La grande guerre

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La grande guerre

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Rogelio Gomez-Franco wrote:
Thank you for your beautiful web-site that I have followed for I think 7 years now. I'm glad to see that I am not the only person that thinks that after the 19th century artists lost their way. My idea (theory) is that after the European wars of 1914-18, what the French call la grande guerre (the great war), artists were (probably) so shocked by what humans were capable to do to their fellow men, that representing reality as it was, was not possible anymore. Reality (at that time) meant hatred, death, destruction. I guess they had to get out of reality to find beauty. They just couldn't see any beauty in the world they were surrounded by. That's my humble opinion.

Thanks for writing!

There's probably some validity to your theory and it's certainly one I have heard from quite a number of others before, but in general I think it is a minor factor and not the most fundamental or important explanation for the development of modernism. Consider the following:

1. The trend toward less craftsmanship, less clarity, and so on had been developing for some time before WWI, and therefore couldn't be explained by the horror of the war.

2. The trends against rationality represented by modernism in the arts was developing at the same time in all other areas of intellectual life in the West. In philosophy we had Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and a host of others tearing apart the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment. In politics and economics we had Marx undercutting the foundations of the idea of liberal government. In education we had Rousseau and Dewey attacking the roots of the educational philosophy and rational learning of rudiments before advanced abilities. In psychology we had Freud and Jung attacking the rational mind, all before modernist ideas really took hold. As I see it, all of these were parts of the same general cultural trend, not something new and out of the blue starting in WWI.

3. The generation that came of age in WWI is now either dead or beyond the age of having any impact on the contemporary art world, yet those ideas still dominate. In fact, they got stronger in the years after those with any memory of the WWI era were no longer dominant in the art scene.

On the contrary, I think that several other factors were dominant in the development of modernism, notably:

1. The anti-rational theories of modern philosophy, education, economics, politics, psychology, and other underpinnings of culture in general and art in particular.

2. The difficulty of producing great works of art in quantity. It's a lot easier to turn out modernist "masterpieces" in large volume and on a regular schedule because there's really nothing to them.

3. The more significant institutional and commercial roles of authors, critics, and academics who studied art and wrote about art rather than making it. The modernist point of view places them rather than the artist at the center of the modernist world.

4. There's also the cultural division (in great part stimulated and justified by the 19th century philosophers) between the rational/scientific/effective and the humanistic/irrational/incomprehensible/ artistic). Science around that time had accomplished a great deal in the way of rational and effective solutions to real problems so by that (highly flawed as I see it) way of thinking, the arts had to be the opposite... irrational, ineffective, beyond comprehension, and so on. To do otherwise would be to join the "other side" of uncaring cold science.

5. A large divide developed between the people who were paying for and approving art works and those making them. Previously, artists and patrons had a common goal, but in the more bureaucratized, more "expert-driven" world of the 20th century what mattered more what what the unaccountable bureaucrats approved of rather than what the quality of the artwork was.

6. In all other areas of practical life the world was being remade. Clothing, transportation, housing, health care, sanitation, banking, telecommunications, mining, forestry, manufacturing, lighting, and so on were being revolutionized and with tremendous benefits ensuing. The idea that anything new was great and anything old was hopefully out of date and needed to be replaced.

What do you think?

--Brian