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.

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

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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 Principal Dimensions of English

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I want to talk about the principal dimensions of theories of art, but to do that, I must explain what I mean by “principal dimensions”. Besides, you should learn this stuff anyway.

How to Recommend Stories if you’re a computer

Suppose you want to decide, after reading the first thousand words of a story on your kindle, whether to recommend that Bob read it. Also suppose you’re a computer, so you must summarize the story in numbers. You can list some numbers for each story: its number of words, if it’s a series whether it’s complete (1) or incomplete (0), whether it listed in the romance genre, the action/adventure genre, etc., how good the style is on a scale from 0 to 10, and how often the words “kiss”, “snuggle”, “sesquipedalian”, and “bloody” appear.

You end up with tens of thousands of numbers about the story. What do you do with them?

First, you make up terminology. Let N  be the number of numbers (say, 23724). Call each of the things being counted a “dimension”, and the whole set of N numbers a “point” in “N-dimensional space”. (Don’t worry that you can’t picture N-dimensional space. Nobody can.)

Next, you need to get similar sets of N numbers for a bunch of other stories. Then, you need to know which of those stories Bob likes. Then, you recommend Bob read the story if its values for those numbers are similar to those for the stories Bob likes.

But you might only know 100 stories that Bob likes. Hardly enough to determine exactly how he feels about the word “sesquipedalian”.

What you could do is look at the other stories, and group counted things together that seem to go together most of the time. So, you might notice stories that use the word “snuggle” a lot also use “kiss” more than the others, but use “wart” and “angst” less often. So you make a single new, fake dimension, which for the benefit of any humans reading this I will call Kissiness, like this:

Kissiness = 30*Romance – 10*Dark + 3*count(kiss) + 3*count(cuddle) + count(close) + count(smooth) … – count(angst) – 2*count(wart)

You make some other fake dimensions that group together words that seem more or less likely to be found together:

Sexiness = 30*Sex + 10*Mature – 300*Everyone + count(grope) + count(hard) + count(soft) + 3*count(erect) + …

Violence = 10*Gore + 5*Mature + 3*count(bloody) + 5*count(battle) + count(hard) – count(soft) – count(fuzzy)

Second_Person = 10*count(you) + 5*count(your) – 10*count(I)

Superheroics = 5*count(power) + 2*count(mighty) + 3*count(evil) + count(cape) + 3*count(costume) + 2*count(mask)

Obscenity = count(@$!) + 5*count(@#$@#$) – count(fudge) – count(hay)

Bigwordiness = count(assiduous) + count(voracious) + count(punctilious) + …

(I’ve listed several words each, but more realistically there would be hundreds making up each fake dimension.)

Then you can build categories using just the fake dimensions.  In fact, I think this is very similar to what your brain does for you.

Principle Component Analysis (PCA)

There’s a signal processing technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) which is one of the Deep Insights into Everything that philosophy students should study instead of Plato’s forms. It does all this for you automatically, optimally, for any category of things described by points in an N-dimensional space. It looks at a whole bunch of such things, then figures out the one single best fake dimension that gives the data the widest spread [0]. Then it removes that dimension from the data, and does the same thing again, figuring out the second-best summary dimension. Do that 10 times, and you get 10 summary dimensions. Compute the values along those 10 dimensions for all the points in your N-dimensional space, throw away the original points, and you’ll still have most of the information that was in the original N dimensions. [1]

Then, predict that the probability that Bob will like a story is the probability that he likes other stories near it in 10-space.

This is the technique that won over all other approaches in the $1,000,000 Netflix contest, which was probably the biggest experiment in predicting ratings ever. The key innovation in the contest was using a fast way to approximate PCA [2]–a way which, incidentally, can be done by neurons.

Plus, once you’ve got the things you’re dealing with down to 10 dimensions or so, you can use logic or computation on them. You can have complex rules like, “If each line of the story has a similar repeated pattern of stresses, it’s probably poetry” if your analysis has discovered dimensions corresponding to “trochee” and “spondee” [3]. (Which it might, if your training stories had a lot of poetry in them.)

