13 Heroic Materialism



"New York took almost almost the same time to reach its present condition as it did to complete the Gothic cathedrals. At which point a very obvious reflection crosses one's mind : that the cathedrals were built to the glory of God, New York was built to the glory of mammon - money, gain, the new god of the nineteenth century." p 321



Kindness is not a word that would have been important to St Francis, Dante, Michelangelo, or Goethe, but it is important to most of us today. Our ancestors didn't use the word. While the older artist of the 19th century, such as Ingres and Delacroix, were concerned with legend and mythology, the younger artist tried to cope with the present and showed what is called social consciousness.

 "Throughout the great ages of human achievement which I have been discussing, the mass of voiceless people have had a hard time. Poverty, hunger, plagues, disease : they were the background of history right up the the end of the nineteenth century, and most people regarded the as inevitable - like bad weather. Nobody thought they could be cured : St Francis wanted to sanctify poverty, to to abolish it. The early reformers' struggle with industrialised society illustrates what I believe to be the greatest civilising achievement of the nineteenth century, humanitarianism.  We are so much accustomed to the humanitarian outlook that we forget how little it counted in earlier ages of civilisation." p 329

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1851, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

When the  Paris Salon, presented this 20-foot-long work, the frieze-like portrayal of somber folks at a graveside in Courbet's home province it generated an explosive reaction. To sophisticated Parisians, rural folk are considered proper subjects for small pieces; not to be accorded a grand scope on the scale of historical masterpieces of the French tradition. With the worker uprisings of 1848 a recent memory, Courbet's use of the common people as a grand subject was a radical act.

 "Never before in history have artists been so isolated from society and from official sources of patronage as were the so-called Impressionists. Their sensuous approach to landscape through the medium of colour seems to have  no connection with the intellectual currents of the time.  In their best years - from 18665 10 1885 - they were treated as madmen or completely ignored." p 341

Renoir paul
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881, The  Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

No Nietzsche, no Marx, no Freud. Just a group of ordinary folks enjoying themselves. Not much lunch but lots of looking going on.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, (c. 1887), Barnes Collection

The greatest Impressionist  Cézanne retired to Aix-en-Provence,  where provincial incomprehension allowed him freedom to work our his difficult aims.


And then there was Georges Seurat, an artist operating independently of any social pressure.

seurat Georges Seurat, Baignade, 1884, National Gallery, London

Parade de cirque by Seurat, 1887, Met, NY


Seurat’s first nocturnal painting. It represents a sideshow of the Circus Corvi, which had set up near the place de la Nation in Paris in the spring of 1887. Sideshows were held on the street, for free, to entice passersby to purchase tickets. The onlookers at the far right are queued on stairs leading to the box office.

Somehow fitting to end  this exercise with a sideshow. In the Middle Ages God ran the show for man to play out the drama of salvation. In the Renaissance man became the measure of all things and took center stage. Then with the scientific and mathematical discoveries, man became an insignificant life form residing on a third rate  planet revolving around one of billions of other suns. We are now only minor actors in nothing more than a side show.  This incomprehensibility of the universe seems the reason for the chaos of modern art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet there are optimistic voices. Faulkner in his Nobel  Prize acceptance speech:

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

And finally Kenneth Clark:

"This series has been filled with great works of genius, in architecture, sculpture and painting, in philosophy, poetry and music, in science and engineering. There they are; you can't dismiss them. And they are only a fraction of what western man has achieved in the last thousand years, often after setbacks and deviations at least as destructive as those of out own time. Western civilisation has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves." p 347  But he adds the poem by W. B. Yeats written between the wars.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.                        

What is the guiding light we must follow to save western civilization? Clark says "kindness," I take this to mean manners, all the things I was taught, but not necessarily learned, at Miss Mari's kindergarten in 1942: play together sweetly - be neat, be quiet, don't whine, no pushing, share your graham crackers and toys, say your prayers, no bad words, take turns, sing together, wash your hands, and take a nap after lunch. Do as Miss Mari said and we will be alright.

March 1, 2015


Civilisation I