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Modern Art and the Decline of Civilization

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The following is a transcript of this video.

We live in an age where our extensive scientific knowledge and our love of all things objective and measurable has placed religion in a precarious position. Our scientific worldview tells us that religious dogma is illusory and full of falsehoods and that as enlightened men and women we do not need it to live. But while we may not need a god to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of the natural world, does religion have nothing to teach us about our existential dilemma? Are we really better off psychologically with the picture that science paints for us of an infinite, cold and random cosmos lacking in objective human values and offering us nothing but the finality of death? Or could it be that in abandoning the Christian worldview the West placed itself in a psychological void of confusion and disorientation? 

“The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the center of gravity by virtue of which we lived; We are lost for a while.”

Nietzsche, The Will to Power

One of the most revealing ways to grasp the significance of this transition from Christianity to the scientific worldview is to look at it through the prism of art and to examine the changes in the masterpieces produced before, during and after the fall of the Christian worldview. For great artists, in all ages, are what Carl Jung called “the unwitting mouthpiece of the psychic secrets of [the] times.” They are men and women who are acutely sensitive to the spirit of the age, and who, through their creations, give form and expression to the underlying atmosphere of the culture in which they live. As Rollo May explained:

“If you wish to understand the psychological and spiritual temper of any historical period, you can do no better than to look long and searchingly at its art. For in the art the underlying spiritual meaning of the period is expressed directly in symbols.”

Rollo May, Courage to Create

In the beginning of the 19th century, the decline of the Christian worldview reached a critical point of no return. Just a few years earlier the French Revolution had staged an all-out attack on the Christian church resulting in the “dechristianization of France”, and throughout the West the scientific worldview was rapidly rising in stature as science continued to yield phenomenal fruits. At this same point in history, the subject matter of art underwent a curious and dramatic change. 

Prior to the 19th century the great artists focused on works that beautified the world and transfigured the human being. Through their creations the human form was imbued with dignity and hope. Even paintings which depicted extreme suffering portrayed the human being as heroic. “

In art, man takes delight in himself as perfection.”

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

When the art of past ages glorified the human being and beautified the world, it had a civilizing effect which enriched entire ages. 

In the 19th century art, by-and-large, still performed this life-enhancing function. But alongside paintings which depicted the human being as heroic and the world as sublime, many artists began to portray the world in forms which elicit anxiety, confusion, and dread. 

“The picture of the ideal man disappeared from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History

Instead of fashioning works of supreme beauty which saved us from what Nietzsche called “the horrors of the night”, some modern artists started to introduce the world to them. In isolated instances these horrors were represented in the art of previous centuries, but with the fall of Christianity, for the first time in history, they gradually became the main event. 

“…there has never been anything similar in history. Each [modern artist] is a world in himself, endeavoring alone to ward off the chaos that menaces him or to give it form, each with his own characteristic desperation. It is no accident that we hear so much today of the void and forlornness of the individual. And the profound anxiety, the sense of insecurity, uprootedness, and world dissolution, at work in these painters also move modern composers and poets.” 

Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

The chaos which modern artists suffered and expressed through their art assumed various forms in the works of 19th century painters. In its subtlest, and most aesthetically pleasing form, it can be seen in the masterpieces of Caspar David Friedrich, one of the preeminent forerunners of modern art, and Edvard Munch. Through their works both these artists gave visual representation to the ethos of desolation which was spreading across Europe at the time. In Friedrich’s paintings the setting for this ethos of desolation is nature. His landscapes portray a world grown cold in which mother earth elicits the feelings of dread associated with being alone and homeless in the midst of its vast empty spaces.  In 1810 the German poet Henrich von Kleist described Caspar’s painting “The Wreck of Hope” in the following manner: 

“The solitary spark of life in the boundless kingdom of death, the lonely centre point in the region of loneliness. This picture with its two or three mysterious objects opens out before us like the apocalypse itself”

Henrich von Kleist, 1777-1811

In the works of Edvard Munch this ethos of desolation is transferred from nature to the social world. The subjects in Munch’s paintings suffer from an unbearable isolation, they are lonely souls, unbridgeable islands unto themselves, unable, in their anxiety and sorrow, to reach out to, connect with, and find solace in others. 

