Notes on

Romanticism v Enlightenment

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin (22/5/2019)

"Some Eighteenth century people believed that reason and science are good and therefore things would just go on improving forever. This optimism characterized a period that came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment. At the end of this period, mass movements in America and France, and the Industrial Revolution in England, changed the world forever, making people realize that society in the 19th Century was the first that could conceive itself to be radically different from the past. This led to a sense of disillusionment and alienation began to spread, and the Romanticist movement rose up as a backlash. Romanticists believed that the advances made by The Enlightenment were creating an oppressive, and conformist society - and that science and rationality could never hope to truly understand the world and the human personality and that the modern world's progress came at the price of cherished values from the distant past which was slowly dying out. Though the Enlightenment and Romanticist movements are long gone, the general ideas behind each - the dialectic, if you will - survives to this present day."

The ideologies that sprang forth from the Enlightenment and Romanticism are essentially the most drastically important ideologies that have been created in modern history. From them has developed just about every political, social, economic, industrial, and cultural movement that exists today. The results from them are every struggle we view today as commonplace. Capitalism vs. Socialism, bourgeoisie vs. middle class, white collar vs. Blue collar, city life vs. Country life, etc. Both of these movements have and will continue to impact the way we perceive society, nature, and God for the rest of time.

Once the renaissance era, which produced a plethora of marvelous (and often religiously motivated) structures, paintings, and contraptions, had ended, the next movement to spring up in Western civilization was the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. The leaders of the Enlightenment, which consisted of intellectuals and artists, sought to use logic and rationality to solve human problems. They viewed religion and its representatives as nothing more than snake oil salesman who were attempting to seize wealth and power by spreading ignorance and superstition throughout the world, and they made an effort to combat these so-called forces of ignorance with the mind and with reason. It was highly critical of monarchies and empire, and it helped develop the founding ideas of democracy. The enlightenment and its workers would plant the seeds of political revolution throughout the world, particularly in colonial America. The enlightenment planted the ideas of independence, order, and accountability in the minds of many civilians.

One of the fathers of the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, developed the idea of implementing rationality in science. He practically invented the modern scientific method. From his teachings and ideas would come Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and many other brilliant scientists and thinkers. The Enlightenment would ring in the founding principles of secularism and suggested the very new and controversial idea the man didn’t need God, that God was not interventional, or even that there was no God. The Enlightenment sought to bring about order, which had become a foreign concept in the reigns of monarchs. Philosophers and political thinkers like John Locke attacked monarchy and suggested that a government should be ruled by its people.

Romanticism started up around the mid-1700s and “ended” around 100 years later. Romanticism was a focus on the hearts and minds of humans, and appealed to their human nature, their passions, love, and other emotional areas. It did not believe in a God, nor did it believe that God believed in man, but it sought to bring unity to people and nature. Romanticism changed the way the things such as love, nature, children, innocence, sex, and government are viewed. It attempted to bring about an independence from government, and separate people from the love of money and rather focus on matters of the heart. It encouraged people to go on adventures, to fall in love, and to pursue dreams and goals.


A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy
by Jonathan Israel (Author)

The Enlightenment
by Norman Hampson

The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters
by Anthony Pagden

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
by Steven Pinker

The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classic Art
Illustrated, 1973 by Sir Kenneth Clark

The Romantic School and Other Essays (German Library S.)
by Heinrich Heine

Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (Penguin Classics)
by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Volume II
by G. W. F. Hegel (Author)

The Romantic Agony (Oxford Paperbacks)
by Mario Praz, Frank Kermode, et al.

Revolutionary Romanticism: A Drunken Boat Anthology
by Max Blechman

Romanticism: An Anthology (Blackwell Anthologies)
by Duncan Wu

The Roots Of Romanticism
by Isaiah Berlin

The Romantic Revolution
by Tim Blanning

The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Tim Blanning

Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages
by George Boas (Author)

Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity
by Prof Arthur O. Lovejoy (Author), Prof George Boas (Contributor)

The Age of Enlightenment: The 18th Century Philosophers, selected, with Introduction and Commentary
(The Mentor Philosophers) 
by Isaiah Berlin

Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750
by Jonathan I. Israel (Author)

Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790
by Jonathan Israel (Author)

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752
by Jonathan I. Israel (Author)

Theological-Political Treatise: 2nd Edition
by Spinoza, Baruch,Feldman, Seymour,Shirley, Samuel

Spinoza: A Life 2nd Edition,
by Steven Nadler (Author)

A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age
by Steven Nadler (Author)


Romanticism and love

Alain de Botton: On Love | Sydney Opera House

Twenty-first century depictions of love and marriage are shaped by a set of Romantic myths and misconceptions and with his trademark warmth and wit, Alain de Botton explores the complex landscape of a modern relationship, presenting a realistic case study for marriage and examining what it might mean to love, to be loved - and to stay in love.

Alain de Botton is an internationally renowned philosopher, television presenter and author of international best sellers Essays in Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and Status Anxiety. In this talk, he discusses his stunning new novel The Course of Love, a philosophical novel about modern relationships.






When Classicism met Romanticism: the Salon of 1824.

The Vow of Louis XIII by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres hung in same room as The Massacre at Chios by Delacroix.

The Vow of Louis XIII is an 1824 painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, now in Montauban Cathedral. It shows a vow to the Virgin Mary by Louis XIII of France. It is an oil painting on canvas measuring 421 x 262 cm.

It was commissioned by France's Ministry of Interior in August 1820 for the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Montauban. The subject of the painting was to be Louis XIII's vow in 1638 to consecrate his kingdom to the Virgin in Her Assumption. When Ingres accepted the commission, he was living in Florence. Although he had experienced success as a portrait painter, his ambition was to establish a reputation in the more prestigious genre of history painting. He went to work with his usual diligence, and spent four years bringing the large canvas to completion.

He travelled to Paris with it in October 1824. It was a critical success at that year's Salon and later established Ingres' reputation as the main representative of classicism, in opposition to the romanticism represented at the same Salon by The Massacre at Chios by Delacroix.

When Classicism met Romanticism: the Salon of 1824.

The Vow of Louis XIII by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres hung in same room as The Massacre at Chios by Delacroix.

On 15 September 1821, Delacroix wrote to his friend Raymond Soulier that he wanted to make a reputation for himself by painting a scene from the war between the Ottomans and the Greeks, and have this painting displayed at the Salon. At this time Delacroix was not famous, and had yet to paint a canvas that was to be hung for public display. In the event, he decided to paint his Dante and Virgil in Hell, but even as this painting was revealed to the public in April 1822, the atrocities at Chios were being meted out in full force. In May 1823, Delacroix committed to paint a picture about the massacre.

When the Salon of 1824 opened on 25 August—an unusually late date for this institution—Delacroix's picture was shown there as exhibit no. 450 and entitled Scènes des massacres de Scio; familles grecques attendent la mort ou l'esclavage, etc. (English:Scenes of massacres at Chios; Greek families awaiting death or slavery, etc..) The painting was hung in the same room that housed Ingres’ The Vow of Louis XIII. This display of two works exemplifying such different approaches to the expression of form marked the beginning of the public rivalry between the two artists. Delacroix thought this was the moment the academy began to regard him as an "object of antipathy".





the Romanticism genre of art, was not the way art should be taught...

"Borrell was a great believer in realism in art and felt that the Romanticism
genre of art, which was the cornerstone of art education at the Llotja in Barcelona, was not the way art should be
He set up his own academy of drawing and painting, the Sociedad de Bellas Artes, in which he sort to introduce
his students to the world of realism in art
and sought to influence his students with the works of the contemporary
Catalan painters such as Romà Ribera, Ricard Canals and the muralist, Josep Maria Sert. He encouraged his students to
leave the confines of the school and paint en plein air.

Many believe that Borrell’s depiction mirrored his own desperate attempt to free himself from the confines of official academic training
methods of art and the art critics of his day who championed the Romantic art of the time, with all its heroic figures
and who were highly critical of art which depicted the not  so pleasant “real” world. The title of the work is
Escape from Criticism and this probably indicative of the struggle young artists had to go through with the constant
bombardment of criticism from so-called knowledgeable art critics."




the tritone - an interval so dissonant that it’s earned the nickname ‘The Devil’s Interval’ and was avoided for centuries by composers and the pupils they taught.

What is a tritone?

A tritone is an interval made up of three tones, or six semitones. In each diatonic scale there is only one tritone, and it occurs between the fourth and seventh degrees of the scale, so in a C major scale this would be between F and B. Or in G major it would be between C and F sharp:

Did you know that not all accidentals were created at the same time? F sharp and B flat were the first ones, and they were invented to try and solve the problem of the tritone in music. The system of modes worked for every note of the scale... until you got to B. This scale was called the Locrian mode, and it was the only one where the fifth degree of the scale is not a perfect fifth - it’s an augmented fourth – a forbidden tritone!

This went against everything music appeared to stand for, and was christened diabolus in musica – the Devil in music. The Locrian mode was very rarely used. John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, explained that the tritone is particularly unnerving because the human brain is hardwired to find harmony and symmetry in music:

“When we hear something dissonant, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected. The emotional result of hearing a tritone, might not be too different from the one experienced at the bottom of a staircase that failed to mention it’s missing its last step.”

The name diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") has been applied to the interval from at least the early 18th century, though its use is not restricted to the tritone.

That original symbolic association with the devil and its avoidance led to Western cultural convention seeing the tritone as suggesting "evil" in music. However, stories that singers were excommunicated or otherwise punished by the Church for invoking this interval are likely fanciful. Later, with the rise of the Baroque and Classical music era, composers accepted the tritone, but used it in a specific, controlled way—notably through the principle of the tension-release mechanism of the tonal system.

It is only with the Romantic music and modern classical music that composers started to use it totally freely, without functional limitations notably in an expressive way to exploit the "evil" connotations culturally associated with it (e.g., Franz Liszt's use of the tritone to suggest Hell in his Dante Sonata:
Liszt, "Après une lecture du Dante" from Années de Pèlerinage. Listen

—or Wagner's use of timpani tuned to C and F? to convey a brooding atmosphere at the start of the second act of the opera Siegfried.

Early Works of Karl Marx: Book of Verse

Romanticism À La Mode

The child who, as you know, once wrote to Goethe,
Wanting to make him fancy that he loved her,
Went to the theatre one fine day.
A Uniform then stalked her way
And came towards her with a friendly smile.
"Kind Sir, Bettina wishes, for a while,
Smitten with sweet desire, to rest
Her curly head upon your breast."
The Uniform then answered rather drily,
"Bettina, that is up to you entirely!"
"Sweetie," she answered in a trice,
"Of course you're sure I have no lice!"

Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics

In this connection, as we saw already in the general division of the subject [on pp. 76-81], we have three chief art-forms to consider:

(i) The Symbolic. In this the Idea still seeks its genuine expression in art, because in itself it is still abstract and indeterminate and therefore does not have its adequate manifestation on and in itself, but finds itself confronted by what is external to itself, external things in nature and human affairs. Now since it has only an immediate inkling of its own abstractions in this objective world or drives itself with its undetermined universals into a concrete existence, it corrupts and falsifies the shapes that it finds confronting it. This is because it can grasp them only arbitrarily, and therefore, instead of coming to a complete identification, it comes only to an accord, and even to a still abstract harmony, between meaning and shape; in this neither completed nor to be completed mutual formation, meaning and shape present, equally with their affinity, their mutual externality, foreignness, and incompatibility.

(ii) But, secondly, the Idea, in accordance with its essential nature, does not stop at the abstraction and indeterminacy of universal thoughts but is in itself free infinite subjectivity and apprehends this in its actuality as spirit. Now spirit, as free subject, is determined through and by itself, and in this self-determination, and also in its own nature, has that external shape, adequate to itself, with which it can close as with its absolutely due reality. On this entirely harmonious unity of content and form, the second art-form, the classical, is based. Yet if the consummation of this unity is to become actual, spirit, in so far as it is made a topic for art, must not yet be the purely absolute spirit which finds its adequate existence only in spirituality and inwardness, but the spirit which is still particular and therefore burdened with an abstraction. That is to say, the free subject, which classical art configurates outwardly, appears indeed as essentially universal and therefore freed from all the accident and mere particularity of the inner life and the outer world, but at the same time as filled solely with a universality particularized within itself. This is because the external shape is, as such, an external determinate particular shape, and for complete fusion [with a content] it can only present again in itself a specific and therefore restricted content, while too it is only the inwardly particular spirit which can appear perfectly in an external manifestation and be bound up with that in an o, inseparable unity.

