Podcast 35 Painting 1: Preface to the Avant-Garde

Advanced Guard before the Avant-Garde

There is some historical disagreement over when and where the avant-garde movement in the visual arts began. But it is clear that that the notion that changes in art come from the margins not the center came into existence and began to impact painting by the middle of the nineteenth century. What were the aesthetic and cultural conditions that made the avant-garde possible?

 

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The Podcasts from this Website

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are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism

BAUDELAIRE AND MODERNITY

Every age needs its observer and every era requires an interpreter. To elevate the culture above mere description, that individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter. Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and, above all, a disaffected and alienated student of a society undergoing the pressure of a transition. That Baudelaire was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, “modernité.” Although the poet wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is especially significant for essays, prose poems, poetry and art criticism that articulated a new way of life. In 1947, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Baudelaire of “bad faith” due to the many contradictions in his life and work. However, a self-destructive poet and drug addict, who lived in debt on the run from creditors, while, at the same time, taking part in the intellectual and artistic life of Paris, can hardly be expected to be consistent. The very times of Baudelaire were paradoxical.

The art critic straddled the divide between waning Romanticism and emerging Realism, watching the painter Eugène Delacroix after his creative peak but not living long enough to see Èdouard Manet reach his full artistic potential. While there may never have been an artist who coincided with the poet’s desire to describe modernité, Baudelaire addressed the unfolding of a new way of life in a dense urban environment of the “crowd” and noted the impact of industrial technology upon society and art. By the 1840s, not only was Romanticism over but the art being produced by the salon system was also becoming increasingly irrelevant. The excuse for academic art was that it portrayed the “heroic” life of the ancient world, but, for Baudelaire, it was necessary that artists to be of their own time. But what did that “their time” mean?

The industrial revolution came slow and late to France, not in small part because many of the technological changes had been developed in the homeland of their hated enemy, England. While England was already adjusting to industry, France, by mid-century, was just beginning to cope with the transition from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial one. It is possible to see the process of artistic adjustment to these changes in the paintings of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. Millet presented the countryside as frozen in time while Courbet showed the class tensions even in small villages. Meanwhile, the mainstream salon artists chose to ignore the present in favor of the historical past. In Baudelaire’s time, few artists had to ability to see their age in all its uniqueness. To be fair, the cultural changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were so extensive and far-reaching that it was easier to look away. The problems for the artists during this long transition period were, first, content of art—contemporary or traditional? and second, what new artistic techniques would be appropriate for the new age?

More than anyone, Baudelaire articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content. In doing so, he impacted many of his contemporaries and influenced later generations of writers and poets who would be known as Symbolists. As an art critic who had to work the salon beat, it was his job to discern a trend or a concern with each annual exhibition. One of his most important salon statements was penned in 1846. In this early essay published as a section of “The Salon of 1846″: “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic as ancient life and that men in frock coats were as brave in their own time as the Roman gladiators were in the arena:

It is true that this great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established. But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual everyday idealization of ancient life—a robust and material form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual…? Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is the order of things…But to return to our principle and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—-criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of the great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism. For the heroes of the Iliad are but pigmies compared to you—-who dared not publically declaim your sorrows in the funeral and tortured frock coat which we all wear today!—you the most heroic, the most extraordinary, the most romantic and the most poetic of all the characters that you have produced from your womb!

The “hero” is male but not just any male. The poet’s hero is not the contented businessman who had prospered under the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, but the hero of la bohème, a cultivated and well-educated man who was also an outsider: the dandy. “…a dandy can never be a vulgar man,” Baudelaire said. The dandy wears the new uniform, the habit noir, the black suit, with distinction, proclaiming his proud middle class status. And yet the dandy keeps himself apart from the bourgeoisie, the newly rich and powerful class, by moving with the “crowd,” where classes mixed and mingled, without ever being part of the crowd. Being a dandy, meticulously well-dressed, standing aside and watching the stream of life flow past, is a strategy of self-defense in an urban landscape. Although he moves in cadence with the ebb and flow of pedestrians, all of whom have destinations and purpose, a dandy, par excellence, is also a man who is able to walk the city, free of ties and responsibilities.

Baudelaire is the new man, the flâneur, the detached man who strolls the side streets, peruses the new arcades and watches the ostentatious carriages pass down the wide boulevards, made for spectacle. At the same time the arcades were ushering in a new form of looking, the art and craft of window-shopping, a new nocturnal Paris sprang into being with the introduction of gaslight in the 1820s. Here, in the darkness, is where we find the poet’s world of marginal people who live a “floating existence,” and it is here were we find the female counterpart to the dandy, the prostitute, the only kind of woman allowed to go abroad at night. Modernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor for the faint-hearted.

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of the transition. The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes, crumbling under the determination of urban renewal and bending to the will of Georges Haussmann. Former inhabitants were being pushed out and a new group of aspiring writers, poets and artists moved into slums, scratching out a living before Haussmannization eliminated the buildings. According to one of Baudelaire’s greatest biographers, the German writer, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was part of Bohemia, la bohème, the new avant-garde, the alienated, the aspiring artists in waiting. A Marxist writer, Benjamin linked Baudelaire to the territory of the dispossessed by quoting Marx on the precarious position of this social class:

…Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more upon chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers—the gathering places of the conspirators—and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohème….the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French call la bohème….

