A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: The Age of Representative Art and the Book

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: Part 5

We are mistaken if we suppose that mere commonsense, without any such training, will enable men to see an imaginary scene, or even to see the world they are living in, as we all see it today.
-- C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

10. The Age of Representation.   

Medieval art had made no attempt to reproduce the world as it actually appeared to the eye.  The relative sizes of objects were determined by their importance, not by their actual sizes and distances.  Nature was all foreground.  Whatever details the artist meant the viewer to see were shown regardless whether they would really have been visible from the viewer’s perspective. 
But in the 1420s, Brunelleschi, a Florentine engineer, discovered the laws of perspective, and from the Renaissance to the Victorians, artists sought to present the world “as it truly is.”  In his watercolor of a Young Hare, Dürer attempted to draw every hair.  This was impressive, and anticipated the Scientific emphasis on precise and detailed observation of physical reality.  (Art tends to run ahead of science.) The philistines were upset because it wasn’t real art.  We don’t realize it today, but people had to learn to look at painting as representation rather than allegory. 
Figure 7.  Albrecht Dürer.  A Young Hare (1502); Watercolor and gouache on paper;
Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.

Well into Victorian times, artists were still imitating Renaissance paintings; in part, because they were worth imitating; but also because they were easy for viewers to understand.  They “looked like” the things they were supposed to be. 
Representative art reached a level of craftsmanship that was nigh impossible to exceed on its own terms.  The author has seen ceiling frescos at Melk Abbey that, by use of forced perspective, seem to be three-dimensional and floating in mid-air.  Realism was not killed by photography – many of these paintings could never have been photographed – but by its own success.  Understandably, a reaction set in.  It was time to move on.  
Figure 8.  Photograph this, monkey boy!  From the right spot on the palace floor, it appears 3-D. 
Paolo Veronese.  "Apotheosis of Venice" (1585)  Oil on canvas.  Palazzo Ducale, Venice.
So about a hundred years ago, subjective impressions began to replace objective descriptions.  So-called “modern” art actually represents a break with the modern tradition. Backgrounds faded out [again].  Details were suggested, not shown.  The philistines were upset because it wasn’t real art. [1]   
Impressionism held that objects of observation were not independent of the observer, a revolution in consciousness that would appear in the sciences as well as in music and elsewhere.[2]  (Music, always more abstract than art, shifted from melody to harmony.)  The new art abstracted form from substance.  Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 is not a painting of a nude or a staircase, which would be objective; but it is a painting of “descent,” a subjective impression.  Grumbles that “it don’t look like no nude” miss the point.  Seen as an effort to capture “descent,” it is stunningly successful. 
Figure 9.  Marcel Duchamp.  Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).  
Oil on canvas.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The impressionists were profoundly revolutionary.  Compare Cézanne or Ravel to Delacroix or Brahms.  In the fifty years from 1863 to 1913, art was overturned.  But revolution and defiance became standard.  In the fifty years from 1913 to 1963, very little changed.  At the Armory Show of 1913, Lukacs writes, the modern art was all inside while the philistines were protesting outside.  At the 50th Anniversary Show, the philistines were all inside. 
This was to be expected.  Writing on cubism in 1913, Fernand Léger wrote “Present-day life, more fragmented and faster-moving than preceding periods, was bound to accept as its means of expression an art of dynamic ‘divisionism.’”  And James Chastek observes:
The death of the noble makes high art: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ionesco, Beckett, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Sartre, James Joyce, Picasso, and any number of other artists in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century got to depict the meteoric death and collapse of a culture, and their art is wonderful.    Eliot had fragments he could shore against his ruin – these were the last intelligible fragments of a dying culture that fractured and blazed before it finally burnt out. – Just Thomism, September 13, 2010. 
“The shapes of locomotives and ships could engage the inspiration of a Monet,” wrote Lukacs; and the first aeroplanes could captivate Malevich, H. Rousseau, Delaunay, D’Annunzio, Kafka (who had himself photographed in a mock airplane).  Compare the outburst of art, poetry, and song that celebrated air flight to the artistic silence that greeted space flight.  In the interim, something in the Modern Ages had “burnt out and gone black.” 
During the Industrial Age, the terms “artist” and “artisan,” which had previously meant the same thing, began to part company.  By the early 20th century, “artisan” had virtually disappeared from English.  Artists attached themselves to the intelligentsia, and art became intellectualized. 
In music, jazz promised a return to medieval improvisation; but it too became intellectualized after 1940.  After that came rock, which abandoned both melody and harmony to emphasize rhythm.  Rock is to be felt, not thought about. 
It may be that to build a new age, we must strip the old down to the bedrock of rhythm, of abstract shapes, of graphic “novels.”  It is to be a Dark Age, then, and not a Renaissance. 
But something else is happening.  Lukacs observes that “Abstract painting could be agreeable decoration in a house, a role that painting had abandoned centuries ago.  For the first time in centuries, music was coming together with dancing.”  Unlistenable it might be, but it had a good beat.  And just as Huizinga wrote about the autumn of the middle ages, so too the autumn of the modern ages has produced an extravagance of dress expressing an aesthetic craving that high art no longer fills. 
Welcome back to the Middle Ages.  A new Rediscovery of the past may still lie before us. 
The new pastimes of the educated amateur are the arts of nonarticulate expression: music and painting…  Everywhere picture and sound crowd out text.  The Word is in disfavor…
 – Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect 

