to match its ideas. It was not possible to replace the old saints and heavenly fathers with dragons and medieval knights, done in the academic style. Far too material, and too much of this world, they are just as leaden footed as the work of the naïve realists, like W.P. Frith (see his Derby Day); an object of contempt for both Fry and Bell.

What can be done? The first step is to move away from imitation, to create new pictorial equivalents for this unknown, spiritual world. And very quickly it becomes apparent that the spiritual sense is very close to the aesthetic sense (Eliot agrees, though notes the differences); and this leads to greater emphasis on the latter, to concentrate it, to make it purer; until it becomes a world in itself. Think of Picasso and Braque, and the move from analytic to synthetic Cubism; think of Kandinsky; and then of Pound and of Williams Carlos Williams, cutting back the language to make poems like these:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

(Ezra Pound)
So different, this man
And this woman:
A stream flowing
In a field.
(William Carlos Williams)

And at some point everything explodes! Cubism, Futurism. Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism… each consumed within its own mysticism (even the movement that reacted against it all: Dada – think of Hugo Ball).

Exhaustion of Realism/Impressionism
Fry is very good on this. The imitation of the phenomenal world, going back to at least the Renaissance, and its attempts to capture it exactly, were very successful; but at a cost. The copy, the lifelike imitation, replaced the work of art, the chaos of lived life replaced the concentration and intensity of the art object; form and design were lost. A reaction was inevitable, given the psychological make up, the aesthetic need, of the artist.

Now, in order to enlighten you my Mr M. van Gogh, I’m going to give you a glimpse of my paintings. Examine them closely, as well as the wood carvings and the ceramics. You will see they all belong together. I’m seeking to express a general state rather than a single thought, and at the same time to make another person’s eye experience an indefinite, never-ending impression. To suggest suffering does not mean to specify what sort of suffering; purity in general is what I am seeking to express, not a particular kind of purity…. In consequence, the thought is suggested but not explained… (Paul Gauguin to Theo van Gogh)

Here is that atmosphere again, that feeling the artist wants to convey. He experiences an event, and he wants to convey that experience to us the observer… However, it is not in the fine details, in the accurate rendition of a person’s physiognomy, that this experience is captured. By concentrating on these details we may lose the overall feel of the event, where often the individual details are not seen or recorded. Moreover, it is not the details that the artist necessarily feels – and to paint them may only require a technical skill, and get in the way of the sensation. No, it is that feel! this is the artist’s expression, and which he has a need to convey, to put on canvas and to write in books.

And in poetry, we also see a reaction against the mundane. No longer concerned with fighting the bourgeois, the Romantics had done that, the Symbolists simply ignored it, striving for a self-enclosed world of pure poetry.

Symbolism …a particular kind of poetry tending towards hermeticism and aspiring to the ‘condition of music.’

The Symbolists proper had no place for the empirical self in poetry. However, ‘subjective’ their work, the one thing that must not appear in it was the everyday person, the citizen and employee, the family man… (Michael Hamburger)

Strain of modernisation and industrialism
Across Europe, with the spread of industry, this was becoming the dominant state of mind,

…Separation, segregation, analysis, and independence are at the heart of this approach. Everything that is separable ought to be separated, at least in thought, if not in reality. Indissoluble, inherent linkages are to be avoided. Alliances and alignments, like those occurring in a free society (of which this vision is both a model and a support and an echo), are contingent and freely chosen: they are not prescribed, obligatory, or rigid. Ideas behave like individualist men: not born into estates or castes, they combine freely and as freely dissolve their associations. Likewise, ideas make free contracts and form free associations among each other, rather than being suborned by status imposed on them from above by some theory more authoritative than they are themselves. (Ernest Gellner)

and was intimately associated with the new social order of technological progress, commercialism and mass production. Compare this mental model with some of the quotes above, eg Fry’s, ‘ It is the unity and not the content that affects us.’ The most extreme, or perhaps only the most worked out, version of this “total vision” is Klee’s:

The artist of today expands his knowledge of an object by including its inner being, its cross sections (anatomy), its vital functions (physiology), the laws that govern its life (biology), and finally it relationship, intuitively conceived and depicted, with the earth and the other planets (terrestrial roots and cosmic unity, statics and dynamics, weight and buoyancy). Hence a synthesis of outer sight and inner vision, the complete identity of the ego and the cosmos. (Will Grohmann)

The greater the movement of society away from the artist’s ideal, his aesthetic and perhaps emotional needs, the greater the urge to create a space to protect them; to create a new world, that can become self-sustaining, and contradicts the culture at large. So much that previously was innate, and not conceptualised, satisfied through workings of society and the ritualised religion, was now exposed; and in protecting this spirit the artist changed it – it became more self-conscious, it was separated from banal reality, and it fed off its own theories and justifications… maybe an example of where art did arise out of ideas – from the intellectual chit chat of the metropolitan cafés.