By the time of the Second Empire, the chasm between rich and poor had stranded a number of middle class people on the wrong side of prosperity. “It is bourgeois society that Baudelaire holds guilty of the suffering of the post-aristocratic period, and not the least that art has gone to rack and ruin, that poets and artists like himself now belong to the déclassés,” John E. Jackson remarked in 2005. Baudelaire actually came from a well-to-do family, but he was terminally unable to manage his finances. His family put him on a budget with an allowance, which he always overspent–usually on clothes–causing him to go into debt. Being reduced to a child was highly irritating to the poet, who was always at pains to remove himself from the class that fed him. Thus Baudelaire wrote as an outsider, not an insider, taking advantage of an unprecedented expansion of the press. But the press, while expanded, was not free or uncensored, as he learned with the publication of Les fleurs du mal in 1857, a scandalizing collection of poems (some of which were withheld from the public) for which Baudelaire was prosecuted.

Over the past two decades of the early nineteenth century, new opportunities had emerged for writers, such as Baudelaire, who was able to find his unique voice as a poet and to carve out a position as an observer and witness, a stance that appeared in his essays and in his art criticism, where he mixed art and social observations. This poet was a character composed of unabashed contractions who had no problem in proclaiming, “Any newspaper, from the first to the last is nothing but a web of horrors….” As a writer (who wrote for newspapers) he tried to defend traditional art making against the onslaught of technology, mainly photography, while, at the same time, rushing out to be photographed many times.

In “The Salon of 1859,” there was a section, “The Modern Public and Photography,” where Baudelaire complained about the clash between art and photography:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.

These two essays, “On the Heroism of Modern Life” and “The Modern Public and Photography,” written over ten years apart, are indicative of the contradictions and confusions over the role of modern life in art. On one hand, Baudelaire was convinced that the “heroism of modern life” was worth of depiction, but, on the other hand, that depiction had to be hand-made, done in the old fashioned “art” way. A machine can never replace art. But more should be said of the difficulty of writing in a moment of social becoming, for Baudelaire, like Denis Diderot, was looking for the artist who could capture modernité or the pulse of his (or her) own time. Courbet painted contemporary life, but this life was rural and, hence, not the “urban modern” condition that was the daily life of Baudelaire. The poet was clearly looking for someone who expressed modern life in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called “the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

Baudelaire found his candidate, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in a fellow member of the fringes of society, an obscure illustrator named Constantin Guys. The result of the relationship between the poet and the illustrator, both inhabitants of la bohème, was a long essay, almost book length, which described the social condition Baudelaire called modernité. That essay was the famous The Painter of Modern Life. The poet states, “By ‘modernity,’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable…” Guys, an illustrator and a quick sketch artist, was the outsider, who, because of his position on the fringes, was able to produce hundreds of quick studies of all that was fast-moving and fleeting in modern life. Modernism, for both Baudelaire and for Guys, becomes defined by the concept of constant change, or what the art critic, Harold Rosenberg, would term, a hundred years later, “the tradition of the new.”

See also: “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Charles Baudelaire and Art Criticism

BAUDELAIRE AS ART CRITIC

“We are going to be impartial. We have no friends—that is a great thing—and no enemies.” Thus Charles Baudelaire began his career as an art critic with the Salon of 1845. With a tone we suspect to be sardonic, the young writer addressed himself to the bourgeoisie, “a very respectable personage; for one must please those at whose expanse one means to live.” The poet completed his introduction, which is his manifesto of art writing, by saying, “We shall speak about anything that attracts the eye of the crowd and of the artists; our professional conscience obliges us to do so. Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing, and to scorn the throngs of those that have gone astray is no way to bring them back to where they ought to be.” In the Salon of 1846, the writer again targets the middle class art audience, stating that, “…any book which is not addressed to the majority—in number and intelligence—is a stupid book.” In other words, Baudelaire, a member of la bohème, would not be writing to the artistic reader but to those who were woefully in need of education, the middle classes.

Baudelaire followed the traditional format of the art critic, a walk through a huge salon exhibition, pausing here and there, giving some artists an entire page and others a mere sentence. Interspersed were pages of commentary on the state of the arts, which, combined over time, created a description of the culture of two decades in Paris. The art writer was a product of the Romantic period. Reading his reviews of the Salons, it is plain that he was imbued with the tenants of Romantic thought, but by the time his career began, Romanticism was on the wane and new ways of thinking about art were being developed. Although Eugène Delacroix was making official art for the establishment, Baudelaire worshiped him and despised his great rival, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, who we now consider an exceptionally innovative and willful artist. “M. Delacroix is decidedly the most original painter of ancient or of modern times…M. Delacroix is not yet a member of the Academy, but morally he belongs to it.” Baudelaire refers to the painter as “a genius who is ceaselessly in search of the new.”

In The Salon of 1846, Baudelaire wrote some of the most definitive words on Romanticism. “…if, by romanticism, you are prepared to understand the most recent, most modern expression of beauty—then…the great artist will be he who will combine with the condition required above—that of the quality of naïveté—the greatest possible amount of romanticism.” As will pointed out in the text, “Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism” (Art History Unstuffed), the writer was obviously familiar with Friedrich Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” in which the poet compared two artistic types. Schiller’s “naïve” poet (artist) who was “childlike,” and allowed nature to flow through spontaneously creating art through an individual sensibility was the precursor to artistic individualists like Delacroix. “Romanticism,” Baudelaire echoed, “is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling. They looked for it outside themselves, but it was only to be found within. For me, Romanticism is the most recent, the latest expression of the beautiful.”