Here art has reached its own essential nature by bringing the Idea, as spiritual individuality, directly into harmony with its bodily reality in such a perfect way that external existence now for the first time no longer preserves any independence in contrast with the meaning which it is to express, while conversely the inner [meaning], in its shape worked out for our vision, shows there only itself and in it is related to itself affirmatively.[1]

(iii) But, thirdly, when the Idea of the beautiful is comprehended as absolute spirit, and therefore as the spirit which is free in its own eyes, it is no longer completely realized in the external world, since its true determinate being it has only in itself as spirit. It therefore dissolves that classical unification of inwardness and external manifestation and takes flight out of externality back into itself. This provides the fundamental typification of the romantic art-form; the content of this form, on account of its free spirituality, demands more than what representation in the external world and the bodily can supply; in romantic art the shape is externally more or less indifferent, and thus that art reintroduces, in an opposite way from the symbolic, the separation of content and form. In this way, symbolic art seeks that perfect unity of inner meaning and external shape which classical art finds in the presentation of substantial individuality to sensuous contemplation, and which romantic art transcends in its superior spirituality.

2. The new gods of Classic Art

Still, of what nature are the creations which Classic Art produces in following such a method? What are the characteristics of the new gods of Greek art?

a. The most general idea that we should form of them is that of a concentrated individuality, which, freed from the multiplicity of accidents, actions, and particular circumstances of human life, is collected upon itself at the focus of its simple unity. Indeed, what we must first remark is their spiritual and, at the same time, immutable and substantial individuality. Far removed from the world of change and illusion, where want and misery reign, far from the agitation and trouble which attach to the pursuit of human interests, retired within themselves they rest upon their own universality as upon an everlasting foundation where they find their repose and felicity. By this alone the gods appear as imperishable powers, of which the changeless majesty rises above particular existence. Disengaged from all contact with whatever is foreign or external, they manifest themselves uniquely in their immutable and absolute independence.

Yet, above all, these are not simple abstraction — mere spiritual generalities — they are genuine individuals. With this claim each appears as an ideal which possesses in itself reality, life; it has, like spirit, a clearly defined nature, a character. Without character there can be no true individuality. In this respect as we have seen above, the spiritual gods contain, as integrant part of themselves, a definite physical power, with which is established an equally definite moral principle, which assigns to each divinity a limited circle in which his outward activity must be displayed. The attributes, the specific qualities which result therefrom, constitute the distinctive character of each divinity.

Still, in the ideal proper, this definite character must not be limited to the point of exclusive being; it must maintain itself in a just medium, and must return to universality, which is the essence Of the divine nature. Thus each god, in so far as he is at once a particular individuality and a general existence, is also, at the same time, both part and whole. He floats in a just medium between pure generality and simple particularity. This is what gives to the true ideal of classic Art its security and infinite calm, together with a freedom relieved from every obstacle.

b. But, as constituting beauty in Classic Art, the special character of the gods is not purely spiritual; it is disclosed so much the more under an external and corporeal form which addresses itself to the eyes as well as to the spirit. This, we have seen, no longer admits the symbolic element, and should not even pretend to affect the Sublime. Classic beauty causes spiritual individuality to enter into the bosom of sensuous reality. It is born of a harmonious fusion of the outward form with the inward principle which animates. Whence, for this very reason, the physical form, as well as the spiritual principle, must appear enfranchised from all the accidents which belong to outer existence, from all dependence upon nature, from the miseries inseparable from the finite and transitory world. It must be so purified and ennobled that, between the qualities appropriate to the particular character of the god and the general forms of the human body, there shall be manifest a free accord, a perfect harmony. Every mark of weakness and of dependence has disappeared; all arbitrary particularity which could mar it is cancelled or effaced. In its unblemished purity it corresponds to the spiritual principle of which it should be the incarnation.

c. Notwithstanding their particular character the gods preserve also their universal and absolute character. Independence must be revealed, in their representation, under the appearance of calmness and of a changeless serenity. Thus we see, in the figures of the gods that nobility and that elevation which announces in them that, though clothed in a natural and sensuous form, they have nothing in common with the necessities of finite existence. Absolute existence, if it were pure, freed all particularity, would conduct to the sublime but, in the Classic ideal, spirit realises and manifests itself under a sensuous form which is its perfect image, and whatever of sublimnity it has shown to be grounded in its beauty, and as having passed wholly into itself. This is what renders necessary, for the representation of the gods, the classic expression of grandeur and beautiful sublimnity.

In their beauty they appear, then, elevated above their own corporeal existence; but there is manifest a disagreement between the happy grandeur which resides in their spirituality and their beauty, which is external and corporeal. Spirit appears to be entirely absorbed in the sensuous and yet at the same time, aside form this, to be merged in itself alone; it is, as it were, the moving presence of a deathless god in the midst of mortal men.

Thus, although this contradiction does not appear as a manifest opposition, the harmonious totality conceals in its individual unity a principle of destruction which is found there already expressed. This is that sigh of sadness in the midst of grandeur which men full of sagacity have felt in the presence of the images of the ancient gods, notwithstanding their perfect beauty and the charm shed around them. In their calmness and their serenity they cannot permit themselves to indulge in pleasure, in enjoyment nor in what we especially term satisfaction. The eternal calm must not even extend so far as to admit of a smile nor the pleasing contentment with itself. Satisfaction, properly speaking, is the sentiment which is born of the perfect accord of our soul with its present situation. Napoleon, for example, never expressed his satisfaction more profoundly than when he had attained to something with which all the world was dissatisfied; for true satisfaction is nothing else than the inner approbation which the individual gives himself because of his own acts and personal effort. Its last degree is that commonplace feeling (bourgeois sentiment, Philisterempfindung) of contentment which every man can experience. Now, this sentiment and this expression cannot be granted to the immortal gods of Classic Art.

It is this character of universality in the Greek gods which people have intended to indicate by characterising them as cold. Nevertheless, these figures are cold only in relation to the vivacity of modern sentiment; in themselves they have warmth and life. The divine peace which is reflected in the corporeal form comes from the fact that they are separated from the finite; it is born of their indifference to all that is mortal and transitory. It is an adieu without sadness and without effort, but an adieu to the earth and to this perishable world. In these divine existences the greater the degree in which seriousness and freedom are outwardly manifested, the more distinctly are we made to feel the contrast between their grandeur and their corporeal form. These happy divinities deprecate at once both their felicity and their physical existence. We read their lineaments the destiny which weighs upon their heads, and which, in the measure that its power increases (causing this contradiction between moral grandeur and sensuous reality to become more and more pronounced), draws Classic Art onto its ruin.

(a) the subject-matter of romantic art, at least in relation to the Divine, is very circumscribed. For, first, as we have already indicated above [on pp. 507, 520], nature is emptied of gods; the sea, mountains, valleys, rivers, springs, time and night, as well as the universal processes of nature, have lost their value so far as concerns the presentation and content of the Absolute. Natural formations are no longer augmented symbolically; they have been robbed of their characteristic of having forms and activities capable of being traits of a divinity. For all the great questions about the origin of the world, about the whence, wherefore, and whither of created nature and humanity, and all the symbolic and plastic attempts to solve and represent these problems, have disappeared owing to the revelation of God in the spirit; and even in the spiritual realm the variegated coloured world with its classically shaped characters, actions, and events is gathered up into one ray of the Absolute and its eternal history of redemption.

The entire content [of romantic art] is therefore concentrated on the inner life of the spirit, on feeling, ideas, and the mind which strives after union with the truth, seeks and struggles to generate and preserve the Divine in the subject’s consciousness, and now may not carry through aims and undertakings in the world for the sake of the world but rather has for its sole essential undertaking the inner battle of man in himself and his reconciliation with God; and it brings into representation only the personality and its preservation along with contrivances towards this end. The heroism which may enter here accordingly is no heroism which from its own resources gives laws, establishes organizations, creates and develops situations, but a heroism of submission. It submits to a determinate and cut and dried [system of divine truth] and no task is left to it but to regulate the temporal order by that, to apply what is higher and absolutely valid to the world confronting it, and to make it prevail in the temporal. But since this absolute content appears compressed into one point, i.e. into the subjective heart, so that all process is transported into the inner life of man, the scope of the subject matter is therefore also infinitely extended again. It opens out into a multiplicity without bounds. For although that objective history constitutes the substantial basis of the heart, the artist yet runs through it in every direction, presents single points drawn from it or presents himself in steadily added new human traits; over and above this, he can draw into himself the whole breadth of nature as the surroundings and locality of spirit and devote it to the one great end.

Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics. Volume 1. p48

Even so, there are doubtless examples of completely deceptive copying. The grapes painted by Zeuxis have from antiquity onward been styled a triumph of art and also of the principle of the imitation of nature, because living doves are supposed to have pecked at them. To this ancient example we could add the modern one of Banner’s monkey[30] which ate away a painting of a cock- chafer in Rösel’s Insektbelustigungen [Amusements of Insects] and was pardoned by his master because it had proved the excellence of the pictures in this book, although it had thus destroyed the most beautiful copy of this expensive work. But in such examples and others it must at least occur to us at once that, instead of praising works of art because they have deceived even doves and monkeys, we should just precisely censure those who think of exalting a work of art by predicating so miserable an effect as this as its highest and supreme quality. In sum, however, it must be said that, by mere imitation, art cannot stand in competition with nature, and, if it tries, it looks like worm trying to crawl after an elephant.

Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics. Volume 1. p51/52
Therefore the further question arises: what, then, is the content of art, and why is this content to be portrayed ? In this matter our consciousness confronts us with the common opinion that the task and aim of art is to bring home to our sense, our feeling, and our inspiration everything which has a place in the human spirit. That familiar saying ‘nihil humani a me alienum puto' art is supposed to make real in us.

Its aim therefore is supposed to consist in awakening and vivifying our slumbering feelings, inclinations, and passions of every kind, in filling the heart, in forcing the human being, educated or not, to go through the whole gamut of feelings which the human heart in its inmost and secret recesses can bear, experience, and produce, through what can move and stir the human breast in its depths and manifold possibilities and aspects, and to deliver to feeling and contemplation for its enjoyment whatever the spirit possesses of the essential and lofty in its thinking and in the Idea – the splendour of the noble, eternal, and true: moreover to make misfortune and misery, evil and guilt intelligible, to make men intimately acquainted with all that is horrible and shocking, as well as with all that is pleasurable and felicitous; and, finally, to let fancy loose in the idle plays of imagination and plunge it into the seductive magic of sensuously bewitching visions and feelings.

According to this view this universal wealth of subject-matter art is, on the one hand, to embrace in order to complete the natural experience of our external existence, and, on the other hand, to arouse those passions in general so that the experiences of the life do not leave us unmoved and so that we might now acquired a receptivity for all phenomena. But [on this view] such a stimulus is not given in this field by actual experience itself, but only through pure appearance of it, since art deceptively substitutes its productions for reality. The possibility of this deception through the pure appearance of art rests on the fact that, for man, all reality must come through the medium of perception and ideas, and only through this medium does it penetrate the heart and the will. Now here it is a matter of indifference whether a man’s attention is claimed by immediate external reality or whether this happens in another way, namely through pictures, symbols, and ideas containing in themselves and portraying the material of reality. We can envisage things which are not real as if they were real. Therefore it remains all the same for our feelings whether it is external reality, or only the appearance of it, whereby a situation, a relation, or, in general, a circumstance of life, is brought home to us, in order to make us respond appropriately to the essence of such a matter, whether by grief or rejoicing, whether by being touched or agitated, or whether by making us go through the gamut of the feelings and passions of wrath, hatred, pity, anxiety, fear, love, reverence and admiration, honour and fame.

This arousing of all feelings in us, this drawing of the heart ‘through all the circumstances of life, this actualizing of all these inner movements by means of a purely deceptive externally presented object is above all what is regarded, on the view we have been considering, as the proper and supreme power of art. But now since, on this view, art is supposed to have the vocation of imposing on the heart and the imagination good and bad alike, strengthening man to the noblest ideals and yet enervating him to the most sensuous and selfish feelings of pleasure, art is given a purely formal task; and without any explicitly fixed aim would thus provide only the empty form for every possible kind of content and worth.

6.2.3 Romantic Art
Romantic art, like classical art, is the sensuous expression or manifestation of the freedom of spirit. It is thus capable of genuine beauty. The freedom it manifests, however, is a profoundly inward freedom that finds its highest expression and articulation not in art itself but in religious faith and philosophy. Unlike classical art, therefore, romantic art gives expression to a freedom of the spirit whose true home lies beyond art. If classical art can be compared to the human body which is thoroughly suffused with spirit and life, romantic art can be compared to the human face which discloses the spirit and personality within. Since romantic art actually discloses the inner spirit, however, rather than merely pointing to it, it differs from symbolic art which it otherwise resembles.

Romantic art, for Hegel, takes three basic forms. The first is that of explicitly religious art. It is in Christianity, Hegel contends, that the true nature of spirit is revealed. What is represented in the story of Christ's life, death and resurrection is the idea that a truly divine life of freedom and love is at the same time a fully human life in which we are willing to “die” to ourselves and let go of what is most precious to us. Much religious romantic art, therefore, focuses on the suffering and death of Christ.