A lot of what cultures do, and what your brain does, is basically PCA followed by categorization and then thinking with those categories. All this crazy high-dimensional stuff happens, and people try to come up with concepts to simplify and explain it. The intermediate-level concepts produced, like “pretty”, “harmonious”, and “cruel”, are not real things. They are fake summary dimensions, each a sum (or function) of lots of real dimensions, that capture a lot of the differences between real things.

Then people build more concepts out of that smaller number of intermediate concepts. Because there are fewer of them, they can use more-powerful ways to combine them, like logical rules or lambda functions, to say whether something is “just”, “virtuous”, “beautiful”, or “sublime”. [4]]

Finding Data Points in the Real World

If you don’t have the N-dimensional data for all your objects, don’t worry. You don’t need it. If you can take any 2 objects and say how similar or different they are, or even just whether they’re similar or different, you can jump straight to the lower-dimensional space that PCA would produce. Call it M-dimensional space, M << N. Here’s how:

Compare a bunch of object pairs.  Say for instance difference(kind, compassionate) = 1, difference(kind, hurtful) = 6. Then use the differences between them as distances in a low-dimensional space. Start each of the objects at a random point in M-dimensional space (a popular choice is to distribute them on the surface of an M-1 dimensional sphere around the origin), then repeatedly push pairs apart if they’re too close, and pull them nearer each other if they’re too far (keeping them on the surface of that sphere if you’re doing it that way), until most pairs are about as far apart in your M-dimensional space as the distance says they should be.

(How do you choose M? You make it up. Everything left over gets mashed together in the Mth dimension, so if you want 10 meaningful dimensions, set M = 11.)

The principal dimensions of English

In fact, we can just do this with the English language, using lists of synonyms and antonyms, and see what our M summary dimensions are. In fact, somebody already did. Given some reasonable assumptions and one particular thesaurus, the 10 most-important dimensions of the English language are, roughly:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open/free vs. finish/close/constrain

4.  Peripheral vs. central

5.  Essential vs. extra

6. Pull vs. push (sort of)

7. Above vs. below

8. Old vs. young

9. Normal vs. strange

10. Specific vs. general

I call these the principal dimensions. If we were doing PCA, we’d call them the principal components. Same thing. [5]

By contrast, if you do the same thing for French with a French thesaurus, these are the first 3 dimensions:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open vs. finish/close

Whoops! Did I say by contrast? They’re the same. Because the dimensions that fall out of this analysis aren’t accidents of language. Languages develop to express how humans think. And that’s how humans think, at least Western Europeans. [6, 7, 8]

…but you said this had something to do with art

Here’s how all this is relevant to art: I want to claim I’ve discovered the first principal dimension of theories of art. I’m going to show (hopefully) that the position of different cultures on this dimension predicts something important about what type of art they value. But you need to understand what I mean by their position on this dimension, and what I mean by a type of art.

A type of art is like a mental disease. You diagnose it by noting that it contains, say, any 5 out of a list of 12 symptoms. The art type, or disease type, is a category. Its “symptoms” are measurements on summary (principal) dimensions. The actual data for a culture are going to be things like the degree to which power and wealth are centralized, the level of external threats, the heterogeneity of social roles, and the education level. [9] The principal dimension I’m going to talk about is not a real thing-in-the-world, though it is real. It’s determined by a statistical correlation between actual things in the world.


[0] Technically, the largest variance.

[1] There are many ways of doing PCA, and many related dimension-reduction techniques like “non-linear PCA” and factor analysis. Backpropagation neural networks are doing non-orthogonal PCA, though this wasn’t realized for many years after their invention.

[2] Except that they didn’t technically do PCA because they didn’t have the N-dimensional points. They assumed that each movie was described by an N-dimensional point, and that each user had an N-dimensional preference vector saying how much he liked high values on each dimension, and that their ratings were the dot products of these two vectors. Then they used singular value decomposition (SVD) to construct low-dimensional approximations to both kinds of vectors. So they ended up with the low-dimensional points without ever knowing the “real” original N-dimensional points. If anyone understands how to do this with PCA, please tell me.