And yet, in the same Salon, Baudelaire acknowledges the pressing conditions of the urban present. For him, and for many artists, Romanticism was the very expression of all that was modern: artistic freedom and the expression of individuality. But in the writer’s section “Of the Heroism of Modern Life,” there are passages that prefigure The Painter of Modern Life. In order to understand the importance of Baudelaire’s writing at this point, it is necessary to remember that the Romantic artists, especially during the time of this Salon, were often involved in historical subjects. Unknowingly working against waning Romanticism and predicting Realism, Baudelaire made a case for modern subject matter.

Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all people have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours…All forms of beauty,” the writer continued, “…contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory—of the absolute and the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty does not exist, or rather it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different beauties. The particular element in each manifestation comes from the emotions; and just as we have our own particular emotions, so we have our own beauty.

The notion of “beauty” is already an old fashioned one, inherited from the Ancients, would will soon be replaced by a bracing does of realism and the introduction of “ugliness.” Here we see the appearance of Baudelaire’s fascination with fashion that would emerge in The Painter of Modern Life. In contrast to the colorful attire of the past, contemporary fashion for men had become democratized by the uniform of the black suit, which, according to Baudelaire, “…not only posses their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality.” After reassuring the reader that artists were capable of capturing shades of blacks and grays, something at which Èdouard Manet would excel, he continued, “…our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…” and urges the artists to look away from “public and official subjects” to “private subjects which are very much more heroic than these.”

Indeed, Baudelaire moved directly to the world he knew best, the world inhabited by the disenfranchised, including artists and writers, “the pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of a great city….all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.” It is in this underworld where modern life existed. Indeed, as Baudelaire pointed out, the comfortable bourgeoisie cannot be a hero; that status is reserved for those who deserve it—those of “floating existences,” the men and women struggling to keep alive in a hostile city. The need for this new kind of heroism intensified, for the gaps that appear in his art writing coincide with the Revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Empire, events that brought about the very “modern life” he predicted. For years, Baudelaire the art writer went dark, while he translated the American poet Edgar Allan Poe and wrote his ill-fated book of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

Baudelaire’s silence and withdrawal are interesting. On one hand, one could speculate that the writer was confounded by the death of Romanticism, but, on the other hand, he had been on the cutting edge by predicting the coming of an art that demanded contemporary subjects. But the kind of realism that developed after the Revolution of 1848 was based upon observation of the base and the banal, the ordinary world according to Gustave Courbet. The natural world of the petit bourgeoisie did not appeal to Baudelaire, who, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, “hated and regretted” “naturalness.” “Baudelaire’s profound singularity,” Sartre wrote, “lay in the fact that he was the man without ‘immediacy.’” The art critic is silent during the first decade of the Second Empire until the occasion of the Exposition Universelle in 1855. Picking up his earlier thoughts, Baudelaire returns to the subject of beauty. “The Beautiful is always strange,” he said in one of his most famous statements. “…it always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness, and it is that touch of strangeness that gives it its particular quality as Beauty.”

Oddly Baudelaire devotes his review of the Exposition to the dialectic of the display of Ingres and Delacroix as the official artists representing France, ignoring the outsider Courbet, his Realist Manifesto, his innovative Pavilion of Realism, and the two decades of works it contained. Halfway into the Second Empire, Baudelaire wrote of “The Modern Artist” and “The Modern Public and Photography” in The Salon of 1859. In writing of photography, Baudelaire also expresses his horror of the new tendencies towards objectivity and of scientific observation. “Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.” “…it is happiness to dream,” the poet protested and, in the next section, wrote on Imagination, “The Queen of the Faculties.” Once again, Baudelaire uses the opportunity to repudiate Realism.

In recent years we have heard it said in a thousand and different ways, “Copy nature; just copy nature. There is no greater delight, no finer triumph than an excellent copy of nature.” And this doctrine (the enemy of art) was alleged to apply not only to painting but to all the arts, even to the novel and to poetry. To these doctrinaires, who were so completely satisfied by Nature, a man of imagination would certainly have the right to reply: “I consider it useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.

Baudelaire dismissed the realists, “…let us simply believe that they mean to say, ‘We have no imagination, and we decree that no one else is to have any.’ He continued, “How mysterious is Imagination, that Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others’ it rouses them and sends them into combat.” “…Without imagination, all the faculties, however sound or sharpened they may be, are as though they did not exist…” Speaking of Delacroix (without naming him), Baudelaire elaborated upon the painter’s dictate, “Nature is but a dictionary,” in order to compare the artist to the realists. Earlier the art critic had written of Delacroix that, for the painter, “The entire universe is only a dictionary of images and signs.” “Painters who are obedient to the imagination seek in their dictionary for which the whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform…”

The concept that nature was a dictionary, seen by the artist as a symbolic, not literal, source for ideas was echoed in his poem, “Correspondences” in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857):

La Nature est un temple oû de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;

L’homme y passé à travers des forêts de symbols

Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Writing in 1990, the critic, Jonathan Culler, translates Baudelaire’s “forest of signs” as a doctrine of Correspondences in which the poet “seems to disrupt the one-to-one correspondence between natural sign and spiritual meaning that the others promote.” In other words, Baudelaire caused a rupture between the word and the thing, between the act of transcribing and the object recorded. The so-called “correspondences” are arbitrary, making the signs into symbolic substitutes that do not name but suggest. By continuing to insist upon the primacy of the imagination, Baudelaire founded a modern poetry of nuance.

