Modernist and Medieval Art

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While those paintings from my post “We Didn’t Start the Fire” are fresh in your mind, I want to talk about the relationship between modern art and medieval art. Modern art is often thought of as something new, but in many ways it is a return to the medieval artistic tradition. It began with a strong influence from primitive art [1], and it is not at all coincidence that primitive art, medieval art, and modern art share so many defining characteristics. They’re all based on philosophies situated at one extreme of what I call the principle dimension of art, which for the moment I’ll call idealism versus realism.

Cycladic head, Greece, circa 2500 BC

That’s not all there is to it, but rather than explain that, which will take many posts, let’s look at similarities between modern art and medieval art.

Color

Note the symbolic choice of face colors in Munch’s 1895 Jealousy from my previous post, Picasso’s use of blue throughout his blue period to show misery and despair, and the use of colors associated with death, disease, mold, and corruption rather than the colors of wolves for Jackson’s The She-Wolf.

Perspective


Fresco, St. Georg Church, Reichenau, Austria, 10th century A.D.


Picasso, Factory, 1909

Note the pseudo-perspective on the buildings in “Factory”, painted as as a child paints a building, where no one perspective is privileged, but each side looks more like it would if you were looking more directly at that side. This is called Cubism, and is the same approach used to draw the buildings in the Reichenau frescoes. The general multiple-simultaneous-perspective approach is also common in primitive art and is strictly mandated in ancient Egyptian art.

Essences govern medieval and modern art

A standard explanation is that Cubist painting and related styles depict the different sides of objects simultaneously, to give a truer picture of the object than one would get from a realistic drawing using perspective. I think this reveals the underlying motivation: All such paintings are made by people whose philosophies say that a realistic picture of an object is not a true picture. They are attempts to convey more of the “essence” of a subject than you could perceive simply by looking at it.

This principle governs medieval art. That’s why it’s so unrealistic. Principles of medieval art include:

– Instead of perspective, draw the most-important side of each figure.
– Size is used to show importance rather than distance.
– Colors are used for their symbolic meanings rather than to be realistic.
– Space is not represented, as it is unimportant.

All these principles recur in modern art.


Medieval painting, possibly of the Ark, source unknown


Cezanne, Four Bathers, 1890


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Size and space

Cezanne’s painting places the bathers in a three-dimensional scene. There is space between them, and you can tell where they’re standing. Their sizes have been curiously inverted: the one farthest from the viewer, but most-central to the picture, is drawn the largest, while the one closest to the viewer, but compositionally least-important, is the smallest, as in medieval art.

In Picasso’s painting, size varies at random throughout each figure. Not only can’t you tell how to place these women in three dimensions, you can’t tell whether the central two are standing up or lying down. All five are scrunched together unnaturally closely, their figures filling the canvas. Space, and relations between people or things, are no longer important.

In the medieval painting, the largest figures are, perhaps, Noah and his wife, not because they are closet, but because they are most-important. They look upwards because they are closer to God than the other figures are. The sky is gold to indicate they are performing the will of God (see Benton p. 70). It’s hard to say where the other people are, or where the boat (Ark?) is. The green squiggles signify more than depict water.

In medieval paintings, every person was drawn in a position and posture indicating their relationship to God. In modern art, there is no God. The world has lost its center, and so positions and postures should remain ambiguous and unlocatable, adrift in a space without coordinates.

If you scroll through all the paintings in my previous post, you’ll see there is no space in Modernist painting, even if they’re representational. This is not AFAIK adequately accounted for by modern art critics, because their perspective does not allow them to notice that it’s missing. Space is not shown in modern art because space is not a property of objects. Modern artists, and the continental philosophy it’s based on, focus on what the essence of an object or the meaning of a word is, and have forgotten about the question of how objects or words relate to each other, or combine to give meaning.

Structure and creativity

Modern art rejects the notion of structure, whether the structure of natural objects, the composition of a painting, the dramatic or logical structure of a story, or the graceful and efficient load-bearing structure of a dome or arch as opposed to the structurally-indifferent brute power of right-angled steel bars. This rejection of structure is known as Structuralism. The idea is that rather than being aware of structures, relationships, and measurements, you need only be aware of contrasts. Mark Rothko’s paintings are the apotheosis of this notion:

It originates in Saussure’s linguistic theory, which says that words are defined not by properties of the things they denote, nor by algorithms, but by the set of words which contrast with or bound them. For instance, “tall” is not defined by an understanding of physical properties that make an object tall, but by being the opposite of “short”. “Wrist” is defined not as a particular anatomical feature, but as that word which lies semantically between “hand” and “forearm”.

Structuralism, however, is purely topological, uninterested in the metric space words lie in or the set-membership functions one might use to define them. That means they don’t care about how far apart the meanings of words are, the fuzziness or interpenetrability of their boundaries, or any unclaimed space between them. Philosophically, they’re reverting to Aristotelian logic, in which only first-order predicates exist, there are no quantifiers and no measurements, no action at a distance, and all reality conforms to a kind of Law of the Excluded Middle in which everything must be This or That. Re. the Law of the Excluded Middle, we may also observe that they’re reverting to a belief in Aristotle’s claim that empty space is impossible [2, 3].

Art of the High Middle Ages, similarly, had no notion of compositionality–the idea that a composition is more than the sum of its parts, or has some property other than the collection of the properties of its parts. I’ll give detailed support for this claim in a later post.

Ancient and medieval philosophy was focused on the idea that the answers to mysteries lay in the essences of objects, not in relationships between objects. Aquinas’ theory of imagination was that it produced images of remembered objects, and could construct a new image either by putting together multiple objects which had never been seen together, or by putting together formal properties from different known objects, “as when from the imaginary form of gold, and the imaginary form of a mountain, we construct the one form of a golden mountain, which we have never seen” (Eco p. 110).

There was no allowance in the medieval scholastic theory of the imagination or creativity to conceive of, say, a wheel, other than through having formerly seen a wheel. That would be a creative act, and to suggest that humans were creative would have been heresy.

Much of post-modern theory can be described as making the heresy of creativity unthinkable. This is why post-modernists like fan-fiction. Well, not enough to actually read it, but enough to write articles about it. They think it’s inherently uncreative (e.g., Coppa p. 231, 232, 245; Jamison 2013b; Wershler), and that it validates their claims that proper literature is not creative (Barthes 1971), but merely recombines elements of previous literature, the way Aquinas thought ideas simply recombine things people have seen before. (This belief may be technically true, but it is more misleading than informative due to the inability of humans to conceive of the degree to which the human brain decomposes sensory information.)

Summary

If you compare all the paintings in my previous post to 19th-century paintings, you’ll notice stylistic or technical differences. Modern art [4]:

– is crudely drawn
– uses a small number of colors, usually a subset of red, yellow, white, blue, black, green, and brown
– chooses colors for their symbolic or emotional values
– does little blending or shading of colors, and only for one-dimensional gradients–it never blends three colors to show realistic shadows, or shadows and a color gradient at the same time
– does not use perspective or uses multiple simultaneous perspectives
– does not depict empty space; stuffs the picture full (unless it’s an empty-canvas conceptual piece)
– does not try to depict objects realistically
– does not show people having emotions (a trend which began with Manet and Seurat’s coolly dispassionate evening parties and picnics, and harks back to neo-classicism and classical Greece)

This is nearly the same as the list of differences medieval paintings have from Renaissance paintings! Modern art, conceptually and technically, rolled back the Renaissance. This is because it’s based on a philosophy which rolls back the Enlightenment and Renaissance to return to medieval conceptions of the world. More on that later.


[1] “Primitive” is a controversial word now. In most cases it’s more precise to say “hunter-gatherer”, but we can’t for art, because we often don’t know whether an ancient society was a hunter-gatherer society. We can, however, usually look at its technological artifacts, and its art, and say whether it was primitive. If anyone is offended by the term, their presumption that the term is an insult only proves their own prejudice against primitive societies.

One good source for the influence of primitive art on modern art would be a biography of Picasso, but that’s just scratching the surface. (McGill 1984) describes a large art exhibition arguing that the influence of primitive art on modern art was more philosophical than formal and that Picasso wanted to return to irrationalism and ritualism. I would say philosophy and form always go hand-in-hand.

[2] Aristotle’s claim is cleverer than it at first appears, and might be correct in two senses. One is that a vacuum must have quantum fluctuations; the second has to do with how space is created by mass in general relativity.

[3] Much of deconstructionism can be concisely described as the claim that reality is unknowable because Aristotelian logic and physics don’t work in real life, but that’s also a topic for a separate series of blog posts.

[4] Of course there are exceptions–probably thousands or even tens of thousands of exceptions. Matisse, a Fauvist, maintained a sense of space. Georgia O’Keefe blended 3 colors to show color-realistic shadows. But these rules probably hold for more than 90% of modern art.


References

Roland Barthes, 1971. “From Work to Text.” In Leitch et al., pp. 1326-1331.

Janetta Rebold Benton. Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art.

Coppa, Francesca. “Writing Bodies in Space.” In Hellekson & Busse 2014, pp. 227-246.

Umberto Eco 1959, translated 1986. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press.

Hellekson, Karen, & Kristina Busse 2014. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2014.

Jamison, Anne E. Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, an Imprint of BenBella Books, Inc., 2013.

Jamison 2013b. “An Interview with Jonathan Lethem.” In Jamison. (No page numbers in e-book.)

Leitch et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton, 2010.

Douglas McGill 1984. “What does modern art owe to the primtives?” New York Times September 23, 1984.

Wershler, Darren. “Conceptual Writing as Fanfiction.” In Jamison, pp. 408-417.

George Steiner and post-modern dialectic as improv

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Post-modernists “mean” what they say

George Steiner is a literary theorist who has had appointments at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Geneva, despite not believing in literary theory. While reading his 1989 book Real Presences, I suddenly understood how post-modern thought works, and why it is self-consistent. All you have to do to understand it, it turns out, is believe that they mean what they say [1].

I had just read Steiner’s description of modernism (p. 87-100), and was puzzled that he never used the word “modernism”. I flipped back to the index to see if it listed modernism. No modernism, and no post-modernism either. In fact, there were no concepts of any kind in the index. It listed only proper nouns. Steiner, it seemed, organized his thought entirely around references to previous philosophers, artists, and works of art.

I went back to reading and came across this sentence: “Mallarmé breaks (rupture becomes a cardinal term) the covenant, the continuities between word and world” (p. 104).

This struck me as strange. I’ve read similar sentences in many other works, but could always interpret them as sloppy short-hand for something like “Mallarmé was the first to act as if there were no covenant between word and world.”

But Steiner doesn’t do sloppy short-hand. He says what he means and means what he says. He studies every word and clause, alert to its connotations and etymology, unpacking idiomatic expressions to make sure their original historical meaning is also in tune with his intent. If Steiner says that Mallarmé broke the link between words and reality, he means that there was a link between words and reality before Mallarmé wrote, and there was not afterwards.

How could one lone Frenchman’s poetry rupture the nature of reality? It can’t. No words can. Words have no connection to reality for Steiner:

To ascribe to words a correspondence to ‘things out there’, to see and use them as somehow representational of ‘reality’ in the world, is not only a vulgar illusion. It makes of language a lie. (p. 95)

Used (misused) as some kind of representational grid or facsimile of ‘the real’, language has indeed withered to inert routine and cliche’. Made to stand for inaccessible phenomenalities, words have been reduced to corrupt servitude. They are no longer fit for poets or rigorous thinkers (poetry being thought at its most rigorous). Only when we realize that what words refer to are other words, that any speech-act in reference to experience is always a ‘saying in other words’, can we return to a true freedom. It is within the language system alone that we possess liberties of construction and of deconstruction… so boundless, so dynamic, so proper to the evident uniqueness of human thought and imagining that, in comparison, external reality, whatever that might or might not be, is little more than brute intractability and deprivation. (p. 97)

When Steiner says there was a link between words and reality, he means that before Mallarmé, everyone agreed there was such a link. When he says there is no more link, he means people now agree there is no such link. That is all that matters. The surprising thing is that, given certain peculiar environmental conditions, this can be a self-consistent worldview.

Steiner isn’t a model post-modernist, and might not like being called a post-modernist. He seems to be Catholic, and where your typical post-modernist says, “Words can’t access reality and so have no meaning,” Steiner says, “Words can’t access reality and therefore it is God who imbues them with meaning.” But this post is entirely about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and be self-consistent, not about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and escape nihilism. Steiner is adequate for this purpose.

Post-modernism as philosophical behaviorism

His index contains only proper nouns because he doesn’t believe in any-thing but people and texts. Modernism? What’s that? A concept that does not correspond to anything in the world. Where is “modernism” in between books? Nowhere. It is no-thing. Steiner does not refer to “modernism”, but only to the relations between the words in particular works and of particular thinkers. He uses a philosophical analogue of behaviorism: There are no thing-categories in the world in post-modernism, just as there are no concepts in the brain in behaviorism. Philosophical rigor requires dealing only in the word-streams that emanated from previous individuals, not in false “concepts” reified from those word-streams.

Steiner makes many exceptions to this, of course; otherwise he could not use language at all. But he does not think of writers as discovering categories that exist in the world. Post-modernists introduce metaphors (“rhizome”), processes for creating post-modern art (“bricolage”, “pastiche”, “mash-up”), and endless terms to describe different ways of relating art / word to meaning / reality / original (“camp”, “différance”, “incommensurable”, “indeterminacy”, “kitsch”, “language games”, “parody”, “simulacra”) and text to text (“intertextual”, “metafiction”, “meta-narrative”), but these are not the kinds of words that show up in indices. They are relationships and attributes, but not things that one talks about as bridges or sine waves are. Post-modernists aren’t taxonomists. The world of things is irrelevant to them.

Post-modernism as improv

This also explains why Steiner never worries whether the things he says are correct, contradictory, or sensible [2]. He never asks whether the sources he cites are correct or contradictory. A citation, to him, is the same as a proof. The only criteria of a proposition’s admissibility is that it has already been accepted into the game [3]. Dialectic requires embracing contradictions; it moves forward by pasting them together in aesthetically-appealing ways. Given only statements that don’t contradict each other, a post-modernist could say nothing.

That’s why Steiner only rarely says anyone is wrong, and never anyone who is an accepted part of the literary canon or of the post-modernist word-game. Because the first rule of the word game is: You cannot say anything is wrong once it’s part of the game.

This is also the key rule of improv comedy. A member of an improv troupe might say or do something that appears to paint the sketch into a corner, but the other members must never contradict it or deny it. Postmodern dialectics should not be thought of as an attempt to be correct, but as an extended game of improv.

Even when post-modernists wish to make the ultimate condemnation of a viewpoint, they don’t say it’s wrong, they say it’s “dead” (implying it was once alive and vital) [4]. Arguments are not wrong or right; they are in fashion or out of fashion. It isn’t a question of whether a statement corresponds to reality; it’s a question of whether the person who said it was playing the game correctly at the time. Aristotle can get away with talking about truth because the game demanded belief in objective truth when he wrote. A citation to something he said is a proof; a restatement of it is idiocy.

The post-modernists have been trying to explain this to us all along. They say it over and over: Words do not correspond to reality. Understanding this leads to the “freedom” to say anything. Philosophy is a word-game. Philosophical discourse is done via dialectic, in which you take two contradictory earlier views and combine them without resolving their contradictions.

Once you have all four principles, enough like-minded colleagues to play word-games with, and no fear of your games having any personal consequences to you, you can play your word-games forever.

Post-modernism versus science

Steiner devotes p. 69-86 to this puzzle: How does science produce things that work when it relies entirely on the false belief that its claims are objectively true? “The ultimate grounds of this contract [between theory and fact] remain enigmatic. Why it should be that the external world, in the naive, obvious sense, should concur with the regularity-postulates, with the mathematical and rule-bound expectations of investigative rationalism, no one knows.” (p. 71)

He suggests (p. 72) that science works because God deigns to indulge it. But he insists that science and “theory” [5] have no place in literature and the arts, and presents as proof his statement that theories of art cannot be tested, and a list of famous works of literature he has read that are all different from each other (p. 75-76).

It’s difficult to make sense of this section, but it is clear that Steiner doesn’t think scientists are playing the game. Of course they violate the first rule by calling some statements wrong, but it’s more than that. He equates theory and scientific thought with computation (p. 83-84). Science and theory, for him, are mere calculation, the turning of a crank after the appropriate meat is dropped into the grinder. Science is not as rich as language: “No formalization is of an order adequate to the semantic mass and motion of literature, to the wealth of denotation, connotation, implicit reference, elision and tonal register which envelop saying what one means and meaning what one says or neither. There is a palpable sense in which one can see that the total explicative context, the total horizon of relevant values which surround the meaning of the meaning of any verbal or written utterance is that of the universe as human beings, who are beings of speech, inhabit it.” (p. 83)

He does not address the question of how theories, which do predict reality, can be developed by playing the language game; his remarks in other sections insist, repeatedly and emphatically, that statements in language can never escape the circle of language to refer to reality. I think he is unaware that science includes creating theories by thinking. He also does not notice that he has explained the surprising power of science by saying it is less powerful than what he does when he thinks.

But he does not need to address these things. He has cited Wittgenstein; he can move on. His post-modernist colleagues will not ask whether he has used Wittgenstein “correctly”, as long as he does it with passion and style. He goes home, turns on a switch, and the room is lit; he turns a faucet and water comes out. Science works its magic, as it should. It would be beneath his dignity and the nobility of his thoughts to concern himself with such brute mechanical concerns.