Hegel notes that it is not appropriate in romantic art to depict Christ with the idealized body of a Greek god or hero, because what is central to Christ is his irreducible humanity and mortality. Romantic art, therefore, breaks with the classical ideal of beauty and incorporates real human frailty, pain and suffering into its images of Christ (and also of religious martyrs). Indeed, such art can even go to the point of being “ugly” (unschön) in its depiction of suffering (PKÄ, 136).

If, however, romantic art is to fulfill the purpose of art and present true freedom of spirit in the form of beauty, it must show the suffering Christ or suffering martyrs to be imbued with a profound inwardness (Innigkeit) of feeling and a genuine sense of reconciliation (Versöhnung) (PKÄ, 136–7): for such an inward sense of reconciliation, in Hegel's view, is the deepest spiritual freedom. The sensuous expression (in color or words) of this inner sense of reconciliation constitutes what Hegel calls the “beauty of inwardness” or “spiritual beauty” (geistige Schönheit) (PKÄ, 137). Strictly speaking, such spiritual beauty is not as consummately beautiful as classical beauty, in which the spirit and the body are perfectly fused with one another. Spiritual beauty, however, is the product of, and reveals, a much more profound inner freedom of spirit than classical beauty and so moves and engages us much more readily than do the relatively cold statues of Greek gods.

The most profound spiritual beauty in the visual arts is found, in Hegel's view, in painted images of the Madonna and Child, for in these what is expressed is the feeling of boundless love. Hegel had a special affection for the paintings of the Flemish Primitives, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, whose work he saw on his visits to Ghent and Bruges in 1827 (Hegel: The Letters, 661–2), but he also held Raphael in high regard and was particularly moved by the expression of “pious, modest mother-love” in Raphael's Sistine Madonna which he saw in Dresden in 1820 (PKÄ, 39; Pöggeler et al 1981, 142). Greek sculptors portrayed Niobe as simply “petrified in her pain” at the loss of her children. By contrast, the painted images of the Virgin Mary are imbued by van Eyck and Raphael with an “eternal love” and a “soulfulness” that Greek statues can never match (PKÄ, 142, 184).

The second fundamental form of romantic art identified by Hegel depicts what he calls the secular “virtues” of the free spirit (Aesthetics, 1: 553; PKÄ, 135). These are not the ethical virtues displayed by the heroes and heroines of Greek tragedy: they do not involve a commitment to the necessary institutions of freedom, such as the family or the state. Rather, they are the formal virtues of the romantic hero: that is to say, they involve a commitment by the free individual to an object or person determined by the individual's contingent choice or passion.

Such virtues include that of romantic love (which concentrates on a particular, contingent person), loyalty towards an individual (that can change if it is to one's advantage), and courage (which is often displayed in the pursuit of personal ends, such as rescuing a damsel in distress, but can also be displayed in the pursuit of quasi-religious ends, such as the hunt for the Holy Grail) (PKÄ, 143–4).

Such virtues are found primarily in the world of mediaeval chivalry (and are subjected to ridicule, Hegel points out, in Cervantes' Don Quixote) (Aesthetics, 1: 591–2; PKÄ, 150). They can, however, also crop up in more modern works and, indeed, are precisely the virtues displayed in an art-form of which Hegel could know nothing, namely the American Western.

The third fundamental form of romantic art depicts the formal freedom and independence of character. Such freedom is not associated with any ethical principles or, indeed, with any of the formal virtues just mentioned, but consists simply in the “firmness” (Festigkeit) of character (Aesthetics, 1: 577; PKÄ, 145–6). This is freedom in its modern, secular form. It is displayed most magnificently, Hegel believes, by characters, such as Richard III, Othello and Macbeth, in the plays of Shakespeare. Note that what interests us about such individuals is not any moral purpose that they may have, but simply the energy and self-determination (and often ruthlessness) that they exhibit. Such characters must have an internal richness (revealed through imagination and language) and not just be one-dimensional, but their main appeal is their formal freedom to commit themselves to a course of action, even at the cost of their own lives. These characters do not constitute moral or political ideals, but they are the appropriate objects of modern, romantic art whose task is to depict freedom even in its most secular and amoral forms.

Hegel also sees romantic beauty in more inwardly sensitive characters, such as Shakespeare's Juliet. After meeting Romeo, Hegel remarks, Juliet suddenly opens up with love like a rosebud, full of childlike naivety. Her beauty thus lies in being the embodiment of love. Hamlet is a somewhat similar character: far from being simply weak (as Goethe thought), Hamlet, in Hegel's view, displays the inner beauty of a profoundly noble soul (Aesthetics, 1: 583; PKÄ, 147–8).

In Hegel's view, much painting and poetry after the Reformation focuses its attention on the prosaic details of ordinary daily life, rather than on the intimacy of religious love or the magnificent resolve and energy of tragic heroes. To the extent that such works of art no longer aim to give expression to divine or human freedom but seek (apparently at least) to do no more than “imitate nature,” they prompt Hegel to consider whether they still count as “art works” in the strictly philosophical (as opposed to the more generally accepted) sense of the term. In the twentieth century it is the abstract creations of, for example, Jackson Pollock or Carl André that usually provoke the question: “is this art?”. In Hegel's mind, however, it is works that appear to be purely naturalistic and “representational” that raise this question. His view is that such works count as genuine works of art only when they do more than merely imitate nature. The naturalistic and prosaic works that best meet this criterion, he maintains, are the paintings of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch masters.

In such works, Hegel claims, the painter does not aim simply to show us what grapes, flowers or trees look like: we know that already from nature. The painter aims, rather, to capture the—often fleeting—“life” (Lebendigkeit) of things: “the lustre of metal, the shimmer of a bunch of grapes by candlelight, a vanishing glimpse of the moon or the sun, a smile, the expression of a swiftly passing emotion” (Aesthetics, 1: 599). Often, indeed, the painter seeks to delight us specifically with the animated play of the colors of gold, silver, velvet or fur. In such works, Hegel notes, we encounter not just the depiction of things, but “as it were, an objective music, a peal in colour [ein Tönen in Farben]” (Aesthetics, 1: 598–600).

A genuine work of art is the sensuous expression of divine or human freedom and life. Paintings that are no more than prosaic, naturalistic depictions of everyday objects or human activity would thus appear to fall short of genuine art. Dutch artists, however, turn such depictions into true works of art precisely by imbuing objects with “the fullness of life.” In so doing, Hegel claims, they give expression to their own sense of freedom, “comfort” and “contentment” and their own exuberant subjective skill (Aesthetics, 1: 599; PKÄ, 152). The paintings of such artists may lack the classical beauty of Greek art, but they exhibit magnificently the subtle beauties and delights of everyday modern life.

[To the extent that such works of art no longer aim to give expression to divine or human freedom but seek (apparently at least) to do no more than “imitate nature - See the pearse school of heroes and the problem of Naturalism in art]

7. Conclusion

Hegel's aesthetics has been the focus of—often highly critical—attention since his death from philosophers such as Heidegger, Adorno and Gadamer. Much of this attention has been devoted to his supposed theory of the “end” of art. Perhaps Hegel's most important legacy, however, lies in the claims that art's task is the presentation of beauty and that beauty is a matter of content as well as form. Beauty, for Hegel, is not just a matter of formal harmony or elegance; it is the sensuous manifestation in stone, color, sound or words of spiritual freedom and life. Such beauty takes a subtly different form in the classical and romantic periods and also in the different individual arts. In one form or another, however, it remains the purpose of art, even in modernity.

These claims by Hegel are normative, not just descriptive, and impose certain restrictions on what can count as genuine art in the modern age. They are not, however, claims made out of simple conservatism. Hegel is well aware that art can be decorative, can promote moral and political goals, can explore the depths of human alienation or simply record the prosaic details of everyday life, and that it can do so with considerable artistry. His concern, however, is that art that does these things without giving us beauty fails to afford us the aesthetic experience of freedom. In so doing, it deprives us of a central dimension of a truly human life.

Heinrich Heine

To further this aim he published De l'Allemagne ("On Germany") in French (begun 1833). In its later German version, the book is divided into two: Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland ("On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany") and Die romantische Schule ("The Romantic School").

Heine was deliberately attacking Madame de Staël's book De l'Allemagne (1813) which he viewed as reactionary, Romantic and obscurantist. He felt de Staël had portrayed a Germany of "poets and thinkers", dreamy, religious, introverted and cut off from the revolutionary currents of the modern world. Heine thought that such an image suited the oppressive German authorities.

He also had an Enlightenment view of the past, seeing it as mired in superstition and atrocities. "Religion and Philosophy in Germany" describes the replacement of traditional "spiritualist" religion by a pantheism that pays attention to human material needs.

According to Heine, pantheism had been repressed by Christianity and had survived in German folklore. He predicted that German thought would prove a more explosive force than the French Revolution.

Starting from the mid-1820s Heine distanced himself from Romanticism by adding irony, sarcasm and satire into his poetry and making fun of the sentimental-romantic awe of nature and of figures of speech in contemporary poetry and literature. An example are these lines:

Das Fräulein stand am Meere
Und seufzte lang und bang.
Es rührte sie so sehre
der Sonnenuntergang.

Mein Fräulein! Sein sie munter,
Das ist ein altes Stück;
Hier vorne geht sie unter
Und kehrt von hinten zurück.

A mistress stood by the sea
sighing long and anxiously.
She was so deeply stirred
By the setting sun

My Fräulein!, be gay,
This is an old play;
ahead of you it sets
And from behind it returns.

Heine shared liberal enthusiasm for the revolution, which he felt had the potential to overturn the conservative political order in Europe. Heine was also attracted by the prospect of freedom from German censorship and was interested in the new French utopian political doctrine of Saint-Simonianism. Saint-Simonianism preached a new social order in which meritocracy would replace hereditary distinctions in rank and wealth. There would also be female emancipation and an important role for artists and scientists. Heine frequented some Saint-Simonian meetings after his arrival in Paris but within a few years his enthusiasm for the ideology – and other forms of utopianism- had waned.

In October 1843, Heine's distant relative and German revolutionary, Karl Marx, and his wife Jenny von Westphalen arrived in Paris after the Prussian government had suppressed Marx's radical newspaper. The Marx family settled in Rue Vaneau. Marx was an admirer of Heine and his early writings show Heine's influence. In December Heine met the Marxes and got on well with them. He published several poems, including Die schlesischen Weber, in Marx's new journal Vorwärts ("Forwards"). Ultimately Heine's ideas of revolution through sensual emancipation and Marx's scientific socialism were incompatible, but both writers shared the same negativity and lack of faith in the bourgeoisie.


Heinrich Heine
The Romantic school

But what was the Romantic School in Germany?
It was nothing else than the reawakening of the poetry of the middle ages as it manifested itself in the poems, paintings, and sculptures, in the art and life of those times.
This poetry, however, had been developed out of Christianity; it was a passion-flower which had blossomed from the blood of Christ.

In the secular poetry we find, as intimated above, first, the cycle of legends called the Nibelungenlied, and the Book of Heroes. In these poems all the ante-Christian modes of thought and feelings are dominant; brute force is not yet moderated into chivalry; the sturdy warriors of the North stand like statues of stone, and the soft light and moral atmosphere of Christianity have not yet penetrated their iron armour. But dawn is gradually breaking over the old German forests, the ancient Druid oaks are being felled, and in the open arena Christianity and Paganism are battling: all this is portrayed in the cycle of traditions of Charlemagne; even the Crusades with their religious tendencies are mirrored therein.

Classic art had to portray only the finite, and its forms could be identical with the artist's idea. Romantic art had to represent, or rather to typify, the infinite and the spiritual, and therefore was compelled to have recourse to a system of traditional, or rather parabolic, symbols, just as Christ himself had endeavoured to explain and make clear his spiritual meaning through beautiful parables. Hence the mystic, enigmatical, miraculous, and transcendental character of the art-productions of the middle ages. Fancy strives frantically to portray through concrete images that which is purely spiritual, and in the vain endeavour invents the most colossal absurdities; it piles Ossa on Pelion, Parcival on Titurel, to reach heaven.

But even they, the painters, were compelled to disfigure the patient canvas with the most revolting representations of physical suffering. In truth, when we view certain picture galleries, and behold nothing but scenes of blood, scourgings, and executions, we are fain to believe that the old masters painted these pictures for the gallery of an executioner.

It was against this literature that, in the closing years of the last century, there arose in Germany a new school, which we have designated the Romantic School. At the head of this school stand the brothers August William and Frederic Schlegel. Jena, where these two brothers, together with many kindred spirits, were wont to come and go, was the central point from which the new æsthetic dogma radiated. I advisedly say dogma, for this school began with a criticism of the art productions of the past, and with recipes for the art works of the future.

But if the Schlegels could give no definite, reliable theory for the masterpieces which they bespoke of the poets of their school, they atoned for these shortcomings by commending as models the best works of art of the past, and by making them accessible to their disciples. These were chiefly the Christian-Catholic productions of the middle ages.