There was also the more banal effects of industrialisation: more people, more traffic, more pollution, more…

Denn ebsenso wie in anderen sich industrialisierenden und urbanisierenden europäischen Städchen wuchs sich die seit Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts steigende Präsenz von Prostituierten auf der Straße und in den expandierenden Vergnügungsgewerben zu einem unüberschaubaren Problem aus. Sie galten als Überträgerinnen gefährlichster und todbringender Geschlectskrankheiten, gefährdeten damit die gesellschaftliche Fortpflanzungsfähigkeit und untergruben nicht zulezt Moral, Sitte, und Anstand. (from Der Potsdamer Platz)

Poor and outcast (Van Gogh at one point compared his life to that of a prostitute), the artists would take this world as both a source of material and a new standard – of morality and outlook; think of the Expressionists, Kirchner in particular, trying to catch the lurid and disorientating character of this demimonde. Beauty, fine proportions… but what happens when you get a buzz from seeing the cocotte signalling a punter, the light green of her scarf against her red coat, her eyes like full stops? If you’re an artist, don’t you want to capture this? Or that strange feeling, when having taken a prostitute home you reject her, for all her temptation, the sexual pull of her overwhelming perfume, because she hasn’t cleaned her teeth (a true Kirchner story). Don’t you want to capture that?

Particularly on the continent, where industrialisation came later, and was in many ways harsher – bigger numbers, larger firms, greater class conflict, often within culturally weak states – these conditions, and the whole conceptual package that was thought to go with them, was rejected. This was in some ways easier in France and Germany than in Britain, because they were historically closer to pre-modern alternatives. And it was on the continent where the new art movements arose (even Eliot comes from the French, of Laforgue in particular), and where Marxism and the most radical politics flourished.

The threat of mechanical science and positivist social science
Science was due a new revolution, but up to Einstein, science, or more accurately, the scientific narrative relayed in educated circles, was a rather dull and mechanical affair – think of Auguste Comte, who looked to reduce all knowledge to “scientific principles”. And what were these principles; or perhaps more accurately, how were they perceived?

(a) the belief that measurement and numeration are intrinsically praiseworthy activities.

(b) the whole discarded farrago of inductivism – especially the belief that facts are prior to ideas and that a sufficiently voluminous compilation of facts can be processed by a calculus of discovery in such a way as to yield general principles and natural-seeming laws. (Peter Medawar on what he calls the Unnatural Sciences – non-scientists attempts to ape the practices of the natural scientists)

This was how early Mill, heavily influenced by Comte, interpreted his ideas:

what science can do is this. It can trace through past history the general causes which had brought mankind into that preliminary state, which, when the right sort of great man appeared, rendered them accessible to his influence… It is in this manner that the results of progress, except as to the celerity of their productions, can be, to a certain extent, reduced to regularity and law. (Sidney Pollard)

This idea, which would be the educated view, if not the actual practice of science, had immense appeal and power, associated as it was with the rising economic and technological power of Great Britain and Germany. It threatened to become the dominant ideology, displacing Christianity and the Romantic/pantheistic alternatives. Comte made a religion of his science! This would be seen as a threat to artists whose instincts and aesthetic vision naturally rejected this view; this rejection would be particularly powerful where positivistic science seemed to influence art, and thus invading its territory: the growth of Realism, the aesthetic theories of Impressionism.