11. The Age of the Book.   

There were codices before the Modern Ages and scrolls before that; but they were hand-made by individual craftsmen.  Printing made books so cheap that most people could aspire to own them.  Every copy of a given edition would have the same words on the same pages, enabling footnotes and cross-references.  Pirates with presses began to sell their own (often altered) versions of books, leading to copyright laws to protect the integrity of the text. 
The Age of the Book was the age of words, and word is λογος.  And so the Modern Age was an Age of Logic, and for a while called itself the Age of Reason.[3]  The standard portrait of the comfortable bourgeois often includes an open book in the hand. 
The novel was "novel" [new] because it tried to do in writing what Dürer and others were doing in painting.  Hence, the appeal to all five senses, the vivid descriptions of landscape and people, the multitude of characters each acting on his or her own motives.  People were supposed to read a “novel” and say, “Yes, that is true to life.”  In the Scientific Age, all truth was objective and experienced from without, so narrators were often omniscient and readers “observed” characters objectively.  Reading a modern novel was an act of contemplation. 
But at the end of the Modern Ages, such a contemplative state is “increasingly elusive.”  When every whim, rumor, and passing fancy is blogged and tweeted – the shrapnel of exploded privacy – what we get is “distraction disguised as being in the know.”
It is not that people who surf and scroll no longer read, but that they no longer read in the same way [NC] [AP].  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Cormac McCarthy said:
“The indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that.  If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead.  Nobody will read it.  I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are.  Their intentions, their brains are different.  The bite/byte-sized culture in which we operate today makes our attention spans struggle to hold beyond 140 characters, much less 140 pages.
Today, says Lukacs, for the first time in five hundred years, the primary imagination of the average person is visual, not verbal.  The trend started with the movies, continued with TV.  “Show, don’t tell” became a maxim of writing.  Today, some “graphic novels” may run for pages without so much as a single word.  At the same time, new audio-visual art forms – interactive games, simulated realities – are replacing the novel. 
The average person now has access to a broader range of information sources.  Good news for the new individualized home schools.  It becomes possible to drill deeper into the chosen topic by following hyperlinks.  Of course, a lot of stuff on the Net is bogus, which is bad news for the new individualized home schools.  Drill wisely.[4]
The decline of the book goes hand in hand with the decline of the bourgeois.  Considered reflection requires time, silence, logic, and thinking in depth.  But post-modern media – we cannot call them books any longer – are oriented to “brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety, and feelings.”  This would be very dangerous to democracy, but in a future dominated by extended adolescence, we might not miss that too much.  We will always have the sputtering fuse. 
The written arts became interior and impressionistic.  Emphasis shifted from plot to style.  Narrative and description shrank.  The omniscient narrator grew scarce.  We now follow the viewpoint of a character we “identify” with.  If you populate your book like Tolstoy or Dickens, the postmodern reader will complain that his head hurts and he can't keep the characters straight. 
Visual culture is shifting people away from books toward movies, video games, and “graphic novels”; from logos to ikon.  This facilitates unrealism, allows abstraction.  Once more, characters – in movies, in video games – strike iconic poses and perform archetypal actions, as they did in medieval epics. A common example is the hero who outruns an explosion.
The new age is neither a good thing nor a bad thing.  It is only a thing.  As the novels and books fade, sometime in the Early Postmodern Age, the Cervantes of interactive simulated realities will blow people away with a stunning new art form: a sort of experienced/participative “novel.” 
It will be something you “feel,” not something you “read.”