For the works of Calderon bear most distinctly the impress of the poetry of the middle ages—particularly of the two principal epochs of knight-errantry and monasticism. The pious comedies of the Castilian priest-poet, whose poetical flowers had been besprinkled with holy water and canonical perfumes, with all their pious grandezza, with all their sacerdotal splendour, with all their sanctimonious balderdash, were now set up as models, and Germany swarmed with fantastically-pious, insanely-profound poems, over which it was the fashion to work one's self into a mystic ecstasy of admiration, as in The Devotion to the Cross, or to fight in honour of the Madonna, as in The Constant Prince.

[On Nationalism]
We would have submitted to Napoleon quietly enough, but our princes, while they hoped for deliverance through Heaven, were at the same time not unfriendly to the thought, that the united strength of their subjects might be very useful in effecting their purpose. Hence they sought to awaken in the German people a sense of homogeneity, and even the most exalted personages now spoke of a German nationality, of a common German fatherland, of a union of the Christian-Germanic races, of the unity of Germany. We were commanded to be patriotic, and straightway we became patriots,—for we always obey when our princes command.

But it must not be supposed that the word "patriotism" means the same in Germany as in France. The patriotism of the French consists in this: the heart warms; through this warmth it expands; it enlarges so as to encompass, with its all-embracing love, not only the nearest and dearest, but all France, all civilisation. The patriotism of the Germans, on the contrary, consists in narrowing and contracting the heart, just as leather contracts in the cold; in hating foreigners; in ceasing to be European and cosmopolitan, and in adopting a narrow-minded and exclusive Germanism. We beheld this ideal empire of churlishness organised into a system by Herr Jahn; with it began the crusade of the vulgar, the coarse, the great unwashed—against the grandest and holiest idea ever brought forth in Germany, the idea of humanitarianism; the idea of the universal brotherhood of mankind, of cosmopolitanism—an idea to which our great minds, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Jean Paul, and all people of culture in Germany, have ever paid homage.

The Romantic School at that time went hand in hand with the machinations of the government and the secret societies, and A. W. Schlegel conspired against Racine with the same aim that Minister Stein plotted against Napoleon. This school of literature floated with the stream of the times; that is to say, with the stream that flowed backwards to its source. When finally German patriotism and nationality were victorious, the popular Teutonic-Christian-romantic school, "the new-German-religious-patriotic art-school," triumphed also. Napoleon, the great classic, who was as classic as Alexander or Cæsar, was overthrown, and August William and Frederic Schlegel, the petty romanticists, who were as romantic as Tom Thumb and Puss in Boots, strutted about as victors.

When it was seen how these young people made obeisance, as it were, to the Roman Catholic Church, and pressed their way into ancient prisons of the mind, from which their fathers had so valiantly liberated themselves, much misgiving was felt in Germany. But when it was discovered that this propaganda was the work of priests and aristocrats, who had conspired against the religious and political liberties of Europe; when it was seen that it was Jesuitism itself which was seeking, with the dulcet tones of Romanticism, to lure the youth of Germany to their ruin, after the manner of the mythical rat-catcher of Hamelin; when all this became known, there was great excitement and indignation in Germany among the friends of Protestantism and intellectual freedom.

Even if the Protestant Church may be charged with a certain odious narrow-mindedness, yet to its immortal honour be it said, that by allowing the right of free investigation in the Christian religion, and by liberating the minds of men from the yoke of authority, it made it possible for free-thought to strike root in Germany, and for science to develop an independent existence.

All the friends of intellectual freedom and the Protestant Church, sceptics as well as orthodox, simultaneously arose against the restoration of Catholicism, and, as a matter of course, the Liberals, who were not specially concerned either for the welfare of the Protestant Church or of philosophy, but for the interests of civil liberty, also joined the ranks of this opposition.

Johann Heinrich Voss, the venerable man of three-score and ten, publicly entered the lists against the friend of his youth, and wrote the little book, Wie Ward Fritz Stolberg ein Unfreier? In it he analysed Stolberg's whole life, and showed how the aristocratic tendency in the nature of his old comrade had always existed, and that after the events of the French Revolution that tendency had steadily become more pronounced; that Stolberg had secretly joined an association of the nobility, which had for its purpose to counteract the French ideas of liberty; that these nobles entered into a league with the Jesuits; that they sought, through the re-establishment of Catholicism, to advance also the interests of the nobility: he exposed in general the ways and means by which the reactionists were seeking to bring about the restoration of the Christian-Catholic-feudal middle ages, and the destruction of Protestant intellectual freedom and the political rights of the commonalty.

I know not if this novel has been translated into French. It is the story of a lovely water-fairy who has no soul, and who only acquires one by falling in love with an earthly knight. But, alas! with this soul she also learns human sorrows. Her knightly spouse becomes faithless, and she kisses him dead. For in this book death also is only a kiss.
This "Undine" may be regarded as the muse of Fouqué's poetry. Although she is indescribably beautiful, although she suffers as we do, and earthly sorrows weigh full heavily upon her, she is yet no real human being. But our age turns away from all fairy-pictures, no matter how beautiful. It demands the figures of actual life; and least of all will it tolerate water-fays who fall in love with noble knights. This reactionary tendency, this continual praise of the nobility, this incessant glorification ofthe feudal system, this everlasting knight-errantry balderdash, became at length distasteful to the educated portion of the German middle classes, and they turned their backs on the minstrel who sang so out of time. In fact, this everlasting sing-song of armours, battle-steeds, high-born maidens, honest guild-masters, dwarfs, squires, castles, chapels, minnesingers, faith, and whatever else that rubbish of the middle ages may be called, wearied us; and as the ingenuous hidalgo Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué became more and more immersed in his books of chivalry, and, wrapped up in the reveries of the past, he ceased to understand the present, and then even his best friends were compelled to turn away from him with dubious head-shakings.

What then seemed to me so grand: all that chivalry and Catholicism; those cavaliers that hack and hew at each other in knightly tournaments; those gentle squires and virtuous dames of high degree; the Norseland heroes and minnesingers; the monks and nuns; ancestral tombs thrilling with prophetic powers; colourless passion, dignified by the high-sounding title of renunciation, and set to the accompaniment of tolling bells; a ceaseless whining of the Miserere; how distasteful all that has become to me since then!



For the rest, I read Saint-Beuve’s book on Chateaubriand, a writer whom I have always found repugnant. The man is celebrated in France, because in every respect he is the most classical incarnation of French vanité, a vanité clothed not in light, frivolous eighteenth-century garb, but draped in romanticism and prancing about in newly coined phrases. Such false profundity, Byzantine exaggeration, flirtation with emotion, motley Schillerism, word painting, theatrical sublime, or to put it concisely, such a hodge-podge of lies has never before been achieved, neither in form, nor in content.

These are, on the one hand, the pronounced Radicals, who are almost Chartists, such as a few members of the House of Commons, the manufacturers Hindley of Ashton, and Fielden of Todmorden (Lancashire), and, on the other hand, the philanthropic Tories, who have recently constituted themselves "Young England", among whom are the Members of Parliament, Disraeli, Borthwick, Ferrand, Lord John Manners, etc., Lord Ashley, too, is in sympathy with them. The hope of "Young England" is a restoration of the old "merry England" with its brilliant features and its romantic feudalism. This object is of course unattainable and ridiculous, a satire upon all historic development; but the good intention, the courage to resist the existing state of things and prevalent prejudices, and to recognise the vileness of our present condition, is worth something anyhow.

Moreover, Ruge was not the porter of German Enlightenment, he was the Nicolai of modern German philosophy and thus was able to conceal the natural banality of his genius behind a thick hedge of speculative jargon. Like Nicolai he fought valiantly against Romanticism because Hegel had demolished it philosophically in the aesthetics and Heine had done the same thing from the point of view of literature in The Romantic School. Unlike Hegel he agreed with Nicolai in arrogating to himself the right as an anti-Romantic to set up a vulgar Philistinism and above all his own Philistinic self as an ideal of perfection. With this in mind and so as to defeat the enemy on his own ground Ruge went in for making verses. No Dutchman could have achieved the dull flatness of these poems which Ruge hurled so challengingly into the face of Romanticism.

We repeat once again: our estates have fulfilled their function as such, but far be it from us to desire to justify them on that account. In them, the Rhinelander ought to have been victorious over the estate, the human being ought to have been victorious over the forest owner. They themselves are legally entrusted not only with the representation of particular interests but also with the representation of the interests of the province, and however contradictory these two tasks may be, in case of conflict there should not be a moment's delay in sacrificing representation of particular interest to representation of the interests of the province. The sense of right and legality is the most important provincial characteristic of the Rhinelander. But it goes without saying that a particular interest, caring no more for the province than it does for the Fatherland, has also no concern for local spirit, any more than for the general spirit. In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.

Art for Art's Sake


Gimme your body
Gimme your mind
Open your heart
Pull down the blind
Gimme your love gimme it all
Gimme in the kitchen gimme in the hall
Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Art for Arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Gimme the readys
Gimme the cash
Gimme a bullet
Gimme a smash
Gimme a silver gimme a gold
Make it a million for when I get old
Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Art for Arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Money talks so listen to it
Money talks to me
Anyone can understand it
Money can't be beat Oh no
When you get down, down to the root
Don't give a damn don't give a hoot
Still gotta keep makin the loot
Chauffeur driven
Gotta make her quick as you can
Give her lovin' make you a man
Get her in the palm of your hand
Bread from Heaven
Gimme a country
Where I can be free
Don't need the unions
Strangling me
Keep me in exile the rest of my days
Burn me in hell but as long as it pays
Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake

Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake
Songwriters: Eric Stewart / Graham Gouldman
Art for Art's Sake lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Schubert Music Publishing Inc.

Art for art's sake
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about the English expression. For the 10cc song, see Art for Art's Sake (song). For the 1938 Swedish film, see Art for Art's Sake (film).

"Art for art's sake" is the usual English rendering of a French slogan from the early 19th century, "l'art pour l'art", and expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only "true" art, is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function. Such works are sometimes described as "autotelic", from the Greek autoteles, "complete in itself", a concept that has been expanded to embrace "inner-directed" or "self-motivated" human beings.

The term is sometimes used commercially. A Latin version of this phrase, "ARS GRATIA ARTIS", is used as a motto by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the circle around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in its motion picture logo.

"Art for art's sake" was a bohemian creed in the nineteenth century, a slogan raised in defiance of those who – from John Ruskin to the much later Communist advocates of socialist realism – thought that the value of art was to serve some moral or didactic purpose. It was a rejection of the marxist aim of politicising art. "Art for art's sake" affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification – and indeed, was allowed to be morally neutral or subversive.

In fact, James McNeill Whistler wrote the following in which he discarded the accustomed role of art in the service of the state or official religion, which had adhered to its practice since the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century: "Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone [...] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like."[3]

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that there is no art for art’s sake, arguing that the artist still expresses his/her being through it:

When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless — in short, l'art pour l'art, a worm chewing its own tail. "Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!" — that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer? With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this merely a "moreover"? an accident? something in which the artist's instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist's ability? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life? Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l'art pour l'art?[4]

Criticism by Marxists

Marxists have argued that art should be politicised for the sake of transmitting the socialist message[5].

George Sand, who was a socialist writer[6][7], wrote in 1872 that L'art pour l'art was an empty phrase, an idle sentence. She asserted that artists had a "duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible," ensuring that their works were accessible enough to be appreciated.[8]

Former Senegal president and head of the Socialist Party of Senegal Leopold Senghor and anti colonial Africanist writer Chinua Achebe have criticised the slogan as being a limited and Eurocentric view on art and creation. In "Black African Aesthetics," Senghor argues that "art is functional" and that "in black Africa, 'art for art's sake' does not exist." Achebe is more scathing in his collection of essays and criticism entitled Morning Yet on Creation Day, where he asserts that "art for art's sake is just another piece of deodorised dog shit" (sic).[9]

Walter Benjamin, one of the developers of Marxist hermeneutics[10], discusses the slogan in his seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." He first mentions it in regard to the reaction within the realm of traditional art to innovations in reproduction, in particular photography. He even terms the "L'art pour l'art" slogan as part of a "theology of art" in bracketing off social aspects. In the Epilogue to the essay Benjamin discusses the links between fascism and art. His main example is that of Futurism and the thinking of its mentor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. One of the slogans of the Futurists was "Fiat ars - pereat mundus" ("Let art be created, though the world perish"). Provocatively, Benjamin concludes that as long as fascism expects war "to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology," then this is the "consummation," the realization, of "L'art pour l'art."[11]

Diego Rivera, who in life was a member of the Mexican Communist Party and "a supporter of the revolutionary cause"[12], claims that the "art for art's sake" theory would further divide the rich from the poor. Rivera goes on to say that since one of the characteristics of so called "pure art" was that it could only be appreciated by a few superior people, the art movement would strip art from its value as a social tool and ultimately make art into a currency-like item that would only be available to the rich. [13]

Former Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong said: "There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine."[14]


Marxist Theory and The Enlightenment

Published on Wednesday, 14 October 2009 13:51
Written by Soma Marik

I. What was the Enlightenment?

Over two centuries ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay entitled ‘Was ist Aufklarung?’ [What is the Enlightenment?]. For Kant, the Enlightenment represented an age when human consciousness was liberated from ignorance and error, culminating in a full understanding of nature as well as the human self.

