Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 7 (from Romanticism to Existentialism)

A feature of Romanticism is searching, without necessarily even knowing what you are searching for. The music of the period reflects this search. Robert Schumann’s piece Why? is a typical example. The piece sounds as if it is coming from nowhere and going nowhere, but it has some beautiful questions to ask along the way.

Romantic art was very beautiful and, in certain genres, represented the Golden Age for Western creativity. Yet it was short lived. When you have beauty that comes from nowhere and is going nowhere, it eventually grows stagnant and evaporates.

In looking to man’s inner resources for inspiration without being rooted in an objective worldview, Romanticism did not have the power to sustain itself. Since the self was made the final centre of meaning, it didn’t take long until all meaning warped into a subjective relativism. Consistent with the implications of both the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, philosophers began suggesting that there is no meaning outside ourselves. Instead, we create our own meaning.

The implications of this relativism began to be seen in art from the Impressionist Period (late 19th century, overlapping with late Romanticism). There is a dreamlike, ethereal, even unreal quality to Impressionist paintings. Reality does not seem quite so real. Listening to the Impressionist music of Claude Debussy, we never quite know where we have come from or where we are going – we simply drift along in an ethereal world of musical shapes and colours.

As time progressed, artists extrapolated these ideas to the inevitable point of dispensing completely with external reality. When the self is made the centre of reality, all meaning becomes subjective. We see this subjectivity increasing in art is it travelled the path through Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Formalism, Abstract Expressionism. In all these movements one can sense artists both holding back and reaching forwards to the inevitable corollary of complete relativism and irrationality. Step by step, the objective fixities of the world become subsumed in the confused and relative world of the artist’s psyche.


The Romantic movement agreed with the Enlightenment on the importance of truth and meaning. The two movements simply disagreed on where truth and meaning were to be found. Whereas the Enlightenment said that meaning and truth were found objectively in external science and reason, the Romantic movement said that meaning and truth were found subjectively in the human emotion.

The movement of Existentialism in the later half of the 19th century, challenged the assumption that meaning and truth exist at all.

Existentialism was more consistent than the Enlightenment with the implications of a materialistic worldview by emphasizing that

· There is no inherent meaning or significance in life.

· The external realm is absurd.

· Because the external world is void of purpose, each person has to create his or her own meaning through choices.

· Moral values are also created by our existential choice.

· The meaning that I create for myself might not be the same as the meaning that you create for yourself. Each person has to discover his or her own personal truth.

· Essence does not precede existence; rather, existence precedes essence. This means that there are no meaningful conceptual categories independent of our existence. By existing and acting, we bring meaning to our world.

Secular existentialism, in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), stressed “the death of God”, whereas Christian existentialism, in the tradition of Søren Kierkegaard (1813 –1855), stressed the “wholly otherness” of God and the “leap of faith” concept. Secular and religious existentialism both emphasized experience over reason and both emphasized concrete existence over abstract analysis.

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