Baudelaire ends his work as an art critic by paying homage to his friend Courbet, “we must do Courbet this justice—that he contributed not a little to the re-establishment of a taste for simplicity and honesty, and of a disinterested, absolute love of painting.” And Baudelaire included a nod to Manet who had yet to become the artist he would be. And so, with the Salon of 1859, Baudelaire moves on to other forms of writing. Somewhere along the way, Baudelaire seemed to find a balance between poetry and prose with his “prose poems” in Paris Spleen in 1869. Waiting almost a decade after his last Salon, Baudelaire seemed to come to terms with Realism, but not in terms of “simplicity and honesty,” but in terms of the artificiality that Sartre insisted Baudelaire preferred. The poet realized that the next life for art would be not in the country scenes of the painters of the lower classes but in the interpretation of “the heroism of modern life” he discussed in The Painter of Modern Life.

See also “Baudelaire and Modernity” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Podcast Episode 23: American Romanticism in Landscape Painting

THE HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL

and

THE WESTWARD MOVEMENT IN LANDSCAPE PAINTING

American Romanticism was always based upon the concept of the search for the Garden of Eden. The “frontier” of America, the edges of this God-given Garden, was the Appalachian Mountains which were being probed by the early nineteenth century. Inspired by Romantic poetry, artists in the northeast were suffused with nostalgia for the vanishing frontier and celebrated the splendor that remained behind. The Hudson River painters recorded their landscapes at a precise moment in time, just before the Industrial Revolution closed in. When this “garden” in the Eastern half of the United States was destroyed by the “machine” of the railroad, the technology of the Industrial Revolution, and the horror of the Civil War, the lure of the “Frontier” inspired the painters. Part documentary and part nationalism, these Romantic landscape paintings of the untouched West celebrated the Manifest Destiny of America to stretch “from sea to shining sea.”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Realism and Naturalism in Art

REALISM IN FRANCE AND ENGLAND

The main goal of a Realist artist in France was to create an objective and detached description of banal reality, as it existed, in all its ordinariness. Realism, tended to adhere to a particular social point of view that of championing the poor or the lower classes. Depending upon the artist, Realism could be very confrontational, like the art of Gustave Courbet or very conservative, like the paintings of Rosa Bonheur. Basically Realism, expressed a modern desire to look at that which existed in the here and now, rather than re-create a dead world in a dead language, such as Neoclassicism, or to imagine a fantasy world, in the way of Romanticism. Realism demanded, not only new content, but also a new way of making art, based upon the question of how to see, really see, and to look at the “real.” The result of these Realist experiments was a certain consistency in subject matter but a variety of approaches to executing a response to the world, as it existed. But Realism was far too complex from nation to nation to be reduced to a simple-minded contrast to Romanticism.

Like Romanticism, Realism was never a style and was never uniform in content. Full of contradictions, Realism could include, in France, the daughter of a Saint-Simonist, Rosa Bonheur, the petit-bourgeois painter, Gustave Courbet, the narrator of amusing tableaux of middle class life in America, Lily Martin Spencer, the elegant portraits of British society by James Tissot, and the international provocateur par excellence, international artist, James Whistler. Realism incorporated a number of artistic and literary impulses, including Naturalism and Impressionism, and would be a longer movement, lasting at least forty years until the 1880s.

Although the Romantic imagination is often compared to Realist observation of every day life, Realism contained elements of escapism, just as Romanticism had contained elements of Realism. France continued its dominance in the world of the arts, but Realism was far from a French phenomenon. Realism begins, in fact, in England in 1848 with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB was founded while the rest of Europe was embroiled in yet another Revolution. The Brotherhood was inspired by the events on the continent but concentrated, at first, on religious subjects.

Perhaps because the artists in France experienced the uprising directly, their artistic response was more political and more politicized by the art audience. The Revolution of 1848 was the final blow to Romanticism and all illusions of the French Revolution of 1789 died on the barricades. The impact of the Revolution of 1848 is the chief reason why realism in America is a special case and why when the term “Realism” is used in art history, the speaker often thinks of England or France, and especially France.

First, Realism was a revolt against the Academies in both England and France, where classicism still ruled. For the Realist artist, the transcendence of time seen in the academic worship of the past should be—had to be—replaced by the particular and observable events of the contemporary era. The universal event was replaced by the unique event, taking place in a fleeting moment of time. In Academic art, “history” signified an entire narrative that had moral and ethical importance. Within Realism, the anti-academic approach told no story and imparted no significance to the depicted scenes. Contemporary history was approached with the same deadpan viewpoint used for more banal moments. There is nothing romantic or glorious about Manet’s Execution of Maximilian (1867), only embarrassment and tragedy. Realism was also anti-Romantic by rejecting the escape into the unreal.