As a great turning point in the struggle for human rights, The Enlightenment turned philosophy into a vehicle for social and political reform. It was an international phenomenon with a political and ideological dynamic whose core values derived from the scientific revolution, and the liberalism of the 17th century.

The main figures of the Enlightenment were from the major European countries and from British North America. They ranged from the Isaac Newton and John Locke, whose works provided many of the key stimulants for the Enlightenment, to David Hume and Edward Gibbon in England, François Marie Arouet Voltaire, Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Jacques Turgot and Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet in France, the Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Germans Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Kant and Johann Gottfried von Herder, and the American Benjamin Franklin. Slightly less influential but important figures included Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Jeremy Bentham, the Italian Cesare Beccaria, the systematizer of political economy Adam Smith, as well as a number of other Scots, and the first makers of a constitution providing civil liberties--- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Sam Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. They shared the broad perspective of criticizing the ancient regime, of striving to emancipate humanity through knowledge, education and science, from superstition, theological dogma, and clerical control. The Enlightenment’s chief and linked targets werefeudal absolutism and religious dogmatism. As Diderot wrote in 1771, the characteristic spirit of the century, as visualized by the philosophes, was liberty.

For sections of the Enlightenment, there was a commitment to republicanism, tolerance, and experimentation. Despite limitations it was universal in its rhetoric, and this enabled wider masses of the “third estate” a new sense of their rights and their dignity. Emphasizing separation of Church and state, Liberalism proposed secular responses to the sufferings of the people, in opposition to organized religion and its claims. It tried to replace prejudice and force by reasoned responses to grievances. While liberalism was firmly committed to bourgeois class power, it was also to initiate a concern with constraining the arbitrary exercise of power of the state. Liberalism in England was produced in response to royalist absolutism as well as democracy. For the Whigs led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, it was necessary to forge an alliance with former Cromwellians and even former Levelers, while ensuring that political power was retained by the bourgeoisie. The political theory put forward by Locke, one of Shaftesbury’s associates, identified the public domain with “political society” or the state and the private domain with the interplay of particular interests and private property in “civil society.” And the state should engage in only the most important tasks and essentially leave “civil society” to run its course. He made certain abstract assumptions about human nature, identified them with the rising bourgeoisie, and drew the consequences for politics, namely, the fact that protection of property was the reason for forming the state. He acknowledged the right of people to resistance if the executive power overstepped its limits. But by making a distinction between express consent and tacit consent, he created a separation between the bourgeoisie and the subaltern classes. But all citizens were to retain the rights to “life, liberty, and property”, which would later receive a slightly different expression in the American Declaration of Independence as the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Locke also anticipated Montesquieu in making a case for the separation of powers. However, the universalist claims were elided by the exclusion of the propertyless, of atheists, Catholics and women. Despite the exclusion of Catholics and atheists from full citizenship, however, Locke, in his ‘letter on toleration,’ argued in favor of toleration as the prudent way to deal with differences and dogmatism. Locke was actually quite moderate and he ultimately separated the rights of the bourgeoisie and the rights of wage-workers. But his liberalism was couched in terms acceptable to the radicals whom Shaftesbury wanted to bring into alliance (e.g., former Levelers), and therefore was capable of being interpreted as arguing that grievances of the weak and exploited demand rational adjudication, failing which revolution becomes legitimate.

The Enlightenment was also deeply influenced by Rene Descartes and Newton, and the idea that scientific method should be applicable to all walks of life developed. Newton established the dynamic view of the universe in place of the static one that had dominated ancient and medieval Europe. This transformation, combined with his atomism, showed that Newton was in unconscious harmony with the economic and social world of his time, in which static feudal hierarchy was giving way to dynamic capitalism and individual enterprise. Indeed, the most immediate effect of his ideas was in the economic and political field. Through Locke and Hume, these ideas were to create the general skepticism of authority and of a divinely constituted social order, while strengthening belief in laissez-faire. The war of words between Catholics and various shades of reformed churches brought the bible into question, assisted by the growth of critical scholarship. Uncritical acceptance of the letter of the bible was giving way to increasing questioning of revealed religion. Pierre Bayle, an unorthodox Huguenot, wrote a Dictionnaire that gave prominence to such questions.

II. A Science of Man

Central to the Enlightenment was a search for a Science of Man, analogous to the science of nature. La Mettrie and other materialists, who denied the existence of an independent soul, wanted to develop a science of physiology to understand man. Locke, Helvetius and others sought to understand the thinking process. Giambattista Vico and Gibbon were concerned with history. Montesquieu and Hume were among those who thought the important thing was to analyze the political and economic laws governing the relationships between society and the individual. Hume expressed this most clearly in his desire to create a science of politics and to be the ‘Newton of the moral science’.

The developments in astronomy, cosmology, and physics had destroyed the harmonies of geocentric universe. The earth had ended up as a tiny planet displaced from the center of the universe. The new mechanical philosophy of the scientists saw nature as a network of particles governed by mathematically expressible universal laws. This was a massive triumph of investigation and conceptualization through a procedure whereby experimentation and first-hand experience, and the regularity of nature would be used to reveal the laws of human existence as a conscious being in society. The Enlightenment stress on humans mastering nature had a dual characteristic. On one hand, it meant a confidence in human progress through science. On the other hand, it also meant, when extended too far, a non-recognition that humans are part of the natural world, and a potential for damaging the environment. Voltaire emphasized in his Lettres philosophiques, that Newton’s achievement truly demonstrated that science was the key to human progress. In England, the fact that the bourgeoisie was well entrenched in power meant an ideological compromise with religion, admirably expressed in Alexander Pope’s epitaph on Newton (“God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light”).

*Robert Boyle, a founder of modern chemistry, created by his Will the Boyle lectures, designed to prove that God and Christianity were compatible with the new science. This was a firm rejection of consistent materialism.

But in the continent, a more radical program of critique was developed, based on an assumption about the human capacity for progress. Christianity had characterized humans as irremediably flawed due to the ‘original sin’. Enlightenment dismissed such an approach as unscientific, and argued also that passions like love, desire, pride and ambition were not necessarily evil. ‘Private vice’, it was argued, could provide ‘public benefits’. Helvetius and Bentham developed a psychological approach whereby enlightened social policy should encourage enlightened self-interest to ensure the greatest good of the greatest number. The Scottish political economist Adam Smith developed similar ideas in the case of economics. To change humankind, it was necessary and possible to educate them. From Locke onwards, the Enlightenment therefore sought to develop better education.

V. The Enlightenment and Revolution

There had existed from Edmund Burke onwards,a conspiracy theory that the Enlightenment had conspired to bring about the French Revolution. This is no longer held by any serious historian. Yet the Enlightenment certainly played a more complex role in the Atlantic Revolutions. The American Enlightenment began from the 1690s, and culminated in the 1730s. Apart from the European Enlightenment, the Americans also had a strong influence of the Puritans in their Enlightenment. Puritan colleges played an important role in the development of new thinking. A desire for new knowledge led people to push for developments in science as well as politics. Explorations and their reports formed one way in which the Americans participated in the scientific community. At the same time, such explorations had the motive of gathering, classifying and systematizing knowledge about the colonies. A different and important kind of contribution to the scientific community came from Franklin and his experiments on electricity, showing that all electricity was one, rather than there being different types of electricity. Franklin was convinced that new scientific discoveries like electricity should be put to use for the improvement of human life. Franklin was also a major political figure in the American colonies, and was a member of the Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The most influential aspects of the American Enlightenment were political developments. The ideas of the American Enlightenment led to America's independence and the principles of the United States Constitution. Through Enlightenment ideals people began to think that a ruler had to be held accountable to higher laws. The ideas of James Harrington, Locke, Hume and others were translated by American political thinkers and leaders like Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and James Madison to debate the nature of representative government and the rights of states, and of individuals. The Bill of Rights, like the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, is a fundamentally Enlightenment document.

Pateman (1988) has broadened the scope of the feminist critique by arguing that the entire social contract theory was founded on an ‘original contract’made by brothers, literally or metaphorically, who, after overthrowing the rule of the father, then agree to share their domination of the women who were previously under the exclusive control of one man, the father.

In the same way, the Enlightenment was in practice a class bound project. Yet however bourgeois the Enlightenment project, seeing égalité as a property-based legal right rather than as a social condition of fulfillment, even that proclamation was possible only as an act of revolution overcoming the feudal order, where fixity of social status and superstition, absolutism and religious hierarchy had been central. Marxism clearly sought to radicalize Enlightenment rationality, extending its concept of equality and progress not to certain privileged sectors but to the whole of humanity. Marx built on Enlightenment idealism (in its continuation in Hegel), to create its opposite, historical materialism. Marxism sought to see history in terms of class structure, and to argue that progress does not end with the coming to power of the bourgeoisie, but extends forward till the emancipation of all humanity. This does not mean that Marxist view of historical materialism denies all power to other categories like gender and race. Marxist practice repeatedly demonstrated that. The influence of Marxism was evident in the first International’s support to the abolition of slavery by the U.S. government under Abraham Lincoln. Marx and Engels supported the Indian revolt of 1857. It was the Communist International, that sought to relate the class struggle of the proletariat to the struggles for national liberation in the colonies. Classical Marxism began developing a concept of women’s liberation that, while perhaps not complete from a contemporary viewpoint, went well beyond anything liberal feminism of the 19th century had to offer. By linking the struggle for socialism with the struggle for women’s emancipation, it redefined not just women’s liberation but also socialism. But the point about class struggle cannot be minimized, or reduced to one among many factors. Marx extends the universalism of the Enlightenment by seeking to create a society of associated producers, where the denial of humanity will be overcome, and the coerced alienation of production will be ended.

Finally, the Enlightenment has been criticized for being Eurocentric. Yet this is only partly true. The radical heirs of the Enlightenment extended its scope. The French Revolution did extend human rights to blacks during its radical phase.

*Rightwing attacks on the Enlightenment began with resistance to revolution, democracy or simple toleration, and was pushed forward by among other institutions the Catholic Church. Racists who tried to view world history as a battle between Aryans and Jews, like Houston Stewart Chamberlain likewise rejected the Enlightenment. With the Russian Revolution, and Marxism claiming globally the mantle of the radical Enlightenment, attacks on the Enlightenment sharpened further. The Nazi “revolution” not only used massive repression to smash the proletariat, but also proclaimed the rejection of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. This denial paved the way for the Holocaust. It is worth remembering that Nazism was a conscious opposite of the democratic principles of the 1848 revolution, principles which were inspired by Lessing’s views. Rightwing attacks on Marxism and the Russian Revolution broadened, even in the academic field, during the Cold War, to include the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.


Ideas that shaped Romanticism:


Inside The Medieval Mind


Leading authority on the Middle Ages, Professor Robert Bartlett, presents a series which examines the way we thought during medieval times.



To our forebears, the world could appear mysterious and even enchanted, with sightings of green men, dog heads and alien beings commonplace. But as the Middle Ages grew to a close, it became a place to be mastered, even exploited.

OU on the BBC: Inside The Medieval Mind - Knowledge
Updated Monday 16th April 2012

Explore the way medieval eyes saw the world – a place of mystery, enchantment, culminating in birth of the modern world and the discovery of America.

In Knowledge, Professor Bartlett explores the way medieval man understood the world as a place of mystery, even enchantment - a book written by God.

The medieval world was full of marvels as revealed through medieval sources. He unearths records of strange sightings of fish men caught off the coast of Suffolk, or green men in Essex. Travelling to Hereford Cathedral he decodes the Mappa Mundi, with its three continents (Europe, Africa and Asia) and its strange beasts thought to exist on the periphery of the earth: hermaphrodites, unicorns, men with the heads of dogs.

Medieval science was not nonsense: it was known that the world was round, for example. But for medieval man it was possible to attribute both a natural and a divine cause to a single event – an eclipse could be caused by the movement of the planets and be a sign from God.

In a medieval chained library Robert explains how for hundreds of years learning remained (almost literally) in the hands of monks and how the monopoly was challenged with the discovery of the classical learning of Aristotle, and of Arabic science, in the great libraries of Spain, seized by Christian soldiers in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Though theologians like Thomas Aquinas worked hard to reconcile classical learning with Christian teaching, scientists such as Roger Bacon pushed back the frontiers of knowledge in favour of a more evidence-based analysis of the world.

Marco Polo and other travellers returned with amazing tales of the East, signalling the beginning of the end for the established medieval world view. They found not dog-heads but great civilisations.