Post-modernism versus the environment

Consider the environments that the most-prominent post-modernist philosophers did their major work in:

Jean Baudrillard: Paris
Jean François Lyotard: Paris
Michel Foucault: Paris
Jacques Derrida: Paris
Jacques Lacan: Paris
Richard Rorty: Princeton

The post-modern mind-view is so hard to grasp because one immediately perceives that regular encounters with reality would shatter it. Like a hothouse orchid, it can survive only in one environment: a mind that does not interact with the physical world. This is found in city-dwellers with academic tenure in the humanities. The “freedom” they worship is not freedom to think or act, but freedom from consequences. They are free, quite literally, from reality.

For two things to interact means each has an effect on the other. The natural state of humans is one of constant interaction with the environment. Consider an early European settler of the American plains. The environment continually acts on him, forcing changes in his behavior: Winter is coming; he must gather firewood. It looks like a storm; he must put off his trip to town and gather the animals in the barn. He continually acts on the environment: He builds a cabin, digs an irrigation ditch, builds a fence. He must continually model and predict the world, and take steps to achieve favorable outcomes.

Now consider a tenured post-modernist literature professor in Paris. If it is cold, he turns up the thermostat. If he is hungry, he goes out into the street and exchanges little pieces of paper for food, at stores that are open 365 days a year, nearly 24 hours a day. He never has any need to model or predict the environment. He lives in an apartment, works in a school, and commutes there by train; the sum total of the environment’s effect on him is to determine whether or not he takes an umbrella.

The main source of unpredictability in his life is the train he takes to work. Imagine our post-modernist waiting for a train that is to arrive at 8:25. At 8:26, it has not arrived. A non-postmodernist might say, “The schedule said the train would arrive at 8:25, but it was wrong.” If he were a railroad employee, this would matter; he would have to realize the train had, in fact, not arrived, and figure out what had gone wrong and how to correct it. But a post-modernist is free instead to say, “The schedule says the train will arrive at 8:25. My eyes say the train did not arrive. Life is indeed full of unresolvable contradictions.” He is so occupied in this reverie that he fails to notice as the train pulls in, and everyone else on the platform boards. After it has left, he notices, and says, “Fascinating! For them, the train arrived. For me, it did not.” Because he has no impact on the train, and because missing the train and being late has no impact on him (he has tenure), he is free to deny the objective reality of trains and their arrivals.

Likewise, he has no opportunity to influence the environment. His apartment is rented; he may not modify it. Every inch of the street he traverses is owned by someone else and subject to a thousand regulations concerning its use.

The only things that affect him are word games, with his colleagues, students, and the administration. Even gaining tenure and climbing the ladder to an administrative position are word games. The only effects he has are in word games. He does not inter-act with the real world beyond the word games.

This seems contradictory at first–aren’t many post-modernists political activists? Yes, but they would never participate in politics on the local level, knocking on actual doors to get votes to build an actual local community center. They are interested only in grand political visions: Marxism, Revolution, Globalization, Humanity. Frederic Jameson describes post-modern politics as “without a party, without a homeland [patrie], without a national community . . . without co-citizenship, without adherence to a class.” This is essential, because any <connection with reality through which post-modern rhetoric may accidentally cause an observable effect in the real world> would turn its own sword of deconstruction against itself.

The self-consistency of post-modernism

Steiner and many other post-modernist philosophers have literally crazy beliefs, but they can hold those beliefs and be self-consistent, because they live in a world where other people deal with reality for them. Indeed, a scientist put in the shoes of a literary critic would fail miserably; he would play the language-game all wrong and be kicked out of the game. Once someone has learned to play the word-game well, the natural human neural mechanisms that reinforce behavior that is rewarded will only strengthen their faith in the way they see the world.


[1] Post-modernists don’t “mean” anything in the sense of believing it, or even ascribing objective meaning to it. But the sentences they utter convey the propositions they intend to convey. You can’t ascribe the most-sympathetic interpretation you can imagine to anything a post-modernist says; that would nearly always mangle their meaning.

[2] He implies the Greeks believed Anselm’s ontological argument for a monotheistic God (p. 88). He implies undecidable languages are languages in which every sentence is undecidable (p. 61). He claims to know the motives of Cro-Magnon cave painters (p. 211). On page 78 he says Aristotle’s “Poetics” is a theory; on page 86 he insists it is not. He says critics should not write about literature other than the classics, then criticizes them for all writing about the classics. He says each sentence conveys infinite meaning; he says no sentence can convey any meaning at all. In the space of a few pages, he provides his second definition of all art in all media, criticizes the arrogance of people who create theories of literature, and then presents his third all-encompassing theory of what makes good art. He admits his own discipline has generated almost nothing but uncountable useless books and articles every year for hundreds of years, then dismisses experimental approaches to literature as “barren” after about five years and a hundred papers. The thesis of his book, that good art requires logocentrism, contradicts two of the primary claims he invokes to support it–that (1) we must accept the modernist critique of language, and (2) the modernist critique of language destroyed logocentrism.

[3] Note the resultant extreme concentration of power: Claims are evaluated not according to their truth, but according to whether members of elite institutions read and comment on them. Post-modernism is therefore evolutionarily fit as a meme in any elitist discipline, because it gives more power to those already in power.

[4] This is after Nietzsche, the ur-post-modernist, who said “God is dead; we have killed him”, not “there is no God”, and may have meant it.

[5] Steiner appears to think that a “theory” is a set of rules that can deterministically predict every last detail of the object under study (p. 77). A theory that claims to explain Hamlet, in his view, must be able to write Hamlet.

Writing (and composing): Mahler, Beethoven, Faulkner, House of Dawn, & the Wundt curve

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The first part of this post is long, and explains how bad mathematics can lead to bad music. The second part is short, and uses the first part to explain something that I think Beethoven did right in his Moonlight Sonata, and that Faulkner and Momaday did poorly in As I Lay Dying and House of Dawn.


Music and the Wundt curve

In Thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony three times in a row, I talked about how artists had come to praise complexity, failed to distinguish complexity from unpredictability, and so idolized randomness. I mean “idolize” (or “fetishize”) literally; they made a shoddy graven image of what they worshiped, and worshiped the image (randomness) instead of the original thing (complexity). I used Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as an example:

It seemed like a good rule to say that the less-predictable music became, the more complex and better it would be. And in fact, the commentaries on Mahler’s Fifth are full of references to the “complexity” and “interest” generated by its dissonances and irregularities.

But after some point, increasing unpredictability makes music less complex. Instead of complexity, we get mere noise. [Assuming other people use the word “complexity” the way I do.]

That’s what happened. Composers internalized the theoretical belief that unexpectedness made music more complex and interesting… They kept making things less and less predictable, even after passing the point where complexity was maximal.

Once they’d passed that point, unpredictability only made the music boring, not complex. Like Mahler’s Fifth.

A few months after posting that, I read the first chapter of Muses and Measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities (M&M). It talked about the Wundt curve. In its most basic form, the curve plots enjoyment against signal intensity.  The data comes out like a bell curve:

This applies to things like the pleasantness of a particular temperature, or the appeal of music at a given volume (low to high). M&M said that this curve applied in general to human aesthetics, and also used Mahler’s symphonies as an example:

Suppose you ask people to listen to a simple song. Chances are high that most people will find it of medium to high hedonic value. Now have them listen to a Mahler symphony. In all likelihood, the ratings for hedonic value will be lower. The explanation for these different ratings lies in the different complexities of the two pieces of music. For various reasons, we must call the Mahler symphony more complex than the song: It is much longer, is executed by a much larger orchestra, containing more different instruments that build, moreover, ever–changing combinations, and its melodic patterns are more intricate and unusual (hence it is also more “novel”). …

Suppose we expose listeners to the song repetitively, and we do the same with the Symphony. What one will observe is that after several trials, the hedonic value ratings for the song will start falling, while those of the Symphony may start rising. The complexity of the sound texture of the Symphony makes it nearly impossible for most untrained listeners to be appreciative on a first or second hearing: its richness is simply not taking in. With repeated exposures, listeners may begin to grasp its variations of melodic and orchestral patterns, it’s structure of repetitions and contrasts, and its multilayered levels of tone and rhythm.

In this standard view, complexity equals unpredictability, which equals the opposite of novelty; and where the peak in the curve is depends on how novel the stimulus is to the observer. In my view, the peak appeal in the curve is at the amount of unpredictability (or, equivalently, information) where complexity (relative to the listener) is maximal.

So far we just use different terms: the standard view uses the word “complex” to mean “unpredictable”, and says that people have some arbitrary level of unpredictability that they like best. I use the word “complex” to mean “aesthetic appeal as a function of unpredictability.”

The difference is nominal, but not trivial. I’m naming the amount of appeal some artwork has due just to its degree of unpredictability “complexity”, to make it a thing we can study. If we can reliably predict where its maximum will be, we will thereby know, if not understand, part of what makes good art good [1].

In practice, the disagreement is worse. Instead of teasing out the relations between complexity / appeal, randomness, and novelty, people using the standard view usually simply declare they all mean the same thing [2], as van Peer absent-mindedly does in the paragraphs above, and as (Berlyne 1970) and (Heyduk 1975) do as well–as if the curve were simply appeal = randomness. (In which case it would not be a curve, but a straight line. The labelling of the Y-axis on the figure above makes it not an axis at all, but a mysterious mixture of two components–all to preserve the absurd belief that “complexity” means “randomness”.)

This leads to bad music. It says that, if you start with something random enough, it starts out sounding ugly, but every time you play it, it becomes less novel, and thus more beautiful, until after some number of exposures it becomes…

the most beautiful thing ever.

Becoming an art connoisseur then means training yourself to like more and more noise and randomness. No justification is ever offered for why we don’t stop liking the canonized noise-art after hearing or viewing it enough times.

It’s true that people will come to better like a Mahler symphony, or noise by Ferneyhough, the more often they listen to it. But if we take this as proof of beauty, it would mean that anything we dislike at first is beautiful, while the things we used to call beautiful–songs, paintings by Dutch masters–are so ugly that they rate a zero on the objective scale of artistic merit. Mathematically speaking, the fraction of all possible songs or paintings that are less than or as random as those songs and those paintings, and hence no more beautiful than they are, is zero.

 

Complexity Structure

As I explained in that post, in the bad old days before 1992, “complexity” meant computational complexity, and “complexity” measures like entropy and Kolmogorov complexity are actually measures of information. They say that random sequences of numbers have the most bits of information (which they do), but it sounded like they were saying they have the highest possible complexity.

Mathematicians in the study of complex systems knew that was wrong. “Complexity”, if it means the adaptability or interestingness of a system, is maximal at a point between between the realms of boring, dead stasis and random chaos.

Coming up with a definition of complexity that didn’t give random sequences high complexity wasn’t hard. The hard thing is that there are lots of measures that do that, and it isn’t obvious that one is more right than the other. (Feldman & Crutchfield 1997) concluded that we ought to stop using the term “complexity”, and say more specifically what we’re trying to do and what we want to measure. Feldman & Crutchfield suggested using the term “structure” instead.

“Complexity” had always seemed intuitively clear to me before, but it derives from Latin “complex” (a collection of parts). It’s an interesting comment on how new our notions of structure and organization are, that we had to appropriate the word “complex” to mean a thing with an intricate causal structure and many behaviors, when in the Middle Ages it just meant a thing with many parts. “Complicated”, perhaps a related word, meant “things folded together”, which again does not have any notion of complex function or causality. “Structure” meant “to build”; “organism” and “organization” come from “organ”, which means “an instrument”. “Elaborate” is from the 16th century; “mechanism” from the 17th. Latin and Middle English had an abundance of synonyms for “complicated”, including “intricate” and “perplexing”, but neither medieval Latin nor Middle English seem to have had any word for productive complication, in which the number of behaviors, or the sophistication of behavior, grows faster than the number of parts. (I’m making a big deal of this because it’s another indication that the medievals didn’t understand creativity.) The closest they had to a word for describing complex organization was “hierarchy”, from “hierarch” (sacred ruler), meaning a top-down chain of command like that of the angels and heavenly beings.

This may be why, as I argued in Modernist and Medieval Artone of the tenets of modern art and modernist writing is the rejection of structure in art. The purpose of structure, once we get past the Renaissance with its mystical principles of composition in paintings, is to combine parts in relationships that multiply rather than merely add their power. Examples include the structures and dynamic arcs built out of repetitions, inversions, and variations on the theme in a Bach fugue, or the interlocking plots, themes, and character arcs in a novel. If modernism is a reversion to medieval thought patterns, which focused on timeless, hierarchical relationships between abstract essences or types, rather than dynamic interactions between real individuals, then modernism will be similarly less interested in structuring components in space and time.

This prediction is confirmed by Schoenberg’s modernist 12-tone music. Its basic principle is to use all the tones in a scale before re-using any of them. This tends to maximize the entropy and randomness of the music. It’s as if he designed his theory specifically to make structure in music impossible.

 

Maximal musical complexity: Already attained

Let’s say music can be complex in three ways: Melody, rhythm, and harmony. Consider the first movement of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata:

Melodically and rhythmically, this music is dead simple. Why did Beethoven write such a boring, simple melody and rhythm?

Because harmonically, it’s crazy. Here’s the chord progression in the first 13 measures:

c#m c#m7
A D G#7 c#m G#7 Cdim c#m/E c#m
G#7 c#m f#m
E B7 E em
G7 C em F#7 bm

I’ve never heard any other tune use the chord progression C#m F#m E B7 E Em G7 C Em F#7 Bm. Pick any equally-long pattern using C, F, G, Em, and Am, and you could find thousands of songs that used it.

The melody and rhythm are simple because otherwise you wouldn’t even be able to tell what the chord transitions were. You wouldn’t know where the transitions between chords are (they’re played one note at a time).

Beethoven decided that the chord progression was so unpredictable that it used up all his allowable unpredictability. He simplified everything else so that people could perceive the chord progression.

Similarly, a Bach fugue will have great polyphonic novelty, with perhaps eight different voices at the same time, but based on a repetitive melody, with a constant rhythm and few key changes. Negro spirituals and ragtime usually have simple tonality and melody, but complex rhythm and timing. Dixieland and some other forms of jazz alternate between complex and simple stretches. Pushing the novelty envelope in one way to achieve a distinctive effect always requires scaling back the novelty somewhere else.

 

Faulkner and Momaday: Not Enough Structure

Which brings us to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. Both of them had all of the following:

– strangely-styled, strangled sentences
– connections between events that were not revealed until much later
– chapters narrated by tertiary characters whose relevance to the story wasn’t revealed until later

I realized this was too much unpredictability when I was trying to figure out whether I bought popular explanations of the second passage I quoted in my review of House Made of Dawn. In most novels, I’d have been able to guess whether his interpretation was correct by how well it fit the events that led up to the passage, and what the old man did afterwards. But I couldn’t do that with HMoD, because there was no continuity in time between the scenes. One person does one thing at one time in one place, then some other person does something else in some other place at some other time. If the meaning were clear, I could use it to figure out the connections between the scenes. If the connections between the scenes were clear, I could use them to figure out the meaning of each scene. As nothing was clear, it was difficult to figure out anything.

I think that these modernist books, like Mahler’s Fifth, have objectively too little structure for contemporary American readers. They are so unpredictable that, though this high unpredictability means they convey many bits of information, they convey less meaning than they could with less unpredictability–where “meaning” is, as with “complexity” or “structure”, information minus randomness.


[1] Did you think it was odd that I said we might “know, if not understand” something? Later, I’m going to talk about the difference between rationality and empiricism. (It’s super-important, honest!) One of the non-obvious ways of distinguishing them is that rationalists believe you must understand things before you can know anything about them. This is epitomized by the obsession that Socrates and medieval scholastics had with defining terms. Empiricists, by contrast, believe you must begin with a collection of known facts, some of which might use unanalyzable terms you just made up, before you can hope to understand things. A classic example is gravity. Isaac Newton just made it up to name a force in his equations, with no understanding of how it worked. We know a lot about gravity, but we still don’t understand it. (This observation is from Popper 1966, vol. 2 chapter 11, “The Aristotelian Roots of Hegelianism”, part 2. Its truth is due to the scientific practice of operationalization, which means you create terms as shorthand for what you can measure rather than as shorthand for definitions of what you want to measure. When I say complexity is what the Wundt curve measures, I’m operationalizing complexity rather than defining it.)

[2] With novelty being 1 – randomness, or 1 / randomness, or some other inverse measure of randomness.


References

Berlyne, D. E. “Novelty, Complexity and Hedonic Value.” Perception and Psychophysics 1970, 8: 279-286.

David Feldman, James Crutchfield 1997. Measures of statistical complexity: Why?

Heyduk, Ronald. “Rated preference for musical compositions as it relates to complexity and exposure frequency.” Perception & Psychophysics 1975, Vol. 17(1), 84-91.

Karl Popper 1966. The Open Society And Its Enemies, 5th ed., Princeton University Press. 1st ed. 1945.

Willie van Peer, Jemeljan Hakemulder, & Sonia Zyngier 2007. Muses and Measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Modernist Manifestos & WW1: We Didn’t Start the Fire—Oh, Wait, we Totally Did ·

Standard

Literary history is written by the winners, who in recent years have been people who don’t believe in truth, so it shouldn’t be much surprise that contains lies.  You can’t trust a literary history written after 1960; you must check the original sources.

One example, which I’ll blog on later, is the agreed-on misrepresentation of the ideas of the New Critics.  Another is the myth, promulgated by musical modernists, that the music of the great Classical and Romantic composers was thought to be just as discordant in their day as modernist music is today.  Another is, arguably, the claim that post-modernism is a thing that both arose later than modernism and can be usefully distinguished from it.  Today, though, I want to talk about the revisionist story that World War 1 was a critical influence on modernism.