Here is Owen Chadwick on the rise and fall of this Comtean positivism:

During the third quarter of the nineteenth century some men believed that science, that is the natural sciences, could solve all problems, even the problems of men; that man and society could be brought under universal laws like the law of gravitation; that we live under a determined process which no free act can stop or check or change. For two or even three decades this idea was magnetic. Science, queen Science, goddess Science, could do all. By 1890 the act of faith was seen not to fit the experience of men. It faded away; leaving behind it still the immense reputation of science as the quest for all kinds of truth, but leaving also the sadness that science is not fitted to offer truths about the moral being…

Did art influence the decline of this idealisation; or did Comte’s decline influence art; or was there no relation between these two at all, connected as they were to a quickly changing society…

The rise of bohemia and the independent artist
The rise of the market also saw the decline of the old patrons, and the creation of a bohemia, where artists had more freedom, but were often alienated from the wider society.

Throughout Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, artists and writers began to reject what they saw as a superficial and materialistic way of life, associated with the growth of middle-class culture and its perceived cultural philistinism. In avant-garde artistic circles, middle-class taste was associated with mimetic representations of daily life… that would not tax the eye or the mind and which could be understood at a glance. The artist was felt to be a servant or a salesman whose purpose was to provide furniture for his customers. (Shearer West)

The result was a move towards art as a self-contained unity, which could only be assessed in aesthetic terms. Art thus became a specialist profession to be understood only by the experts – the artists themselves, and the real art lovers.

In effect this created a new guild of craftsmen, whose members could exploit their freedom to develop their art, free of outside pressure. In many ways this reached its apotheosis in the 1890’s and 1900’s. The results of course were profound, allowing for experimentation, and ultimately a pictorial and poetic revolution. Here is Robert Goldwater:

…increasingly the artist’s immediate (and articulate) public was his fellow artist, so that there was a constant premium upon technical skill, innovation, and wit as judged by an overacute audience… [but] at the same time called sharp attention to the uselessness of technique as a final goal. This combination of influences may explain that peculiar indirect simplification of style…characteristic of so much pictorial primitivism.

Socialism and Communism
Excluded from respectable society, and often very poor, it is little wonder that the artist should want to change society. Thus the attractions of radical politics; particularly striking around the time of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, where politics and art were often fused into utopian dreams.

Also, Socialism, but particularly Communism, offered an alternative to the Liberal free market economy with its alienated individuals. With its appeal to community and social co-operation it offered another total vision:

…[Then] there is what we might call the organic vision… the objects deployed in the construction of a world are not some homogeneous assembly of similar grains, differing only in – What? Colour, shape, hardness? – as the individualist/atomic tradition would have it. On the contrary, the constituent elements form a system, whose parts are in intimate and intricate relation with each other. Separation of all separables is not the heart of wisdom, but of folly. Any strong striving in this direction is a symptom of poverty of spirit, of lack of true understanding, of narrowness of vision, of a failure of comprehension. The sensitive mind and heart see and feel the totality; they appreciate the connectedness of all its parts and do not seek to break up that unity. (Ernest Gellner)

These radical politics could also feed directly into the art. We see this particularly around the time of the Russian Revolution where painters and poets looked to “revolutionary” forms, using art to create new symbols for the new society.

Inadequate means of representing technological change
This is how Robert Hughes starts his great book, The Shock of the New, with Camille Lefebvre’s rather pedestrian sculpture, that fails to capture the new speed of the motorcar. Vast and incessant technological changes were making the old techniques feel old and outworn; new ways had to be found to capture the swiftness and invention of the modern age. Though a curious irony, picked up well by Alan Bullock, is that in turn this artistic revolution ran ahead of the society:

Yet, whatever the intimations of disturbance and the feelings of change, the elements of stability and tranquillity are quite as apparent as the elements of schism… I find myself turning to two contrasting pictures. One is a photograph of a London street-scene… of 1904… Along the pavements under the gaslamps, businessmen in top hats and frock coats rub shoulders with clerks in bowler hats… and one or two women in long skirts and large hats… the roadway is crowded with hansom-cabs, brewers’ drays, wagons and horse-drawn buses… The second is a picture of Les Desmoilles d’Avignon…

This shows the problem of reducing ideas to the environment. The latter might act as a stimulus to artistic or intellectual experiment, through changing people’s perceptual world, but it cannot determine its actual content; which depends on the creative process – an unclear mixture of the original impressions and the mind, working both consciously and unconsciously.