“Never, it seems to me, was man so molten and fluid, and yet never was he so shut up within himself, never so walled about as he is today, and never was he so cold of heart.”

Vyacheslav Ivanov

Alongside this ethos of desolation, many other 19th century works of art are charged with a demonic force. Whether it be the chilling figures of the great Francisco Goya, the malevolent compositions of Franz Stuck, or James Ensor’s works including Masks Confronting Death, in 19th century art nocturnal and chthonic powers rise to the surface. The artists of this era confronted the monsters of the abyss, and the only thing which saved them from descending into madness was their capacity to externalize their horrific visions, to give them artistic form.  

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

But the chaos of 19th century art pales in comparison with its manifestations in first half of the 20th century. As modern art progressed, the chaos menacing it only became more explicit and pronounced.  In Picasso’s paintings, for example, the human being is broken into fragmented parts, and then pieced together again in disjointed, abstract, and often hideous forms. 

“Picasso’s art no longer seeks the complete human being at all. It has lost the faculty of seeing things as wholes. It tears off one cover after another in order to lay bare the structure of nature and in doing so penetrates even further into the depths, disclosing images of things truly monstrous.” 

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History

In the movement of Surrealism the chaotic is not only represented visually, but explicitly exalted as a principle of life. Salvador Dali declared painting to be the “coloured instantaneous photography of concrete irrationality”, and the “systematization of confusion”. Andre Breton, in his Second Manifesto, declared Surrealism to have attained a point of view from which “life and death, the real and imagined, top and bottom are no longer experienced as contradictory opposites”. When reading this latter statement one cannot help but remember Nietzsche’s warning of the existential disorientation he thought would manifest following the decline of the Christian worldview. 

“Are we not continually falling?—backwards, sideways and in all directions? Do top and bottom still remain? Are we not wandering through infinite nothingness? Is not the breath of empty space in our faces? Has it not grown colder?”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Yet Surrealism was not just motivated by a love of chaos, but also by a desire to annihilate the human form by merging the human with the inorganic realm. In many Surrealist paintings the line demarcating the human from the object and the living from the dead is blurred, and entities which have no intrinsic connection to each other are brought together in a senseless embrace. This impulse to absorb the human into the inorganic can also be seen in the movements of Cubism and Futurism: the human becomes lost, a thing among things, dissolved in the surrounding world of inanimate objects. 

“In Futurism man has completely ceased to be the leading theme of art, indeed in futurist art there are literally no more human beings, for man has been torn into tatters. All the real things in the world leave the places that are proper to them, and objects such as lamps, sofas, streets begin to penetrate the human form, so that man and his incomparable personality are no longer entities at all. Man collapses into the world of objects.”

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History

If the creations of great artists reveal the underlying psychological and spiritual atmosphere of the times, then an honest survey of modern art must lead one to consider the possibility that modern civilization is suffering from a spiritual sickness – a deep existential loneliness, an eruption of the demonic, a negation of human nature and a fragmentation of the human form, a celebration of chaos – and thus perhaps, even a “sickness unto death”. 

“It is characteristic of all these movements that the human form should be shattered to pieces and utterly dismembered, and indeed [in modern art] we have a sort of ending to man as an entity.”

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History

Yet as Erich Neumann points out, as children of the times, we must recognize that this sickness also lies within us. 

“But let us be careful! We are speaking of ourselves. If this art is degenerate, we too are degenerate, for innumerable individuals are suffering the same collapse of the cultural canon, the same alienation, the same loneliness – the rising blackness with its shadow and devouring dragon. The disintegration and dissonance of this art are our own; to understand them is to understand ourselves.”

Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

Despite this grave diagnosis, there is room for hope. Since the beginning of the 19th century the chaos menacing the world has appeared to only grow stronger. But this process can be reversed. For if the sickness which afflicts the modern world also exists within us, we have the power to heal it.