[3] If all you want to do is recommend stories to Bob, it turns out it isn’t helpful for a computer program to construct the final genre categories.  It’s already got the point in N-space for a story; saying which genre that point lies within just throws away information. Just do your PCA and predict whether Bob likes that point in N-space. (Reference: The Netflix contest winners and losers.) But if you want to use logic to reason about genres (say, what themes are common in which genres), then you’ll have to categorize them.

[4] Many of the supposed proofs that meaning cannot be compositional (compositional: a term can be defined without reference to the entire dictionary) stem from the fact that philosophers don’t understand that first-order logic is strictly weaker than a Turing machine (lambda functions). “Logic” is a weak form of reason compared to computation.

[5] The fact that you can reconstruct these dimensions, and will get the same answer every time even with significant changes in the data, refutes the cornerstone of post-modern philosophy, which is that scientific theories, social structures, and especially language, are underdetermined by the world. That is, they claim that any one of an approximately infinite number of other ways of doing things, or categorizing things, or thinking about things, would work equally well, and the real world underlying the things we say can never be known. But in fact, casual experimentation proves that language is astronomically overdetermined. (The number of constraints we get from how linguistic terms relate to each other and to sense data is much larger than the number of degrees of freedom in the system.)

[6] Contrary to what Ferdinand de Saussure said, and post-modern philosophers after him assented to, thought came first, language, second. We can excuse him for making this mistake, because he was writing before Darwin’s theories were well-known, except oops no he wasn’t.

[7] Some “synonyms” are words that are opposite on one dimension, and the same on all the others, allowing people to invert a particular dimension. Examples: challenge / obstacle, abundant / gratuitous (differ on good/bad), tug / yank (on easy/hard, funny / peculiar (on normal/strange).

[8] If you feed the algorithm radically different data, you’ll come up with different dimensions after the first few dimensions, as I suppose they did for French in that study.

So what happens if two people had different life experiences, and their brains came up with different principal dimensions?

It turns out we have a word for this, an old word that predates the math needed to understand it this way: we say they have different paradigms. They classify things in the world using a different set of dimensions. When they think about things, they come up with different answers. When they talk to each other, they each think the other is stupid. This is why political debates rarely change anyone’s mind; the people on opposite sites literally cannot understand each other. Their brains automatically compress their opponents’ statements into dimensions in which the distinctions they’re making are lost.

This is, I think, the correct interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s observation that scientists using different paradigms can’t seem to communicate with each other.  It doesn’t mean that the choice of paradigm is arbitrary. Different paradigms are better at making distinctions in different data sets. Someone who’s grown up with one data set can’t easily switch to a different one; she would have to re-learn everything. But, given agreement on what the data to explain is, paradigms can be compared objectively.

[9] Yes, it turns out I’m a literary Marxist. Sorry.

The annihilation of art

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Here’s some music for you to listen to while reading this blog:

A little while ago someone I know made a few insightful observations about poetry. I’m not anti-poetry, and I don’t think he is either, but he makes a good point: Poetry has for decades been caught in a vicious cycle of self-isolation. An elite chooses experimental, inaccessible poems and fills the journals and anthologies with them. Readers drift away from poetry, deriding it as pretentious. The elite learns to associate inaccessibility with quality, and criticism with amateurism, and produces more and more inaccessible works, which it is capable only of praising, never of criticizing. Their tastes drift farther away from the mainstream, casting more and more readers out. Poetry that does not meet their criterion for obscurantism is not published; poetry that does, is not read.

I’m going to paraphrase my friend here:

You mention that to many people you know, poetry is “too difficult, too vague, or too subjective.” I would argue that in many cases, this seems a very accurate description.… And likewise, poetry is often allowed to succeed where other forms of art would not. Many poems are so highly impressionistic that listeners and readers are left struggling to find meaning in the words….

With music or prose or artwork, we can point to something exact and have our opinions judged fairly. I dislike the singing; the characters are bland; the colors are mismatched and give me a headache. All valid criticisms. But when you approach poetry, criticism from the uneducated is treated as such….

For poetry to escape the taint of elitist disdain, it needs to rid itself of the shell that is formed around it. Is this a condemnation of all poetry or even most poets? No, not at all. But the popular conceptualization that poetry is a pastime for a small group of intellectuals, as unfair as it might seem, is grounded in a subjective grain of truth. For the people looking in from outside, poetry is often not some beautiful song waiting to be digested, but a pretentious chunk of purple imagery that revels in its own depth and inaccessibility. Which is, I think we can both agree, a sad state of affairs that harms those on either side of the window.

