It could perhaps justifiably be stated that we are currently living in a Western World whose moral worldview owes much to values which until recently were associated with progressives operating within the arts, politics, philosophy, religion etc., and that this morality remains more or less constant, affecting everything from top to bottom in our society, despite sporadic shifts of power from the political left to the right. At the same time, traditional morality – founded on the West’s Judaeo-Christian heritage – is being increasingly seen as harsh and exclusivist, where once it held almost total sway.
In order to come to some sort of conclusion as to how this situation came about, as good a starting point as any would be the early 19th Century, at a time when the Romantic Movement was birthing the concept of an artistic avant-garde on the cutting edge of innovation, not just in terms of creativity, but societal change. The avant-garde worldview was the probable scion of a greater revolutionary spirit that had been impacting the West at least since the dawn of the Enlightenment, the great European move towards greater Rationalism regarding the key issues of life. This so-called Age of Reason began towards the end of the 18th Century, lasting until about 1789, the year of the French Revolution which was one if its earliest fruits. Many theories exist as to what or who was the main driving force behind this spirit, but it’s not the aim of this essay to attempt to unmask these, so much as to trace the course of the avant-garde throughout history and so speculate on how so humble a tendency might ultimately have come to alter the entire fabric of Western civilisation.
It may have been the great English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who, by asserting that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", was the first major artist to give expression to the concept of an avant-garde on the cutting edge of creative innovation. That said, the first actual use of the term in an artistic rather than military sense was probably made by the French socialist philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon in 1825 in his "Opinions Littéraires, Philosophiques et Industrielles". Whatever the truth, it’s a recent development, fostered by the early – especially German and English – Romantics, whose influence on the development of the notion of the Artist as Rebel cannot be underestimated. Yet, it found its first spiritual home in post-revolutionary Paris…which begs the question, why Paris?
It’s impossible to say for sure of course, but of all the nations of Europe, few could quite so convincingly lay claim to national genius than France, and that’s of course especially true of her ever-enchanting capital city. What’s more, among those widely considered as proto-Romantic, several ethnic Frenchmen are included, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, known as the father of Romanticism. Perhaps most importantly, though, as a result of a long series of national traumas culminating in the Revolutionary War, Paris had – by the 1830s – become marked by a tendency towards the most charismatic originality of thought and behaviour which could at times degenerate into darkness and nihilism, traits which have been demonstrated time and again since by her celebrated poètes maudits, or accursed poets.
Plausibly, the first generation of these were numbered among the young men who – in the wake of the July Revolution - congregated about such late Romantic littérateurs as Pétrus Borel and Théophile Gautier with the purpose of enforcing the Romantic world view in the face of widespread censure on the part of the despised respectable middle classes, the bourgeoisie. To the Gautier of the mid 1830s, this censure constituted a veritable Christian moral resurgence, which he rails against in the notorious preface to his 1836 novel "Mademoiselle de Maupin", the first known manifesto of the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake, Art in other words, as a religion in its own right.
These frenetic young creators constituted what could be termed a seminal artistic avant-garde and have become known as the Bouzingos – or Bousingos or Bousingots - although little distinguished them from the earlier Jeunes-France as depicted by Gautier in his "Les Jeunes-France - Romans Goguenards" (1833). They were originally members of a Romantic clique known as le Petit Cénacle - allegedly founded by the sculptor Jehan du Seigneur, with Borel rapidly emerging as leader – whose role in the infamous "Battle of Hernani" at the Comédie Francaise in February 1830 was paramount. This took place on the opening night of Hugo’s play, and was marked by violent scenes involving defenders of the Classical tradition, and Hugo’s supporters, who flaunted long hair and flamboyant costumes in defiance of everything the former held dear . In addition to Gautier, Borel and Seigneur, they included Gerard de Nerval, Philothée O’Neddy and Augustus MacKeat, all of whom went on to be numbered among the Jeunes-France.
According to one theory, while the first Bouzingos were a band of political agitators who took part in the July Revolution of 1830 in wide-brimmed leather hats, their artistic counterparts were wrongly named by the press following a night of riotous boozing which saw some of them end up in prison for the night, but the name stuck. They too embraced radical political views, because for the most part, the artistic cutting edge - beginning with the Bouzingos - has inclined to the left, while containing an ultra-conservative element.
These seminal avant-gardists owed an enormous debt to the English and German Romantic movements which did so much to promote the myth of the artist as tormented genius existent on the fringes of respectable society, a Bohemian in others words. Akin to the Bohemian was the Dandy, and of the poètes maudits of mid 19th Century Paris, several were both Bohemians and Dandies, depending on their circumstances at the time. They included Charles Baudelaire, possibly the most famous of them all, who earned his status by dying relatively young following a dissolute and ultimately tragic existence, rather than survive into contented and prosperous late middle age as in the case of Gautier, whom he admired so much. His essay "Le Dandy" (1863) is one of the defining works on the subject.
The great Parisian Bohemias of the 19th Century were the Left Bank of the Seine as a whole - including the Quartier Latin and Montparnasse - and Montmartre, which exploded on an international scale towards the century’s end, while the first literary work to celebrate the Bohemian way of life was Henri Murger’s "Scenes de la Vie de Bohème" (1845). It went on to form the basis of Puccini’s opera "La Bohème" (1896), and the contemporary musical comedy, "Rent" (1996). Later Bohemias included London’s Chelsea, and New York’s Greenwich Village, but Paris remains Bohemia’s true and eternal spiritual capital.