The Romantic artist’s struggle for self-expression was replaced by the desire to depict one’s own time. Honoré’s statement, “Il faut être de son temps” was the battle cry of the Realists who preferred humble subjects compared to the exotic and fantastical narratives of the Romantics. The rejection of both Academic art and of Romantic ideals signaled a new understanding that even the ordinary is important and should be rendered as seriously as a noble deed from the past. Taking note of the funeral attire, the black suits of the bourgeoisie males, Charles Baudelaire argued that there was a unique kind of “modern” heroism of everyday life. In the Salon of 1946, he wrote,

But to return to our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions, I observe that the majority of artists who have attacked modern life have contented themselves with public and official subjects – with our victories and our political heroism. Even so, they do it with an ill grace, and only because they are commissioned by the government which pays them. However there are private subjects which are very much more heroic than these.

Realism also turned away from the concept of style, particularly as a personal trait that expressed one’s personality. Delacroix and Ingres asserted themselves by flouting or by exaggerating the academic style. The Realist artist resisted academic conventions and rejected the influence of the trained artistic eye that came between an honest depiction of reality and the hand of the artist. Many Realist artists expressed the desire to see as innocently as a child and this need for nonconventional innocence resulted in a challenge to the received techniques of the Academy.

The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Millais, obliterated academic style with his obsessive delineation of closely observed nature. Gustave Courbet mimicked the clumsy and naïve approach of outsider artists. The result, as Emile Zola expressed it, was “nature seen from the corner of a temperament.” In order to see freshly, conventional composition and chiaroscuro were disregarded and color became local rather than emotional or formal. Like philosophy, art came to increasingly rest upon empiricism and close observation. However, there was a genuine desire on the part of the artist to throw off the weight of the dead history of classical art (to paraphrase Karl Marx) and to defy the authority of the previous generation.

The role of the Realist artist was to tell the truth. Reasons for telling the truth and for making objective art varied. Some artists, such as Ernst Meissonier, used the idea of photographic realism to recreate a historical scene with accuracy. Some artists, such as Rosa Bonheur, used realism to celebrate the working animals of the rural life of her country, la belle France. It would be incorrect to assume that those two artists were not political, for both were very nationalistic in their intentions to celebrate France and its heritage.

Other Realist artists, such as Jean-François Millet or Gustave Courbet were considered to be “political,” “Red,” or “communist,” because they did not uphold the existing artistic order and challenged its social preconceptions of rigid class stratifications. Millet’s The Gleaners of 1857 showed the plight of the landless peasant in the age of the collective corporate farm. In England, Holman Hunt took up the theme of the “fallen woman,” the social problem of the Victorian era, and presented a morality tale to the audience with The Awakening Conscience. Edouard Manet had no such moral pretentions in his equally graphic images of the woman in her fallen state, such as Nana, a smiling courtesan inspired by Emil Zola’s novel of the same name.

Whatever the artist’s motivations, Realism was based upon the scientific method. Like scientists, they observed nature and recorded it faithfully. Like scientists, they supposedly sat passively before nature and copied it without comment or judgment. But the vaunted objectivity of any of these artists should not be taken literally, for no human is ever completely objective or nonjudgmental. Courbet had every intention of confronting bourgeois complacency with his realistic depictions of ordinary life among the petit bourgeois of his home territory of Franche-Comté.

The later accusations of passivity that were leveled against the Impressionists especially do not reflect the fact that artists are actively selecting their content. The Impressionists, who extended Realist to its logical outcome, painted their optical impressions of light and color. But the Impressionists eschewed the provocative content of their predecessors and did not confront the audience with social challenges. The last of the Realist groups, the Impressionists selected suburban scenes of middle class life, where the sun always shone and the skies were always blue and the people were always joyous.

Keeping in mind that “impressionism” was a derogratory term, it is also important to be aware of the reception of the Realist artists. The art audience was often hostile towards Realist art in terms of subject matter while accepting, however, grudgingly the talents of the artist. Although there were those who objected to his workman-like use of the palette knife, Courbet’s painting skills were universally acknowledged. Manet, on the other hand, would be roundly condemned for is complete abandonment of academic technique. And the Barbizon School and the Impressionists would be excoriated for their neglect of the rules of academic “finish” when it came to completing a painting in the appropriate manner.

When examining the critical reception of the Realists, it seems that even provocative content could be somewhat tolerated as long as some semblance of recognizable “skill” was visible. When painterly technique diverged too radically from the academic standards, the audience was scandalized, regardless of the subject matter. Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, both transition artists, would be the last of their kind in their quest for Salon acceptance and the recognition of the Academy. The Impressionists would completely reject the academic system and would make their case to the avant-garde collector. It is here with this last generation of the Realist artists, that the avant-garde matured with Impressionism.

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Realism in England, France and America

Realism in England, France, and America

At the end of the Napoléonic wars, the French were able to take a good hard look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution, going full speed ahead in Britain. Appalled at the misery of the lower classes, the industrial smog of London, and the blighting effects of technology, the French made the decision to approach modernism with caution. Although the British worker was actually better off than the French worker, and English people were more educated and more productive than the French, the costs were too high.

In contrast to England, where the nation transformed itself from a rural to an urban society and from an agrarian to an industrial country, France slowed down industrialization. According to That Sweet Enemy. Britain and France: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship by Robert and Isabelle Tombs, by 1840 England’s industries had overtaken agriculture in prominence, but until 1950 the rural way of life predominated in France. As the result of its economic policies, France was spared the industrial pollution that made life in England a dark and shrouded nightmare. The contrasting economies of the two nations also explain the difference in artistic content between the English and French Realist artists.

