Interest in Art in 19th Century Europe

I have spent the evening reading a particularly meaty chapter in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and so have nothing to add to our present discussion which left off last night with interactive poetry. I did however come across some choice bits in Auerbach which are worth sharing. I am reading the second to last chapter in the book. The subject is high art in the late 19th century and the mutual disregard artists and the public had for one another during that period. Auerbach writes, translated from German of course, “It can be safely said that, with few exceptions, the significant artists of the later nineteenth century encountered hostility, lack of comprehension, or indifference on the part of the public… On the basis of this experience many critics and artists became convinced that this was necessarily so: that the very originality of a significant new work had as its concomitant that the public, not yet accustomed to its style, found it confusing and disturbing and could become accustomed only gradually to the new language of form.”

Auerbach describes here a tension between producers and consumers of culture resulting from a transition in attitude and sensibilities that took place over the course of the nineteenth century. Previously it had been the aristocracy that had defined the taste and tenor of cultural exchange, especially in matters of art and fashion. As the European countries began to industrialize, this paradigm changed completely with the elevation of common people through the ranks of society. From this point onward, ethics, lifestyle, appearance, manners, speech, basic values would all be determined by a newly emerged middle class that promoted pragmatism, generation of wealth and, at least by then end of the century, comprised a majority of the populace. Major artists of this time were exponents of the anti-enlightenment tradition of romanticism and found almost nothing redeeming about the bourgeois way of life. Their work was polemically opposed the general public and highly critical of societal values. In response, society ignored them and occupied itself instead with pulp literature and cheap theater. Auerbach’s analysis of the dichotomy is marvelous. I shall quote it at length:

“Here we have the “bourgeois,” the creature whose stupidity, intellectual inertia, conceit, hypocrisy, and cowardice were attacked and ridiculed by poets, writers, artists, and critics from the romantic period on. Can we simply subscribe to their verdict? Are not these bourgeois the same people who undertook the tremendous task, the bold adventure, of the economic, scientific, and technological civilization of the nineteenth century, and who also produced the leaders of the revolutionary movements which were the first to recognize the crisis, dangers, and foci of corruption inherent in that civilization? Even the average bourgeois of the nineteenth century shared in the tremendous activity in life and labor which characterized the age. Day in and day out he led a life which was much more dynamic and exacting than the life of the elite, with their routine of idleness and their almost complete immunity from the pressure of time and duty, who represent the literary public of the ancien régime. His physical security and his property were better guarded than in former times; he had incomparably greater possibilities of rising in the world. But acquiring and preserving property, exploiting opportunities for advancement, adjusting to quickly changing conditions—all as part of the bitter competitive struggle for survival—made such great and ceaseless demands on his strength and his nerves as had never been known in earlier times… It is not surprising that these people expected and insisted that literature, and art in general, should give them relaxation, recreation, and at best an easily attained intoxication, and that they objected to the triste et violente distraction, to use an expressive phrase from Goncourts, which most of the important authors offered.”

Written in the 1940s to explain the cultural landscape of the 1860s, but it just as easily could have been describing our own time. We after all are still living in the age of the bourgeois revolution. The middle class remains the defining force in society, and its time and efforts are still tied up with the demands of industry and commerce, of the professional life. I’m so partial to the passage above because Auerbach shows a measured reverence for the achievements of the middle class. There’s almost a kind of sympathy he expresses for the bourgeois’s material inability to absorb high concepts and virtuosic expression. He has none of the resentment for the middle classes exhibited by your typical Marxist, or should I say self-loathing, since most Marxists in this day and age are themselves members of the middle class. Auerbach is willing to acknowledge the value of either side’s position, bohemian and bourgeoisie, and has a clearer view of both for doing so.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Trask, Willard R. 50th anniversary ed. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003. 500-502

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