1. The Big War and the Big Lie

Some quick Googling tells me about “the galvanic impact of World War I” on modernism (New York Times) and “how World War I gave birth to the modern” (CNN).  Wikipedia says, “Among the factors that shaped modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by reactions of horror to World War I.”

English professor Jarica Watts said,

This was Modernism, a reaction against the conventions of liberal, bourgeois, material, decadent, Western civilization. It’s what we might call the avant-garde, or bohemian or abstract today. But for the lost generation of post-war Europe, it seemed to be the only way out of either depression or suicide. In a world now proven to be without values, what else was left but experimentation—to try, by putting the pen to the page, what had not yet been accomplished before.

The Los Angeles TImes wrote,

ART FOREVER CHANGED BY WORLD WAR I

Along with millions of idealistic young men who were cut to pieces by machine guns and obliterated by artillery shells, there was another major casualty of World War I: traditional ideas about Western art. …

“It created an epoch in art,” said Leo Braudy, a USC professor of English and author of “From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity.” “The question is, what was on one side and what was on the other?”

The simple answer as to what lay on the near side of World War I is Modernism, that slippery but indispensable term denoting a wide range of new sensibilities and aesthetic responses to the industrial age. Modernism took shape decades before World War I, but its clamorous arrival was vastly accelerated by the greatest collective trauma in history to that point.

The Amazon blurb for Susan Cole’s 2012 At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland says,

Literature has long sought to make sense of the destruction and aggression wrought by human civilization. Yet no single literary movement was more powerfully shaped by violence than modernism. As Sarah Cole shows, modernism emerged as an imaginative response to the devastating events that defined the period, including the chaos of anarchist bombings, World War I, the Irish uprising, and the Spanish Civil War.

[Ezra] Pound felt the best part of his generation had been ravaged by an absurdly wasteful war, and he expressed some of his bitterness in his most powerful poem of the period, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”: … He loathed Western civilization because it had no room left for its artists, and because it seemed systematically bent on its own extinction through warfare.
— (Tytell 1987 p. 6)

In visual art, Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos….  Amy Lyford, a professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College, said that Surrealism developed partly from artists’ desires to depict the massive traumas the war inflicted on individual human beings.
Art forever changed by World War I, page 2

Yet, looking for these pictures, the closest thing I find is Hitler-inspired paintings by Dali.

“Hitler turned me on in the highest.”
–Salvador Dali, the most-influential postwar Surrealist painter, quoted in The New Statesman

The accepted narrative about the development of Modernism, as shown above, is that it was created as a humanistic reaction against the mindless violence of World War I.  There are several problems with this theory:

– An inspection of easily-available facts shows that modernism was already fully-formed before the start of the war.  I have searched in vain for any style, technique, doctrine, or attitude in any of the many variations of modernism which can be traced to an origin in the events of World War 1.

– What you’ll find instead is that the founders of modernism were often pro-violence and anti-humanistic, and did not react to the horrors of war because few of them went to war.  Modernists were more excited than most people about the revolutionary potential of violence, less likely than other young people to go to war, less likely to write about or make art about the war, and much more likely to rush to embrace the violent solutions of fascism or Stalinism almost immediately after the war.

– War veterans who wrote about the war did not usually use modernist techniques.  Modernists stole their legitimacy by declaring that writings about the war were by definition modernist.


2. Pictorial History of Modern Art

Modernism was fully-formed before World War I started.  It had some growing left to do, but its adult shape was already clear.  Frank Lloyd Wright had been building “prairie houses” for a decade. Chicago, Buffalo, and New York City were already sprouting glass-walled skyscrapers. Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was already famous, though he didn’t invent 12-tone music until 1915.

John Cage’s supposedly post-modern masterpiece 4′33″ (1952) is an exact duplicate of Alphonse Allais’ Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1897), except for having a different duration [1].  The Red Badge of Couragewas published in 1895.  And it’s hard to say whether anyone has ever written a more post-modern novel than Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759).

Rather than a long argument, here’s a series of paintings I collected by googling “art 1890”, “art 1900”, “modern art”, and “modern art 1920s”.


Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, 1890 (link)


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1890 (link)


Monet, Wheatstacks, 1891 (link)


Edvard Munch, Jealous, 1895 (link)


Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre, 1906 (link)


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 (link)


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (link)


Picasso, Girl with Mandolin, 1910 (link)


Francis Picabia, 1912, Tarentelle (link)


Franz Marc, Fate of the Animals, 1913 (link)


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913


Wassily Kandinsky, Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913 (link)


Fernand Léger, Contrast of Forms, 1913 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition XIV, 1913 (link)


Lyubov Popova, Air Man Space, 1913


Amadeo Souza-Cardoso, Untitled Still Life, 1913 (link)


Fernand Léger, Discs, 1918 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition With Gray And Light Brown, 1918 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition III, 1917 (link)


T. van Doesburg, Simultaneous Counter-Composition, 1930 (link)


Pablo Picasso, Tête de Marie-Thérèse, 1932 (link)


Joaquín Torres-García, Locomotora con casa constructiva (Locomotive with Constructive House), 1934 (link)


Picasso, The Weeping Woman, 1937 (link)


Georgia O’Keeffe. White Shell with Red, 1938. (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1942 (link)


Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, 1943 (link)


Stanley William Hayter, Cinq Personnages or alternately Atelier 17, 1946 (link)


Jackson Pollack, Summertime Number 9A, 1948 (link)


Hans Hofmann, The Gate, 1959–60 (link)


Seb Farrington, Venus Isle, 2010 (source)

 

I think it’s clear that the inflection was between 1907 and 1913, not 1913 and 1930.  This wonderful chart gives a good picture of modern art’s genealogy, which shows that all that was added after the start of the war was Dadaism, Surrealism, and architecture.

Although personally, I think this is a better summary of its progress:


Alphonse Allais, Negroes Battling in a Tunnel, by Night, 1884 (source)


Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (source)


Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Print, 1966 (link)


Robert Ryman, Allied, 1966 (linkGuggenheim)


Dimitris Tragkas, Circle, 1988 (linksource)


Robert Ryman, Connect, 2002.  Recently sold for $10,775,500.

Robert Ryman is a good figure to end our survey of modern art on.  He has painted nothing but white squares for the past 50 years, and is now #5 of the list of most expensive living American artists, with sales of on average $14 million per year.  The fact that he can reliably sell paintings which Google image search classifies as bathroom tiles for over $10 million is perhaps not as disturbing as the fact that modern art, a movement whose two most-often stated aims are to fight bourgeois capitalism and to make art more pure, has resulted in an art world that ranks artists by how much money their paintings sell for.


3. English Literary Modernism

Literary modernism in English did appear mostly after the start of WW1.  Not entirely; Gertrude Stein had already written Three Lives, for instance [2].  But Modernism was already fully-formed on the European continent, including its philosophies.  Either English literary modernism is the migration of European modernism to England, or it is not Modernism.

I think there is some distance between English literary modernism and “modern art”, but still–all the important English modernists met each other in Paris, not in London or America, where they looked at French paintings together in Gertrude Stein’s apartment, or met at Shakespeare & Co. or one of Ezra Pound’s other hangouts, and discussed French art and artistic philosophy.

Considering that they were young people writing immediately after the close of a World War, who had little adult experience but the war years, what’s striking is how little some of them wrote about the war.  Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Stein never mentioned it in their work that I know of.

The most-notable books that fit the “war art” narrative are The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane, 1895), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Remarque, 1928 or 1929), and A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929).  Aside from the question of whether these books use any modernist techniques–I would say the first two are Naturalist [7.5], and only Hemingway is Modernist–we have problems with the timeline.  Stephen Crane didn’t go to war, and his book came out 30 years after its war, and 20 years before WW1. Remarque and Hemingway went to war, but didn’t publish their books for 10 years. We can hardly say modernism received a formative impact in 1929. [3]  And if Hemingway was so traumatized by the war, why did he volunteer for both the Spanish Civil War and WW2–and spend much of the time in-between travelling around the world to shoot big animals?

And let’s look at some poems by the most-famous “modernist war poets”.  I’m adding one from WW2 just to show that the pattern continues.

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?
–Siegfried Sassoon, “Absolution”, 1917

Why are they cheering and shouting
What’s all the scurry of feet
With little boys banging on kettle and can
Wild laughter of girls in the street?

Oh those are the froth of the city
The thoughtless and ignorant scum
Who hang out the bunting when war is let loose
And for victory bang on a drum

But the boys who were killed in the battle
Who fought with no rage and no rant
Are peacefully sleeping on pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.
–Robert Graves, “November 11th”, 1918 (first published in 1969)

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
–Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum”, 1921

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, 1969

In what sense are these poems modernist?  The first would be called kitsch if it weren’t about the war; it is exactly the sort of Victorian or Georgian poem the modernists hated [4].  Also, it’s the sort of pro-war YOLO jingoism that Kipling would have written; WTF? The others are sentimental poems with clear, concrete meanings and regular or nearly-regular meter and rhyme.

These, by contrast, are modernist poems:

A lea ender stow sole lightly.
Not a bet beggar.
Nearer a true set jump hum,
A lamp lander so seen poor lip.
–Gertrude Stein, “Yet Dish” #2, 1913

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.
–Wallace Stevens, “Disillusionment Of Ten O’Clock”, 1915

Tumbling-hair
picker of buttercups
violets
dandelions
And  the big bullying  daisies
through the field wonderful
with  eyes a little  sorry
Another  comes
also picking flowers
–e e cummings 1923, Tulips and Chimneys #3

She, then, like snow in a dark night,
Fell secretly. And the world waked
With dazzling of the drowsy eye,
So that some muttered ‘Too much light’,
And drew the curtains close.
Like snow, warmer than fingers feared,
And to soil friendly;
Holding the histories of the night
In yet unmelted tracks.
–Robert Graves, “Like Snow” [I can’t find the year]

The war poems aren’t modernist in any way [5].  Heck, (Jarrell 1942) said modernism was dead 27 years before he wrote that poem.

There is, as far as I can see, a less-than-expected intersection between poems about the war or poets who wrote about the war, and poems or poets showing modernist techniques.  Modernist poems were less about the horrors of war than other poetry.  The first-rank modernists were notable for not going to war and for seldom writing about or painting about the war.  Calling the war poems “modernist” is a PR coup in which the 4Fs, rich kids, and draft-dodgers stole the legitimacy of the war veterans by saying “We’re angsty, too–you’re one of us!”

TS Eliot seems on the surface to be talking about the war in “The Waste Land”, but it doesn’t resemble the poetry of war veterans as much as it resembles the weary, angsty, disillusioned poetry of TS Eliot before the war [6].

And, wait–Graves again?  Well, I put Graves in the first batch as a ringer.  Could you tell him apart from the “modernists”? He’s not considered a modernist at all, despite writing more-modernist poetry.  Graves was a model modernist poet in the 1920s–he came back from the war traumatized, and (allegedly) rejected patriotism, marriage, conventional morality, modernity, and reason.  The problem was that, unlike other WW1 poets, he didn’t die and he didn’t stop writing poems. He began to get better, instead of staying in the permanent state of disillusionment and near-psychosis so conducive to modernism, and as he did, he found himself more and more at odds with other modernist poets.  In (Riding & Graves 1927) he disapproved of their reliance on technical gimmicks, their focus on style rather than content, and their focus on social and political issues rather than on the poet’s experiences and vision. He tried to introduce a more-nuanced view and use of modernism, which was not at all what the other modernists wanted.  Graves disliked modernity, but simply returned to classical studies and to humanistic optimism about the possibility of improving society rather than tearing it down and starting over. (Quinn 1999, see esp. p. 44, 52, 54) Rather than being remembered as a dissenting modernist, he has been cast as the arch-anti-modernist, to keep modernism ideologically pure, and, I suppose, to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the only major WW1 poet I know of who kept writing abandoned modernism.


4. The Two Families of Modernism

At the start of WW1, “Modernism” in the sense I wish to use it–as a term describing a set of artistic approaches that all claimed the same influences, all looked pretty similar to each other and vastly different from everything else, and were advocated at the same time by people who all had the same sort of background and behaved pretty much the same way–included groups with opposite attitudes towards modernity.

Architectural modernism tries to “be modern” by finding beauty in forms that are rational and efficient (“form follows function”).  Futurist modernism originated in Italy and celebrates the power of the machine. Constructivism originated in Russia, inspired by Marx & Engels’ writings against the fine arts (Shiner 1990 p. 236) and by Futurism (theartstory.org, “Constructivism“) and art in France.  It supported modernity in the service of communism, though it was close to anti-modernity Dadaism in its anti-art stance.

The mostly-victorious branch of artistic and literary modernism, on the other hand, reacted against being modern, rational, and efficient.  That branch is what people mean by “modernism”.  They often call Futurism and Constructivism “avant-garde”, an umbrella  term which means anything descended from weird French stuff developed after 1850 that most people didn’t like, but is generally reserved for the period before 1900.  However, both are much more like the rest of modern art that they were contemporaries of than they are like the many forms of avant-garde art that came before 1900.

Virginia Woolf, writing in 1924, said English modernism began in 1910.  People in 1910 said “the revolution” began in the 1890s with the French avant-garde movement.  People in the 1890s said it began in the 1870s with Rimbaud’s poetry, or maybe with the Paris commune of 1871.  People in the 1870s said it began with Gustave Courbet’s realist paintings of 1849-1851 or the French Revolution of 1848, and people in 1848 said they were completing the French Revolution of 1793, which Wordsworth (Vondeling 2000) and Beethoven were both enthusiastic about at the time.

Randall Jarrell wrote an excellent essay in 1942 which used this continuity of revolutionary spirit from modern art back to the French Revolution to argue that modernism is better seen as the next stage of romanticism.  The key qualities they had in common were:

  • a disdain for all art that had come before
  • fetishizing “originality” and constant change
  • calling ugly, discordant, or senseless things “art” as long as they were new
    • this makes more sense if you’re familiar with late 19th-century French Symbolist poetry–I’m not, but I’ve read articles about it; basically the French were writing proto-modernist poetry in the 1870s.  (See below on Stéphane Mallarmé. Also see Martindale 1990 chpt. 3, “Crucible in a Tower of Ivory: Modern French poetry”.)
  • hatred of science, industrialism, humanitarianism, and the notion of progress
  • a desire to return to an idealized past that is literary, theological, and personal

GhostOfHeraclitus has just posted a short companion piece on Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898).  Its conclusion is:

“In summary, a lot of what was supposedly purely Modernist was written by Mallarmé first, and this penchant for experimentation suffused with the vision of art as new religion for a world that’s gone and killed God was transmitted to the Modernists either through Mallarmé’s fame or through his famous salons. This ‘new religion’ business is especially vital as it speaks to the (more paleo- than neomodern) notion that meaning had gone from the world and that Art-with-a-capital-sodding-A must put it back.”

1914 is a ridiculous date for the birth of modernism.  The 1890s would be a better date. But moving the date up to 1914 has several advantages to the winners.  It makes modernism seem newer, gives its perpetual childish outrage and arrogance an excuse, and, perhaps most importantly, lets them kick out the Futurists, who had split from the rest of the modernists by 1910.  Saying modernism began during WW1 is thus akin to saying that the Russian Revolution began when Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo in 1926.

(If you want to read a counter-argument, the New York Times published a piece in 1996 defending the official date of 1914 or later against a book by Peter Stansky arguing that “in 1910 England was belatedly introduced to the modernism that was already taking the Continent by storm.”)

The futurists didn’t adopt the anti-modern modernists’ nihilistic doctrines such as the unimportance of the artistic subject or content.  Also, their art was a little more popular because it was representational and energetic.

Umberto Boccioni 1912, Elasticity (link)

Giuio D’Anna, 1930 (link)

The surviving modernists are, amazingly, still hurling invective at Futurism’s corpse over 100 years later, as shown by this 2012 Smithsonian article calling Futurists a dark and dangerous set of artists whose influence we should be wary of, conveniently ignoring the equally loathsome political views of most non-futurist modernists.

The artistic and philosophical revolution, as often happens, preceded the military one.  (The Renaissance, for instance, can be seen as the artistic half of a long revolution against the iron grip of medieval feudalism, while the Age of Enlightenment was the scientific and political continuation of it.)

The modernists weren’t reacting against a devastation caused by the callous indifference of science to the plight of real people, because the modernists came first.  If anything, the poison of their own fanaticism, their screams for rage, violence, and destruction, and their loathing of those ordinary people, cheered on the coming devastation.


5. Modernist Manifestos and World War One

Many people have tried to define modernism, but they mostly observe its products rather than giving it what it’s crying for–psychoanalysis.  A glaringly obvious characteristic of modernism, which people are now so used to that they don’t even notice, is its furious, political, totalitarian nature.  Most famous modernists (I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure it’s most; see for instance Will 2012 [7]), were political extremists, either fascist or Stalinist.  The two most-important literary modernists, in terms of organizing modernism into a movement, were Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.  The same Pound that Tytell said was bitter about “an absurdly wasteful war” signed the Blast Manifesto in 1914 with its calls for a great purgative violence, and later made radio broadcasts for the Italian fascists during World War 2.  Stein supporters claim that she was just being ironic when she said “Hitler deserves the Nobel Peace Prize”, but she supported the Vichy regime too consistently to make this excuse.

There were modernist manifestos going at least back to the Symbolist manifesto in 1886, but from 1909-1921 modernists competed to see who could crank out the angriest, craziest manifestos.  I don’t know how many there were. Enough that “manifesto studies” is now a thing.

