Romanced into Contemporary Ideas of Independence

The birth of art criticism came with the modern world, and its two greatest products: ideas, and independence. From these we can attribute much of what we know and appreciate now in art, and they make sense of so much of our contemporary ways of thinking about art.

Romanticism is slowly, when considering measures like this, becoming my favourite period of art because of the newness of life it mothered. This movement put emphasis on the thing that grips me most in relation to art – ideas. I do not feel the urge to write about anything until a concept grips me. This is so clearly put forward in the film inception when the protagonist says, “What is the most resilient parasite?…An idea. Resilient…highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”

In the 1700s many questioned, using the tool of newly identified reason, the ruling bodies. Independent decision-making and opinion-forming was praised over following church bodies and other key instructional institutions – this could be in relation to the anti-monarchy as it was in France with the succession of revolutions, or through social criticism and plans for utopian, scientific and technological progress as it was seen outworking in England. As Philosopher Immanuel Kant, the vanguard of this period – the Enlightenment, said in What is Enlightenment? ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another… Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.’

How did this play out? The revelation of the revolutions was freedom of ideas and thus independence. Theoretically being independent could lead to the achievement of personal ideals, which was both empowering and stimulating for the imagination. Out of urbanisation came the new city life that spilt a community into individuals through reserve, and detachment. Thus, practically being alone in a crowd was easier and consequently retreating into their own thoughts.

And so to be independent, to question and be critical in order to find improvement, was praised above all. This can bee seen in contemporary art: to find new methods of expression, to be unique, even if absurd, is exalted under the 19th century conviction of ‘Romantic Genius.’

In his Romantic art, Friedrich demonstrated the ways of Erlebniskunst, which in German translates to art experience. Or more importantly – the individual experience. For example while within the circles enshrining classicism, or even those prior – the Middle Ages, above all, clarity of communication was required so that the myths of the past were recognised and known didactically. Whereas, Friedrich’s painting of a thicket in winter From the Dresden Heath (Trees and Bushes in the Snow), 1828, could be understood spiritually through the entering into one’s own mind in order to associate it with the experience of life, so the image can be a means of translating the narrative of the art to oneself.

To emphasise this, while for the centuries of 15th-18th, most art looked back to the history painting of tales gone by, and to the style of antiquity as a model, Baudelaire said these were regurgitated, ‘they had a vested interest in ceaselessly depicting the past; it is an easier task, and one that could be turned to good account by the lazy.’ Suddenly this switch has occurred from what is prized as being more intelligent art – that which references work gone before as a sign of art education, to that which invents new ideas which we understand now to be the most innovative.

This latter focus led to, in manly places, a complete abandoning of the standard genres, of recognizable forms and materials. Now, we also pride art that allows the audience to not only have an experience, but that the art leaves enough iconographic space so that that viewer’s experience may too be utterly unique and individual. Thus the audience in so many cases, not the artist forms the ideas. Shifting the power from what could be described as the ruling class of this analogy, to the layman.

Baudelaire –‘On the Heroism of Modern Life’, from Salon of 1846

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