Breakdown of the mechanical worldview
This is somewhat speculative, and abstract. In the last five hundred years there has been an extraordinary shift in human society, from the pre-modern world, mostly based on agriculture, with some trade, to the modern world, based on science and industrialisation. This historical event has been both very rapid, and has slowly evolved over time. In Britain, the first country to industrialise, it is only in the last thirty years or so that many of its surviving pre-modern institutions have been removed of their archaisms – the new aggressive state capitalism replacing their old guild or professional values with the profit motive. Previously there was a tension within these professions between making money and preserving a professional standard. That tension has relaxed in favour of profit and growth (see Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News for how these changes have affected journalism).

I think it is possible to argue that the understanding of this transformation, the social theories or philosophies that underpinned it, went through three stages, the second one entailing a sharp break from the past, which allowed the modern (cognitive) order to be born.

The first stage was the undermining of the Christian theology. Starting in the 17th century this was mostly successful by the end of the 19th. Probably the best account of this is Paul Hazard, in his The European Mind; who shows how both the environment and the intellectual culture undermined the Christian worldview. To take one of his examples: with increasing technological sophistication Europeans could travel overseas, and confront different societies. The size and complexity of some these civilizations, China was a particularly powerful influence with its ancient lineage and very different cosmology, began the long comparison between Christianity and other religions; giving rise to questions and uncertainties. It wasn’t long before its intellectual foundations crumbled.

The second stage was the creation of a new ideology – the mechanical world picture. Descartes was the most influential figure in this cognitive revolution. These ideas, though not as radical as first thought – they carry over a lot from medieval thinking –, nevertheless suggested a radical break, replacing a static and God-centred world with a dynamic one, based on the machine.

Machine-imagery changes the world-view profoundly because machines are by definition under human control. They can in a sense be fully understood because they can be taken to pieces. And if the world is essentially a machine, then it can be taken to pieces too and reassembled more satisfactorily. (Mary Midgley)

I think one could argue that such a radical break – the conceptualisation of a material world that was both predictable and could be infinitely manipulated; and was transparent to man’s reason - was necessary to separate it from the previous theological worldview. It created a crisis. Like a religious conversion it forced people to make choices, for ideas are wrapped up in values and lifestyles; and for such a large conceptual break, in which a whole worldview comes under threat, a large dose of emotional energy is required to make these changes happen. Only some sort of crisis can provide this (Gellner makes the same point, but in a different context, in his The Psychoanalytic Movement). Thus the somewhat odd, unnatural feel about this time, where reason takes on an unprecedented power, and it appears that the world can be grounded by the human mind; and everything can be explained rationally.

The third stage, starting with Newton, who showed this vision to be incoherent and impossible, was to create our modern world picture. What Newton showed was that we didn’t understand the world at all (or more accurately, only a tiny bit of it); it was, like God, as mysterious as ever. With the prevailing ideas in mind he himself viewed gravitation as an occult force, and worried by this, ascribed it to God. That is, in some respects we return to the world pre-Descartes; but with a vital difference, the organic, static community, with its sacralisation of knowledge, underwritten by the deity, was gravely weakened. Newton seemed to provide a temporary fix, with God personally intervening to set the world right – to occasionally wind the heavenly clock. However, by the middle of the 18th century God was replaced by more natural solutions to the irregularities in his system.

But no worldview dies overnight. Just as Christianity is still with us, though it has lost its epistemological power, so the mechanical picture continued – at least until the scientific revolutions of the early 20th century (although Behaviourism suggests it was still a serious intellectual pursuit until at least the 1960’s).

…in the twenty years between 1895 and 1915 the whole picture of the physical universe, which had appeared not only the most impressive but also the most secure achievement of scientific thought, was brought into question and the first bold attempts to replace it by a new model. (Alan Bullock writing of the time from Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays to Einstein’s General Principles of Relativity)

This new understanding of science clearly had enormous implications, across all intellectual activity, not least art. At the same time the popularity of Marx and the new theories of Freud suggested that deeper and barely perceptible forces were at work underneath the surface phenomena. All these ideas would reinforce the trends mentioned above, particularly the view that there is a world beyond appearances, that we need new intellectual tools and artistic images to capture, now that Christianity had lost legitimacy; and realism had proved inadequate and hopelessly superficial.

Man is a creature of custom and habit. Over the last five centuries the world he was born into has steadily changed, often in a lifetime. This can create nostalgia for past times; especially where the changes can lead to devastation and loss – think of the massive destruction caused by the creation of the European states, and the impoverishment and harsh conditions of early industrialisation.