From F. T. Marinetti​’s “The Futurist Manifesto” , 1909:

2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, daring, and revolt.
3. Literature having up to now magnified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and sleep, we want to exalt the aggressive gesture, the feverish insomnia, the athletic step, the perilous leap, the box on the ear, and the fisticuff.
7. There is no more beauty except in struggle. No masterpiece without an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent attack against the unknown forces, summoning them to lie down before man.
9. We want to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world–militarism, patriotism, the anarchist’s destructive gesture, the fine Ideas that kill, and the scorn of woman.
10. We want to demolish museums, libraries, fight against moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian cowardices.

It is in Italy that we launch this manifesto of tumbling and incendiary violence, this manifesto through which today we set up Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, of archaeologists, of guides, and of antiquarians.

I think you all know how that went.

This next bit is a long quote, but I think it’s worthwhile.  It shows the violent and political atmosphere of the European art world in 1912, and one account of how modernism came from a Hegelian synthesis of classicism and romanticism.

Also notice that Hulme, the modernist, is rabidly pro-Christian and anti-scientific, and skeptical of ‘Progress’ (hence the snide uppercase P).  (He says he’s anti-rationalist, but he’s using the term to mean something like “science”, without regard for how it and its cognates were used during the previous 2000 years.  Christianity is rationalist, while romanticism is anti-rationalist.) This is a point I’ll hopefully get to sometime this year: modernism and post-modernism are religious, theocratic, rationalist, anti-scientific movements.  Post-modernism in particular is very Catholic, and looks back to the Middle Ages to find ancient philosophies to replace modern scientific beliefs. (This shouldn’t be surprising, as it arose in France from people with classical educations but no scientific understanding.)  Hulme’s view is that romanticism needs an injection of God.

From a speech by T. E. Hulme, 1912, published in 1924 as “Romanticism and Classicism”:

I know that in using the words ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ I am doing a dangerous thing. …  I ought really to have coined a couple of new words, but I prefer to use the ones I have used, as I then conform to the practice of the group of polemical writers who make most use of them at the present day, and have almost succeeded in making them political catchwords…  If you asked a man of a certain set whether he preferred the classics or the romantics, you could deduce from that what his politics were.
The best way of gliding into a proper definition of my terms would be to start with a set of people who are prepared to fight about it–for in them you will have no vagueness. …
About a year ago, a man whose name I think was Fauchois gave a lecture at the Odeon on Racine, in the course of which he made some disparaging remarks about his dullness, lack of invention and the rest of it. This caused an immediate riot: fights took place all over the house; several people were arrested and imprisoned, and the rest of the series of lectures took place with hundreds of gendarmes and detectives scattered all over the place. These people interrupted because the classical ideal is a living thing to them and Racine is the great classic. That is what I call a real vital interest in literature.  They regard romanticism as an awful disease from which France had just recovered.
The thing is complicated in their case by the fact that it was romanticism that made the revolution.  [I suppose he’s talking about one French Revolution or the other.]  They hate the revolution, so they hate romanticism.
I make no apology for dragging in politics here; romanticism both in England and France is associated with certain political views
People of all classes, people who stood to lose by it, were in a positive ferment about the idea of liberty.  There must have been some idea which enabled them to think that something positive could come out of so essentially negative a thing. There was, and here I get my definition of romanticism. They had been taught by Rousseau that man was by nature good, that it was only bad laws and customs that had suppressed him…  This is what made them think that something positive could come out of disorder… Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir  of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.
One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him
… the classical view … is absolutely identical with the normal religious attitude…  That part of the fixed nature of man is the belief in the Deity.  This should be as fixed and true for every man as belief in the existence of matter and in the objective world.  It is parallel to appetite, the instinct of sex, and all the other fixed qualities….  The repressed instinct bursts out in some abnormal direction. So with religion. By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism, your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way.  You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism.

Hulme is a rabid conservative, on the anti-liberty, monarchist, Classicist side, and was a Catholic convert.  Classicists or Catholics who became modernists became High Modernists (or paleomodernists), like Joyce & Eliot, and often supported the fascists after WW1.  Romantics who became modernists became neomodernists, like Stein, and often became Marxists if they were not Catholic.

We all know that modernism is about God being dead, right?  So why does theology keep entering into it? Well, modernism and post-modernism are both movements that believe God is dead, but desperately want Him back to give the world a firm footing.  Modernism is what happens when romantics acquire a purely intellectual atheism, but still have a God-shaped hole in their hearts.  Futurists and paleo-modernists searched for replacements for God. More conservative and backwards-looking modernists, like TE Hulme and TS Eliot, decided they must have just had the wrong God, and would try out the Catholic one instead.  Post-modernists gave up and said reason only leads to contradictions because there is no God. (Not directly, but it becomes clear if you notice that their arguments come from rejecting scientific understanding and instead falling back on medieval beliefs about reality, which were carefully designed and selected to lead to contradictions if there were no God.)

If, as Hulme said, classicists were conservatives and romantics were progressives, what were modernists?  I’m going to call them radicals. I’ll explain why in a later blog post, “Conservative, progressive, and radical art.”  But I think this next selection from the Blast manifesto will make the point equally well. It was written mostly by Wyndham Lewis (who in 1931 visited Berlin and wrote a book praising Adolf Hitler, a fact not mentioned on the Wikipedia page dismissing charges against him of Nazi sympathizing), and signed by Ezra Pound.  Lewis said the name “Blast” meant “the blowing away of dead ideas and worn-out notions.” The strange |6/ is supposed to represent a bomb exploding (as suggested by other words in the manifesto).  The messages of Blast were that (1) Futurists are bad; and (2) art is inherently violent, and springs from the same sort of thuggish vitality that the Futurist Manifesto praises.  It characterizes art as an explosive energy, like a bomb, so an artist must be “savage”, “primitive”, “violent”, and find his stimulus in “a chaos of imperfection, discord”.  It was published on June 20, 1914, 8 days before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, triggering World War 1.

From “Long Live the Vortex!”, Blast (1), June 20 1914  (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition, vol. 2, p. 2010-2012):

The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously.
WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY—their stupidity, animalism and dreams.
We believe in no perfectibility except our own.
Intrinsic beauty is in the Interpreter and Seer, not in the object or content.

WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s [sic] crude energy flowing through us.
It maybe said that great artists in England are always revolutionary, just as in France any really great artist had a strong traditional vein.
Blast sets out to be an avenue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the Public in no other way.

AUTOMOBILISM (Marinetteism) [Futurism] bores us. We don’t want to go about making a hullo-bulloo about motor cars, anymore than about knives and forks…
Wilde gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery.  Gissing, in his romantic delight with modern lodging houses was futurist in this sense.

[from here on you need to see the typography]

I realize that the Archduke was killed by a nationalist, not an artist.  The point I’m making is that those times were full of political violence by nationalists, Marxists, and anarchists–and the modernists thought that was totally cool.  They wanted to be a part of the violence. The anarchists, nationalists, Marxists, and modern artists were all part of a revolutionary culture of anger that glorified explosive energy and violence.

Look back at that sequence of paintings up above.  It looks like I selected a whole bunch from 1913 to show you what art was like immediately before the war started, doesn’t it?  I didn’t. It just happens that if you randomly select a bunch of paintings from the history of modern art with probability proportional to how many web pages there are about them, a large number of the important paintings were made in 1913.

The years immediately preceding World War I witnessed two parallel developments in the arts: landmark works and innovate styles appeared in such rich profusion as to make this period (1910-1914) one of the apogees of modernism; and, far more than in preceding years, artists in nearly all media formed and joined groups of fellow artists… the group structure intensified modernist innovation by enabling otherwise isolated artists to develop aesthetic ideas collectively… and… to dare to present their innovative art to a hostile, yet potentially curious public…. So aggressive were these modernist groups, so eager for combat, that fighting spilled over into their competition with each other for survival and prominence.
–Cohen 2004 p. 1-2

In other words, modern art was bursting with energy and action, at its peak strength, immediately before WW1 started.

And yet, I haven’t got a single painting from the 1920s.  But I tried. I searched for “modern art 1920s”, and all the images I clicked on turned out to be from before or after the 1920s, or didn’t have a specific date given, except for a bunch of Mondrians which all looked the same [8].  Modern artists didn’t emerge from the war energized to create new art in response to their experience. Modern visual art was apparently dormant immediately after the war.  Modern art wasn’t a reaction against violence, it was a violent reaction–and people were tired of violence.

World War 1 broke out at just the time that all of Europe’s upper and middle class was burning with rage over art–classicists, romanticists, and modernists all denouncing each other as barbarians.  The classicists were not a serious threat. The French modernists were hard-pressed to decide who they hated more, the German Romantics (their old enemy), or the Italian Futurists (the heretical modernists).

Wait, I’m not going to argue that World War 1 was split along artistic lines, am I?

No; Wyndham Lewis will.  In Blast issue 2, July 1915:

Germany has stood for the old Poetry, for Romance, more stedfastly and profoundly than any other people in Europe. German nationalism is less realistic, is more saturated with the mechanical obsession of history, than the nationalism of England or France.

This paper wishes to stand rigidly opposed, from start to finish, to every form that the Poetry of a former condition of life, no longer existing, has foisted upon us. It seeks to oppose to this inapposite poetry, the intensest aroma of a different humanity (that is Romance) the Poetry which is the as yet unexpressed spirit of the present time, and of new conditions and possibilities of life.

Under these circumstances, apart from national partizanship, it appears to us humanly desirable that Germany should win no war against France or England.

… and a few pages later:

A fact not generally known in England, Is that the Kaiser, long before he entered into war with Great Britain, had declared merciless war on Cubism and Expressionism.  Museum directors, suspected of Cubist Ieanings, were removed from their posts. Exhibitions that gave shelter to Pablo Picasso or even Signac, were traitorous institutions. … This good Emperor smells the Divine, the Sober and Sheet-Iron puritanism underneath these art-manifestations, and he feels his trade would suffer. …

(Do note that Blast 2 describes modern art as divine, sober and sheet-iron puritanism.  That will become important in later posts.)

I mentioned earlier that Arnold Schoenberg didn’t invent 12-tone music until 1915.  That was a major development in modernism. So… maybe that was his response to the mindlessness of WW1?

Schoenberg drew comparisons between Germany’s assault on France and his assault on decadent bourgeois artistic values. In August 1914, while denouncing the music of Bizet, Stravinsky and Ravel, [Schoenberg] wrote: “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God!”
–Wikipedia on Schoenberg, citing Ross 2007, p. 60.

Schoenberg said later that he suffered terribly from the corrosive effects of war.  But at the time, he was enthusiastic about it, enlisting in 1914. He only finished his training in the autumn of 1916, and was released from service in November 1916 (Ewans 2004 p. 309-313).  As far as I can tell, he never saw action, thanks to the efforts of “his colleagues” to keep him out of danger (Roshwald & Stites p. 140).

Schoenberg, the German, identified France with the bourgeois, while Wyndham Lewis identified Germany with the bourgeois.  “Bourgeois” allegedly meant “upper middle class”, yet it was by then used only as an insult, and only by members of the upper middle class.  By 1914 it had already come in artistic circles to refer not to any economic class, but to anyone who did not appreciate avant-garde art.  By intersecting revolution and avant-gardism, It expressed in one word the sentiment that people who did not like modern art must be killed.

Is the idea that a fight over art made people eager to fight WW1 any more ridiculous than the current teaching that they fought it for no reason at all?  Is it any more ridiculous than the idea that one major reason Rome fell and Europe plunged into the Dark Age was a religious internal and external war lasting from 300-800 A.D. over exactly how literally to interpret the phrase “God’s only begotten son” in John 3:16? [9]  Or that disagreements over art helped cause the Holocaust?

But the modernists quickly saw the error of their ways, right?  During the War they began to draw some link between their cries for mindless violence, and mindless violence, right?

Like Dada.

Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I.
–Dona Budd 2005, The Language of Art Knowledge Cards

Dada was an art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich in negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war.
The Tate Gallery’s website

Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.
–Wikipedia, Dada

Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I (1914–18)—a conflict that claimed the lives of eight million military personnel and an estimated equal number of civilians….

For the disillusioned artists of the Dada movement, the war merely confirmed the degradation of social structures that led to such violence: corrupt and nationalist politics, repressive social values, and unquestioning conformity of culture and thought. From 1916 until the mid-1920s, artists in Zurich, New York, Cologne, Hanover, and Paris declared an all-out assault against not only on conventional definitions of art, but on rational thought itself. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s website

There are no world-renowned Dadaists on the scale of a Hemingway, or a Shostakovich, or a Picasso, and no Dadaist produced a particularly large body of work– not least because so many of the good ones killed themselves as the ultimate expression in Dadaist performance art….  Dada was a fully-realized, soulless expression of Dionysian excess. A howl of existential despair. And a casualty of war.

… The Dada movement is believed to have begun on October 6th, 1916, at the Café Voltaire in Zurich, part of neutral Switzerland, where Ball and others… congregated in order to discuss art and vent their spleen against the war lighting the sky all around them…. Their outrage was real, a genuine reaction to the horrors of the war.
History of the Dada Movement, dadart.com

So the Dadaists were, like, hippies, right?  They just wanted to give peace a chance. Get people to be reasonable.

A small part of Tristan Tzara’s “​​Dada Manifesto​“, 1918:​

The principle: “love thy neighbor” is a hypocrisy. “Know thyself” is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind… All pictorial or plastic work is useless: let it then be a monstrosity that frightens servile minds, and not sweetening to decorate the refectories of animals in human costume…

I assure you: there is no beginning, and we are not afraid; we aren’t sentimental. We are like a raging wind that rips up the clothes of clouds and prayers, we are preparing the great spectacle of disaster, conflagration and decomposition….

What is divine in us is the awakening of anti-human action. … Morals have an atrophying effect, like every other pestilential product of the intelligence. Being governed by morals and logic has made it impossible for us to be anything other than impassive towards policemen – the cause of slavery – putrid rats with whom the bourgeois are fed up to the teeth, and who have infected the only corridors of clear and clean glass that remained open to artists.

Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition. Those who are strong in words or force will survive, for they are quick in defence, the agility of limbs and sentiments flames on their faceted flanks.

Morality has determined charity and pity, two balls of fat that have grown like elephants, like planets, and are called good. There is nothing good about them. Goodness is lucid, clear and decided, pitiless toward compromise and politics. Morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all men.

What is Dada and what does it want in Germany?  The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism.
–the Berlin Dadaist Manifesto, 1920, quoted in Egbert 1970 p. 633, as cited in Golomstock 1990 p. 59

Dada is German Bolshevism.
–Carl Richard Hülsenbeck, founder of German Dadaism, quoted in Egbert 1970 p. 633, as cited in Golomstock 1990 p. 59

To make literature with a gun in my hand had for a time been my dream.
–Carl Richard Hülsenbeck, En avant Dada, 1920. Translated and cited by Wikipedia: Richard_Huelsenbeck

After 1923 “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” was born from the meeting of Dadaism and Expressionism; this was probably the most pointedly social movement in the art of its time…. Some saw in it the highest manifestation of the German or Nordic spirit, others were attracted by its aesthetic extremism, its refusal to accept bourgeois tastes and morality, and its open criticism of the capitalist system. Among those who sided with it where the communists George Grosz and Hans and Lea Grundig, the Soviet sympathizers Käthe Kollwitz and Max Pechstein, together with Emil Nolde, the father of the movement and one of the first to join the national Socialist party.
–Golomstock 1990, p. 60

The Dadaists weren’t hippies complaining about violence.  They were radical left-wing draft-dodgers who wanted a different kind of violence.

It’s not easy to make sense of the Dada Manifesto–sense was one of the things it rejected–but we can note consistencies in it:

– It uses the language of racial or religious purity, comparing people who disagree with their theories to disease, vermin, decay, and filth that must be wiped out.
– It speaks not of persuasion but of strength and violence.
– It continues the modernist association of art with madness.
– It speaks against compromise, morality, charity, and pity, insisting that only total destruction of the bourgeoisie and their culture is acceptable.
– It says little about the war.  Mostly just the part in the quote above.
– It says a lot about the basic principles of post-modern theory: subjectivity, relativism, amorality, the non-existence of truth, the inapplicability of logic and rationality, the deconstruction of arguments as having ulterior motives.
– It’s not outrage against violence; it’s outrage that it isn’t the violence they wanted.

In other words, this “reaction against the mindless horrors of war” is panic that the pent-up rage they were hoping to unleash for their vaguely-Marxist revolution is getting wasted.  They’re trying to get in on the mindless violence, before it’s too late.

Also notice that the wartime Dadaists were in Switzerland.  None of them went to war.

What about the famous modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s?  James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald [10], William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens?  Despite all being of draftable age, only Hemingway went to war–and he seemed to like it pretty well; he went back for two more. (In WW2, Hemingway was court-martialed for fighting too much–he organized unauthorized operations against the enemy.)

Same with the other artists.  Picasso, Le Corbusier, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp–none of them fought in the war.  (BLAST artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska went to war, found trench warfare “great fun” (Moody p. 259-260), and was killed in 1915.)  In a Europe where most young men went to war, modern art was very noticeably practiced mostly by young people who did not. If it was a reaction to the horrors of war, why were people who didn’t go to war so much more likely to have this reaction?  (It’s not because everyone who went to war died. About 1 in 6 did.)