When Columbus sailed off to find a new route to the East he was helped by all the new technology of the time – better sailing ships, gunpowder, compasses. As the Middle Ages grew to a close, the world had become a place not to be contemplated, but mastered, even exploited.


Bartlett unearths remarkable evidence of the complex passions of Medieval men and women. The Church preached hatred of the flesh, promoted the cult of virginity and condemned woman as the sinful heir to Eve. Yet this was the era that gave birth to the idea of romantic love.

OU on the BBC: Inside The Medieval Mind - Sex
Updated Monday 23rd April 2012

Unearth remarkable evidence of the complex passions of medieval men and women in the medieval world, as Robert Bartlett explores Sex.

In Sex, we unearth remarkable evidence of the complex passions of medieval men and women.

On the one hand, there was a down-to-earth approach you might expect in a peasant society; on the other was an obsessive abhorrence of desire grounded in religious fervour. Professor Robert Bartlett explores the subject using medieval sources, and quotes some of the questions the 11th century Church recommended priests to ask their parishioners: "Have you committed fornication with your step-mother, your sister-in-law, your son’s fiancée, your mother?"

Medieval knowledge about sexual difference was rudimentary and governed by a misogyny rooted in the Bible. Eve was the cause of original sin for tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden. An early church father had this to say to women: "The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still upon the world. You are guilty – you must bear its hardships. You are the Devil’s gateway".

The Church preached hatred of the flesh and promoted the cult of virginity. Robert tells of the compelling story of Christina of Markyate who defied her parents and her husband to maintain her chastity.

And yet it was the medieval world that gave birth to the modern concept of romantic love. 12th century troubadours began to sing songs of love to women who were to be adored. For the upper classes at least, the rules of love were reinvented in lengthy treatises, the heroes and heroines of love celebrated in poems: Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult.

Robert tells the tragic story of the real life lovers Abelard and Héloise – Abelard the great scholar, Héloise the niece of a canon at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Their love letters from the 12th century are astonishing in their frankness, passion and willingness to break conventions.


Our forebears believed they shared the world with the dead and that angels and demons battled for control of human souls. As the church's grip on our beliefs increased, men and women were dragged before religious courts and multitudes were killed in the name of God.

OU on the BBC: Inside The Medieval Mind - Belief
Updated Monday 30th April 2012

How the world of religion, the supernatural, the cult of the saints and the Crusades shaped the Medieval Mind.

In Belief, Robert Bartlett explores belief in the supernatural. The medieval dead shared the world with the living: encounters with the dead and visions of the next world ensured a two-way traffic between this world and the next. Robert uses medieval sources to create a keen sense of the after-life.

The cult of the saints was part of the medieval preoccupation with death. The holy dead were active in their intercession for the living, and their relics were prized. Robert explores this preoccupation through one of the few medieval relics in Britain, the skull of St Simon Stock at Aylesford Priory.

The Church governed the lives of the faithful through its teachings and in the sacraments, which Robert explores in a visit to Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, where the prayers of medieval monks held the devil at bay.

The programme explores how from the 11th Century, the church became increasingly hostile towards outsiders, exemplified in the First Crusade and the so-called Muslim ‘infidels’. A legacy Robert explores in the Temple Church of the crusading Knights Templar in London. Closer to home, the Jewish community comes under scrutiny, culminating in the massacre at York in 1190, while a growing number of reformers such as John Wycliff and the Lollards face persecution as a threat to the established belief of the Church.


Bartlett lays bare the brutal framework of the medieval class system, where inequality was part of the natural order, the life of serfs little better than those of animals and the knight's code of chivalry more one of caste solidarity than morality. Yet a social revolution would transform relations between those with absolute power and those with none.

OU on the BBC: Inside The Medieval Mind - Power
Updated Monday 7th May 2012

The brutal framework of the medieval class system is laid bare, in the programme Power

In Power, Professor Robert Bartlett lays bare the brutal framework of the medieval class system. Inequality was as part of the natural order, the life of serfs little better than those of animals, the knight’s code of chivalry more one of caste solidarity than morality. The class you were born into determined who you were.

There were three classes, or estates: those who pray (the clergy), those who fight (the aristocratic warrior class of knights) and those who work (everybody else – in practice, usually serfs on a knight’s estate).

Robert looks at the penalties to be paid by serfs who ran away, and describes the harsh laws which protected the hunting rights of the king in the vast forests of medieval Britain.

Medieval lords were not so much landlords as warriors. Their land was given to them by the king precisely because they were warriors and supported him in military campaigns. Fighting was in their blue blood.

These knights followed the international codes of chivalry – a word today synonymous with gallantry and noble behaviour. Knights could behave nobly, but it was generally towards their own class.

To hold such a violent society together was no easy task. It would need divine help. As Robert explains in Westminster Abbey, that is just what medieval kings had – at the ceremony of the Coronation the new monarch was anointed with holy oil, signifying his divinely sanctioned right to rule.

But this rigid order was fatally undermined by the Black Death, creating a labour shortage which resulted in the serf achieving higher wages and geographical mobility. At Blackheath and at the Tower of London learn how the drama of the Peasants’ Revolt unfolded, when the despised third estate – those who work – began to taste a new freedom.

Inside The Medieval Mind: Power was first broadcast on BBC Four, May 8th, 2008. For further broadcast details, and to watch online where available, visit




Romanticism and the Rise of the Superheroes: Who are the Saviours of the Oppressed?

Myth, Reification, Tradition, Modern

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.

— Paul Anka, My Way

Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.

— Lowell Mill girls protest song in 1836 strike.

The rise of the superheroes in cinema is demonstrated by the proliferation of superhero films today and is a phenomenon that is unprecedented in culture. Many superhero films are based on superhero comics while some are original for the screen, some are based on animated television series, and others are based on Japanese manga and television shows.

This essay will look at the history and origins of superheroes in Romantic ideas, comparing them to an opposing ideology of working class heroes who compete with superheroes for the attention of the oppressed masses who are to be ‘freed’ and/or saved, especially in the 20th century.

According to Cooper Hood in Screen Rant:

2019 will be the year of superhero movies, seeing the release of a record-setting amount: a whopping eleven films. As the superhero movie craze continues, next year looks poised to be the prime example of how invested Hollywood as a whole really is. There’s the usual amount of Marvel movies, but increased output from Warner Bros. and DC, as well as some final Fox X-Men titles. All of these make up an astonishing ten confirmed 2019 superhero movies.

This is nearly double the 2018 output of six live-action superhero movies: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man & the Wasp, Venom and Aquaman.

Superheroes take their inspiration from earlier heroes such as Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel but the idea originates in Romantic ideas about heroes that save the world and the powers of the superhero.

Despite their designation as science fiction, superheroes have their ideological roots in the anti-science, individualistic philosophy of Romanticism.

What is Romanticism?

Romanticism is a movement in the arts and literature that emphasises inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual and originated in the late 18th century. It was also a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, and in particular, the scientific rationalization of nature — all components of modernity.

In the The Roots of Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin discusses the Romantic’s negative view of science:

The only persons who have ever made sense of reality are those who understand that to try to circumscribe things, to try to nail them down, to try to describe them, no matter how scrupulously, is a vain task. This will be true not only of science, which does this by means of the most rigorous generalisations of (to the Romantics) the most external and empty kind, but even of scrupulous writers, scrupulous describers of experience – realists, naturalists, those who belong to the school of the flow of consciousness, [e.g. Proust and Tolstoy] labour under the illusion that it is possible once and for all to write down, to describe, to give any finality to the process which they are trying to catch, which they are trying to nail down, unreality and fantasy will result.1

Thus the Romantics fundamentally oppose the general values and objectives of science and in particular Realist and Naturalist artists who use scientific knowledge or methods to develop their art. It goes without saying then that on a philosophical level scientific ideas about the progress of mankind are also rejected by the Romantics.

This is because for the Romantics, “new abysses open, and these abysses open to yet other abysses.”1 However, scientists understand that new abysses open as they dig deeper into new levels of understanding. Yet, they are not afraid and they don’t throw up their hands in frustration or despair: they see these discoveries as new paths and concepts also to be explored fearlessly.

Berlin believes that one of the most influential writers against the science-based Enlightenment and who began the Romantic backlash was Johann Georg Hamann who believed, according to Berlin, that “the sciences were very well for their own purposes” but that:

this is not what men ultimately sought. If you asked yourself what were men after, what did men really want, you would see that what they really wanted was not at all what Voltaire supposed they wanted. Voltaire thought that they wanted happiness, contentment, peace, but this was not true. What men wanted was for all their faculties to play in the richest and most violent possible fashion. What men wanted was to create, what men wanted was to make, and if this making led to clashes, if it led to wars, if it led to struggles then this was part of the human lot.2

This view of violence and war as irrational chaos that cannot be controlled is also an element of superhero narratives which the superhero tries to overcome.

“The Reign of the Superman”, short story by Jerry Siegel (January 1933)

Superheroes: emotions over logic

These ideas of individualism, emotion, personalised motivations and cynicism towards the concept of a progressive society are all part of the Superhero psyche. Mason Woodard writes:

One of the first Romantic elements of Batman is his motivation. He is a vigilante, sometimes hunted by Gotham Police. But the reason Bruce fights crime even in face of the law is because a common criminal murdered his parents when Wayne was just a boy. The emotion of avenging his parents and stopping this from happening drives him far more. This is an example of emotions over logic, a Romantic idea. […] One component of Romanticism embodied by Superman is to trust your instincts and emotions before logic and reasoning. Superman will often be seen saving his love, Lois Lane, or a group of kids in the midst of a massive fight, even when a logical analysis tells you to sacrifice the people and finish off the baddie (even though Superman does win in the end).

Thus the personalised empathy of the superhero covers over the narcissism of a costumed attention-seeker.

The Golden Age and the Warrior

The Romantics looked back to the Golden Age of the autonomous, powerful warrior who looks after his tribe and is the earliest version of this idea – the peasant as noble savage.  The Golden Age denotes “a period of primordial peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During this age peace and harmony prevailed, people did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance. They lived to a very old age with a youthful appearance, eventually dying peacefully, with spirits living on as “guardians”.”

There may have been some material basis for the concept of a Golden Age. Old European culture, for example, is believed to have centred around a nature-based ideology that was gradually replaced by an anti-nature, patriarchal, warrior society when Europe was invaded by the Kurgan peoples from c. 4000 to 1000 BC. It was believed to have been a tumultuous and disastrous time for the peoples of Old Europe and may have led to the concept of the Fall. The idea of a fall, the end of a Golden Age, is a common theme in many ancient cultures around the world. Richard Heinberg, in Memories and Visions of Paradise, examines various myths from around the world and finds common themes such as sacred trees, rivers and mountains, wise peoples who were moral and unselfish, and in harmony with nature and described heavenly and earthly paradises.

The Romantic view of the Golden Age was a reaction to the contemporary slave-like conditions of the working class in factories and mills. Romantic rejection of modernity was rooted in this over-rationalisation of the worker and its affect on the human spirit. This rationalisation could be seen as the continuation of earlier slavery but in a modern day form as ‘wage slavery’.

Friedrich Nietzsche

‘Supermen’ or ‘Übermensch [Overmen]’

This modern slavery had a profound affect on Nietzsche who defined the first ‘Supermen’ or ‘Übermensch [Overmen]’ (super – Latin: over/beyond) as a goal humanity can set for itself. The Overman would be a new human who was to be neither master nor slave and all human life would be given meaning by how it advanced a new generation of human beings. Like Marx, Nietzsche recognised the social uses of religion to divert attention and action away from the exploitative nature of the social and economic system itself. The individualism of Nietzsche’s ideas also attracted the anarchists. According to Spencer Sunshine:

There were many things that drew anarchists to Nietzsche: his hatred of the state; his disgust for the mindless social behavior of ‘herds’; his anti-Christianity; his distrust of the effect of both the market and the State on cultural production; his desire for an ‘overman’ — that is, for a new human who was to be neither master nor slave; his praise of the ecstatic and creative self, with the artist as his prototype, who could say, ‘Yes’ to the self-creation of a new world on the basis of nothing; and his forwarding of the ‘transvaluation of values’ as source of change, as opposed to a Marxist conception of class struggle and the dialectic of a linear history.

William Bell Scott Iron and Coal (1855–60)

While Marx and the Anarchists had opposing views on the role of the state, what Marx did have in common with anarchist thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin was the belief that wage slavery was a class condition in place due to the existence of private property and the state. This class situation was based on the lack of direct access to, or ownership by workers of, the means of production.

Henceforth the working class took to the stage as social classes started lifting themselves up particularly in the aftermath of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 20th century the battle was on for who would become the saviours of the oppressed – the fictional superheroes who fought crime or working class leaders who advocated social change? On a philosophical level the battle between Romanticism and Enlightenment ideas resurfaced between elite individualism and the opposing collectivist historical materialism of Marx.

