Stephen Hicks, some of whose YouTube videos I’ve been watching recently, dates Enlightenment modernism from about 1600 to 1800, and locates its origins in England. And he dates post-modernism from Immanuel Kant, 1724 – 1804, when Kant declared that pure reason could say nothing about reality. After Kant, in Hicks’ opinion, the Enlightenment project hit the rocks.
The Enlightenment thinkers studied the natural world. And it seems equally true to say that Enlightenment artists did exactly the same. For example John Constable, 1776 – 1837, Wivenhoe Park:
Here’s an artist who is looking very clear-sightedly at the natural world around him, and reproducing it with almost photographic accuracy. This is not an allegorical painting, featuring mythological figures or saints or soldiers. There are humans present in the picture, but they are more or less completely lost in a natural world of sky and clouds and trees and grass and water.
Paul Cezanne, 1839 – 1906, a French landscape artist, was born more or less at the time Constable died:Cezanne would seem not to be simply reproducing the natural world before him, but to be analysing it, and breaking it down into geometric components. What Cezanne sees is a landscape that is constructed of bricks, which are all holding together to form something solid and tangible.
Later still there arrives Vincent van Gogh, 1853 – 1890:
Wheatfield with Cypresses depicts a scene in which tremendous forces have been set loose, and everything is in motion. It’s almost a motion picture.
It also happens to be a picture that hung on the wall of my early childhood home, and which deeply fascinated me. What, I wondered, was the object in the middle of the wheatfield? At age 3 or 4 I determined that it was an airborne green warthog that was bounding from right to left across the top of the wheat.
Next Henri Matisse, 1869 – 1954:
This Landscape at Collioure is barely recognisable as a landscape at all. It’s been reduced into a few strokes of a brush. It’s almost an abstract painting.
Over a period of a century or two, the natural world has dissolved before the brushes of these various landscape artists. What started out as something objective becomes increasingly subjective. We know very little about the landscape at Collioure, but a lot about how Matisse looked at it, and how quickly he painted it (10 minutes?).
These artists were working in parallel with any number of other intellectual and scientific developments. Much the same thing was happening in other disciplines. Physics had become increasingly theoretical rather than empirical. Mathematics had become probabilistic. What had been a solid construct became something that was always evolving and changing, and perhaps even becoming chaotic. They lived in a world that was falling apart. They lived in a world where all the old certainties had dissolved away.
Is it very surprising if this world disintegrated into global war in WW1 and WW2? Once Charles Darwin had portrayed all nature as a world at war, weren’t men more or less bound to replicate that Darwinian war of nature, that struggle for existence, in their own lives. War was natural. And it never stopped. What could be more natural than firing bullets and rockets at each other for years on end in Picardy? We’ve been living in Darwin’s nightmare.
And Charles Darwin was much more of an imaginative author than a scientist. The Origin of Species is a master-work of English literature. It tells you nothing about the natural world of plants and animals, and everything about how its author thought about them.
The same applies to Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung and all the psychologists. Their landscapes are purely imaginary. Their books are entirely about stuff that they imagined, conjured out of nowhere. Ego, Super-ego, and Id don’t exist.
And in the late 20th century, Tobacco Control has conjured up a purely imaginary tobacco health threat, and a completely fictional tobacco epidemic. It’s not actually happening, but everyone imagines that it’s happening, and that’s all that matters. And Tobacco Control’s War on Smoking even manages to reproduce Darwin’s war of nature: we’re all fighting exterminatory wars against each other once again. And the justifications for this war are fashionably probabilistic and statistical and iffy.
What the world actually is has given way to what we imagine the world to be. We don’t watch factual documentaries: we watch fictional movies. And Donald Trump has become a fictional cartoon figure. As has Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin and more or less anyone else you care to mention.
And we no longer have objective news. We have multiple flavours of fake news.
So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote.
So it goes.