And if these modern artists were shocked by the horrors of war, why were they so eager to embrace or cooperate with Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin so soon after WW1? (Note that article lists only the fascists, and still they outnumber the moderates.)  Marinetti-Mussolini (Tryphonopoulos & Adams 2005 p. 191), Picasso-Stalin [11], Dali-Hitler, Pound-Mussolini, Gertrude Stein-HitlerKnut Hamsun-Hitler, Dadaism-communism, Surrealism-communism. There are too many cases of famous modernists praising fascism or Stalinism, and too many books asking why, for me to bother enumerating them; just Google the subject on your own.  The interwar history of modernism contains a great deal of politics, often as farce [12], as both fascist and leftist modernist extremists strove to win over a proletariat who found them both, frankly, revolting [13].


Picasso’s portrait of Stalin, drawn in 1953 “as a token of respect and affection” (link)

But artists were done with revolutionary violence after WW2, right?  Genocide wasn’t cool anymore. No more allying modern art with radical purges against the bourgeois and/or the fascists, right?

​From ​George Maciunas’ “Fluxus Manifesto“,​ ​1963:

Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual”, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — PURGE THE WORLD OF “EUROPANISM”!

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART.

Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.

[Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music (published posthumously in 1973)] argues that music must expunge all familiar sounds and conventional notions of the beautiful. In a world of triumphant kitsch, composition can justify its survival only by becoming a mirror image of physical and spiritual destruction…. Stravinsky, who, at the time of the “Philosophy,” was still working in the neoclassical mode, stood for falsehood and regression. There was, of course, something fascistic about Stravinsky. Adorno did not base this argument on the fact that Stravinsky himself voiced sympathy for Mussolini in the nineteen-thirties; instead, he felt that a Fascist mentality was ingrained in the music, simply in its reassertion of tonality after Schoenberg’s putative annihilation of it…. Merely by choosing to write in the key of A minor, Stravinsky is acting like you-know-who.
–Alex Ross, “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music”, The New Yorker, March 24 2003
(Adorno was an extremely influential Marxist art critic and cultural theorist)

The Modernists had no reason to feel bad about WW2–they were the only winners.

It was thought that no music resisted the Nazi taint more thoroughly than the modernist school that Hitler detested. Thus did Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of atonality and of twelvetone composition, become a heroic figure in the post-war years; he had stayed, it seemed, absolutely pure. After 1945, a new morality of music evolved, based on two questionable but potent syllogisms: (1) if Hitler liked it, it must be bad; (2) if Hitler hated it, it must be good.
–Alex Ross, “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music”, The New Yorker, March 24 2003


6. Modernism Today

Okay, but all that batshit insane revolutionary madness is irrelevant now, right?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  — The Matrix, 1999

…sounds like a reference to a (postmodern, deconstructionist) passage in Tristan Tzara’s “​​Dada Manifesto​”:

With the blue eye-glasses of an angel they have excavated the inner life for a dime’s worth of unanimous gratitude. If all of them are right and if all pills are Pink Pills, let us try for once not to be right…  There is no ultimate Truth. The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us / in a banal kind of way / to the opinions we had in the first place.

What am I saying–that the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) were secretly deconstructionists referring to an 80-year-old radical manifesto–that the point of the Matrix wasn’t (as the first film suggested) that there was a reality beneath the simulation, but that it was simulations all the way down?  How deep does the rabbit hole go?

So the first movie is sort of classical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they’re like “Stop attacking me!” in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning…
— Lana Wachowski, Movie City News, October 13, 2012

I don’t believe in the Wachowski’s rabbit hole, but the modernist movement hasn’t hit bottom yet.  That’s not surprising; it’s just one part of a very old pseudo-intellectual tradition. That tradition began at least as far back as the Arian Wars and runs through medieval scholasticism, splits across continents between the Puritan and the Hegelian / Marxist traditions, then rejoins in modernism, and continues through post-modernism, right up to the Social Justice Warrior contingent of today’s left–and it goes straight through America’s English Literature departments.  But that’s a topic for future blog posts.


7. Why were modern artists so combative and so totalitarian?

This table shows the number of artworks chosen to be shown at the Paris Salon Exhibition, and the population of Paris (the city) at the time.

Year    # artworks  Population of Paris (census year)
1740      127
1750      151     565,000
1761      157
1771      320
1781      318     630,000 (1789)
1800      537     546,856 (1801)
1810     1120     622,636 (1811)
1819     1615     718,966 (1817)
1831     3182     785,862
1840     1349     935,261 (1841)   The entry notes that artists were protesting that the Salon jury was rejecting too many works.
1850     3915   1,053,262 (1851)
1861     4097   1,696,141
1870     5434   1,851,792 (1872)
1880     7289   2,269,023 (1881)

Modern artists had to fight for attention.

A young artist can’t be easily recognized for being “good”, since art is so subjective.  As the number of artists kept growing, in order to get shown at exhibitions, to distribute their little magazines, to get reviews in newspapers, young artists had to form herds, draw up doctrinal manifestos, and act like a political party to promote their work (see Cohen 2004). Art, like academia, developed its own politics.  Romantics were individualists. Most modernists could not be.

Meanwhile, between the French Revolution and WW2, the spread of democracy and the West-wide loss of faith in religion was breaking up totalitarian culture, which had previously thrived among monarchists and the Catholic Church.  People with a totalitarian nature require hierarchy, order, stasis, uniformity within their culture, distinctness from all other cultures, doctrine, and some guiding transcendental logos such as Church or Crown.  Europe in the latter half of the 19th century was full of totalitarian souls in search of a new God, and the options on offer were Marx, nationalism, and art.  Like pagans throughout history, many played it safe by creating a syncretistic religion combining 2 or all 3 of them. Artists of a totalitarian bent could colonize or organize the new orderly herds of modernists, and replace religion or the crown with a religious devotion to art.  This explains the fanaticism, and the consistently totalitarian politics, of modern artists.

Between WW1 and WW2, the various new Gods shook out into a few new totalitarian systems, which each settled on their own compatible artistic style by the end of 1934, plus today’s mainstream anti-modern modernism, which attached itself to academic culture among Germany and the Allies.  And so totalitarian culture, whose God had lost face and whose monarchs had lost their thrones, found new footholds among the Nazis, Stalinists, fascists, and in academia.

All this did not cause WW1.  No kind of modern art was then popular in any country.  Furor over art did not cause the mobilizations of Russian and Austria, the bungled diplomatic reactions to them, nor the unforgivable use of the Schlieffen Plan.  The jingoism of traditional art probably did more damage than the factious rage within modern art.  But modern art was on the same side. If, as Kant said, the social conscience is a product of art and education, modernism helped silence that conscience in the lead-ups to WW1 and WW2, by convincing progressives that instead of opposing violence, they should try to ride the tiger themselves.


Footnotes

[1] Honestly.  Not one note is different, because there are no notes.  Okay; seriously, I realize Cage’s stated intent was different.  I still want my 4’33” back.

[2] Three Lives has a plain style which probably influenced Hemingway.  The relationship of Hemingway to modernism is an interesting question: his style is minimalist, and in that sense modernist, yet the typical “modernist” literary style is more the opposite of Hemingway: convoluted, difficult to follow, dry, symbolic arguments, rather than Hemingway’s literal, sentimental, non-articulated sensory real-life experiences.  Hemingway’s main qualification as a modernist is his bleak view of life, as in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

[2.5] All Quiet on the Western Front has been called part of the German “New Objectivity” in order to somehow claim it for Modernism.  But New Objectivity wasn’t even a literary movement, and a glance at New Objective artworks shows they’re not realistic.  They’re just representational (not completely abstract):


Helmut HerzfeldHurrah, die Butter ist Alle!, 1935


George GroszThe Eclipse of the Sun, 1926

All Quiet is straight-up 19th-century Realism, which is a literary style.

[3] We see the same pattern in Word War 2 and Vietnam:  the books expressing the trauma come out 10-30 years after the end of the war.  The most-notable books deconstructing World War 2 were Catch-22 (1961) and Slaughterhouse 5 (1969).  The first Vietnam book that comes to mind for me is The Things They Carried (1990).

[4] I agree.  With respect to the author’s experience, it is a bad poem.  “Horror of wounds and anger at the foe, And loss of things desired”, etc.–it’s half histrionic hyperbole, and half cliches and bland, generic infodumps.

[5] Inb4 someone says they’re modernist because they’re about the futility and pointlessness of war: No; that’s my point. Modernists didn’t write about that more than anyone else did. War veterans did. Then modernists claimed the war veterans as modernists, because “everybody knows” that modernism was shaped by the experience of veterans in WW1.  Now they hold up the poems by war veterans, who were stamped as modernists for writing about the war, as proof that modernists wrote about the war. It’s circular logic.

[6] Although “Prufrock” was published in 1915, he wrote the first version of it in 1911.

[7] Those who’ve read T. S. Eliot’s political views may argue with his presence on that list.  I expect that he’s listed as an authoritarian because he longed for a return to a powerful medieval-style state Church.

[8] Mondrian painted the same painting repeatedly from 1917 (“Composition III”) to 1942 (“Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue”).  Way to milk it, Piet.

[9]  Like Modernism, Arianism was hopelessly tied up with politics (Hilaire BellocNew Advent).  And just as Modernists today still hate the Futurists even though they’re all dead, Christian scholars today, especially Catholics, are still angry at Arianism, calling it “debasing” and a “plague” (Gwatkin 1900) or a “taint” (New Advent’s online Catholic Encyclopedia), and writing extremely biased “reviews” of it.  Christianity Today published an argument against Arianism in 2005, writing, “If the Arian belief in Christ as an exalted creature won the day, the gospel itself would be lost.”  Father Longenecker wrote a joint condemnation of Arianism and humanism in the National Catholic Register in 2015, saying that “Today Arianism takes a different form, and comes to us in the guise of humanism.”

[10] “Near the end of his life, Fitzgerald wrote that the two greatest regrets of his life were not having seen overseas combat, and not being big enough to play college football.” (Schmoop)

[11] It is educational and entertaining to read this attempt to interpret Picasso’s drawing of Stalin as critical: “Only step by step I started to grasp Picasso’s idea of Stalin – moral monstrosity is not something exceptional to human nature and to human beings. It is enough to be rude and instinctive, to perceive the world as a place of fight, not to be emotionally warmed up by the disinterested contact with other human beings, to have ambitious and rivaling predisposition, and not to be educated – to be prone to behave indifferently, hatefully and destructively. It is enough, like Stalin, not to be nurtured by the serious art, and to be a believer in power over life and other people – to become a relaxed lout and brute, and a silent murderer.”

[12] As, for instance, Ezra Pound’s failed attempts to write popular verse plays to teach the proles high culture (and good luck finding any mention of them on Google), or the time when the Parisian Dadaists dragged a token workman off the streets to pose with them for a group portrait.

[13] Sorry.


References

Theodor Adorno 1973. Philosophy of Modern Music. Seabury Press.

Dona Budd 2005. The Language of Art Knowledge Cards. Menlo Park, CA: Pomegranate Communications

Milton A. Cohen 2004. Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914. Lexington Books.

Donald Egbert 1970. Social Radicalism and the Arts in Western Europe: A cultural history from the French Revolution to 1968. New York: Knopf.

Michael Ewans, Rosalind Halton, John A. Phillips, eds. 2004. Music Research: New Directions for a New Century.

Igor Golomstock, translated 1990 by Robert Chandler. Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China. Harper Collins.

Henry Melvill Gwatkin 1900.  Studies of Arianism: Chiefly referring to the character and chronology of the reaction which followed the council of Nicæa.

Richard Huelsenbeck.  En avant Dada: Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus.  Hanover: Paul Steegemann Verlag, 1920.

Randall Jarrell 1942. “The End of the Line.” The Nation. Reprinted in Praising it New: The best of the new criticism, p. 213-220.

Wyndham Lewis, ed., 1914. BlastNo. 1, June 20 1914.

Wyndham Lewis, ed., 1915. BlastNo. 2, July 1915.

Colin Martindale 1990. The Clockwork Muse: The predictability of artistic change. Harper Collins.

A. David Moody 2007. Ezra Pound: Poet: I: The Young Genius 1885-1920. Oxford University Press.

Patrick J. Quinn, ed., 1999. New Perspectives on Robert Graves. Susquehanna University Press.

Laura Riding & Robert Graves 1927. A Survey of Modernist Poetry. Haskell House.

Aviel Roshwald, Richard Stites, eds. 2002. European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment and Propaganda 1914-1918. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Alex Ross 2007. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7.

John Tytell 1987. Ezra Pound: The solitary volcano. NYC: Doubleday.

Tristan Tzara 1918. “​​Dada Manifesto​“.

Johanna Vondeling 2000. “The Manifest Professional: Manifestos and Modernist Legitimation.” College Literature 26(2): 127-145.

Barbara Will 2012. “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein.” HUMANITIES, March/April 2012, Volume 33, Number 2.

Art and Genocide: The Führer who Loved Only Buildings

Standard

In this blog post, I want to attack the idea that art (including fiction) and religion are inherently good or noble.  I don’t think they’re inherently bad or evil, but I’d like to try thinking about them in evolutionary terms.

I also want to attack the idea that the concepts of racism, greed, impiety, or evil have explanatory power, though that’s only a secondary focus.

Art and religion are sometimes said to be things that distinguish us from animals, the things that make us human.  Leaving aside the aesthetic taste of bowerbirds, it would be at least as accurate to say that art and religion are the things that make us inhuman.  That word is only ever applied to humans, to describe cruelty or violence taken to levels and scales not found in non-human species.  This violence is often motivated by differences over art and religion.

SIDEBAR: Why am I grouping art and religion together?

Artistic taste and religion are both mysterious, complex systems that give us preferences or values we can’t explain.  Today, we think of religions as elaborate systems of ethical beliefs, like Christianity or Buddhism, and of art as aesthetic systems.  Values and aesthetics seem, to most people other than Nietzsche and me, to be different things.

But if we go back far enough in time, art, magic, and religion may have a common ancestor.  (Webster 1939) traces the history of how the ancient Greeks thought about art.  The oldest word for sculpture, from before Homer, is kolossos, ‘a substitute’, indicating the sculpture has a magical connection with a specific person, possibly denoting sacrifice or the deflection of supernatural attention.  The next word is agalma, which first meant ‘a source of joy’, then ‘a source of joy to a god’ or ‘an offering’, and then came to mean ‘a statue’.  This suggests statues were still ritualistic objects, but the relationship of man to god had shifted from fearful appeasement or deception to an attempt to give pleasure.  In the 5th century B.C., the time of Socrates and of the most-famous Athenian playwrights, they began using the words eikon (‘a likeness’: a statue is an object that looks like something else) and xoanon (‘something carved’: a statue is a created object).  This suggests that that was when people began making statues not only to please gods, but also to please humans.

AFAIK, every known culture has or had an artistic tradition and a religion.  Many people have argued that religion is necessary to make us good. But the hypothesis that religion makes people act morally cannot be reliably demonstrated, experimentally or historically.

The hypothesis that religion is needed make a civilization act immorally, however, has never been tested.  In evolutionary terms, genocide is often the best possible thing for us to do, as long as we’re the ones committing the genocide.  We just need to get those irksome morals out of the way when it comes to people who aren’t part of our genetic in-group.  Art and religion are good at that. [1]

If that hypothesis contains some truth, it would mean that art and religion are systems that evolved to shut down or bypass our moral reasoning.  That would require us to be unconscious of what we’re doing when we’re being artsy or religious.  It might even mean that one of the primary functions of art and religion is to sabotage our insight into the operation of art and religion.  So we might have mental blocks or short-circuits that, when it comes to art and religion, direct our attention away from obvious but uncomfortable conclusions.

Let’s talk about—

 

Art and the Nazis

The Daily Beast, Nov. 30 2014: Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists

[a review of Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany (Petropoulos 2014)]

In the stories shared by Petropoulos, what really stands out, however, is the shocking level of personal involvement by the top leaders of Germany in minute decisions about the lives of artists. While Hitler’s interest in art as a failed artist is well known, one would think that his top lieutenants like Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and others would have more than enough on their hands to worry about the latest music from Strauss. …
While issues of art sometimes bubble to the surface in the American political conversation—Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 for his homoerotic images or the trashing on Capitol Hill that Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial proposal has received—it is hard to imagine President Obama or any of the former 20th-century presidents, or any of their top military and political advisors focusing so much of their time on whether dissonant sounds in music are acceptable, or how realistic painting should be.

The Daily Beast, Feb. 7 2014: Inside Hitler’s Fantasy Museum

When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures.. Bunjes… told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world. …  The Monuments Men had heard rumors of art theft and looting throughout the war, but had no idea of the scale (some estimate that around 5 million cultural objects were looted, lost, or mishandled during the war), the advanced level of organization (scores of Nazi officers and hundreds of soldiers were assigned exclusively to the confiscation, transport, and maintenance of looted art and archival material), and the ultimate destination of the choicest pieces—the Führermuseum. …
Hitler’s plan for his museum been on his mind for more than a decade, at least since 1934—for Hitler had long stewed upon the idea of capturing The Ghent Altarpiece for Germany, and had even dispatched a Nazi art detective (and Hitler lookalike), Heinrich Köhn, to find the Righteous Judges panel, one of the twelve that comprises The Ghent Altarpiece, which was stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and has never been recovered. … An estimated 36 kilometers of galleries were included in the plan—to put that in perspective, the enormous and labyrinthine V&A Museum in London has about 8 kilometers of galleries, to display some 27,000 objects.

Consider that for a moment:  The Nazi’s first act of international aggression was to steal a 500 year-old painting from Belgium.

Why was art so important to the Nazis?

