Claudia Moscovici

The Postromantic Manifesto

Some artistic movements happen organically. The Impressionist and Fauve movements, for example, emerged naturally from the artists’ friendship and practice. The name and the aesthetic philosophy of Impressionism came almost as an afterthought, accidentally. Yet both the name and the concept stuck. An insulting word cast by an art critic about Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise became the seed that eventually gave this group of artists a recognizable image. Other artistic movements happen prescriptively. The Surrealists could not have been what they were without the philosophical structure and sometimes dogmatically narrow focus that the writer André Breton gave to their art. Today movements can come together in virtual space. The Internet connects artists from all corners of the world who would never have met, created together, seen that they share the same vision, become friends. This is how postromanticism happened. Before I met any of the artists, I had written about the aesthetic values contemporary art had lost and should attempt to recapture. I called that aesthetic “postromanticism” and posted it on the internet. Postromanticism as a movement, however, didn’t come into being until 2002, when one artist, the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, saw his art reflected in my words. Since then we have discovered dozens of artists who identify their art with our aesthetic vision. My book, Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, hardcover 2007, paperback 2010) introduces some of these artists and the postromantic movement. This brief essay will describe how it originated.

A logical way to explain the nature of postromantic art is to begin with its name. Surely with a name like postromanticism, this movement has something to do with Romantic art. Yet since we put the post- in there, it must also come after Romanticism and be contemporary in some way. Postromanticism is, indeed, primarily, but not exclusively, inspired by nineteenth-century Romantic art. Postromantic painters admire the art of Bouguereau, whose sensual, palpable images of angelic women and shepherd girls were eventually displaced by the less idealized style of the Impressionists. They also find inspiration in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, which shocked Victorian society only to stand the test of time as one of the period’s most interesting artistic legacies. Postromantic sculptors identify with the art of the sculptor Rodin, who revolutionized sculpture as the expression of passion, sensuality and emotion.

When I spoke to a journalist about postromantic art to offer an introduction to one of our collective exhibits, she raised several questions that were crucial to explaining this movement. She asked me: where is the “post” in postromanticism? What makes postromantic art original? What makes this group of individual artists scattered all over the world a movement? Here I will answer these questions.

1. Romantic in Inspiration

It’s relatively easy to point to the continuity between the Romantic and Postromantic movements. Like Romantic artists, the Postromantics capture human passion, sensuality and beauty in their works. They mirror and at the same time idealize visual reality. When you look at the sculptures of Leonardo Pereznieto or Nguyen Tuan, you immediately detect the influence of Rodin. Similarly, Edson Campos’ paintings evoke the sensual purity of Maxfield Parrish and the allegorical narratives and elegance of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The postromantic artists, however, also incorporate other styles of art into their own. Which is why what renders them postromantic is not only the inspiration they find in the Romantic movement, but also the fact that like the Romantics, they privilege the expression of beauty, passion and sensuality in their art.

2. Original in Creation

The issue of originality is rather complicated. One might legitimately ask, how are these artists original when they clearly imitate styles of art that are at least two hundred years old? Moreover, haven’t modern styles of art—abstract expressionism, pop art and postmodern installations, ready-mades, pastiches—displaced the tradition of art that imitates and idealizes reality? To explain why and how postromanticism is original, let’s see first what originality means. What makes art be original? As opposed to new? As opposed to a passing fad? As opposed to something that has mere shock-value?

The whole notion that art had to be above all else original began in the nineteenth-century, with the Impressionist movement. Artists such as Manet and Monet staked the value of art on its ability to go against the norms established by the Academy and the Salons. They presented reality in an entirely new way. As the famous French novelist Emile Zola explained, Manet and the Impressionists set the new standard for what makes art be artistic: originality, which implies not mere newness of style, but a relevant and revolutionary newness. A novelty, in other words, that is important to society. After Impressionism, modern art was perceived as provoking thought rather than only stimulating pleasure or emotion. And so art became, as the critic Arthur Danto puts it, increasingly conceptual.

Modern art—the trends of cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art and postmodern art—stakes its worth on establishing this relevant newness. However, contemporary art that continues the trends that began during the early twentieth-century can no longer take it for granted that they’re being new and relevant to their society. When Duchamp placed his urinal on exhibit in New York during the early twentieth-century, he was certainly shocking, not fully serious and arguably original. But anybody who does postmodern ready-mades and installations today will need to think critically about how his or her art is original. Doing what Duchamp did eighty years ago cannot be assumed to be cutting-edge nowadays. Similarly, when Jackson Pollock splattered paint on a canvas and helped establish New York as the epicenter of international art, he was controversial and original. Now the tradition of abstraction is eighty years old. Any artist who paints in an abstract style cannot automatically present his or her work as original, fresh and modern.