[1] “Modern” art is a term that shames moderns, because they desire above all else to be “up to date.”  The bourgeoisie sustained the new revolutionary art less from generosity than from conformity.  They became dependent on artistic opinion rather than their own taste.  “But even bad taste,” wrote Lukacs, “is better than no taste at all.”
[2] One consequence of relativism in aesthetics: Emphasis shifted from craftsmanship to one’s credentials as an artist.  But credentials, wrote Douglas Wilson, are something other than competence, for competence implies a standard.. 
[3] An insult to the Medievals, who were far more logical in their arguments, but among whom hand-copied manuscripts were expensive.
[4] While researching medieval music for the novel Eifelheim, the author found a web site that claimed Mode IV was “forbidden” by the Church because it was “satanic.”  Ironically, the author was listening at that point to a recording of Benedictine monks singing “Media vita in morte sumus,” a medieval hymn set in Mode IV.  

©2014 Michael F. Flynn


  1. Away from books? No more 800-page novels?


    Harry Potter? The Wheel of Time? Honor Harrington? The Stormlight Archive?

    1. McCarthy was no doubt thinking of serious literature. F&SF is very much retro, but I suspect the new modes of story-telling -- interactive and role-playing games; ebooks (likely with hyperlinks all over) -- will show up there first.

    2. Can't debate at length with my broken wrist, but who gets to define "serious literature"?

      What makes serious literature more important, for setting the tone of a civilization, than F&SF, historical fiction (Steven Pressfield, Michael and Jeff Shaara), techno-thrillers (Tom Clancy, Larry Bond)?

      Granted: Larry Bond started out as a naval officer, then a board-game designer, then a novelist. And, come to think of it, David Weber started as a board-game designer.

    3. What makes serious literature more important, for setting the tone of a civilization, than F&SF, historical fiction, techno-thrillers?

      Or Westerns, or military, or porn, or romance novels, or celebrity memoirs, or...

      who gets to define "serious literature"?

      Generally, serious people. Recall that The Red Badge of Courage (historical fiction), Moby Dick (techno-thriller), Lady Chatterley's Lover (porn), Last of the Mohicans (western), et al. are accounted as serious literature.

    4. So we won't know for another half-century or more?

    5. Probably not. We're in the transition century, much like the 15th/16th transition from the medieval to the modern. Like any continuous process, things look nearly unchanged when we glance a few years or decades into the past. But the long term gives a different perspective when we see how different we've become. Only a few were contemporaneously aware of the autumn of antiquity or the autumn of the middle ages; but "historical consciousness" is more embedded in the Late Modern mind.

  2. Thanks for posting this essay. It really puts things in perspective.

    I've been reading LEISURE: THE BASIS OF CULTURE by Josef Pieper. Speaking in 1946 he identified the Modern Age as the Age of Total Work. Considering how Post-Modernity is trending back toward a more Medieval outlook, do you see leisure making a comeback (due, say to more and better labor-saving devices), or will antipathy toward contemplation just lead to people filling their time with more distractions?

  3. Would this apply to movies as well -- not the Transformers, Pearl Harbors or Tyler Perry's Medeas of the word, but say, more Europa style, or more of the "independent"/small films that are screened at film fests like Sundance, Cannes, TIFF etc.? Truth be told, I find the latter mightily self-important, and though "real" (as in non fantasy) very much degrading and insidious.

  4. Quote: "The written arts became interior and impressionistic. Emphasis shifted from plot to style. Narrative and description shrank. "

    But what about cartoon shows and movies?

    They are certainly visual and auditive, and are as such based more on images than words which is post-modern. But modern cartoon shows are also based on narrative, whether serialised throughout the show as an over-arching plot or episodic and localised throughout episodes as particular narratives. So in that sense they are "retro" and modern.

    Same goes for movies. So what will happen to cartoon shows and other such media? Will they go extinct due to the modern elements of narrative and non-interactivity? Or will they become transformed somehow into a sort of interactive movie / interactive cartoon show?

    Quote: "We now follow the viewpoint of a character we “identify” with."

    Not only do late-modern / post-modern readers want to identify with a certain character in fiction, they even want to bring this to earlier novels where "identification" was never meant to happen, which sometimes results in the above mentioned headache of trying to fit in a whole universe of characters.

    The thing is, the impressionistic tendency will even use side characters who don't have much screen-time as potential sources for "identification", especially if the side-characters are liked by the reader or share certain similarities with the reader.

    And modern day cartoon shows and TV movies are also ready-made for late-modern / post-modern viewers to "identify" with at least some of the characters as well.

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