Art, literature, religion, and politics have always been closely connected.  The classical view was that reason determined art, politics, and economics.  Christians give religion priority.  Marxists gave economics priority.  No philosophical tradition that I know of takes art seriously as a driving force of social change, though it inspires people much more than reason does.

Maybe the evolutionary purpose of culture is less to give you something to love about your people than to give you something to hate about other people, and maybe this means it would be awkward to admit the role art plays in this.  You can prioritize reason and say they’re wrong, prioritize religion and say they’re evil, or prioritize economics and say they’re oppressive.  But after you’ve slaughtered your enemies, raped their women, taken their stuff, and salted their land, it would sound lame to say you did it because their art was bad.

 

Racism is Not an Explanation

The standard explanation for the Jewish Holocaust is that the Nazis were racists.  Well, yeah, the Nazis were racists.  That doesn’t explain the Holocaust any more than Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 boxing record is explained by saying that he was a really good boxer.  Thinkers today pride themselves on not being taken in by “God of the gaps” arguments that do nothing but stop somebody from asking questions, e.g., “the sky is blue because God made it blue”.  But saying “the Nazis were racist” is exactly that kind of useless question-stopping.  Why were they racist?

For Adolf Hitler, and possibly for some of his inner circle, a big part of the reason was art.

 

The Two Things that Were Most Important to Adolf Hitler

1. He hated Jews.

2. He loved architecture.

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“Hitler was an astonishing walking encyclopedia of architecture. He carried in his head the detailed plans of most of the important buildings in Europe. Look at these sketches he gave me. This is the Pantheon in Paris and Les Invalides drawn by him from his memory of plans he studied before he’d ever seen them. And here is an outsized triumphal arch and domed hall he sketched in 1925 when even he believed his political dreams were over. ‘I wish I’d been an architect!’ he often used to say. … To him, architecture was a magic word. It was his hobby and his passion.” … He disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later with a pile of paper and a few big tomes. It seemed rehearsed almost, and I guessed he’d done this before. “See here. These are architectural drawings Hitler made in his beer-hall days in Munich when he’d never been anywhere. He gave them to me: detailed drawings, models, plans. Such things he found spellbinding.”
… As he walked me to my car, he asked whether I knew what the very last photograph ever taken of Hitler was. “The very last one—the final image of the Führer—was taken in the bunker,” he said. “It shows him intently examining a model of his beloved Linz. He intended to rebuild the little city on the Danube where he’d been a boy and turn it into the culture capital of the whole of Germany. What he was staring at were Hermann Giessler’s plans, with great museums and theaters and the like. Now, with Russian shells exploding forty feet above his concrete reinforced head, and Berlin in flames, it was of course nothing but a pathetic dream. Yet there he is, like Wagner’s Rienzi, bitterly imagining what might have been.”
—Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect

We drove directly to the opera, Charles Garnier’s great neobaroque building. A white-haired attendant accompanied our small group through the deserted building. Hitler had actually studied the plans of the Paris opera house with great care. Near the proscenium box he found a salon missing, remarked on it, and turned out to be right. The attendant said that this room had been eliminated in renovations many years ago.
—Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich

The Guardian, Nov. 29 2002: Mies and the Nazis

And, of course, there was Hitler’s special commission, the complete rebuilding of Berlin, followed by every other major German city.  Hitler so adored Speer’s vast detailed model of a Berlin reborn, complete with ambitious domes and giant’s avenues, that he would gaze lovingly at what might have been while burrowed deep in his bunker in 1945, with the allies at the door.

This war will set us back many years in our building programme. It is a tragedy. I did not become Chancellor of the Greater German Reich to fight wars.
—Adolf Hitler, to his friend August Kubizek, quoted in (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek)

Art historian Birgit Schwarz said in 2009 that historians have consistently underplayed the importance of Hitler’s love of art.  But even Schwarz sees this as important only for making Hitler arrogant.  Oddly, hardly anyone says that Hitler’s decisions were in some way affected by his beliefs about the one thing in life that he seemed to care about most.

Let’s consult a seldom-cited expert on Hitler: Hitler.  Turn with me now to volume 1, chapter 2 in your copies of Mein Kampf.

 

Was Hitler always a racist?

He said no.

p. 52-53:
To-day it is hard and almost impossible for me to say when the word ‘Jew’ first began to raise any particular thought in my mind. I do not remember even having heard the word at home during my father’s lifetime. If this name were mentioned in a derogatory sense I think the old gentleman would just have considered those who used it in this way as being uneducated reactionaries. In the course of his career he had come to be more or less a cosmopolitan, with strong views on nationalism, which had its effect on me as well. In school, too, I found no reason to alter the picture of things I had formed at home. At the Realschule I knew one Jewish boy. We were all on our guard in our relations with him, but only because his reticence and certain actions of his warned us to be discreet. Beyond that my companions and myself formed no particular opinions in regard to him.
It was not until I was fourteen or fifteen years old that I frequently ran up against the word ‘Jew’, partly in connection with political controversies. These references aroused a slight aversion in me, and I could not avoid an uncomfortable feeling which always came over me when I had to listen to religious disputes. But at that time I had no other feelings about the Jewish question.
There were very few Jews in Linz… As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism.
Then I came to Vienna. [This was in 1908. 92% of Austria’s Jews lived in Vienna in 1934, comprising 10% of Vienna’s population.]

In the Jew I still saw only a man who was of a different religion, and therefore, on grounds of human tolerance, I was against the idea that he should be attacked because he had a different faith. And so I considered that the tone adopted by the anti-Semitic Press in Vienna was unworthy of the cultural traditions of a great people. The memory of certain events which happened in the middle ages came into my mind, and I felt that I should not like to see them repeated. Generally speaking,these anti-Semitic newspapers did not belong to the first rank – but I did not then understand the reason of this – and so I regarded them more as the products of jealousy and envy rather than the expression of a sincere, though wrong-headed, feeling.

Why did Hitler become a racist?

Hitler made 7 claims that he said made him hate the Jews. I’ll spare you the quotations and summarize them:

p. 55: All Jews are secretly Zionists. (I don’t understand why Hitler would have cared.)

p. 56: They created “hideous” art, literature, and drama.

p. 57: They controlled the liberal press.

p. 57: They controlled prostitution and the “whiteslave traffic” [?].

p. 58: They controlled & manipulated the Social Democrats (SDs), whom Hitler hated.

p. 59-60: The SDs use language deceptively and debate dishonestly.

p. 61: Marx was Jewish, and Marxism would end human life on Earth [not sure if this was hyperbole or madness].

He said nothing about bankers.  This is an eccentric list of reasons to hate Jews.  The ones that seemed to be primary, and to upset him the most, were his claims that they made bad art, and that they controlled the SDs.

In my eyes the charge against Judaism became a grave one the moment I discovered the Jewish activities in the Press, in art, in literature and the theatre. All unctuous protests were now more or less futile. One needed only to look at the posters announcing the hideous productions of the cinema and theatre, and study the names of the authors who were highly lauded there in order to become permanently adamant on Jewish questions. Here was a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago. … The fact that nine-tenths of all the smutty literature, artistic tripe and theatrical banalities, had to be charged to the account of people who formed scarcely one per cent of the nation—that fact could not be gainsaid.
—p. 56

His charge regarding the SDs is part of his hatred of Marxism.  This seems to have begun earlier, perhaps in 1908, though it’s hard to determine the chronology, as Hitler jumps forward and backward in time in the narrative here without giving dates.  He began a new job and was told he had to join a union.  He refused, indignant at being told what to do.  Over the next few months, the union men, who were social democrats, talked politics during the lunch hour.

But all that I heard had the effect of arousing the strongest antagonism in me. Everything was disparaged – the nation, because it was held to be an invention of the ‘capitalist’ class (how often I had to listen to that phrase!); the Fatherland, because it was held to be an instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of’ the working masses; the authority of the law, because that was a means of holding down the proletariat; religion, as a means of doping the people, so as to exploit them afterwards; morality, as a badge of stupid and sheepish docility. There was nothing that they did not drag in the mud.
—p. 43 (volume 1, chapter 1)

He began to argue with them, and they began to argue back, and eventually “ordered me to leave the building or else get flung down from the scaffolding.”  So he quit his job.

He did not say that any of these men were Jews!

There is a long discussion—too long for me to read—of the SDs and the Jews in (Jacobs 1993) chapter 4, “Austrian Social Democrats and the Jews: A Study in Ambivalence”, p. 86-117.  It begins:

The SDAP[Oe] was far less influenced by anti-Semitism than any of its major competitors and was the most important opponent of anti-Semitic political movements.  The SDAP[Oe], moreover, allowed a large number of individuals of Jewish origin to take highly visible roles within the party itself.  It ought also to be noted that the SDAP[Oe] provided both material and moral support for those East European Jewish refugees who continued to live in Vienna during the later years of the First Republic.  These facts notwithstanding, the party publicly claimed that so-called philo-Semitism was every bit as noxious to social democrats as was anti-Semitism, declined opportunities to defend individuals who had been the victims of anti-Semitic attack, and used anti-Semitic stereotypes in its publications…

… and ends…

By the final years of the First Republic, the SDs were receiving approximate ¾ of the Viennese Jewish vote.  But precisely because the SDs understood that they could count on the Jewish vote, the Austrian SD party did not engage in strenuous efforts to solicit Jewish support…  By accepting the premise that Jewish origin was a burden to the party, by allowing unflattering stereotypes to be used in socialist literature, and by refusing to defend Jews per se, Austrian SDs allowed themselves to be put on the defensive.  Precisely because there were so many Jews prominent in Austrian socialist ranks, the defensive policy on the Jewish question followed by the party ultimately tended to undercut the party itself.
—p. 117

Their founder, Victor Adler, had been Jewish, but had converted to Christianity.  And Marx, of course, was genetically Jewish.  But the SDs were not a Jewish party, and would not associate either with Poland’s Jewish Social Democratic Party or with Socialist Zionism.  The chapter says that the SDs were anti-Zionist, because their Jewish members were pro-assimilation and so against Jewish nationalism.  According to Jacobs, they were not so much pro-Jewish as they were less anti-Semitic than everyone else.  But this made them the party of choice for Vienna’s Jews, which was sufficient for Hitler.

 

What did Hitler do and think about in Vienna while he was becoming a racist?

Hitler was orphaned at age 16, and left for Vienna a few months after, in 1908.

I went to Vienna to take the entrance examination for the Academy of Fine Arts…. I felt convinced that I should pass the examination quite easily. At the Realschule I was by far the best student in the drawing class, and since that time I had made more than ordinary progress in the practice of drawing….
But there was one misgiving: It seemed to me that I was better qualified for drawing than for painting, especially in the various branches of architectural drawing. At the same time my interest in architecture was constantly increasing…. I went to the Hof Museum to study the paintings in the art gallery there; but the building itself captured almost all my interest, from early morning until late at night I spent all my time visiting the various public buildings. And it was the buildings themselves that were always the principal attraction for me. For hours and hours I could stand in wonderment before the Opera and the Parliament. The whole Ring Strasse had a magic effect upon me, as if it were a scene from the Thousand-and-one-Nights.

I went to see the Rector and asked him to explain the reasons why they refused to accept me as a student in the general School of Painting… He said that the sketches which I had brought with me unquestionably showed that painting was not what I was suited for but that the same sketches gave clear indications of my aptitude for architectural designing… Within a few days I myself also knew that I ought to become an architect.
—p. 28-29

During the years when he came to hate Jews, Hitler was occupied with art all day, every day, for work, study, and all leisure outside of books.

These were years when well-off Jews in Vienna were a major clientele for modernist designers and architects such as the Wiener Werkstätte and Adolf Loos (BedoireShapira 2016Wikipedia).  Many upper-class Viennese Jews wanted to distance themselves from Zionism and their Jewish heritage and show they were becoming culturally Viennese, and did this by prominently supporting the latest German artistic movements  (Shapira 2006).  Ironically, it was this attempt to assimilate into German culture that led Hitler to hate them—for Hitler hated those artistic movements.

Jews built, or had built for them, structures like this:


The Steiner House, by Adolf Loos, 1910

and this…


The Fagus Factory, by Adolf Meyer, 1913

Hitler was not wrong to associate Jews with the SDs, but he was wrong to identify the Jews among the SDs with the Jews who funded modern art and theatre.  The former were radical Marxists; the latter were the rich bourgeois parents they were rebelling against.

Hitler wrote that, meanwhile, he spent his spare time adoring these classical and Beaux-Arts buildings:


The Hof Museum


The State Opera


The Parliament

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“In my opinion,” Speer told me as we watched the long slow twilight settle in over the Palatine hills, “Hitler’s true architectural tastes never really progressed beyond the style of the Viennese Ringstrasse which he first set eyes on in 1907 as an impressionable eighteen year old. He arrived from provincial Linz to sit the entrance exam of the visual arts academy, and was bowled over by Null’s opera house and the other grand buildings in the center. Yes, he pretended to embrace a kind of neoclassicism later on and used it to dramatic effect. But deeper down, all his tastes, all his ideas—artistic, architectural, and political—came from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century world of his youth.”

Hitler was obsessed with art and architecture before he was obsessed with Jews.  Jews were a minority among the SDs and among modern artists.  I propose it was only because he was angry about Marxism and art at the same time that he hit on blaming it on the Jews.

 

Art and Genocide

Many of Hitler’s inner circle, notably Goebbels and Goering, were also obsessed with art and architecture.  Hitler even made his architect, Albert Speer, his Minister of Armaments and War Production, apparently so he could talk to him more often about architecture.

Did their hatred of modern art fuel their racism more than their racism fuel their hatred of modern art? [2]  I suspect so.  There was plenty of anti-Semitism in Europe at that time, but as far as I know, it wasn’t usually directed at modern art outside of the Nazi party.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

I eventually found one book that emphasized the importance of art to the Nazis: Michaud & Lloyd’s 2004 The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany.

The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany presents a new interpretation of National Socialism, arguing that art in the Third Reich was not simply an instrument of the regime, but actually became a source of the racist politics upon which its ideology was founded. Through the myth of the “Aryan race,” a race pronounced superior because it alone creates culture, Nazism asserted art as the sole raison d’être of a regime defined by Hitler as the “dictatorship of genius.” Michaud shows the important link between the religious nature of Nazi art and the political movement, revealing that in Nazi Germany art was considered to be less a witness of history than a force capable of producing future, the actor capable of accelerating the coming of a reality immanent to art itself.
—from the jacket cover

Hitler himself wrote (p. 223) that “the struggle between the various species does not arise from a feeling of mutual antipathy but rather from hunger and love.”  There is no doubt he was thinking of his own “struggle” against the Jews, and that was his way of saying that he struggled not because he hated Jews, but because he loved… well, who or what did he love?

He spoke about hypothetical other people being motivated by love of their families, yet he himself apparently loved no one.  He wrote endlessly about loving Germany and Germans in the abstract, but the only named people or things he mentioned having strong positive feelings for were certain buildings in Vienna; the city of Munich, particularly its art; and his father and his mother, who were both dead.

Hitler uses the word “friend” or its inflections 30 times in Mein Kampf: sarcastically on pages 29, 51, 54, 110, 121, 189, 223, 237, 245, 286, and 432; comically on page 71; to refer to political allies on pages 68, 89, 133, 144, 165, 276, 472, 475, 477, 483, and 521; as a very bad way of describing German demands for “Lebensraum” on p. 118; to refer to other people’s friends on p. 281; to talk about worthless friends on p. 284; to describe Destiny on p. 310; and to talk about military comrades, though only in general, on p. 144, 164, 426-427, 513.  It appears he did not, at any time between 1907 and 1924, have a friend.  He had, in fact, had just one friend, for two or more years, August Kubizek (Waite p. 41), but Hitler cut off contact with him in 1908 (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek).

Even when designing cities, he forgot the people.

He had no real interest in the rest of the plan, in residential districts, traffic plans, parks. Obviously I had to deal with those things behind his back. You can’t just have monuments. There must be an organic urban scheme as well. I can hear him now when I showed the other districts of the city I was working on. ‘But where are the plans for the Grand Avenue, Speer? …’ To him it was one gigantic operatic stage.
The Master Architect

In short, Hitler was able to hate so powerfully because he was so passionate about art and architecture.  The only possessions he mentioned in his will, written the day before he shot himself, were his art collection.  In his last minutes, he was not thinking of all the people who had died for him, but of art and of the buildings that would not be born.  One of the last things he said was, “Ah, what an artist dies in me!” (Waite 1977 p. 64) He was a monster to people because he only cared about paintings and buildings.


[1] I use “morals” to mean “values and behavior that benefit the in-group more than the individual.”

[2] The notion that all Nazis hated modern art, or that Hitler and his associates hated all modern art, is incorrect.  In the early
Thirties, there was an internal Nazi debate on the subject, with one group led by Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s ideologue on racial
matters, denouncing all Modernism as “degenerate”. But another, led by the Berlin League of National Socialist Students, argued that
Expressionism had “Nordic roots” and was an integral part of the Nazi revolution” (The Telegraph).  See also  Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists.


References

Fredric Bedoire & Robert Tanner 2004. The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930. Ktav Pub.

Adolf Hitler 1926. Mein Kampf, volumes 1 and 2. Translated 1939 by James Murphy. London: Hurst & Blackett.  I’m using a differently-formatted version of this edition, which has an additional Epilogue and a different pagination, running to 525 pages.  You could probably download it from your friendly neighborhood white supremacist website, but they use huge fonts and never have page numbers.

Jack Jacobs 1993. On Socialists and “the Jewish Question” After Marx. NYC, NY: NYU Press.