Most artists and writers were middle class and were financially secure enough to criticize the prevailing establishment by depicting their own age. They wrote and painted from a position of protected privilege. The lower classes did not represent themselves; they were represented in terms of the attitudes and needs of the dominant class. For example, in France, Georges Sand, the novelist, and Jean-Françoise Millet, the painter, both from wealthy or well-to-do backgrounds, concentrated on peasant life.

Meanwhile, in England, John Millais and Ford Maddox Brown, turned their attention to “modern problems,” or life in an urban culture. The Pre-Raphaelites were certainly painting from a position of social privilege but their content was frequently urban, reflecting the realities of life in London at mid-century. The French artists concentrated to rural subjects for several reasons. First, peasants still existed in large numbers in that nation and rural life was a significant factor in French culture. Second, modernization, as moderate as it was in France, set off waves of nostalgia about the supposedly untouched agricultural sectors.

In France, however, depicting peasants, however benignly, was rife with risk for an artist. Outside of Paris, the lower classes were resistant to the new forms of government following the revolution, with the “White Terror” of the Vendée revolts in the countryside continuing into the Twentieth Century. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the “peasant” in France came to symbolize the lower classes in general. Peasant paintings tended to function in a socially reassuring fashion, by displacing middle-class anxiety away from the ever-troublesome proletariat to the more distant peasant, isolated in the countryside.

The idealization of the peasants and rural life calmed bourgeois fears, while a more realistic approach had effect of drawing bourgeois attention to those left behind by the Revolutions of 1789 and 1830 in pre-Industrial conditions. In France, artistic depiction of the lower classes was a political act that could easily be construed as a critique of bourgeois power. In England, the plight of the lower classes was conveyed in terms of an artistic narrative of reform that was a positive echo of the effort by the British government to bring about peaceful changes in society.

In America, “realism” was a more amorphous impulse. Not so much a movement as a choice of subject matter and the employment of a certain technique, realism in America often crossed paths with American Romanticism. Romanticism lingered much longer in America because it continued to serve cultural needs. Romanticism, from the very beginning, was allied to landscape painting, which was used to create a sense of nationhood. One of the tasks of the landscape painter was to reveal the wonders of American scenery. In the American northeast, these landscapes were tinged with a Romantic nostalgia as the mythic Wilderness was being ruthlessly carved away to make way for settlements.

As the frontier moved from East to West, Romantic landscape painting moved with it, but the paintings that resulted were highly realistic in their naturalistic details. Frederich Church and Albert Bierstadt competed to see whose work was the most accurate in the rendition of nature. Indigenous American art had a much older tradition of realism and genre painting that could be applied to the Romantic tradition. The audience for these paintings were the Easterners who had never seen and could not imagine the wonders of the scenery. On one level, these paintings, often large and expansive, were educations in and or themselves. On the other hand, the landscapes barely concealed a subtext of imperialism and colonial conquest.

George Caleb Bingham’s scenes of everyday life on the frontier were sometimes reflective of Romanticism, especially its close American relative, Luminism, in his scenes on the Mississippi. On the other hand, he paintings could be completely anecdotal and full of a nationalistic narrative. In contrast to French Realism, American realism was more akin to the English Pre-Raphaelites with their preference for storytelling conveyed through a multitude of details. Realism, in America, was coincidence with realistic rendering, often a specific technique learned in Düsseldorf and imported to America. After the 1850s when the frontier moved West of the Mississippi, realism became more urban and romanticism continued to be aligned to landscape painting. Like Romanticism, Realism lingered in America, long after its European counterparts had become exhausted.

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Podcast Episode 22: Romanticism and Friedrich

CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH AND GERMAN IDENTITY

Caspar David Friedrich personified German Romanticism, producing paintings that became icons of the movement. Working in a nation under alien occupation, Friedrich found the intersection between pantheism and the alienation of human beings in a new and modern world. The serene and severe German landscape around Dresden and at the edge of the North Sea create a paradox between tragedy and hope. Through his landscape paintings, Friedrich transformed German Protestant beliefs into a transcendentalism—a worship of nature as God—into a patriotic statement during a period of French occupation. But Friedrich’s art has transcended its original time and place and today his paintings are considered early examples of modern alienation in the face of nature’s sublime.

 

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Marxism, Art and the Artist

THE PROBLEM OF ART

In his anthology, Marxism and Art, Maynard Solomon recounted that although both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were interested in the literary arts early in their respective careers, they both were distracted by philosophy. As a result, “There is no ‘original’ Marxist aesthetics for later Marxists to apply. The history of Marxist aesthetics has been the history of the unfolding of the possible application of Marxist ideas and categories to art and to the theory of art.” The same can be said of art history, which has also applied the Marxist idea of a critique of the social and economic system by utilizing a Marxist analysis of a work of art to show the workings of the mode of production upon the artist. In contrast to the fragments written by both men, what is more interesting is how the ideas of Marx could be used in relation to art.

According to Karl Marx, art is part of the superstructure and is inescapably determined by the mode of production or the economic system. Capitalism produces commodities, each one of which is a “fetish,” or an object with abstract value. Fetishism is the projection of human nature and of human desires projected upon an external object. If one accepts the proposition that all art is commodified, (and art must be a commodity in a capitalist society), then certain consequences logically follow. All artists are cultural producers, laboring in a capitalist system for the benefits of the market. All art made within this system is a commodity to be bought and sold as objects of desire upon which human feelings are projected. The work of art in a capitalist society must be a consumer object and therefore must also be an object of desire, a fetish.