James Connolly (1868 – 1916)

In Ireland, for example, the changing relationship between the master and the slave could be seen in the formation of the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) by James Larkin, James Connolly and Jack White on 23 November 1913. Connolly wrote of the ICA in Workers’ Republic in 1915:

An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.

James Connolly, an Irish working class hero, led the ICA into a failed uprising against British colonialism in 1916 and was executed by the British not long after. He was a self-taught scholar, a socialist, and an outstanding Labour leader of Ireland. While some may see the uprising as a failed Romantic gesture this could not be further from the truth from Connolly’s philosophical and ideological perspective.

Irish Citizens Army

Superhero reified

Ultimately the question has to be asked – do superheroes ‘save’ the people? Of course, they are symbolic heroic figures and so do not save anyone. Is it possible then to become a real life ‘superhero’? This idea is developed in the film Kick-Ass where a fictional ‘reification’ of the superhero concept happens. Kick-Ass “tells the story of an ordinary teenager, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who sets out to become a real-life superhero, calling himself “Kick-Ass”. Dave gets caught up in a bigger fight when he meets Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop who, in his quest to bring down the crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), has trained his eleven-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) to be the ruthless vigilante Hit-Girl.”

While initially Kick-Ass is constantly getting his ass kicked by thugs precisely because he does not have super powers, he eventually saves the day by arriving on the scene strapped to a jet pack fitted with miniguns and kills the remaining thugs. Thus, in the ‘real world’ Kick-Ass has to resort to ‘real weapons’ and falls into the normal superhero pattern of solving crimes with the usual extra-juridical killing and cathartic ending.

Problems of Romanticism

Overall then, there are different problems associated with superheroes, particularly from the point of view of the very people to be saved. At first, in an era of socio/political cynicism and helplessness in the face of poverty, corruption and crime, superheroes are cathartic as we purge our emotions watching the difficulties they have ‘solving’ our problems. In this way action is shifted sideways as we wait for a hero to arrive rather than being active ourselves.

Secondly, the ideology of superheroes comes from above, from elites, and not from below, from the masses themselves and therefore is directed towards the agendas of elites. Superheroes are bourgeois vigilantes who ultimately do not question the structure of society itself but merely try and solve the problems created by structural inequality.  Emotions are poured into superhero individualists who battle against crime while diverting attention away from questions of collective control of society and progress.

Thirdly, they represent the anti-logical emotionalism of Romanticism, itself a reaction to science and enlightenment. While described as science fiction, superheroes are given fanciful powers that have more in common with the ancient Greek gods than modern science.

To give them credibility in providing results for the struggling oppressed, superheroes must have super powers, (as people know you need more than an individual poor-man’s resources to battle against the system itself), ergo, the need ultimately for the superpower of working class solidarity and collectivist action to bring about real changes in society.

  1. The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p. 140.
  2. The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p. 50.
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at Read other articles by Caoimhghin.


Is This the Real Culture War? Art Movements and the People’s Movement


Ever since the achievements of Renaissance humanism with the triumph of art over nature, with the development of new artistic techniques (the optics of perspective, the structure of anatomy, the mixing of pigments, and the development of movement) art was strengthened and, combined with the scientific explorations and achievements of the Enlightenment, led to the idea that Man could become stronger and better and hold an optimistic view of the future. He could improve his well-being and even take control of nature to create a better life for all.  This view continued through the decades and was associated with social revolutions and political activity which connected progressive ideas about society to artistic forms of expression which would illustrate and advance the hopes and desires of the masses for a better life and future. These artistic movements changed and developed from the Enlightenment to Realism to Social Realism and then to Socialist Realism as artists both inspired and reflected the people’s progressive movements the world over.

However, at every juncture, oppositional movements also stepped in and opposed progressive change and revolution by the people; from the Romantic movement in Revolutionary France to the Modernist movement to Postmodernism and now Metamodernism. These movements have derided every aspect of the progressive forces, from the quietist “l’art pour l’art” of Romanticism to the attack on artistic form by Modernism, to the later attack on ideological content by Postmodernism and now the ‘oscillation’ between the two (form and content) of Metamodernism, a movement caught between self-obsession and the pressing desire of the masses for ideas and culture that will deal with climate change, financial crises, terror attacks and the neo-liberal squeeze on the social welfare system.

These two movements, Romanticism and the Enlightenment, have their basis in attitudes towards and beliefs in the efficacy of the burgeoning scientific movement. Romanticism, beginning in the 1770s, formed the basis of an anti-scientific strand in culture over the last two hundred years while the Enlightenment formed the basis of a scientific strand roughly between between 1715 and 1789. Both strands have been in opposition ever since, their ideas reflected through various cultural movements which sprang up in different countries and at different times, some revolutionary and some reactionary.

Let’s take a look at these two opposing strands in more detail.

The Anti-Scientific Strand


One of the most important movements is Romanticism particularly as it still has a strong anti-science influence today. Romanticism
was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism and glorified the past and nature, putting emphasis on the medieval rather than the classical traditions of ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order.  The Romantics rejected the norms of the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific rationalization of nature which were important aspects of modernity. Isaiah Berlin believed that the Romantics opposed classic traditions of rationality and its basis in moral absolutes and agreed values which led “to something like the melting away of the very notion of objective truth”.

Objective truth and reason were elevated by the artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment to understand the universe and solve the pressing problems of the world. However, Romanticism promoted the individual imagination as a critical authority allowed of freedom from classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to strive for a close connection with nature to escape elements of modernity such as urbanisation, industrialisation and population growth and therefore allowed them to avoid questions centred around the working class, such as alienation, the ownership of the means of production, living conditions and conditions of employment. The Romantics pursued the idea of “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) believing that art did not need moral justification and could be morally neutral.

According to Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art:

Revolutionary France quite ingeniously enlists the services of art to assist her in this struggle; the nineteenth century is the first to conceive the idea of “l’art pour l’art” which forbids such a practice. The principle of “pure”, absolutely “useless” art first results from the opposition of the romantic movement to the revolutionary period as a whole, and the demand that the artists should be passive derives from the ruling class’s fear of losing its influence on art.1

This position originated with the elites in the nineteenth century and still serves the same function, Romanticism being the main influence of culture today.


By the  beginning  of  the  20th  century, the  Modernist  movement was generally referred to as the “avant-garde” until the word “Modernism” became more popular. Modernism was the rejection of tradition, and the creation of new forms using reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision  and  parody. The Modernist ‘rejection of tradition’, like with Romanticism, is the rejection of classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). Modernism (like Romanticism) also rejected the  certainty  of  Enlightenment thinking.  Modernism emphasised form over political content and rejected the ideology of Realism and Enlightenment thinking on liberty and progress.

The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century as a reaction to Romanticism, and Modernism was a revolt against the ‘traditional’ values of Realism. Realist painters used common laborers, and ordinary people in ordinary surroundings engaged in real activities as subjects for their works. However, Modernism rejected traditional forms which over time became less and less ´real´ and more abstract and conceptualised.

The Great War brought about more disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals of progress among the Modernists who turned inwards and attacked art forms, instead of war-mongering capitalism. The Romantic continuity in Modernism produced individual, horrified reactions but were ultimately no threat to the ruling elites. Like an angry child smashing his own toys, the Modernist attacked his particular cultural forms and then expected the public to pick up the pieces. What was left was atonalism and abandonment of traditional rhythmic strictures in music, the departure from traditional realist styles in art and the prioritisation of the individual and the interior mind and abandonment of the fixed point of view in literature. The Dada movement, for example, was developed in reaction to the Great War by ‘avant-garde’ artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society but then only to respond with nonsense and irrationality in their art works.

As for the Great War, the avant-garde and Modernism – like the Romantic movement and the French Revolution – failed the masses again as it stood outside the people’s movement, turning in on itself and attacking reason instead of uniting with the progressive forces against war. In the end it was mainly the political movements of James Connolly in Ireland and V.I. Lenin in Russia (the two geographical ends of Europe) who organised the working classes against the war and destruction.

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), the revolutionary artist and founder of the Mexican Mural Movement, had this to say about the Modernist ‘avant-garde’:

If we look closely at their work it is the most reactionary movement in the history of culture. It has not developed anything new in composition or perspective and has lost much of that which has been accumulated over twenty centuries. It is based on the hysteria of novelty for the sake of novelty, in order to satisfy a parasitic plutocracy. The artist who changes his style every 24 hours is the best-known artist. When he has exhausted all the solutions, the others become his followers and sink into repetitious imitation.2

The allusion here presumably to Picasso (1881–1973), famous for changing his style many times, is interesting in relation to Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) the great Spanish artist whose depictions of ordinary Spanish people in monumental works of social and historical themes was overshadowed by Picasso until relatively recently. Cubism, credited to Picasso as its inventor, was an art style that conflicted with the representational system in art that had prevailed since the Renaissance, as the subject was depicted from differing viewpoints at the same time within the same painting.

Many pseudo-scientific explanations were given to explain Cubism regarding art in modern society, new scientific developments etc. but even Picasso himself ridiculed this: “Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis, music and whatnot, have been related to cubism to give it an easier interpretation. All this has been pure literature, not to say nonsense, which brought bad results, blinding people with theories”.3 Indeed, Cubism is probably the most parodied of all forms of Modernist art.

Other Modernist forms such as Expressionism have been seen to be at least critical of capitalism and war, but according to Lotte H. Eisner who quotes a ‘fervent theorist of this style’, Kasimir Edschmid: “The Expressionist does not see, he has ‘visions’. According to Edschmid. “the chain of facts: factories, houses, illness, prostitutes, screams, hunger’ does not exist; only the interior vision they provoke exists.” [p. 10] Therefore, the external reality of life and death for the working class is ignored for the ecstasy of ‘interior visions’.

For Eisner, writing in The Haunted Screen, German Expressionist cinema is a visual manifestation of Romantic ideals. She writes:

Poverty and constant insecurity help to explain the enthusiasm with which German artists embraced this movement [Expressionism] which, as early as 1910, had tended to sweep aside all the principles which had formed the basis of art until then. [pp. 9-10]

Richard Murphy also notes: “one of the central means by which expressionism identifies itself as an avant-garde movement, and by which it marks its distance to traditions and the cultural institution as a whole is through its relationship to realism and the dominant conventions of representation.”3 Expressionists rejected the ideology of realism, and Expressionist art, in common with Romanticism, reacted to the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and the growth of cities with extreme individualism and emotionalism, not collective social empathy and political change.

After the Great War and the Russian Revolution, in the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of depicting ordinary people in art spread to many countries in Realist and Social Realist forms especially as a reaction to the exaggerated ego encouraged by Romanticism. In the United States the Ashcan School was well known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York city’s poorer neighborhoods. However, the unsettling depictions of the darker side of capitalism by the Ashcan School was soon displaced with Modernism in the Armory Show of 1913 and the opening of more galleries in the 1910s who promoted the Modernist artwork of Cubists, Fauves, and Expressionists.

This takeover by Modernism in New York continued into the 1940s and 1950s with the development of Abstract Expressionism, an art form which was soon promoted globally as a counterweight to the Socialist Realism style developed in the Soviet Union, especially during the Cold War. The loose, splashing and dripping of paint in the work of Jackson Pollack became used as a symbol of the ideology of freedom and free enterprise in the United States. The victory of Modernism in the United States served two purposes: national and international. It dampened down the critical dissent of the Ashcan School while at the same time serving as a useful tool of foreign policy.

According to Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Abstract Expressionism was “Non-figurative and politically silent, it was the very antithesis to socialist realism. It was precisely the kind of art the Soviets loved to hate.”4 This was Modernism at its zenith as the wealthiest of art investors and the most influential art critics promoted Abstract Expressionism as “independent, self-reliant, a true expression of the national will, spirit and character.”4 However, the size of the confidence trick being perpetrated on the unsuspecting public became unsettling. According to Saunders:

It was this very stylistic conformity, prescribed by MoMA and the broader social contract of which it was a part, that brought Abstract Expressionism to the verge of kitsch. ‘It was like the emperor’s clothes,’ said Jason Epstein. ‘You parade it down the street and you say, “This is great art,” and the people along the parade route will agree with you. Who’s going to stand up to Clem Greenberg and later to the Rockefellers who were buying it for their bank lobbies and say, “This stuff is terrible”?5

The imposition of Modern Art on the public was also noted by the journalist, Tom Wolfe, who wrote about the 1960s and 1970s art scene in New York in The Painted Word:

The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in Modern Art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of, or commits any other crime against Art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction, a bittersweet Trilby sentiment. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened. […] We can now also begin to see that Modern Art enjoyed all the glories of the Consummation stage after the First World War not because it was “finally understood” or “finally appreciated” but rather because a few fashionable people discovered their own uses for it.6

It was also in the early 1970s that the Irish artist Seán Keating (1889–1977), a Realist painter who painted images of the Irish War of Independence, the early industrialization of Ireland and many portraits of the people of the Aran Islands, was brought face to face with Modernism. In a well-known televised interview, Keating, now in his 60s, was brought around the ROSC’71 exhibition and asked to give his opinion on the exhibits. As Eimear O’Connor writes: “When confronted by The Table, made by German artist Eva Aeppli (b.1925), Keating said it was ‘downright horrible perversity, nightmare stuff … an old lady who had gone completely mad and is dangerous … I think it is morose … vengeful against the human race…'”7 This baiting of a famous Irish humanist whose love of the Irish people and progress displayed the new confidence of the Irish elites who had jumped on the Modernist bandwagon as an symbol of fashionability and of final acceptance by the European elites who would allow Ireland to join the EEC (EU) in 1973.