I haven’t yet established the originality of postromantic art, but I have shown that its competitors haven’t either. We’re all in the same boat. In fact, it’s arguably more new and different to find inspiration in styles of art that are three hundred years old than to imitate those that are fifty years old. Modernist trends are much more common and accepted by today’s artistic establishment. Does this mean that we should abandon looking for originality in contemporary art?

Absolutely not. Art today can still be original if it puts a new twist on whatever tradition in the history of art it follows and if it shows that this twist is still interesting and relevant to the society and culture of its own times. For art is even more about the public—promotion, sales, influence, consecration—than it is about the creative process and the individual artists.

To illustrate this point, I’ll borrow an analogy from the novelist and paradox-maker, Borges. Borges once wrote a story about an author, named Pierre Menard, who tried to rewrite the novel Don Quixote in the twentieth-century. Menard reproduced Cervantes’ text word by word. Yet from a certain perspective his novel was entirely different. When you transpose fiction into a whole new context, Borges illustrates, everything changes.

Cervantes was creating a whole new lay Spanish language that was unpretentious and easy to understand for his times. Writing in the same prose several centuries later, Menard, however, sounded stale and quaint to his readers. Furthermore, the social and religious assumptions Cervantes could take for granted, Menard had to learn with great effort by reading biography, history and learning the classical languages. Last but not least, while Cervantes’ novel fit with his context and established the tradition of novel writing, Menard’s Don Quixote stuck out like a sore thumb in the context of twentieth-century literature. By then readers were used to the train of thought style and fragmentation of modern fiction. In this context, a novel like Don Quixote seemed glaringly traditional. Borges’ story shows that art is never just its content, but is in large part a product of its social context. Writing and readers, art and the public, are inextricably intertwined. Which is why one can’t bring back the past exactly as it was even if one reproduces older styles down to their smallest details.

3. Sticking Out

Much like Menard’s twentieth-century version of Don Quixote, postromantic art deliberately sticks out against the background of contemporary art, so heavily dominated by modern and especially postmodern art. But postromantic art is not reactionary. Postromantic artists realize, as Borges’ parable illustrates, that bringing back nineteenth-century Romanticism intact would be an impossible goal. We do not wish to freeze any art movement in time.  Instead, postromantic artists preserve the best of tradition—by placing emphasis upon technical skill, beauty and passion—while still keeping up with the times—by using new media, being sensitive to our contemporary public and creating new styles.

I consider artistic movements to be not only chronological, or following one another in art history and then dissipating and dying forever. Rather, art is also, at the same time, “chronotopic” (to use Bakhtin’s famous formulation): new art is constantly fertilized by various former styles and movements, which it renews for its own context. Which is why you will discover postmodern pastiche mixed with a traditional techniques in the paintings of Edson Campos and David Graux and the use of new media—acrylics and fiber optic illumination—in the Rodin-like sculptures of Leonardo Pereznieto. Not to speak of the exquisite photography of Guido Argentini, which endows modern images with the beauty, immobility, expressivity and endurance of Romantic and modernist sculpture. In this balance between old and new lies our originality. We are new in our unique and harmonious combination of modern and traditional techniques. We are relevant in providing the sophistication critics seek with the beauty, passion and accessibility that the public prefers.

4.  The Postromantic Movement

Does the fact we’re original in some ways make us a movement? More generally, what makes something be an art movement? First, a movement has to include a significant number of artists, a group. Such a group needs to be formed by artists who have a reputation on their own, as individuals. Our movement, which has just begun to form, already includes dozens of artists from several countries, including Mexico, Brazil, the United States, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Romania and Italy. And we’re growing rapidly as more artists see the appeal of postromantic art.

Second, to be a movement, a group of artists has to propose some shared techniques and a cohesive vision. The postromantic artists do have that in common implicitly. My job as a writer is to help render what they have in common more obvious by articulating an aesthetic vision.

Third, and most importantly, a movement has to move. An art movement affects the public; is discussed by art critics and the media; adapts to society; is challenged and reacted against (otherwise it becomes complacent and stale); it spreads and mutates; is imitated or followed by other artists. We’re starting to meet this much tougher standard as well. The postromantic artists have had articles written on their art all over the world. They had several collective exhibits, including at the Biennale di Firenze, the art expo in Florence, Italy, where a section of the museum was devoted to postromantic art. However, what ultimately will make this movement move is you—our public and readers—for whom we paint, sculpt, photograph and write. It’s to you that we devote postromanticism, the art of passion.