The ideology of the market, a place where commodities are bought and sold, is a lived experience in the consciousness of every artist. The mind of the artist is imprinted with History and cannot escape his or her own time. Marxism would oppose the thesis of a transcendent avant-garde that projects to the future and detaches itself from society. From a Marxist point of view, art is always about society and the artist is always a part of the culture, art is never independent or absolute.

Because the artist has been abandoned by God, modern art can only be ironic in the sense suggested by Friedrich Schiller. In the contemporary era, modern art can exhibit only human alienation. With nothing left to symbolize, symbolism gives way to allegory. The use of symbols directly communicates meaning, but allegory is an indirect cluster or collection of meanings. As a result of the break down of the union of humans with a sense of spirituality, modern art is always indirect and referential because modern art is tied to capitalist ideology, which is merely bourgeois thought, an illusion that conceals the facts of construction of beliefs.

In his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde Art and Kitsch,” the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, proposed that socialism would provide the freedom the avant-garde artist needs, because the capitalist system rewards the artist for responding to the demands of society, which is under the influence of ideology. The ruling classes produce an ideology in its own self-interest but put the ideology forward in a way to make ideology seem “real.” We refer to this operation of reification as the naturalizing effects. Far from being “natural,” what ideology constructs, whether beliefs or art, is cultural. Through the mechanisms of ideology, that which is cultural becomes natural.

Social relations are presumed to be “natural,” and, hence, people do not recognize or even realize that the ways they interact are “cultural.” Ideology remains unseen. A work of visual culture expresses the prevailing ideology, not just in terms of what a work of art expresses but also what the work of art does not say. Art bears an imprint of the history of its own time and is not timeless and transcendent. Far from being free or independent, the avant-garde artist is reconstructed, from a Marxist perspective, is an intellectual servant in the pay of the system. As Marx remarked,

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every activity hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has transformed the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage-laborers…(intellectuals) live only as long as they find work, and…find work only as long as their labor increases capital. These workers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market…”

Far from being a rebel, the artist is a cultural worker without a “halo.” The artist who does not recognize the workings of ideology is complicit with an oppressive system. From a socialist perspective, what is the role of the informed and aware artist? According to Auguste Comte, art rises from the study of nature and should facilitate the contemplation of moral values. The position of Comte, that art is the ideal representation of reality, is essentially the academic perspective that prevailed in his era. Writing decades later, Proudhon suggested a more specific role for the artist in Du principe de l’art of 1865. Realism and naturalism had overtaken Romanticism in the 1860s and Proudhon saw art as having a social role, which should subordinate art to political and social ends. What distinguishes Proudhon’s position is that these “ends” were those of a critique of society and its unjust practices.

In acting as a critic of his or her own time, the artist becomes a prophet for humanity who must condemn current society and who can foresee a better future. From a socialist standpoint, the artist is a servant of society who has the moral role to reveal the workings of ideology by pointing to the truth. While it is not correct to state that all Realist artists and writers were socialists, it is correct to say that the mission of the Realists in France and England was to show contemporary life. Revelations of the realities of modern times would often be considered political by the forces that functioned best when these “truths” were kept veiled by ideology.

Also read: “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels and Alienation” and “Marx, Engels and Property” and “Marx, Engels and Capitalism”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 20: Romanticism and Goya

ROMANTICISM IN SPAIN

GOYA AND WAR

Spain had been left out of the Enlightenment and there were those who were hopeful when a man of the people, Napoléon, became the leader of France. However, when Napoléon crowned himself Emperor all hopes of a new democratic age were dashed. Napoléon’s imperial ambitions began to ravage Europe and the trauma of a decade of war was an impetus for Romanticism. Indeed, Romanticism in Spain is the creation of Napoléon, who invaded the country of the court painter, Francisco Goya. Goya was a court painter and careful portraitist to the Royal Family until he was an unwilling witness to the invasion of Spain by French troops. Goya’s Romanticism is a mindset of outrage as he recorded the invasion and occupation of the French forces. The result is an art of the extremes: a Romanticism lived on the edge of fear and madness. More than any other modern artist, Goya captured the randomness of modern death and modern war and the lingering traumas that follow.

 

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics

GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1779-1831)

Hegel and his Impact on Art and Aesthetics

Like any aesthetician, G. W. F. Hegel does not get involved in any particular movement or style or work of art, but, that said, he was very definite about the kind of art where Beauty could be found. Like Emmanuel Kant, Hegel brings art and freedom together and anticipates the idea of art-for-art’s sake. For Hegel, the Idea is always opposed to Nature. The mind is contrasted to the mindlessness of matter or nature. The mind creates art, which gives an idea to nature. This idea is the unity of the externality or objectivity of nature and the subjectivity or personal vision of the artist. As with Kant, the spectator of the work of art is as important as the art maker for Hegel. Beauty in art is the emanation of the Absolute or Truth through an object. Beauty can be shown only in a sensuous form called the Ideal, which transcends the Idea to become a special form. Like all of Hegel’s triads, nothing is lost: nature and idea are the Other to one another but together they create an organism, the work of art.