The first waves of the avant-garde and the Bohemias in which they thrived, birthed by Romanticism and its seminal poètes maudits, ultimately produced the Decadent movement of the 1870s and ‘80s. Out of the "Esprit Décadent" a multitude of minor sects emerged, such as the Zutistes of the early ‘70s which for a time included Verlaine and Rimbaud among their number, and the later Hirsutes and Hydropathes etc, and finally, the great Symbolist Movement in the arts.
However, the spirit of the avant-garde could be said to have triumphed as never before in the shape of the massively influential and truly international artistic and cultural phenomenon known as Modernism. In an artistic sense, she existed at her point of maximum intensity from about 1890 to 1930, producing such earth-shaking works as Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" (1913), T.S Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922) and James Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922), as well as movements as diverse as the previously mentioned Symbolism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism. It could be said that she represented the triumph of the avant-garde, anticipating her future at the very heart of the cultural mainstream.
However, whenever Modernism is discussed with regard to the arts, parallel iconoclastic developments by figures such as Marx in politics, Nietzsche in philosophy, Freud in psychology and Darwin in science must be taken into consideration, as they all served to fuel the Modernist agenda, which is one intrinsically inimical to the Judaeo-Christian fabric of our society according to certain cultural critics, and there is much substance to their argument. Having said that, not every major Modernist figure has been anti-Christian…in fact, a good many have been actual professing Christians.
Taking things further, it could be said that rather than emerging from the avant-garde, Modernism actually predated it, that is, as a spirit rather than a movement as such, having roots further back into the depths of Western history, beyond the Age of Reason, to the Renaissance and its revival of Classical Antiquity.
She seemed to undergo a falling away in terms of intensity in the years leading up to the Second World War, while the immediate post-war age brought renewed activity through the Existentialists and Lettrists of Paris, but more especially through the Beat Generation born in her new epicentre of New York City. Together, they helped to usher in what could be called an age of mass-modernism, although they weren’t operating alone, because by the early ‘50s, the Modern had formed a strong alliance with the popular arts. In fact, this had occurred some half century earlier with the genesis of Pop Culture, which gave rise to the cinema, and one of the first true Pop music genres in the shape of Ragtime. However, these were minor developments in comparison to the cataclysmic events of the ‘60s.
The single most powerful weapon in the Modernist armoury has been Pop Culture, and in terms of its evolution, the influence of the Beat Generation - once it had begun to penetrate the mainstream around 1955 – was considerable, especially in its role as the begetter of the Hippie uprising, which took place between about 1965, with San Francisco as its centrifugal city, and 1967 when it peaked, before ceding to the year of revolutions which was 1968.
One of the keynotes of late Modernism and the social revolution it provoked, most notably in the 1960s, has been the progressive acceptance by mass culture of beliefs once seen as the preserve of Bohemians and avant-gardists, the most obvious being the so-called "Free Love" once promoted so forcefully by angel-faced atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley. This process was considerably facilitated by the Rock revolution which, after having begun around 1955-‘56, segued into the sentimental Pop music that reached its apogee with the Beatles, before undergoing a further quickening at the hands of British Blues-based bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who, and so evolve into Rock pure and simple.
By the end of the ‘60s, Rock had become a truly versatile music, running the gamut from the most infantile hit parade ditties to musically and lyrically complex compositions owing as much to Classical music and Jazz as Rock and Roll. As such, it was an international language, able to disseminate values inimical to traditional Western morality as no other artistic movement before it, while the most powerful Rock stars attained through popular consumer culture a degree of influence that previous generations of innovative artists operating within high culture could only dream of.
And yet…while being the ultimate manifestation of mass-modernism, Rock is far from being the only one…as it was initially impelled by the cinema of youthful discontent of the early 1950s, whose magnetic icons, including Monty Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean, could be said to have been Rock stars avant la lettre. And as the Rock revolution proceeded apace throughout the ‘70s, it was buttressed and enabled by a cinema finally freed from the shackles of the Motion Picture Production Code, which had been in force since 1930 but which was finally jettisoned in 1967, after at least a decade of declining efficacy.
This capitulation was still another manifestation of Modernism’s relentless campaign against the old values of the West, the Judaeo-Christian ones once demonised as bourgeois by the shock troops of artistic and political revolution, but which served to preserve the very fabric of our society. How many of its citizens were aware of this truth it’s impossible to say, but the fact remains that up until about half a century ago, the vast majority respected the old values to varying degrees, perhaps as much out of fear of social ostracism as any other reason. According to many conservative thinkers, it was this very regard that ensured the stability of their civilisation.
At some point, it seems that Modernism’s campaign of attrition reached a logical conclusion, and once the classic values of the avant-garde had begun to wholly dominate the cultural mainstream, the West entered a Post-Modern phase. When this occurred is open to conjecture, but 1980 has been put forward as a likely date. Certainly, after 1980, it became impossible for artists to "épater le bourgeois" as they’d once done, and even when they strained to shock a public all but impervious to outrage, originality eluded them.
Others have insisted Postmodernism began as early as 1950, on the eve of the television and Pop Music revolutions. What is certain is that things has changed beyond all measure in the last 60 years to the extent that in 2010, it could be said that the age-old dream of political and artistic radicals, and their allies within the realms of religion, philosophy, psychology, science etc., of a world united by humanitarian values is closer to becoming a reality than has ever been possible up to this point in time. In the meantime, the old world, the Judaeo-Christian one bound by love of God, love of country, and love of family, has been cast out into the wilderness, as if there can be no place for its ancient certainties in the paradise about to be born.
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