Claudia Moscovici


October 29, 2010 Posted by | aesthetics, art criticism, Claudia Moscovici, literature salon, literaturesalon, passion, postromanticism Claudia Moscovici, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, The Postromantic Manifesto | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Romantic Aesthetics: Wordsworth and Baudelaire

Romanticism connected the sentiment of passionate love to artistic expression perhaps more closely than any other literary movement by describing both as the undistorted expression of intense and genuine emotion. Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” applied not only to a new understanding of art, but also to a new understanding of human identity. In this succinct phrase, Wordsworth had challenged Neoclassical assumptions about the role of the artist and of art, the kind of audience art should affect and the values it should propose.

Each word chosen by Wordsworth is significant. If poetry is spontaneous, then it no longer needs to be guided by the rigid codes of Neoclassical art. If it’s an overflow springing from the artist’s imagination, then the artist is the most important part of the poetic process, since he’s the source of the overflow. If poetry expresses powerful feelings, then its representations of how feelings are produced and of their contexts–in nature as well as in emotional bonds of friendship or love–will affect how society perceives emotion. If the object of poetry is to express the poet’s powerful feelings, then the he or she is defined as someone with internal, psychological and emotive qualities rather than primarily in terms of his social position. If reality is conveyed through the poet’s imagination–and transformed by the poetry–then what matters most is not how accurately the poet conveys that reality, but rather how he or she distills it through his or her style, rendering it evocative, interesting and moving. Literature and poetry become above all else an expression of human emotion, and that emotion connects the modern self to the artistic medium of expression.

Perhaps it is this causal link between art and human emotion that contributes both to the splendor of Romanticism and to its vulnerability. For Modernist and Postmodernist writers would attack precisely these intimate connections between human identity, emotions and their poetic and passionate expressions. They suggest that it’s naïve and unfounded to assume that true emotions are the basis of human nature, that such a nature exists at all, that even if it exists, it can be communicated without distortion and, most importantly, that art should have anything to do with such lived experience. The Modernist valorization of women’s fashion and of the dandy, for example, offers a striking example of the assumption that it may be, in fact, the artificial constructions of art that guide the conventions we assume to be natural in life. Once human identity becomes freed from our understanding of nature, the expression of emotion, poetic or not, can no longer make direct claims to sincerity and authenticity. The expression of emotion may be just rhetorical or imitative rather than conveying what we truly feel.

Yet should we be so thoroughly convinced of the way Modernism and postmodernism describe the connection between emotion and art as opposed to the models offered by Romanticism? Is the link between emotion and art necessarily unfounded and naïve? To begin exploring this question, I will examine briefly two bookmarks of the Romantic movements: Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, the theoretical blueprint of Romanticism and excerpts from Baudelaire’s Salon de 1846, which inaugurates the beginnings of modernity. In so doing, I will emphasize the relevance of Romantic aesthetics today, hinting at the hidden continuities between the Romantic movement and current intuitions about the connection between emotion and art.

In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth elaborates what would become known as the underlying premises of British Romanticism. Although not systematic enough to be called a theory or philosophy of Romanticism, and although it speaks primarily of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s own poetry, this preface nonetheless sets the tone, in an eloquent and thoughtful manner, for the vaster and diverse Romantic movements which would follow. Furthermore, if as readers seasoned by the postmodern critiques of Romanticism, we expect Wordsworth’s aesthetics to be naïve, when reading the Preface we are pleasantly surprised. There’s nothing simplistic about Wordsworth’s model of artistic expression. At each step of describing the aesthetic process, Wordsworth is careful to emphasize its complexity. He does, indeed, mention not once, but twice that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet we must unpack this dense statement to see what it means. For not only does the author not assume art to spring directly from emotion, but also he does not conceive of its expression and impact upon readers in a naïve manner.

In the beginning of his essay, Wordsworth declares that “the principal object proposed myself in these Poems is to choose incidents and situations from common life” (392). His choice of subject is already original because it rejects the Neoclassical rule that poetry should focus primarily upon extraordinary events and characters. Wordsworth transforms not only the choice of subject of art, but also, and more fundamentally, the manner of its representation.

As we are aware, Neoclassical art had a mimetic orientation, in that it viewed art as an imitation of aspects of the universe. The key vehicle for this kind of imitation was visual: a picture was viewed as best approximating the object it imitated. Poetry was supposed to imitate painting by focusing upon visual imagery that produced a mental picture of the object it represented in the mind of the reader. Horace’s Ars Poetica, written in the first century B.C., and particularly his phrase ut pictura poesis, was interpreted by seventeenth-century authors as establishing a parallel between the two arts. However, no matter how hard they artists tried and how they were, neither pictorial nor written art could perfectly reproduce its object. In fact, all that could be claimed was that the artistic representation was like its object, or an analogue of it.