Ever since the Romantics there was a fashion for the past: the Middle Ages became a sentimental fantasy, or an inspiration for art and social movements – think of the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites, of Ruskin and Morris, of the Gothic Revival, the Oxford Movement, even the early Bauhaus… An escape to the future through the past had become part of the cultural background of the times.

The new religion. It gained in strength throughout the 19th century, and culminated in the apocalypses of two world wars in the twentieth.

Throughout the 19th century new nations were formed and consolidated, or minorities within larger empires pushed for independence and statehood. In the aftermath of World War I a small continent of nations were formed in Europe – though similar independence was denied to the colonies. New nations were weak, without the legitimacy of dynastic rule, going back hundreds of years. Therefore they had to ground themselves, usually through tradition; they had to give themselves a past. Thus we see huge historical efforts to recapture and legitimise particularly folk traditions. This fed into the art. A good example, one of many, is the Russian Cubo-Futurists:

Larionov and Goncharova first launched the new ‘Primitivist’ style… this new freedom is likewise reflected in the turning to national folk-art traditions… Embroidery from Siberia, traditional pastry forms and toys, and the ‘lubok’ – peasant woodcuts – from the seventeenth century… Another national tradition which influenced this ‘Primitivist’ style was that of icon painting… (Camilla Gray)

Compare with Gellner, for whom nationalism arose out the pressures of modernisation – industrialisation, uneven development, and scientific progress.

Nationalism usually conquers in the name of a putative folk culture. Its symbolism is drawn from the healthy, pristine, vigorous life of the peasants, of the Volk, the narod… If the nationalism prospers it eliminates the alien high culture, but it does not replace it by the old local low culture; it revives, or invents, a local high (literate, specialist-transmitted) culture of its own, though admittedly one that will have some links with the earlier folk styles and dialects. But it was the great ladies of the Budapest Opera who really went to town in peasant dresses, or dresses claimed to be such.

Origins became important; reflected in the stature of History; and its theorisation, starting with Hegel, but continuing throughout the 19th century. Thus on the one hand there is the call to progress, while on the other the valorisation of the past; or at least the distant past. In art this is reflected in utopian politics and a return to older models – Clive Bell, in a caricature of these positions, tends to scrap nearly all art between the Middle Byzantine period and Cézanne.

From a different perspective Shearer West, charting the evolution of German visual culture between 1890 and 1937, describes just how close this connection was between the nation and its art. Not only did nationalism influence art, but the new art influenced the new nationalism.

The nationalist undercurrents in rural and urban representations drew strength from a persistent emphasis on the spiritual, intellectual and philosophical aspects of visual culture.

This ‘old’ art, with its religious and ritualistic connotations, can be seen as an antidote to the prevailing order; of mass production, bureaucracy and commerce, with its lack of meaning and ‘feel’. In the same way the nation can appeal to a collective purpose and to deep, instinctual needs. It can offer an alternative to the alienated individualism of the clerk and the shop assistant. And sometimes these two ideas merged: in Italy Futurism became the official art of the Fascists, while there were certain figures in the Nazi party that advocated Expressionism as a true German art – overruled by Hitler, of course.

In Meditations on a Hobby Horse Ernst Gombrich attacks a tradition of German art critics who see historical periods as self-contained entities, with everything appearing as a sign and a symbol for that period’s essence, its zeitgeist. There is a lot of truth in Gombrich’s view, though it can be taken to extremes – clearly there are historical trends, and epochs do display certain dominant characteristics, and to deny this, and to accept the peculiarly British idea of history as just-one-thing-after-another is to make a profound mistake.

Nickolaus Pevsner in his classic, Pioneers of Modern Design, seems to fall into Gombrich’s trap, by positing a single modernist spirit (he was no doubt influenced by the very tradition with which Gombrich disagrees). What is particularly interesting about the book are the contortions, evident through the changing editions, to accommodate a major architect that does not fall into his theory – Antoni Gaudi. If we accept Pevsner’s view on design, his belief in the monopoly of the machine aesthetic, we would surely have to give it currency for the rest of Europe’s artistic production – the zeitgeist would be too strong to resist, wouldn’t it? And if it affects all art we would have to explain why the scientific and cognitively individual worldview elucidated by Gellner, and so intimately connected to the new industrial culture, was not incorporated into the artistic sensibility. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that; for there is something missing in Pevsner’s account.