Eric Michaud & Janet Lloyd 2004. The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jonathan Petropoulos 2014. Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elana Shapira 2006.  “Modernism and Jewish Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna: Fritz Waerndorfer and His House for an Art Lover.” Studies in the Decorative Arts Vol. 13, No. 2 (SPRING-SUMMER 2006), p. 52-92.

Elana Shapira 2016.  Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna. Brandeis.

Albert Speer.  Inside the Third Reich. MacMillan.

T. B. L. Webster 1939. Greek Theories of Art and Literature down to 400 B. C.. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Oct., 1939), pp. 166-179.

The Arian Heresy and the Fall of Rome

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Before talking about the Arian [10] heresy and the fall of Rome, I should probably explain why it’s important to fiction.

The hardest problem in understanding what makes a story good or bad is figuring out what aspects of stories are important because of human nature, and what aspects are important to specific cultures. I approach this by looking for patterns in Western art across history. (I include literature, but it’s usually easier & quicker to see trends in visual art.) No properties of stories or of visual art have remained constant, but some recur continually, some usually appear together, and some never appear together.

The patterns in stories correspond to patterns in the priorities, beliefs, and hegemonic powers of the civilizations that made the stories [13]. Usually, people wrote about why they made art the way they did, and this is a good entry point into decoding the patterns. We can also form and test theories about these correspondences by looking at times when religion, art, politics, and technology had strong effects on each other. A rough summary of my conclusion is that there is an art of order and an art of chaos, and major artistic clashes represent political differences over whether society needs more order, unity, and stasis, or more freedom, diversity, and change.

This post is about one such time: the Arian controversy in the Christian church. I don’t care about the controversy itself; I’m interested in its political consequences. So I’ll spend little time on the theological disputes of the 4th century, and more on the wars of the 5th and 6th centuries.

Here I’m looking not at art, but at religion. The controversy is relevant to art because it used religion the same way art is sometimes used: it sublimated a political dispute into a dispute that was reputedly more high-minded and noble, and which, by virtue of being thought of as more noble, was ironically more able to incite people to kill.

The episode is interesting because the participants openly admitted how religion motivated their violence. Art may help inspire people to violence, as we’ll see in my posts on WW1 and WW2, but those people seldom admit it afterwards. Here we have, if anything, the opposite problem–the suspicion that people may have overstated the degree to which their violence was inspired by religion.

A cheap way of summarizing it would be to say that the Arian challenge was a bid for freedom of thought, and the Catholic response proved that they would rather destroy civilization than allow that. That overstates the degree to which it was a conscious choice, though. I still blame the Church for being unreasonable, but I don’t think the church elders meant to start a war. But when secular leaders needed (or wanted) to take military action, the links between church and state made most conflicts line up along the same axis across Europe.

By itself, this post may not seem relevant to understanding art. But with a series of similar posts, we can begin connecting the dots of art, religion, and politics. I’ve already written one giving an overview across history, one on the Iliad, one on medieval art which I need to rewrite, one on modernism and World War 1, and one on the Nazis and art. I also want to write one about the role of real numbers in the Renaissance, one on the similarities and differences between Stalinist, fascist, modern, medieval Catholic, and primitive art, and one tracing the cultures at war in America’s current political disputes back to the different cultures that colonized the United States. [12]

I’ve studied this history for a few weeks, and some people have studied it their entire lives, so this may be bollocks. But all of these posts are going to be like that.

That said, let’s look at one of the most literally epic fails in history, the story of how the Roman civilization tore itself to shreds and brought on the Dark Age thanks to a 500-year theological dispute over whether Jesus and God the Father were con-substantial, or merely of like essence.

If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. None of the people who fought over it did, either.


[10] “Arian” and “Aryan” have nothing to do with each other, except that “Aryan” is sometimes misspelled “Arian”, and Google will often “helpfully” change “Arian” to “Aryan” in searches.

[12] I’d like to learn and write about the relationships between Romanticism and Marxism, and between the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and neo-classicism, though I’m afraid that may be prohibitively complex and time-consuming. In case I never post the one on the colonial US, I’d mostly be repeating stuff from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It’s like a cross between The Nine Nations of North America and Albion’s Seed.

[13] I have already concluded that the variability in literatures is greater than the variability in human nature, and that this is because hegemonic powers allow people to tell only the kinds of stories which the powers think are advantageous to them.

(The rest of the footnotes are at the end of the post.)


Rome and the Barbarians

One traditional date for the fall of Rome, that used by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), is 476 A.D., when Flavius Odoacer deposed the Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus.

A problem with this date is that “Emperor” Romulus had been appointed Emperor by a rebel general, and was not recognized by the Roman Senate. Odoacer was not a Roman citizen, but was an officer in the Roman army, and had the support of the Roman Senate, and ruled Italy for many years afterwards in the name of Rome, in theory subordinate to the Senate and/or Emperor (when one existed), following Roman laws and maintaining Roman institutions. Saying Rome fell in 476 because Odoacer took over is a little like saying America fell in 1960 because an Irish-Catholic American became President.

Many history books say that the Germanic tribes became more and more important militarily in late Rome because Romans didn’t want to serve in the military anymore. This is an absurd claim which is either false, or is covering up the reason why Romans wouldn’t serve in the military. There must have been some reason–the Roman Senate couldn’t pay them, the Church said they shouldn’t, something. Possibly there were too few Romans to run an empire, or the Romans came to trust the Germans more as they became more Roman.

Anyway, the Western Roman Empire kept on Roming for many years after 476, but its people were increasingly of Germanic descent. They weren’t barbarians who burned Roman cities and destroyed their art. Often they built better buildings and made better art.

I included this famous mosaic of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in a post I haven’t posted yet, as an example of how much better Roman and Dark Age art was than Christian representational art of the High Middle Ages.

It turns out this mosaic is as much barbarian as it is Roman. There’s a very similar mosaic in a nearby Arian basilica, made at the same time, likely by the same person, which is probably of the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric. Both emperors are wearing not Roman crowns, but Lombard crowns, like this one:

Golden crown of the Langobardian queen Teodelinda, circa 590 [7]

The Justinian mosaic is in this basilica in Ravenna, Italy:

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Romans had moved their capital to Ravenna by the time the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. Odoacer, the barbarian of unknown ethnicity who overthrew the emperor in 476, did so in Ravenna. The Ostrogoths captured it in 493. The basilica was built during the rule of the Ostrogoths, for a Roman Catholic bishop, and paid for by a Roman citizen. It was started in 527 A.D. and finished in 547, 7 years after the Byzantine (Eastern) Romans conquered the city.

Is it Roman, or Ostrogothic? The distinction is meaningless. Ravenna was culturally Roman the whole time. The Ostrogoths were Arian instead of Catholic, but they didn’t interfere with Catholic worship.

The Ostrogoths have a more-secure claim to be the sole builders of this originally-Arian basilica:

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

… and of Theodoric’s tomb:

The Visigoths weren’t shabby, either:

[1]

Oh, and the barbarians wrote books.

Codex Argenteus, circa 520 A.D., one of the three surviving books in Gothic

Books which have nearly all vanished today, because nobody copied them, because nobody could read them. [6] Because the people who made those buildings were replaced by the people who made… this one.

Baptistery of St. John, Poitiers, France

This was built by the Franks, the people who conquered Western Europe (except for Spain and Britain) from the other Germanic tribes in the name of defeating Arianism. It’s one of their most-impressive remaining pieces of architecture from that time.


The Arian Heresy

The early Catholic Church did not have a doctrine of the Trinity. They said that Jesus was definitely God, and God the Father was definitely God, but Jesus was definitely not God the Father. Also, Jesus was definitely God the Father’s son, but God the Father definitely did not exist before Jesus. The Arian heresy was the first of many attempts to make sense of that, all of which were declared heretical by today’s Catholic Church. It begins by saying Jesus was God’s begotten (biologically-ish fathered) son, since that was what the Bible appeared to say in several places.

The opponents of the Arians are sometimes called Athanasian, Trinitarian, Catholic, or Orthodox. Athanasian is too specific, the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed until the late 4th century, and Catholic and Orthodox effectively just mean “the winners.” I’ll use the term Nicene, because the first formulation in reaction against Arianism was the Nicene Creed. It says you have to believe the aforementioned contradictory things, and it’s a Mystery. The Nicenes say the Arians deny Jesus divinity, but that’s only if you use the Nicene definition of divinity.

Other ways of making sense of the Trinity include Monophysitism, which says that whatever Jesus is, he’s one kind of thing, can we agree on that? No; the official position is that Jesus has two natures at the same time, and it’s a Mystery. So a third position, Miaphysitism, tries to compromise between these positions…

… look, you really don’t want to know [2]. The point is that people killed each other and countries had wars and civil wars over “Christology”, the study of the ontology of Jesus, a thing not one person in Europe understood, because at base it made no sense. The Arian Wars were one part of an even larger, longer battle between people who wanted to make sense of the Trinity, and a Church which had taken a stand and would not tolerate dissent nor legitimize this dangerous “making sense” idea. A partial account is in Philip Jenkins’ The Jesus Wars, which I haven’t read, but which sounds like the most fun book ever written on 5th-century Christian theology. [8]

Fighting over it isn’t as stupid as it sounds, because one real issue at stake was freedom of thought [3]. The Arian Wars were the first conclusive test of the question, “Can Christians disagree with official Church doctrine on points that the Bible gives no remotely clear answer to, which have no effect on behavior or salvation, and that nobody understands anyway?” The Church’s determined answer [5] was, “No.” It was the principle of the thing. Arianism stood for free thought, and it had to be stamped out.


The Arian Wars

There are lots of theories over what caused “Rome’s” fall. If we restate this slightly and ask, “Why did Roman culture fall?” or “What caused the Dark Ages?”, the most-obvious answer is, “The Christology Wars.”

Googling “Arian Wars” turns up mostly pages about an online Star Wars roleplaying game. Here’s a quote from the first non-Star-Wars-related Google hit:

Gregory Nazianzen, who lived in Constantinople in the midst of the Arian wars, describes the division and hostility which this polemic spirit introduced between parents and children, husbands and wives, old and young, masters and slaves, priests and people. “It has gone so far that the whole market resounds with the discourses of heretics, every banquet is corrupted by this babbling even to nausea, every merrymaking is transformed into a mourning, and every funeral solemnity is almost alleviated by this brawling as a still greater evil; even the chambers of women, the nurseries of simplicity, are disturbed thereby, and the flowers of modesty are crushed by this precocious practice of dispute.”
–Philip Schaff, 1910, The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century, vol 3, chapter 9, sections 117-119 (no page numbers)

Some more chosen at random:

The church was no fooner delivered from external opprefion, but unhappy differences were fomented within itſelf, and its concord broken by internal diffentions. Amongſt thefe, few were more fatal than the controverfies between Arius, a preſbyter of the church of Alexandria, and Alexander, a biſhop of the fame city, concerning the divinity of Jefus Chrift. This difpute confuſed, and deſtroyed, the peace of the church in almoſt every corner.
–Joseph Strutt, 1779, The Chronicle of England, part III, p. 206

The father of Constantius, Constantine the Great, is undoubtedly responsible for having communicated to Christianity that secular character, which, during succeeding centuries, gave the Church so much sway over the temporal affairs of the world, as totally for a time to submerge the spiritual simplicity of its original… The peace of the empire was disturbed by the conflicts between Arius and Athanasius. Constantius was an Arian, and, though our ecclesiastical writers were too courtly to charge on the emperor all the evils which his Arian bias occasioned, yet they spare no abuse in describing the pestilential nature of the doctrines. “The holy union,” continues Gildas, “between Christ the Head and the members of His Church, was interrupted by the Arian treason, which, fatal as a serpent, and vomiting its poison from beyond the sea, caused deadly dissension between brothers inhabiting the same house, and thus, as if a road were made across the sea, like wild beasts of all descriptions, and darting the poison of every heresy from their jaws,they inflicted dreadful wounds upon their country, which is ever desirous to hear something new, and remains constant long to nothing.”
–J. A . Giles, 1847, History of the Ancient Britons, chpt. 19, p. 313-314

Gildas was plagiarizing Bede:

The churches of Britain remained at peace until the time of the Arian madness, which corrupted the whole world and even infected this island, sundered so far from the rest of its mankind, with the poison of its error. This quickly opened up the way for every foul heresy from across the Ocean to pour into an island which always delights in hearing something new and holds firmly to no sure belief.
–Bede, 731, quoted in Rowley p. 79

The Lombard invasion [in 553] brought into the church’s territory a large number of refugees, and the Roman population recovered some of its old energy in the double hatred for barbarians and Arians.
–Williams, p. 531

Those quotes testify to a furor over Arianism in Rome and in three corners of the Roman Empire–Britain, Constantinople, and Alexandria. The city of Rome was ruled by Arian emperors from 335-378 [11] and 476-538, and had four waves of imperial persecution–three persecuting Arians, and one persecuting Niceans. Church and State were not separate; the Emperor ruled the Church and used it as a political tool–which meant schisms over doctrine were a form of rebellion against the Emperor. (The Empire during most of this time period had two emperors at the same time, which made this especially awkward when they disagreed.)

How important was Arianism and the Arian Wars?

Let’s look at a map of Europe in 500 A.D.:

Here’s a map of Europe in 500 A.D. [14], with diagonal white stripes across the Nicene territories and horizontal black stripes across the Arian territories:

europead500.jpg

Here’s another map, with diagonal white stripes across the territories of cultures that survived into the 9th century, and horizontal black stripes across the cultures that were conquered, enslaved, dispersed, or exterminated:

europead500.jpg

Notice it’s the same map.

The Arian Wars extended beyond this map. All of North Africa, and most of Syria and Armenia, were Arian or something like it–they all rejected the 451 A.D. Definition of Chalcedon, which was supposed to lay Arianism to rest. The parts of those areas that broke free of Rome were all reconquered by Justinian in the 6th century, then soon after overrun by Persians and/or Muslims.

All these people would have fought wars anyway. But it was the injection of a two-sided religious controversy into the political area that wrecked western Europe. Everyone had to line up on one side or the other of the religious controversy, and that polarization turned what had been an assortment of independent conflicts into one Great War of extermination. Ordinary conflicts would have resulted in treaties and shifting alliances, but the Arian Wars weren’t stopped until one side–the Arians–was eliminated. Some by the Franks, and the rest hung out to dry when the Muslim invasions came.

We call the Dark Age (~400-800 A.D.) “dark” because we don’t know what happened, because we have few books. History books say that classical writings fell out of use in the desperate Dark Age, only to be recovered in the 8th-9th centuries from Ireland, Spain, and Rome (Wolff), and in 12th-13th centuries from Constantinople (see e.g. Recovery of Aristotle). In other words, mostly from those areas of Europe which had not been Arian, and remained loyal to the Latin Church, and so kept copying books in Latin or Greek.

Well, maybe. But the Arians built cathedrals and monasteries. They had monks. Maybe they wrote books, and the Catholics burned the books because they were Arian, or let them rot because they couldn’t read them. Maybe the multiple cultural genocides of the Arian Wars, which saw the settled, sophisticated, Romanized, Arian “barbarian” cultures wiped out by the less-sophisticated Franks by 800 A.D., turned the centuries before them into a Dark Age retrospectively, and lost everything that had been set down in Gothic and other writing.

A civilization might make no books, or a civilization might make a lot of books–but three books? That’s like finding a civilization that made three automobiles.

“Guys, let’s make an alphabet. Then we’ll build a monastery and teach a bunch of monks how to read. Then we can train them in calligraphy, and develop parchment and inks and staining and bookbinding. Then we’ll learn how to inlay gold and silver leaf on the lettering. Then we can make a book.”

“No way, man. If we go to all that work, we ought to make, like, three books.”

It might seem unlikely that they could have written many books, and left only three–but how many Roman manuscripts are left? The Roman composition of which we have the most ancient copies, and which was by far its most-popular and most-quoted work–it’s said we could reconstruct the entire text from quotations of it–is the Aeneid, written in the first century B.C.. We have only four nearly-complete copies from the 4th and 5th centuries (Frieze & Dennison p. 24). All of our many other copies, are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic Wars are perhaps the next most-famous and popular Roman writings, but there are no Roman copies of it–the oldest manuscripts are three partial copies made in the 9th century.

And how many of the writings of Arius do we have–the writings that began the Great Arian War, that were followed by all Western Europe at one time or another? Nothing but a few letters–because the Catholics burned everything else. The emperors Constantine and Honorius prescribed death for anyone who did not hand over any writings of Arius to be burnt (Penny Cyclopedia, “Office, Holy”, p. 406; many other sources as well). Emperor Theodosius also burned his writings. (I’m not sure he condemned people who hid his books to death, though that was standard Roman practice regarding books you didn’t want people to read.)

What would a good Catholic conqueror have done, confronted with a Gothic codex he could not read? Trust a Goth that it didn’t say anything Arian, and maybe risk death? Or burn it?


Emperor Constantine burning Arian books. Manuscript CLXV, Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli, Italy, 825.


The Importance of Pretending to be Earnest

Did any of these rulers, or their subjects, really care about doctrine?

As far as I can tell, some of them cared quite a lot about doctrine. The large fraction of emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries who adopted a position contrary to most of their subjects in this and other controversies, and so caused themselves great difficulties, suggests sincerity.

They certainly cared about what people said they cared about. Religious beliefs about things no one understood weren’t beliefs in any meaningful sense; they were political claims about who had religious authority. Why did the Byzantines ally in the Great War with the Franks, a still culturally-pagan people, against the Romanized Goths and Vandals? The only answer I’ve found in history books is, Because Clovis was Catholic. A Catholic whose subjects still sometimes made pagan sacrifices, but, hey, at least he wasn’t Arian. That was, as shown above, a Big Deal. The Byzantines couldn’t and wouldn’t ally themselves with Arians.