As M. H. Abrams observes in The Mirror and the Lamp, Neoclassical defenders of art solved this problem (of the gap between image and reality) by arguing that art is not an imitation of nature, but rather a selective and improved representation of its real or ideal essence. The representation is not less than the object it is supposed to depict, but on the contrary, better: hence the French phrase, la belle nature or beautiful nature. The objects represented are improved by the artist’s technique and craft, which in turn are perfected by the rules that govern his or her particular art form. In addition, the purpose of art as imitation was to elevate and instruct its readers; to please while also edifying them. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of objects represented by Neoclassical art: 1) objects of sense-perception (things we can see); and 2) objects of thought, such as the concepts of virtue and justice, whose representation was allegorical.

Wordsworth famously describes the radical transformation of both art and artist. He chooses as the object of art what he calls ordinary situations and men. Even more importantly, in his preface the artist takes on a new and more important role than ever before. In fact, the notion of the artist’s special sensibility and extraordinary talent elaborated earlier by Kant and emphasized by Wordsworth would become one of the key features of Romanticism. Unlike in the Kantian elaboration of artistic genius, however, Wordsworth’s description of the poet does not mystify the process of artistic creation. Wordsworth depicts that which has become a commonplace assumption about art ever since his Preface: namely, that the artist neither fully invents the fictional world he or she creates nor mirrors it exactly as is. Instead, artists and poets “throw over them [real people and events] a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (Preface, 392).

When art no longer serves the purpose of representing a world created by God and of conveying its meaning to others, the artist assumes a double nature. On the one hand, he’s a created, fragile being in a world which appears to be forsaken by the divine. On the other hand, he’s a creator of extraordinary beauty and true meaning. These paradoxical features would outlast the movement of Romanticism. The (post)romantic artist is therefore both infinitely small and infinitely powerful; a finitude aspiring to the infinite. It’s no accident then that critics who study Romanticism speak of a ladder of love similar to the one we find in Platonic thought, especially in the Symposium. Romantic artists, poets and writers select details from ordinary life and infuse them with special significance, beauty and meaning. As in Plato’s transcendental moves, Romantic artists and writers begin with the particular—contingent events and human beings—and aspire to render them universal or, in Wordsworth’s own formulation, “interesting by tracing in them… the primary laws of our nature” (392).

Through his talent, the artist manages to convert a flood of accidental details into something readers will find essential; into some kind of lasting meaning. Wordsworth seems aware, however, that to speak of conveying an “essential nature” and meaning through art risks converting aesthetics into a form of rational knowledge. Although the Romantic poet may strive to capture some kind of truth about the human condition, as we have already observed, he does not aim at a strictly mimetic truth (where art strives, imperfectly, to imitate the universe as created by the divine) nor at a strictly rational one (whereby art provides knowledge in the same way that mathematical proofs or scientific experiments do). Which is why Wordsworth hastens to add that the source of creativity is not reason, but rather passion. Artists at once discover and create what he calls “the primary laws of our nature” by cultivating an emotive disposition “chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (392).

Wordsworth places emotion at the very center of human creativity. He places value not upon raw and immediate reactions to concrete circumstances, however, but upon feelings recalled and evoked in moments of quiet contemplation. As the contemporary writer Jean Rouaud would later say by way of analogy, the (post)romantic artist is not the being creating natural flowers, but rather the florist arranging them in an elegant vase, contemplating their beauty calmly in light of its aesthetic arrangement of forms and potential impact to move and please viewers. With this analogy in mind, we’re now ready to consider Wordsworth’s famous definition of the poetic process:

“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings but though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” (393)

We have already noted that if Romantic poetry aims to convey some kind of essential truth, it’s an anthropocentric one, not one that mirrors a divine vision and creation. Furthermore, we have observed that this truth differs substantially from scientific claims. So what is the nature of specifically aesthetic knowledge? And what is the process of its transmission and verification, if it eludes scientific and even rational scrutiny? Given the fragility of aesthetic knowledge, and, furthermore, given its anthropocentric nature, Wordsworth and other Romantic poets and writers would attempt to establish its tenuous foundations upon aesthetic sensibility. The foundation of art is the exceptional talent of the artist to convey beautifully and movingly essential aspects of the human condition. In turn, its only measure of success is the attunement it finds in generations of readers. For as Wordsworth suggests, the poet “shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated” (400).