As a first level of simplification we can argue that at any one time there will a majority view, a dominant ideology, which links up in some way with the underlying economic and social structure. Within that period there will also be many counter-currents, which share many of the features of the prevailing ideology but which interprets them differently. Moreover, as the key insight of Johan Huizinga shows, these zeitgeists are not clearly demarcated; they will often slide over one another, varying over time and place – the Renaissance took many decades to reach the Netherlands. Thus, since the great scientific revolution in the 17th century we have at least three worldviews in existence at the same time, varying in force and explanatory power over the centuries. From generation to generation the nuances will change; though, as the growth of scientific knowledge has showed, through the delineation of the cosmos, the formulation of evolutionary theory, certain older, pre-scientific theories and ideologies lose credibility, and are no longer the source of serious study. They go the way of Ptolemy.

Science rules! but in only some domains. If you want to understand the earth’s origins, or the make up of matter, you turn to science; but if you want a deeper understanding of people or aesthetics you must go to literature and art. David Hume in the Enquiries makes a distinction between two kinds of knowledge, one of number and quantity, and the rest. It’s an important insight, and it also has wider implications.

It seems to me, that the only objects of the abstract sciences or of demonstrations are quantity and number, and that all attempts to extend this more perfect species of knowledge beyond these bounds are mere sophistry and illusion…

All other enquires of men regard only matter of fact and existence; and these are evidently incapable of demonstration

…existence, therefore, of any being can only be proved by arguments from its cause and effect; and these arguments are founded entirely on experience. (my emphasis) 

The point for Hume was that much of our existence was based on sentiment, on our actual physical existence, and this could not be reduced to reason. From this distinction arises two ways of looking at the world: the scientific and the moral (which covers all non-scientific thought; including our appreciation of “beauty”; that is, our aesthetic emotion, to use Roger Fry’s term). And for Hume this aesthetic emotion could only be experienced – it could neither be instigated or comprehended rationally, but only felt. That is, our experience of the work of art was our understanding of it.

From out of these two ways of looking at reality arise two intellectual worldviews, and the bureaucracies that go with them: the scientific and the humanities. Over the last hundred years there has been a battle between them, with the social sciences somewhere in the middle, as knowledge has been turned into an industry, and the university system has expanded.

Now any powerful group will it have within a natural urge for expansion, which will only be limited by its own resources – how much energy does it have? – and the strength of other groups. All groups are connected by feeling and ideas. Thus ideas, fused into these groups, will also have the urge to grow and conquer; in this case into fresh fields of enquiry.

Today the will both of state capitalism and science is very strong indeed, it dominates our lives and understanding. And it wants to grow and conquer all our lives and all our understanding. The best recent example is the evolutionary psychologists, who not only want to reduce all of life to science; but all of science to one aspect of biology - the gene (our new godhead?). This latter urge is almost certainly linked to the increasing specialisation of our knowledge, so that disciplines become like states, with some having imperial ambition.

Throughout the last two centuries this will (to power?) has been resisted by these other forms of understanding (see Gellner’s individualist and organic typology, quoted above); by the humanities generally; and art in particular. Yet it is possible their resistance is weakening – think of the growth of the social sciences, and the way both art and literature are turned into absurdist copies of the scientific model, with near incomprehensible jargon and general theories (Deconstruction, Critical Theory etc). A recent debate in the pages of the TLS, over pressures to cut university funding, brought out the old two cultures debate, very starkly. The humanities feel on the back foot, in a battle that is centuries old.

It is this resistance, based on a different conception of how we think and act, Gellner’s organic vision, that has helped shape the art of the last century within the wider changes brought about by modernisation and industrialisation. These two processes, of art and modernisation, cannot be separated. They are intimately linked, but not identical. However, as corporations get bigger and science more powerful, both politically and epistemologically, the areas of resistance may become smaller. We are all bureaucrats now! I say elsewhere. If this becomes true it’s possible that Gellner’s individualist vision will be the only one available; and that it will have the monopoly on all our thoughts. So that everything will be reduced to utility and the profit motive? And the demise of art will at last come true….

Impossible! You say. Maybe you are right, but who can know. And tell me, just for the sake of argument, if I were right, and one day we are all reduced to clerks and shop assistants, who will be responsible – the Corporation or Max Weber?

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