The contemplative mind strives to see the Absolute. In order to see Beauty, this detached mind must transcend nature. By freeing itself, the mind perceives the spiritual content of the work of art, which must also be free in order to be Beautiful. Kant insisted that the higher form of beauty had to be free and independent and Hegel followed suit. Hegel insisted that, to manifest Beauty, art must expel all that is external or contiguous or unnecessary. Remember, in Hegel’s system, each part of the triad must be “pure” and can contain only its dialectical opposite. For art to reveal Beauty is to reveal Truth, which can only be pure. This is why art can never imitate nature, which is, mindless and irrational. Nature must be reversed with its antithesis, the idea, which brings about the inner unity necessary for spiritual content: nature, idea, spirit = art.

If art must be free, then art should show, not just Beauty and Truth, but Freedom itself, which is the property of the free mind. Hegel, true to his age, is a child of Neoclassicism and, like many Germans, was looking back to a Golden Age when human beings were free. Part of being “modern” is being un-free. Society has demands, which are placed upon people who have lost their sense of wholeness and self-actualization. Thinking along the same lines as Friedrich Schiller’s “alienation,” Hegel felt that his own age was a diminished one. Therefore, the artist should take subject matter from the past, a heroic age populated by characters that were free of the social restrictions so prevalent of the industrial age.

Ancient peoples, Hegel assumed could determine their own destinies and could make their own lives on their own terms. While the current times were particular to the modern period, the primeval era could manifest life in its universal and essential form. By stripping the process of living down to its basics, one is nearing the first cause of life, the logic of existence in which one is in the process of becoming. One can “become” only if one is free, linking the rational with the free to the universal. Hegel explained art’s predilection for the depiction of the high-born because those individuals are free, assuming that the lower classes are unsuited to being represented because, being subservient to their masters, they can never be free and therefore, never universal. Stripping away the elitist assumptions that princes are preferential to peasants as subject matter in art, it is possible to note that Hegel was insisting that the artist attempt to reach the universal through art.

But Hegel was a also creature of history. The idea of “princes” should not be taken so literally in the modern era, an era badly suited to the classical art of the past. Hegel understood that the antique forms were indissolubly linked to their own time. Greek and Roman sculpture expressed the ideal in universal poses of repose, rather than with active poses linked to a particular action. But in the modern age, the new society did not lend itself to rest and repose, which could be found only in the spirit of the artist or in his personality. The modern age has come to realize that any hope of freedom or infinity is impossible and the human mind has no escape, except into itself. The new subjectivity of the spirit produces a new kind of art in which the artist imprints him or herself upon the art. the result is Romantic art which is the art of modern Europe. Unlike ancient art which needs the sensuous manifestation of the classical statue, Romantic art gives rise to an independent spirituality or mind which leaves behind its traces as sensuous remnants. It then logically follows that sculpture is not the appropriate receptacle for the spirit of the Romantic artist. Clearly, Hegel could not conceive of a form of sculpture that was allowed to transcend its traditional role of starting with and then transcending nature into idealism. Sculpture was, despite its attempt at perfection of form, too bound to the “real.”

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831

Painting, in its two-dimensional flatness, is the most suitable manifestation for the spirit, mind, and personality of the artist. Painting is appearance, rather than actuality or matter and, as a mental process of the artist, is subjective. The external world is allowed to enter into the subjective world of art because concrete reality is transformed through art. Hegel allows for the ugly, the grotesque, suffering and evil in Romantic art as the other necessary element in his dialectic. Beauty must contain ugliness, just as Truth conceals Lie, and for reconciliation to take place beauty and ugliness must be reconciled into a concrete unity that is a higher form of Beauty, which is also Truth.

Although Hegel’s ideas on art and aesthetics were inspiration for those who believed in “art-for-art’s-sake” or the avant-garde, his deterministic philosophy was politically very retrograde and repressive. There is another way to view Hegel’s “princes.” As with his colleague at the University of Berlin, Johann Gottleib Fichte, Hegel believed that Germany’s destiny was to become the dominant power in Europe, due to the forces of history, which had passed England and France and had progressed to Germany. A snob and a social climber, the consummate academic ego, Hegel was enamored of power and, during the French occupation of Germany, was thrilled by Napoléon. Like Fichte, he believed that Germany was a chosen nation and that it had the moral right to pursue its hegemonic dominance ruthlessly with “absolute privileges over all others. It should behave as the spirit willed it and will be dominant in the world…” With Hegel, war and dominance as historical tools of historical progress entered into European thought. Because his philosophy was based in history, Hegelian aesthetics also impacted upon art history and art criticism. The basic structure of art history has followed his model of successive and contrasting movements.

The history of art has been told as a succession of conflicting styles by Heinrich Wölfflin and as a tale of successive and contrasting movements by history based upon formalist models. The ancient produced the modern, the universal produced the particular, the timeless produced the contingent and modern art is the synthesis of these conflicting forces. As a synthesis, Romantic art must be independent and begins to exist on its own. Hegel’s aesthetics inspire the theory of the avant-garde: thesis, antithesis, synthesis—Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and so on. One avant-garde movement, assigned the positive position, opposed another avant-garde movement, the negative or counter position, resulted in a dialectic, which pushed art ever forward and towards an absolute of purity. The result of the influence of Hegel, art criticism, especially under the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, was model of artistic progression from representation towards abstraction. By using the avant-garde and its oppositional stance as the engine of change, art history in the Twentieth Century has been Hegelian in structure.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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