Art’s truth—and power—consists of its ability to capture a contingent meaning which may not be everlasting, but which touches us with its very contingency. This truth emerges, on the side of the artist, in a kind of séance that combines what may be called, before its time, subconscious thought and what Wordsworth calls processes of volition. For Romantic writers, the poetic process entails a creative recollection of one’s own feelings “So that it will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs; modifying only the language which is thus suggested to him, by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure”(400).

Aesthetic emotion, or what could also be called passion, connects every point on the route to artistic creation. An intense yet calm contemplation, the evocation of feelings, ignites the creative process. Through carefully selected words, the poet must be able to move readers, but once again not to raw emotions, but to aesthetic sensibilities that give both purposeless pleasure and a sense of meaning. The power of art, in turn, is only tested by time. It has no other true standard, for only the accumulated responses of readers can give it lasting value. But the question still remains: If Wordsworth aims at a contagion of aesthetic feelings and sensibilities from poet to readers through poetry, then why must he appeal to a higher, universal standard of truth? In other words, if the goal of art is emotive and aesthetic—to move through beauty—then why does he insist that the poet must express a human essence and meaning? The poet addresses this question by connecting Romantic art to truth, or, more generally, aesthetics to epistemology:

 “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alone into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature.” (401)

As much as Wordsworth makes the power of Romantic art dependent upon the transmission of aesthetic emotion from real artist to real readers, he also wants to remove it from such sociohistorical contingencies by describing it as something that is measured by its own internal criteria and dependent upon nothing else. To do so, he depicts aesthetic truth in terms of the essence of the Romantic artist, a sensitive creator who captures “the beauty of the universe” and “the dignity of man” without any transcendental measure. He leaves us with a paradoxical vision of the artist which I call postromantic because we continue to find traces of it today: one aspiring to convey meaning without faith in either its objectivity or universality; one aspiring to move readers, but at the same time indifferent to the vicissitudes of their tastes; one which abandons the quest for an objectively verifiable truth only to engage in a process of intense contemplation of an elusive human essence which even the Romantic poet no longer fully believes exists.

Later Romantic writers and poets, including Charles Baudelaire, would realize how difficult it is to hold on to the epistemological rhetoric of truth when one is speaking of aesthetic beauty. For early Romanticism had presented more questions than it answered: In what ways can the truth of emotion and beauty be verified if not by generating a kind of consensus in viewers and readers? And even if, by a kind of magical Kantian subjective universal response, readers do indeed experience the same reaction to art and poetry, what does agreement have to do with truth? Can truth exist only in an anthropocentric context, without reference to higher standards? Couldn’t human beings agree and still be wrong?

Sidestepping these problems, the late Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire returns art to the domain of aesthetics. Art, he suggests, is all about beauty, not truth. In the Salon of 1846, he declares:

“Each century, each people having possessed its own expression of beauty and morality – if we mean by Romanticism the most recent and modern expression of beauty – the great artist would therefore be –for the reasonable and passionate critic – the one that unites to the aforementioned condition, naiveté –the most Romanticism possible.” (Salon de 1846, Oeuvres Complètes, 642).

So far it seems as if Baudelaire depicts beauty not as an attunement among author, text and implied reader, but rather as an attunement of poetry with its times. A work of art is one that best captures the feel of its epoch with elegance and pathos. The validation of art necessarily depends upon a social network of readers and critics who institutionalize that artistic perspective; who perceive it as in step with, and even ahead of, its times. Art is at once Romantic and modern, as Baudelaire puts it. While describing art as dependent upon the historical contingencies associated with artistic value, however, Baudelaire also agrees with earlier strands of Romanticism that the artist is the gifted creator of a timeless and abstract ideal:

“Romanticism lies neither in the choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in the manner of feeling… For me, Romanticism is the most recent and up-to-date expression of beauty… The one who says Romanticism says modern art – which is to say intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite — expressed by all the resources of art.” (Salon de 1846)

Baudelaire thus returns to Wordsworth’s image of the artist as a double figure: created in a world deprived of certainty; creator of beauty and meaning through art. External consecration does not suffice, however, to determine the quality of art. Like Wordsworth, Baudelaire is not fully prepared to abandon the artist to purely sociological standards. Hence his famous conception of art as doubled itself: as an intertwinement and juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the eternal, of passing fashion and timeless beauty:

“All forms of beauty contain, like all possible phenomena, something eternal and something ephemeral—the absolute and the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty doesn’t exist, or rather it’s nothing but an abstraction culled from the general surface of diverse forms of beauty. The particular element of each beauty comes from the passions, and as we have particular passions so we have our beauties.” (Salon de 1846, 687)

In alluding to the eternal dimension of art, Baudelaire confronts the same problem as Wordsworth: by what standards can we judge an aesthetic object as eternal when we, ourselves, are only human; when the artist who created it, though perhaps more talented than ordinary human beings, is just as fallible and mortal as the rest of us? In “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe,” Baudelaire answers this question quite compellingly. He begins, like Wordsworth, by describing the creative origin and impact of poetry in a Platonic manner, as a “ravishment of the soul” (202). In other words, art is a process that transmits, by a kind of magical contagion or entrancement, the contemplation of passion rather than pure emotion itself. What is the aim of this aesthetic contagion? Nothing but the powerful feelings and impressions it provokes.

