Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 6 (From Modernism to Romanticism)

It is now time to slightly change directions and consider various philosophies that have arisen during the last three hundred years and how those philosophies weigh in to the question of beauty’s objectivity. In this post we will be considering this in relation to Modernism and Romanticism.


We use the adjective “modern” all the time. “That is a very modern hair style.” “The modern world is so fast-paced.” “She only likes to listen to modern music.”

When the word is turned into a noun (“modernism”), however, it takes on a more specialized meaning. One of these meanings refers to the ideology of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a movement in European history that occurred broadly in the 18th century. It stressed such things as rationalism, belief in absolutes, optimism about human progress, and the possibility that human beings could arrive at certain knowledge through the exercise of their intellect.

The Enlightenment’s stress on efficiency led to industrialization socially and utilitarianism ethically.

The art of the Enlightenment is categorized as the “Classical Period.” The Enlightenment had given an ordered and structured vision of the world, embodied in the classical poise of Mozart and Haydn’s music, which falls neatly into evenly balanced four and eight bar phrases. Music became much more simplified from what it had been during the Baroque period (roughly 1600 to 1750).

Modernism and Beauty

Because of their strong rationalism, Enlightenment philosophers tended to also have a strong belief in absolutes. This was especially true in the area of beauty.

In the wake of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment was highly conscious of its Greek and Roman heritage. The influence of classical culture gave 18th century thinkers a yardstick with which to measure their own achievements in many areas, not least in the arts. It was part of the culture and training of 18th century intellectuals to be aware of the difference between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ and to prefer the former. No one wanted to say that beauty was relative.

Two good texts which show the Enlightenment’s commitment to aesthetic objectivity are David Hume’s essay ‘On the Standard of Taste’ (first published in 1757) and Edmund Burke’s book Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (first published in 1757). Both of these are available off the internet.


The Romantic Period (roughly 1820-1900) was a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

While the art of the Classical Period had been based on reason, order and rules, art during the Romantic Period emphasized emotion, adventure and imagination. This paradigm shift began to be evident as early as the late 18th century, in areas such as painting, architecture, and landscape gardening. In these genres we see that ‘nature’ began to be associated with disorder, asymmetry and flux instead of stability, order and symmetry.

While the Enlightenment had emphasized the importance of discovering external truth through the intellect, the Romantic period emphasized the exploration of one’s internal emotions.

While the Enlightenment had emphasized man’s ability to find meaning through our perceptions of the ordered external world, Romanticism emphasized man’s ability to find meaning through our perceptions of the unpredictable, internal world of the self.

Where the Enlightenment had emphasised rationalism, the Romantics emphasised subjective feelings as the key to self-fulfilment. In contrast to the Enlightenment’s suspicion of mystery and the spiritual dimension, the Romantic movement championed these things within a neo-pagan or Deist context.

Some Romantics, such as the Pre-Raphaelite painters, sought a solution by returning to a romanticized medievalism. To them, this represented an antidote to the dehumanising influences of the growing industrialism which had left people out of touch with their true selves. In other Romantics, such as Blake and Rossetti, we find a strong spirit of anti-establishment together with a sense of unease at the dehumanising aspects of the machine-age.

Beethoven (1770-1827) and Schubert’s (1797-1828) music are considered to be transitional between the Classical and Romantic periods. Other Romantic composers were Berlioz (1803-1869), Chopin (1810-1849), Schumann (1910-1856), Liszt (1811-1886), Wagner (1813-1883), Brahms (1833-1897), Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Dvořák (1841-1904). Although much of the music during this period was written to glorify man, there was also much music that was written to the glory of God, such as Dvorak’s music. Although it is important to understand the man-centred nature of much Romantic music, this should not stop us from recognising and enjoying the beauty of this music.

Romantic composers began to draw from the reservoir of man’s ever changing, unpredictable emotions. Composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, among others, experimented with bolder harmonies and unexpected modulations which disrupted the stable tonal framework that had characterized music of the Classical Period.

Musical harmonies, like the colours on the artist’s canvas, begin to reflect the emotionally turbulent and unpredictable world of the self. Even though the music of the Baroque Period had conveyed a lot of emotion, it did not contain emotionalism, which focuses our attention inward and glorifies emotion as an end in itself.

During the Romantic period, there was a new appreciation of the artist as an individual. Also there began to emerge the idea of the artist as a guru – somebody set apart from ordinary people who had a special ‘calling’ to express themselves creatively. Romantic art thus began to emphasise things like the artist’s attempt at self-expression and his quest for a personal vision and self-fulfilment.

Summary of Romanticism

Some key features of Romanticism were:

a secular reaction to the rationalism and scientificism of the Enlightenment

belief that the modern world, as epitomised by the Enlightenment, had left people out of touch with nature and with their feelings

fresh assertion of the self

releasing our basic instincts, emotions and impulses to find true expression

rebelling against convention and institutions

a nostalgic longing for primitive cultures. The idea of the ‘noble savage’ evoked a supposed age of innocence prior to the sophistication of modern society, where man could live in unity with nature and himself

Emphasis on asymmetry, flux and even disorder over and against the Enlightenment premium on symmetry, stability and order.

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