… We’ve all heard people say they dislike rap, or country, or dubstep; the most common response amongst those respective genres is to attempt to convert the doubter with “good” examples from that genre…. In my personal existence, poetry was never handled the same way.

This isn’t isolated to poetry. Orchestral music has taken exactly the same march into isolation and cultural irrelevance since about 1920. Jazz followed later, starting maybe around 1960. Literature started down that path with Ulysses, and Joyce kept going down it for the rest of his career.

The visual arts, meanwhile, went in a similar but weirdly opposite direction, taking the quickest and easiest route to driving away the common folk. By the 1930s, the goal in architecture, sculpture, and painting was to make everything as simple, boring, and ugly as possible. This 1938 building in Brooklyn wasn’t a slapdash cost-saving construction project; it was a celebrated design by a famous modernist architect. Notice how its color perfectly matches the mixture of dead grass and mud on the ground in front of it.

Brooklyn project William Lescaze 1938

And it wasn’t long ago that if you walked into a modern art museum, all you’d find would be a hundred variations on this:

cubist_sculpture

and this:

That YouTube video at the top? That’s a composition by Brian Ferneyhough. My renter is a composer. He’s trying to earn enough money to go back to grad school in music composition, and Ferneyhough, he says, is considered by many composers to be the greatest living composer. That piece isn’t modern at all—he composed it in 1966. 48 years ago. It represents the pinnacle of the past eighty years of orchestral composition.

To get accepted to grad school, my renter has to write something like it. He has seven folios full of his attempts.

I asked him if it bothered him that he’s spending his whole life struggling to make a kind of music that, if he succeeds, no one outside of academia will want to hear. It will never be played on the radio; it will never appear in a physical music store; it will probably never be played in a concert hall outside of western Europe. He says that this is only to be expected; few people have the intelligence to understand the greatest works in any art form.

An art form that is completely detached from culture. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Is it art, or is it a cult?

I asked him if it was an arbitrary social convention, or else if it was the next logical stage in music—if you rewound the clock and played the 20th century over again, slightly differently, would it inevitably lead to that kind of music, like geometry inevitably led to topology? He said he believes so; that Ferneyhough is not just different than Beethoven, but superior to him.

During the 1930s, the entire European artistic landscape seemed determined to drive people away from art. I think this made nationalism and fascism possible. People outside the elite sensed that culture had deliberately rejected and ejected them, and so they united to destroy it.

It’s seldom a good sign to find yourself in agreement with Hitler. But if Ferneyhough is great, I don’t want to be that great.

The march to self-isolation always starts with great works by a great artist—Picasso, Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot,  Miles Davis, Joyce. People imitate them, and try to take it further. Then it goes too far, and no one can admit it’s gone too far because by that time everybody in the elite power structure of that art has gone on record praising it.

Is this a uniquely 20th-century event? Has it happened before in history that the leaders of an entire art form deliberately isolated it from the masses? As far as I know, it hasn’t.

I think this couldn’t happen before the 19th century because art was funded by patrons, and the artists had to please the patrons. The patrons didn’t have careers in art, so they didn’t have to always find something new and weird to try to stay ahead of the crowd. There were professors of art and of music, but their opinions didn’t matter much.

It bothers me a lot. Orchestral music was, to me, humanity’s greatest achievement, and now we have annihilated it, and many other art forms, and no one understands why.

How and why did a single generation of artists destroy half of the West’s artistic heritage? Is modernism really the single cause behind 20th-century elitism in music, poetry, sculpture, art, and literature? Why didn’t it succeed in literature? How can we make sure it never does? I really wish I had answers.

And I really want to know whether the stuff is actually good, and I’m just too dumb to see it. But I don’t see any way of ever knowing that, even in principle. If the only way people ever come to appreciate Ferneyhough’s music is to be told they can never understand music unless they appreciate it, and to listen to it over and over trying to appreciate it, how can they know whether they appreciate it because it’s good, or because they’ve gotten used to it?