As we have seen, Baudelaire not only disassociates art from morality—as Wordsworth had in transforming the Neoclassical vision of art—but also from epistemology, or the discourse of truth. Poetry may make us more sensitive and sympathetic to other human beings, and it may even teach us something about human existence, but that is only incidental to it, not its central goal. “Poetry cannot,” the author insists, “except at the price of death or decay, assume the mantle of science or morality; the pursuit of truth is not its aim, it has nothing outside itself” (204). So what is poetry then? Baudelaire responds:

“It’s this admirable, this immortal instinct for Beauty that leads us to consider the earth and its spectacles as a correspondence with the Sky. The insatiable thirst for everything that is otherworldly and that reveals life is the living proof of our immortality.” (Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe, 598).

Baudelaire’s vision of poetry brings us to the threshold of what I call postromanticism: meaning a presentation of Romantic values and assumptions that remains plausible, and even intuitive, in modern times. Accepting the artist’s double nature as creator of lasting beauty and created in a world without certainties, Baudelaire abandons the hope of proving the eternal value of art. Yet he still desires to claim it as an intuition, a hope. Baudelaire’s modernist vision of Romanticism can be described as a powerful current that splits into two principal directions.

One direction would be pursued by Modernist and especially postmodernist artists and writers. This is the direction that postmodern theory has made most visible during the past thirty years. Beginning, as did Baudelaire, with the assumption that the beauty of art is not measured by any identifiable standard of truth or meaning, modernist and postmodernist authors would go so much further than the poet in dismantling –and showing the dangers of– all traces of the universal from aesthetics. Once such criteria are removed, drawing qualitative distinctions among artistic objects and even between artistic and utilitarian objects becomes a matter of purely socioeconomic considerations. Thus we reach, as many maintain, the death of beauty and the end of art.

By way of contrast, what I call postromantic writers and artists take late Romantic assumptions similar to Baudelaire’s to a different conclusion. If there’s no higher measure of art’s beauty and illumination, then the creative endeavor is all the more challenging, titillating and despairingly powerful. Postromantic poetry and art plausibly intertwine a passionate longing for the absolute with a sense of skepticism, and even hopelessness, towards the possibility of ever grasping it.

Claudia Moscovici, from Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, 2007)

September 22, 2010 Posted by | 18th century, 19th century, aesthetics, Baudelaire, Claudia Moscovici, Flowers of Evil, literary criticism, literature, Lyrical Ballads, M. H. Abrams, poetry, Romantic aesthetics, Romantic literature, Romantic poetry, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, Wordsworth | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Romantic Aesthetics: Wordsworth and Baudelaire

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Passion as the Key (Post)romantic Trope

Seduction and romantic love are often viewed as interchangeable.  But, in fact, they can be polar opposites. In the past two blog entries on psychopathic seduction, I introduced what love is NOT. Love is not a game; it is not a dominance bond; it is not based on deception; it is not a form of conquest of another. Today I’d like to offer a more positive reflection on love, and in particular, of one of the key tropes of Romantic love: passion.

Passion was the core of the Romantic movement. It is also, along with sensuality and the appreciation of beauty, the focal point of the contemporary aesthetic movement I co-founded with the artist Leonardo Pereznieto in 2002, Sensuality and passion hardly seem separable since we tend to experience them together. It’s nearly impossible to imagine passion without the excitement, agitation and upheaval of the senses and emotions that we associate with sensuality. At the same time, however, sensuality and passion are opposites. Sensuality is the acute sensibility to beauty and to the myriad of potential delights it promises. It’s a way of seeing beauty in the world, in both human beings and objects. Such beauty is so vast and all-pervasive—kalon, or sea of beauty as Plato’s prophetess, Diotima had depicted—that it’s not necessarily anchored by any preference or bound by any attachment. Every week we may gaze at dozens of attractive persons, inspiring scenes and beautiful paintings or sculptures. Sensuality moves our eyes from object to object, stirring our desires, dreams and solipsistic emotions, but not necessarily capturing our devotion.