Let’s look at a little bit of the timeline–mostly the war parts–to see how much Arianism mattered.

 

325 A.D., Council of Nicea

This was the council emperor Constantine called to resolve the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. It produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arianism.

 

439 A.D., Vandal occupation of Carthage

I watched a BBC video on the fall of Carthage–the second fall, when the Vandals took it in 439–which said that the Vandals just walked into the city on a day with a really important set of Hippodrome races, and the Romans thought it was more important to finish the races than to fight them off.

This seems highly unlikely, but Wikipedia backs it up. And Wikipedia can’t be wrong!

I still thought that sounded fishy, so I looked to see if there were a religious aspect. There was. Carthage was the stronghold of Donatism, a Catholic heresy which began with “we don’t want to take communion from priests who cooperated with the persecution of Christians,” then progressed to “we won’t take communion from priests ordained by those priests,” and so on. It was persecuted severely by the Romans for over a hundred years (thanks largely to Augustine, patron saint of kicking the shit out of other Christians for obscure theological differences [9]) before the “fall” of Carthage. The Vandals were Arians, so they freed Carthage from the Roman church, which is what Carthage had been struggling for since about 313 AD. That’s probably why the Carthaginians let the Vandals walk in.

(Then the Vandals persecuted them for being Nicene.)

 

451 A.D., Council of Chalcedon, near Constantinople

This council met to try to resolve the Arian controversy. The result was a permanent estrangement between European Christianity, which accepted the council’s creed, and the Church in the Middle East and Africa, which did not. This critically weakened Byzantium and helped the Muslims conquer those regions which had split from the Roman church.

 

sometime by the 490s A.D., Franks conquer Western Roman Empire

Once Clovis had conquered all the Franks and Western Romans left to conquer, he wanted to keep on conquering his neighbors. To do that, he needed an alliance with somebody who wasn’t his neighbor, and the best candidate was the Eastern Romans (the Byzantines). This would be kind of awkward, as he’d just conquered what remained of independent Western Rome. How could he make peace with them?

 

variously reported as 493, 496, 497, or 498 A.D., Frankish king Clovis I converts to Catholicism

The pagan king Clovis suddenly converted to Catholicism, and all his people (according to Bishop Gregory of Tours) welcomed this change. So did the Byzantines. Now they had one potential Catholic ally in Europe.

 

507 A.D., defeat of the Visigoths by Clovis I of the Franks

Clovis said that he made war against the Visigoths to rescue his Germanic brethren from the Arian heresy. I have read a quote by him to this effect, but I can’t find it now, darn it. In any case, the Franks allied themselves permanently with the Roman Catholic church.

The Frankish monarchy became the ardent supporter of the papacy during the early Middle Ages. Frankish kings crossed the Alps many times to save the Roman bishop from his [Arian] enemies in Italy.
–Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 123

It is evident, from the language of Gregory of Tours, that this conflict between the Franks and the Visigoths was regarded by the orthodox party of his own and preceding ages as a religious war, on which, humanly speaking, the prevalence of the Catholic or the Arian creed in western Europe depended.
–Walter Copland Perry, The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin, p. 85.
This quote and many more from http://www.patmospapers.com/daniel/in508.htm

Among all the Germanic nations, the Franks alone had become Catholic from their first rise in the provinces of the Roman Empire. This acknowledgment of the Roman see had secured important advantages to the Frankish nation. In the Catholic subjects of their Arian enemies, the western Goths and Burgundians, the Franks found natural allies. We read so much of the miracles by which Clovis was favoured — how St. Martin showed him the ford over the Vienne by means of a hind, how St. Hilary preceded his armies
in a column of fire — that we shall not greatly err if we conclude these legends to shadow forth the material succours afforded by the [Nicene] natives to those who shared their creed, and for whom, according to Gregory of Tours, they desired victory “with eager inclination.”
–Williams, p. 525

The Great Arian War began in earnest at this point, as an alliance between the Franks, the Catholic Church, and the Byzantines, against all the rest of Western Europe and North Africa, and sometimes even the Persians, who synchronized their invasion of the Byzantine Empire with the Ostrogoths.

 

533-554 A.D., Justinian’s reconquista

This was the other major action in the Great Arian War. Justinian’s armies reconquered much of the Western Roman Empire from Arians in just 20 years, but the effort left his empire so weakened that it was torn apart from all sides almost immediately after he died in 565, leading directly to the Dark Age.

Justinian seems to have been genuinely interested in theology, but is usually said to have waged war motivated by the desire to recreate the Roman Empire. This was, however, in the wake of hostility between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths created by the Arian controversy. All the monarchs in this conflict probably just wanted to fight and expand their land, but the interweaving of church and state made it impractical for anyone to ally with someone on the other side of the Arian controversy.

With the ascension of Justin I in 518, a more harmonious relationship seemed to be restored. Eutharic, Theoderic’s son-in-law and designated successor, was appointed consul for the year 519, while in 522, to celebrate the healing of the Acacian schism, Justin allowed both consuls to be appointed by Theoderic [the Arian Goth]. Soon, however, renewed tension would result from Justin’s anti-Arian legislation, and tensions grew between the Goths and the [Roman] Senate, whose members, as Chalcedonians [non-Arians], now shifted their support to the [Byzantine] Emperor.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostrogothic_Kingdom

774 A.D., Charlemagne conquers the Lombards

Charlemagne conquered the Lombards, the last free Arians. Charlemagne was a fanatical Catholic, although his grasp of theology is questionable, as it was his practice to offer conquered people a choice between Catholicism, or death.

The Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne led a series of campaigns against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, in order to pressure them to convert to Christianity. This included the destruction of the Saxons’ holy site at Irminsul and the massacre of 4500 Saxon captives at Verden in 782. Three years later the Saxon leadership and peoples surrendered and accepted baptism.
How Christianity came to Europe

Charlemagne called his empire the Holy Roman Empire, a name which was ridiculed in the 20th century. It is accurate, however, in that the Franks’ two main allies in the 300-year battle to create this empire were the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.


In summary, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that Western Europe’s “Dark Age” of 400-800 A.D. appears dark mainly because Western Europe was ruled entirely by people who were wiped out, and their writings destroyed or simply not copied, in a 300-year-long war to wipe out Arianism and re-establish the Roman (Catholic) Empire.

Even if that’s not true, it seems that the Arian controversy increased the cultural destructiveness of the wars. Perhaps just as many battles would have been fought without the Arian controversy, but it does not seem likely that the large alliance needed to wipe out all six Arian kingdoms could have been maintained for 300 years if a two-sided religious dispute had not made alternative alliances impossible. What probably would have happened is that the different kingdoms would have fought each other sporadically, power-balancing politics would have favored the weak, and cultural transfer would have had more time to preserve knowledge of the period.

You might wonder whether or not people intended for their argument about religion to have these effects. If we’re asking about the “purpose” of religion, though, then this might not matter. If you think that religion is a product of rationality and proceeds rationally, then that would be a reasonable question. If you think religion evolved to serve a social function, then whether or not something was the intent of the human agents that caused it is irrelevant to whether that is its function.


[1] Lombards and Vandal architecture is, unfortunately, un-googlable, the Vandals because “vandal architecture” returns lists of vandalized architecture, and the Lombards because the region of Italy where they lived is called Lombardy and “Lombard architecture” is used for much-later Carolingian architecture built in Lombardy.

[2] If you really do want to know, start by word-searching your Bible for the phrase “only begotten”. You’ll find several verses calling Jesus God’s only begotten son, including the famous John 3:16. Here’s where that word came from:

Greek monogenes → Latin unigenitus → English “only-begotten”

Christians are still fighting over this translation. Orthodox Nicenes say that monogenes refers to something that is “the chosen one,” something in a special relationship. (The Wikipedia page on monogenes was written by such anti-Arian propagandists.) Evil heretics point out that ancient Greeks only used the word to refer to sons or daughters or metaphorical fatherings, so “genesis”, a kind of creation, is still part of the meaning in any case, so the word still imples that Jesus was a creation and the focus on “the special one” (the “mono” part) is a smokescreen. St. Jerome, who chose the word “unigenitus”, did so in the middle of a fierce Arian war in Rome itself in 383 A.D., and may have chosen that word to be anti-Arian, though I see it as pro-Arian. On the other hand, it’s the obvious literal translation of monogenes. It has been dropped from many modern translations–according to some Christians, for being pro-Arian, and according to others, for being anti-Arian.

The Arians have been dead for over a thousand years, so this continued vigilance against them might surprise you if you aren’t familiar with the Catholic Church. A better discussion of the issues re. the translations is here, and a reasonable defense of the orthodox view is here, and you can find many others, though honestly I don’t advise reading any of them. The discussion itself is ultimately nonsense–a twisting of words trying to find some way of resolving Bible passages that are either contradictory, or so metaphorical that they shouldn’t be interpreted in such corporeal ways. What’s important is its consequences.

[3] It may also have been a political power-play. Some contemporary historians think that the “Arian heresy” was the majority view of the original Church, and that the now-“orthodox” view was a doctrine that a radical group used to take over. Citation needed, but I’ve got to finish this and you can look it up yourself if you care. Personally, I think that the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were Arian, while the book of John and the writings of Paul were Nicene. I have a very high opinion of the authority of Mark; I think it’s the only book in the New Testament which might have information about the historical Jesus. I have a low opinion of the book of John and the writings of Paul; I consider them to be full of fanciful, invented theology, apparently written in ignorance of the events and the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, and they contain most of the objectionable parts of the New Testament. Together with Revelations, they are the parts of the New Testament which should not have been included. So perhaps I would be Arian if I were Christian.

[5] It’s only fair to note that the people who turned the Arian controversy hot and dangerous were a series of Roman emperors–Constantine (mostly Nicene), Valentius (Arian), and Theodosius (Nicene).

[6] There are still some northern Italians who call themselves Lombards today, but AFAIK no Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, or Huns since the 7th century. What happened to them?

The Romans dispersed the Vandals. The Ostrogoths joined up with the Lombards. The Merovingian and Carolingian (Frankish) kings constantly raided their neighboring kingdoms for slaves (Wolff 1968), so it’s a good guess that the Franks enslaved the other tribes they conquered, which was all of Western Europe except Britain, Spain, and the heel of Italy. That may have been how serfdom originated. Procopius of Caesarea, a historian who travelled with the Roman general Belisarius, wrote that the Franks

began to sacrifice the women and children of the Goths whom they had found at hand and to throw their bodies into the river as the first fruits of war. For these barbarians , though they had become Christians, preserve the greater part of their ancient religion; for they still make human sacrifices and other sacrifices of an unholy nature, and it is in connection with these that they make their prophecies.
–(De Bello Gothico, 6.25.1-18)

However, he also wrote that Justinian was a demon whose head sometimes vanished, so take that with a grain of salt.

[7] This is weird, since neither the Romans nor the Ostrogoths were Lombards. Possibly Odoacer was. If anybody can clear this up for me, please do.

[8] In between the time when the Western Roman Empire tore itself apart over Christology, and the time when the Western and Eastern Church ruptured over Christology, the Eastern Roman Empire nearly destroyed itself over whether drawing pictures of saints was evil.

[9] Also patron saint of kicking your common-law wife and son out into the street in order to be ordained as a bishop.

[11] I’m counting Constantine I’s last 2 years as pro-Arian, because he recalled Arius from exile and exiled Athanaius.

[14] Based on one from timemaps.com.


References

The Venerable Bede 731. Ecclesiastical History. (Latin; Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum)

Earle E. Cairns 1954. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church.

Henry Frieze & Walter Dennison, editors, 1902. Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 1-12. New York City: American Book Company.

J.A. Giles 1847. History of the Ancient Britons, from the Earliest Period to the Invasion of the Saxons. London: George Bell, 186 Fleet Street.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1840. Penny Cyclopaedia, vol. 16: Murillo–Organ. London: Charles Knight & Co., 22 Ludgate St.

Walter Copland Perry 1857. The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts.

Sharon M. Rowley 2011. The Old English Version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. D. S. Brewer.

Philip Schaff 1910. The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century.

Joseph Strutt 1779. The Chronicle of England; or, A compleat history, civil, military and ecclesiastical, of the ancient Britons and Saxons, from the landing of Julius Caesar in Britain, to the Norman conquest. London: Printed by Joseph Cooper for T. Evans in Pater Noster Row and Robert Faulder No. 42 New Bond Street.

Henry Smith Williams 1907. The Historians’ History of the World, vol 8: Parthians, Sassanids, and Arabs; the crusades and the Papacy. London & NYC: Hooper & Jackson.

Philippe Wolff 1968. The Cultural Awakening. New York: Pantheon. (A book on several key figures of the early middle ages.)

Writing: Plotters and pantsers in other walks of life, and Commedia dell’Arte

Standard

To plot, or not to plot?

You know about the eternal feud friendly debates between plotters and pantsers, right?  Plotters make a plot outline or at least know how a story will end before they write it.  (Seat-of-the)-pantsers don’t, saying they need the spontaneity to make characters come to life.

I have a book on management called Maestro: A surprising story about leading by listening.  It’s a story of an executive learning how to manage from a great orchestra conductor.  Partly, it’s about how the leader communicates a grand vision without micro-managing and in a way that allows the input of the players to influence the vision.

I just saw the title of another book, Organizational Jazz: Extraordinary performance through extraordinary leadership.  Presumably this is about an executive learning how to manage from a jazz band.  Presumably, this executive will not learn how to communicate a grand vision to his team, but how to train his team to work improvisationally.

It struck me that symphony orchestras are plotters, and jazz bands are pantsers.  (And, apparently, executives can be plotters or pantsers, too.)

This is a significant clue–that an entire genre of music may lend itself to either plotting or pantsing.

Computer programmers can also be plotters or pantsers.  A plotter makes a complete requirements specification, then does a top-down design.  Now, a coding pantser doesn’t just sit down and start writing code at the beginning, stop when she reaches the end, and try to compile it.  (Well, I started out writing code that way, and now I’ve written enough code that sometimes I can do it that way, but only to show off.)  A code pantser might not write down a list of requirements, but might instead start coding up little object classes that he’s pretty sure he’s going to need, in a bottom-up approach.  A code-pantser will probably use an incremental design, first developing the simplest version of the program that can run, maybe with lots of functionality dummied or stubbed.

People in other occupations can also probably be plotters or pantsers.  Parents, military leaders, and pickup artists can all plan what they’re going to do in detail, or wing it.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that not only are different people more inclined toward one approach or the other, but also one approach or the other is better for different kinds of kids, battles, and women.

 

Commedia dell’Arte

For an example closer to writing, consider live theater.  A performance can rely on plotting or pantsing actors.  Shakespeare wrote down every word for every actor.  At the same time, the most-popular performances on the continent were Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were improvisational plays (usually comedies) in which the actors would, without the aide of a writer, construct by mere permutation one variation on a standard plot structure using a standard cast of characters, maybe rehearse it once, then jump on stage and improvise.

In a basic commedia scenario, there is an initial conflict between the older generation and the younger generation about the choice of a marital partner.  Through machinations of the old and the young, carried out by their servants, the conflict is eliminated, predominantly through the actions of the servants.  Additional complications occur through the middle of the plot, but all is eventually settled, ends happily, and the young people get married.

–Dina Ternullo,  Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’Arte (2016, The Compleat Anachronist #172), p. 33

Typically, the story would involve two noble houses, and at least one young man and young woman from opposite houses who fall in love over the objections of both houses’ patriarchs (C&SoECdA p. 38).  (The story would not involve love between people of the same gender or of different social classes.)

CdA operated in a time when the Italian Church and state were simultaneously weak and at odds with each other, and could be played off each other to avoid censorship and control.  The Church still forbade women to perform on stage, but the commedians just did it anyway, and this–having beautiful women perform in public–was one of their main appeals.  The improvisation was partly to evade censorship. The authorities couldn’t censor a script that didn’t exist.

The character of these two types of plays are radically different.  A Shakespeare play is tightly controlled; the actors, even in a farce, walk naturally and act somewhat like real people.  CdA, on the other hand, resembles a Keystone Kops show: rapid, out-of-control farce.  The pace is faster.  The actors exaggerate every line and every action wildly, stomping about on stage, shouting and being as emotional as possible.  The stomping and shouting of Commedia actors was one of the regular background noises at Pennsic.

The reason Shakespeare comedies are so bad is that Shakespeare was trying to adapt the Commedia for the English stage, as shown by the fact that many (most?) of his comedies are commedia scenarios using commedia characters, often set in an Italian city-state.  Commedia troupes were very popular, but weren’t allowed to perform in England because they used female actors.

According to Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’ArteTwelfth Night, which I think I’ve mentioned two or five times is a terrible play, was based on a 1532 commedia erudita (early Commedia dell’Arte) named Gli inganniti.  But the plot of a Commedia is farcical, and only goes over right with a farcical, pantser performance, not with naturalistic acting and Shakespearian elevated speech.  Shakespeare was possibly the worst possible playwright to try to adapt the Commedia.

On the other hand, changing a Commedia plot into a tragedy gave him Romeo and Juliet.

So a big part of the answer to “Plot or pants?” is probably, “Depends what you want to write.” I mean, obviously you want to plot a mystery novel. But some styles of story probably benefit from coming off the cuff. Say, a wacky absurdist comedy like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams wrote like a fanfiction, writing each episode after broadcasting the previous one.

(Okay, that’s a lame and obvious conclusion. Mostly I wanted to tell you about Commedia dell’Arte.)