Economic Pressure by Seán Keating (1949)
Scene of man bidding farewell to his family as he prepares to emigrate from Aran Islands.
(The Irish peasant betrayed: elevated as a national symbol before Independence yet ignored afterwards.)


In the meantime, Postmodernism was gaining strength. Some features of Postmodernism in general can be found as early as the 1940s but it would compete with Modernism in the late 1950s and became predominant by the 1960s.

Postmodernism is defined as follows:

Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period.

In other words, Postmodernism had a direct line of descent from Modernism and Romanticism before that. The same Romantic characteristics show up again – the suspicion of reason, subjectivism and denial of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Once again cynicism towards the idea of progress and working class improvement is the mainstay. Every technique and trick of avoidance of the important issues facing the people’s movement is used in Postmodernism: “common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress” and “postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence.”

Postmodernist artists decided that past styles (once criticised for being ‘traditional’) were now usable in a parodic way along with appropriation and popular culture. The Postmodernist critique of universalist notions of objective reality and social progress, or the Grand Narratives, has particular implications for the working classes and popular political movements as their liberatory philosophy and ideologies are based on them – whatever their supposed successes or failures in the past. To take them away is to fall back on the neo-liberal philosophy of the end-of-history and more of the same globalised capitalism ad infinitum. After the attack on Form in Modernism, we now get an assault on Content in Postmodernism.

When applied to the people’s movement itself, such as the French Revolution, Postmodernist historiography, for example, all but wipes out its historic relevance and importance. As Richard J Evans writes in In Defence of History, Simon Schama’s book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution over-emphasises the bloody and violent nature of the revolution as if the politically-conscious people taking their lives into their own hands were irrational beings exploding with an animal lust for violence. Evans comments:

In Citizens, indeed, the French Revolution of 1789-94 becomes almost meaningless in the larger sense, and is reduced to a kind of theatre of the absurd; the social and economic misery of the masses, an essential driving force behind their involvement in the revolutionary events, is barely mentioned; and the lasting significance of the Revolution’s many political theories and doctrines for modern European and world history more or less disappears.8

The more opaque forms of relativistic Postmodernist writing and thinking were exposed when Alan Sokal refused to get into line and exposed the French Postmodernists in a hoax essay published in Social Text in 1996. According to Francis Wheen in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World:

As a socialist who had taught in Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution, he [Sokal] felt doubly indignant that much of the new mystificatory folly emanated from the self-proclaimed left. For two centuries, progressives had championed science against obscurantism. The sudden lurch of academic humanists and social scientists towards epistemic relativism not only betrayed this heritage but jeopardised ‘the already fragile prospects for a progressive social critique’, since it was impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity ceased to have any validity.9

The obvious contradictions and cul-de-sacs of Postmodernism eventually brought it into decline and soon doors opened for a new obfuscatory philosophy to buttress increasingly crisis-ridden globalised capitalism – Metamodernism.


According to Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in ‘Notes on Metamodernism‘:

The postmodern years of plenty, pastiche, and parataxis are over. In fact, if we are to believe the many academics, critics, and pundits whose books and essays describe the decline and demise of the postmodern, they have been over for quite a while now. But if these commentators agree the postmodern condition has been abandoned, they appear less in accord as to what to make of the state it has been abandoned for. In this essay, we will outline the contours of this discourse by looking at recent developments in architecture, art, and film. We will call this discourse, oscillating between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, metamodernism. We argue that the metamodern is most clearly, yet not exclusively, expressed by the neoromantic turn of late.

So there you have it – this is the best that Metamodernism can offer – a return to Romanticism! We have now come full circle as “the metamodern is most clearly, yet not exclusively, expressed by the neoromantic turn of late”.

And where is this pressure coming from, to allow a little reality back into the arts?

Some argue the postmodern has been put to an abrupt end by material events like climate change, financial crises, terror attacks, and digital revolutions […] have necessitated a reform of the economic system (“un nouveau monde, un nouveau capitalisme”, but also the transition from a white collar to a green collar economy).

So the contemporary crises of capitalism and climate change are finally impinging on the disintegrating Postmodern artistic consciousness and the answer is reformism and ‘new capitalism’. However, Metamodernism is “Like a donkey it chases a carrot that it never manages to eat because the carrot is always just beyond its reach. But precisely because it never manages to eat the carrot, it never ends its chase”. With a little bit of progressive critique, the Metamodern artist can regain credibility without ever really challenging the status quo.

From all of the above we can see the common threads tying Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism and Metamodernism together: individualism, art for art’s sake, suspicion of reason, subjectivism and denial of the ideas of the Enlightenment. All individualist movements that oppose the idea of collectivist ideology and action. Movements that ultimately serve the status quo and the ruling elites. Yet some of these same elites were involved in the development of the concepts of the Enlightenment in the beginning. What happened to them?

Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out by Seán Keating (1927-28)

Ardnacrusha: Ireland’s first power-station built by Siemens post-independence in the 1920s, a hydro-electric dam built on the river Shannon, north of Limerick.
(Disillusioned Irish workers unemployed and drinking as the new elites begin the process of state-building.)

The Scientific Strand

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers believed in the importance of  rationality and science. They believed that the natural world and even human behavior could be explained scientifically. They felt that they could use the scientific method to improve human society. For the artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment, the ideal life was one governed by reason. Artists and poets strove for ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order, valuing meticulous craftsmanship and the classical tradition. Among philosophers, truth was discovered by a combination of reason and empirical research.

In the field of political philosophy the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual, the natural equality of all men and the idea that legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people. Therefore the Enlightenment popularised the idea that with the use of reason and logic social development and progress would be the norm for the masses and science and technology would be the instruments of human progress. The ideas of the Enlightenment paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries as it undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church. The French Revolution became the first main conflict between the men of the Enlightenment and the aristocracy. Within the arts this conflict arose between those who believed that art had a role to play and those who believed in art-for art’s-sake. As Hauser notes:

It is only with the Revolution that art becomes a confession of political faith, and it is now emphasized for the first time that it has to be no “mere ornament on the social structure,” but “a part of its foundations.” It is now declared that art must not be an idle pastime, a mere tickling of the nerves, a privilege of the rich and the leisured, but it must teach and improve, spur on to action and set an example. It must be pure, true, inspired and inspiring, contribute to the happiness of the general public and become the possession of the whole nation.1

However, the rising bourgeoisie who advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment realised that their objectives and those of the revolutionary public were not the same:

Yet as soon as the bourgeoisie had achieved its aims, it left its former comrades in arms in the lurch and wanted to enjoy the fruits of the common victory alone. […] Hardly had the Revolution ended, than a boundless disillusion seized men’s souls and not a trace remained of the optimistic philosophy of the enlightenment.10

Thus began the conflict between the new rulers, the bourgeoisie, who wanted to set limits on progress, and the interests of the toiling masses who had not yet achieved one of the most basic concepts of Enlightenment philosophy: the natural equality of all men. This struggle for political and social freedom took different forms over the next century or so but had as one of its bases the idea that the arts would play a role.


As the bourgeoisie stepped up its development of capitalist society building factories and markets, the Realist movement reacted to Romanticist escapism in favor of depictions of ‘real’ life, emphasizing the mundane, ugly and sordid. The Realist artists used common laborers and ordinary people in their normal work environments as the main subjects for their paintings. Its chief exponents were Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Courbet hated the aristocracy and royalty, and advocated political and social change. He painted ordinary people and in sizes usually reserved for gods and heroes. Realist movements, like the Peredvizhniki or Wanderers group in Russia, developed in many other Western countries.

Social Realism

Meanwhile, as the the Industrial Revolution grew in Britain, concern for the factory workers led to a meeting between Marx and Engels and a major change in the ideology of the working class organisations seeking better conditions. While the Romantics believed that the Industrial Revolution and its exploitative extremes in the factories was the result of science, the Marxists instead questioned the ownership of the factories and who benefited from the greatly increased power of the new means of production, means that could benefit society as a whole. Therefore while the Romantics looked back to the medieval artisans and peasants, the Marxists saw science creating new possibilities for a better future for everybody.

Social Realism grew out of these changes as Social Realist artists drew attention to the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor and criticised the social structures which maintained these conditions. The Mexican and Russian revolutions gave a fillip to the Social Realist movement which reached its height of popularity during the 1920s and 1930s when capitalism was under severe pressure from the global economic depression. The Ashcan School in the USA and the Mexican muralist movement were two groups who exerted a huge influence at the time and many of the artists involved at the time were supporters of political working class movements. While contemporary Social Realism has been kept in the background it is still a popular style with progressive artists.

Socialist Realism

As nationalist struggles of the nineteenth century changed into socialist struggles during the twentieth century, the style and form of the art changed too as ordinary people were now depicted as subjects with dignity and power. This style became known as Socialist Realism. It was pronounced state policy at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other socialist countries. Like Social Realism, Socialist Realism also met with fierce denunciations and controversy. However, despite its caricature as a style that depicts people as naïve, happy, joyous ciphers, its originators condemned any attempt to portray people living in an idyllic paradise as the work of shallow artists who would never be taken seriously by the populace:

An artist who tried to represent the birth of socialism as an idyll, who tried to represent the socialist system, which is being born in hard-fought battles, as a paradise populated by ideal people – such an artist would not be a realist, would not be able to convince anyone by his works. The artist should show how socialism is built out of the bricks of the past, out of the material which the past has left us, out of the material which we ourselves create in the sweat of our brow, in the blood of our toil and struggle, in, the hard battles of classes and in the hard toil of man to remold himself.

Socialist Realism went into decline in the 1960s as the Soviet Union itself went from crisis to crisis until its end in 1991. Today it is a style which is still much criticised. Why is Socialist Realism such a taboo? Because Socialist Realism is a quadruple whammy – it contains four elements that elites don’t like:

1 Anything to do with the Soviet Union (then) or Russia (today);
2 Any depictions of the working class anywhere (which are not subservient);
3 Any discussion of socialism or socialist ideology (past, present or future); and,
4 Any realist depiction of opposition to capitalism (that could influence others).

If one looks at ‘history of Western art’ books it becomes apparent that there are very few positive images of the working class but plenty of images glorifying monarchs, aristocrats, the middle classes and Noble Peasants (the useful idiots of nationalism). Representations of peasants usually take the form of non-threatening genre paintings and any Socialist Realist art is excluded.

Irish Industrial Development (oil on wood panels) by Seán Keating (1961)
International Labour Offices (ILO) Geneva, Switzerland
(Positive images of Irish workers by Irish artist in Geneva – must be Socialist Realism!)


The fact is that Romanticism in its different forms has made sure to keep the working classes out of the picture and the only response of the people’s movements should be to keep Romanticist influences at arms length. Romanticism has become the capitalist art par excellence. Romanticism vacillates between cultures of despair and Nihilism. It is opposed to logic and reason and its extreme individualism ensures a divisive affect on any collectivist organisation. Romanticism pervades most mass culture today and sells egoism and impotence back to the very people who turn to it for solace from desperation.

The long conflict between Romanticism and Enlightenment ideas contained in art movements over the last two centuries is set to continue as new responses to the contemporary crises of capitalism try to ameliorate the situation or fundamentally change the system underpinning it. What is needed are new national debates on the role and function of art in maintaining or changing the structure of society. Debates similar to those described by an eyewitness to the Paris Commune, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who wrote: “a whole population is discussing serious matters, and for the first time workers can be heard exchanging their views on problems which up until now have been broached only by philosophers.”11

  1. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art,  Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p. 147.
  2. D. Anthony White, Siqueiros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist (, 2008) p. 413.
  3. Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1999) p. 43.
  4. Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p. 254.
  5. Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p. 275.
  6. Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (Bantam Books, 1987) pp. 26/7.
  7. Eimear O’Connor and Virginia Teehan, Sean Keating: In Focus (Hunt Museum, 2009) p. 33.
  8. Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (Granta Books, 2000) p. 245.
  9. Francis Wheen, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (Harper Perennial, 2004) pp. 89/90.
  10. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art,  Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p. 157.
  11. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, in Le Tribun du Peuple, May 10, 1871, quoted in Stewart Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871 (Quadrangle, 1977) p. 283.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at Read other articles by Caoimhghin.

A War on Science
2006, Science - 50 min