Much as sensuality, in its link to perception, evokes the aesthetic and epistemological dimensions of postromanticism, passion constitutes its ethics. This doesn’t mean that postromanticism mandates that human beings should not appreciate a multitude of objects or beings. But it does unabashedly declare: love is special. Many of us fall passionately in love and such feelings are so miraculous that they seem to defy explanation. Yet, at the same time, they are so important that they have inspired thousands of writers, poets, philosophers and artists throughout human history to depict passionate love. Not everyone does or should fall deeply in love. But those who do, we tend to believe, are very fortunate. If passionate love is a privileged form of human experience that has intrigued us for millennia, then it’s certainly worth valorizing it in our times.

Like Romanticism, postromanticism focuses above all on the expression of passionate love. Yet, in our day and age—an age so imbued with feminine and feminist sensibilities—one can no longer speak of the asymmetrical love between a male poet or artist and his ethereal muse, which has long been the dominant cliché of Romanticism. Postromantic love is reciprocal and symmetrical. Nor does postromanticism preserve the instrumental view of passion as a means of reaching something higher than human experience; of moving from the human to the divine, as we see in idealist traditions of love from Plato, to the Renaissance neoplatonists, to the Romantics. In Postromantic poetry, literature and art, passion begins with earthly existence and never transcends it.

Definition: So what is postromantic passion? Above all, passion is a focalization of the senses, thoughts and emotions upon one primary subject. I call it an ethics because it implies considering at every step one’s attitude and actions towards the beloved and, conversely, his or her actions and feelings towards oneself.

 The transcendent in the contingent: The beloved is not randomly chosen. Even if meeting him or her occurs by accident—as do most human encounters—the fit between the lovers feels so right that it appears to be determined by a higher force. The intervention of that higher force cannot be proven. Nonetheless, it has a certain metonymic logic similar to the one described by the Stoics, who perceived the imprint of divine will in the beauty and harmony of the universe. Postromanticism thus spiritualizes, but only gently and lightly, passionate love. It doesn’t necessarily express a belief in divinity, but rather an elevation of emotion and humanity. Passionate love is that which uplifts one’s creative and life energies, as if by force of destiny, with the elegance, sense of wonder and inevitability of something that appears to transcend human experience.

The artist and the muse: With so many successful female artists in the world and, more generally, with so many women encouraged to pursue their talents, it’s impossible nowadays to retain the Romantic idea of the artist as male and the muse as female. When the passion is shared, both members of the couple can inspire and engage in creativity.

Idealization and lucidity: While Romanticism tends towards the idealization of the beloved, postromanticism claims that the beauty of love and of the beloved often lies in his or her imperfection. For the Romantic poets the muse was otherworldly. Only through her nonexistence could she embody aesthetic ideals. She wasn’t a woman, but a fantasy, a dream. In postromanticism, however, the source of inspiration is not a “crystallized” or idealized object of the imagination—as the novelist Stendhal had described love—but a contingent person who is known in the smallest details of his or her reality. Which is not to say that postromanticism follows the legacy of realism or naturalism. In postromanticism, unlike in naturalism, the mundane aspects of the lovers and of love itself never become scientifically predictable, mythical or grotesque, as they do, for instance, in Zola’s naturalist fiction. Postromanticism declares: real love is endearing and unique; a product of a rare fit between two individuals who, through their mutual devotion, create lasting values in an ephemeral life.

Focalization: We tend assume that the Romantic life is synonymous with the adventurous life, the life of an emotional tourist: traveling everywhere; having a multiplicity of relationships; experiencing each type of woman or man as one samples exotic dishes from distant parts of the world. Yet when one glides only on the surface of human existence, it’s difficult to be immersed in passion. For passion requires time to become deeper, richer and more intimate; it requires focalization so that it will not disperse and become a flash of intensity that’s one episode among a hundred others. In losing focus, passion also loses intensity and significance. It ceases to exist.

Energy: Passion is a mutual consumption that gives rather than depleting energy. Like a windmill, like any rhythmic movement, it generates while absorbing energy, but not all by itself, but from the external impetus of two individuals’ continual efforts to live for and with each other.

Symmetry: Passion is constantly reinforced by symmetrical dialogue. The lovers negotiate everything and feel equal in the relationship. Which doesn’t mean that they’re identical. In fact, often passion becomes more exciting when the lovers share differences in temperament, point of view and opinion. Yet there are no conventional gender roles in postromanticism. One person is not necessarily more submissive, the other more authoritative; one person is not necessarily more emotive, the other more rational. The differences are unique to each couple, not necessarily polarized. They are diffused, varied and less predictable than in the Romantic complementarity between masculine and feminine roles.