For most individuals, such healing cannot be achieved by a return to the past. The solutions offered by the Christian worldview are no longer available to the individual who exists, in a psychological sense, at the precipice of the modern world. Nor can psychological renewal be achieved by adhering to the contemporary worldview and cultural canon – if such worldview is corrupted as modern art seems to suggest. 

Instead, renewal today seems to require what Nietzsche called a “revaluation of values”. We must become physicians of culture, and not only diagnose the sicknesses of our age, but also heal their manifestations in ourselves by discovering a new set of values and worldview which can reinstate the dignity and potential grandeur of the individual. We must, in the words of Nietzsche,

“[apply] the knife vivisectionally to the chest of the very virtues of [the] time” in order “to know a new greatness of man…a new untrodden way to his enhancement.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

For when a body is sick, it is individual cells which heal it. And so too, when a civilization is sick, it is up to individuals to heal themselves, and in so doing, contribute to the healing of the whole. 

“…in reality only a change in the attitude of the individual can bring about a renewal in the spirit of nations. Everything begins with the individual.” 

Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition

Or as he further explained:

“The development of modern art with its seemingly nihilistic trend towards disintegration must be understood as the symptom and symbol of a mood of universal destruction and renewal that has set its mark on our age. This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the right moment for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principle and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science.”  

Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

List of art not shown in the gallery below

James Ensor – Masks Confronting Death

Picasso – The Weeping Woman

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) – Salvador Dali

Men Shall Know Nothing of This – Max Ernst

The Musings of a Solitary Walker – Rene Magritte

The Double Secret – Rene Magritte

The Philosopher’s Lamp – Rene Magritte

Perpetual Motion – Rene Magritte

Nude Descending a Staircase – Marcel Duchamp

Phantom Landscape – Rene Magritte

Intermission – Rene Magritte

Collective Invention – Rene Magritte

There is No finished World – Andre Masson

The False Mirror – Rene Magritte

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

'Old Man Praying', drawing by Vincent van Gogh
Wright of Derby, The Orrery
Benediction of God the Father by Luca Cambiaso, c. 1565, oil on wood - Museo Diocesano (Genoa) - DSC01566
Ivan Tišov - Astronom
Gustave Doré - La Vallée de larmes
Edvard Munch, 1885, Asta Nørregaard
Autorretrato de 1815 Real Academia de San Fernando
Ruine mit Begräbnis
Eugène Delacroix - La liberté guidant le peuple (cropped)
Piltdown gang (dark)
Morgen im Riesengebirge (C D Friedrich)
Claude Lorrain 008
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut, 45.4 × 65.6 cm
Cole Thomas The Consummation The Course of the Empire 1836
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) - Estes Park (1877) - Denver Art Museum 18-9-2014 12-46-50
Edvard Munch - The Scream, 1910 (Munch Museum)
A Walk at Dusk by Caspar David Friedrich, Getty Center
Seguace di hieronymus bosch, cristo al limbo, 1575 ca. 02
Viejos comiendo sopa
Friedrich monje a la orilla del mar 02 Kopie
Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich
Northern Landscape, Spring, by Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1825, oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington - DSC00111
Caspar David Friedrich - The Sea of Ice - WGA8270
Edvard Munch - Separation - Google Art Project
Munch Melankoli 1892
Girl's Head against the Shore by Edvard Munch, 1899, color woodcut
Visión fantasmal por Francisco de Goya
Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de - Fearful Folly - Google Art Project
Francisco Goya - Simpleton - plate 4 from the series 'Los Disparates' (The Follies) - Google Art Project
Caspar David Friedrich - Greifswald in Moonlight - Google Art Project
Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (1819-1823) crop
Edvard Munch - Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine - Google Art Project
Adolph Tidemand - Low Church Devotion - Google Art Project (9QGXjFzX4Caijw)
Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog
Edvard Munch - Anxiety - Google Art Project
Иван Константинович Айвазовский - Ночь в Гурзуфе
Johan Christian Claussen Dahl - Vulkanen på kvelden, Sicilia