Reciprocity: Reciprocity, which was largely ignored by the Romantic movement, is the pillar of postromanticism. Passion that is mostly solipsistic—one human being’s dream or projection upon an idealized person—is not real. It may represent desire or even a strong infatuation. But only once feelings, thoughts and desires are shared, do we enter the realm of passionate love.

Proximity and distance: The Romantic male artists and their muses, even when they coupled in real life, appeared infinitely distant in art because the descriptions of women were so often veiled and disguised. The Romantics privileged the metaphors of woman as muse, angel, Salomé or femme fatale; of woman as all the more desirable because mysterious, multiple, changing and unattainable. In this tantalizing play and disguise of feminine identity, the difference between Romanticism, modernism and postmodernism is almost effaced. Postromanticism doesn’t need feminine mystery and masquerade to cultivate desire and love. Which doesn’t mean that it assumes love to be transparent. Postromanticism trusts that passionate love can generate its own dynamics: a constant movement between elevating and lowering barriers which, unlike the Romantic vision of the femme fatale who fans desire through strategic advancements and withdrawals, is reciprocal, genuine and spontaneous.

Breathing: Passion is nourished by a proximity and intensity of communication so strong that it seems as if the lovers are breathing each other’s air. Without suffocating. The withdrawals are themselves part of the process of breathing. They are periods of inhaling air, of absorbing life experience and knowledge, in order to exhale it back to one another; to have a renewed life energy to offer one’s beloved.

Thinking: Postromantic passion is characterized by a rhythm and emotion which are genuine and spontaneous yet thoughtful at the same time. In this respect, it resembles Wordsworth’s Romanticism, which described passion as a processed and thoughtful rather than immediate and visceral emotion. Without the mediation of thought, passion risks being just a passing fancy; a gust of wind. And winds quickly change direction. Passion is a symbiotic relation between two individuals who enable each other to interconnect the important aspects of human life, including sensation, emotion and thought. Passion engages all of our human faculties.

Devotion: Passion is an enduring devotion. It’s not necessarily a commitment or responsibility in the way more institutionalized relations are, where the primary connection is external to the relationship. In other words, in passion the connection is not made by conventional morality and law. But the result is even more spectacular. Because devotion, a term evocative of religious experience, has transcendental dimensions. Passion is a secular form of adoration.

Fidelity: We tend to believe that virtue is a more reliable foundation for fidelity than passion, but postromanticism says that’s not the case. Virtue is often tested in the face of temptation and experienced as a tension between conscience and desire. All too often, the desire is more immediate, easier to satisfy and stronger. Passion reduces that tension and alleviates its pangs. In passion, the obsessive desire and focus upon a primary object is so strong that the energy left for others is weaker and more superficial, thus not posing a real threat to the relationship.

Jealousy and Possessiveness: If philosophers from Plato to Kant cautioned against passion, it’s largely because they associated it with negative emotions such as jealousy, possessiveness and hatred, which occur when love turns full circle and collapses upon itself. The Romantics, from Goethe to Constant, often confirmed this negative impression in describing how the force of passion leads to madness, murder and suicide. It’s undoubtedly true that passion is often accompanied by feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad sign. In moderation, jealousy and possessiveness may constitute a declaration of love. They can express: I know you desire others and that others are desirable to me, but I need and am grateful for the uniqueness of our attraction and feelings. Jealousy, in moderation, rekindles the flame of passion. It suggests: out of all the desirable persons we meet, I still chose you and you me. Jealousy in excess snuffs out the flame of passion. It suggests: I don’t trust you; you’re not freely mine. Rather than loving you, I possess you.

Ritual: Passion is a cherished ritual rather than a habit. A repetition of activities that appear always new, always exciting, because they’re primarily motivated by emotions and desires. In lasting love, one needs the repetition of activities as one needs to breathe air or eat regularly, rather than going through the motions today out of inertia, because one did it yesterday. In its rhythm and intensity, the repetition of acts in passionate love—going to a movie, dining out—resembles the repetition of religious rituals.

Erotism: Postromantic passion is erotic in a way that’s intensely sensual and at the same time different from diffused sensuality. In passion, the physical longing for someone is stimulated by knowledge and love of that person, rather than the love being motivated primarily by desire. That’s what makes passion different from the multiplicity of human attraction. While sensuality is a feast for the senses, passion offers food for the soul. Postromanticism places passion at its center, declaring: life and art would be emptier and more impoverished without such exquisite nourishment. 

Claudia Moscovici

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literature, love, modern art, passion, Romantic literature, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, thoughts on love, thoughts on passion | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What’s Love Got to Do With It? Passion as the Key (Post)romantic Trope