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14.3: Philosophy and Art

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  • Ironically, some of the major intellectual movements of the postwar period focused not on the promise of a better future, but on the premise that life was and probably would remain alienating and unjust. Despite the real, tangible improvements in the quality of life for most people in western Europe between 1945 - 1975, there was a marked insecurity and pessimism that was best reflected in postwar art and philosophy. Major factors behind this pessimism were the devastation of the war itself, the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers, and the declining power of Europe on the world stage. New cultural struggles emerged against the backdrop not of economic uncertainty and conventional warfare, but of economic prosperity and the threat of nuclear war.

    The postwar era began in the shadow of the war and the fascist nightmare that had preceded it; the British writer George Orwell noted that “since about 1930, the world had given no reason for optimism whatsoever. Nothing in sight except a welter of lies, cruelty, hatred, and ignorance.” Some of the most important changes in art and philosophy in the postwar era emerged from the moral exhaustion that was the result of the war, something that lingered over Europe for years and grew with the discovery of the extent of the Holocaust. There was also the simple fact that the world itself could not survive another world war; once the Cold War began in earnest in the late 1940s, the world was just a few decisions away from devastation, if not outright destruction.

    The quintessential postwar philosophy was existentialism. The great figures of existentialism were the French writers and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Sartre and Beauvoir had played minor roles in the French Resistance against the Nazis during the war, while Camus had played a more significant role in that he wrote and edited a clandestine anti-Nazi paper, Combat. Sartre and Beauvoir were products of the most elite schools and universities in France, while Camus was an Algerian-born French citizen who took pride in his “provincial” background. Even before the war, Sartre was famous for his philosophical work and for his novel Nausea, which depicted a "hero" who tried unsuccessfully to find meaning in life after realizing that his actions were all ultimately pointless.

    Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in a crowd during a visit to communist China.
    Figure 14.3.1: Lifelong companions and fellow philosophers Beauvoir and Sartre.

    While existentialism is a flowery word, its essential arguments are straightforward. First, there is no inherent meaning to life. Humans just exist: they are born, they do things while alive, then they die. During life, however, people are forced to constantly make choices - Sartre wrote that humans "are condemned to be free." Most people find this process of always having to make choices frightening and difficult, so they pretend that something greater and more important provides the essential answers: religion, political ideologies, the pursuit of wealth, and so on. Sartre and Beauvoir called this "bad faith," the pretense that individual decisions are dictated by an imaginary higher power or higher calling.

    There was no salvation in existentialism, but there was at least the possibility of embracing the human condition, of accepting the heroic act of choosing one’s actions and projects in life without hope of heaven, immortality, or even being remembered after death. The existentialists called living in this manner "authenticity" - a kind of courageous defiance of the despair of being alive without a higher purpose or meaning. Increasingly, the major existential philosophers argued that authenticity could also be found as part of a shared project with others, but only if that project did not succumb to ideological or religious dogmatism.

    A large part of the impetus behind not just the actual theories of the existentialists, but its popular reception, was the widespread desire for a better, more “authentic” social existence after the carnage of the war. Appropriately, existentialism had its heyday from 1945 until about 1960. It enjoyed mainstream press coverage and even inspired self-styled “existentialists” in popular culture who imitated their intellectual heroes by frequenting cafes and jazz clubs on the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris. While the existentialists themselves continued to write, debate, and involve themselves in politics (most became Marxist intellectuals and supporters of third-world uprisings against colonialism), existential philosophy eventually went out of fashion in favor of various kinds of theory that were eventually loosely grouped together as "postmodernism."

    The idea of postmodernism is complex; it is a term that has been used to describe many different things and it often lacks a core definition or even basic coherence. That noted, the basis of postmodernism is the rejection of big stories, or “meta-narratives,” about life, history, and society. Whereas in the past intellectuals tried to define the “meaning” of history, or Western Civilization, or of “mankind,” postmodern thinkers exposed all of the ways in which those “meanings” had been constructed, usually in order to support the desires of the people doing the storytelling. In other words, to claim that history led inevitably to greater freedom or plenty or happiness had almost always been an excuse for domination and some kind of conquest.

    For instance, during the highpoint of European imperialism, high-minded notions of the civilizing mission, the culmination of the liberal and nationalist political aspirations of the nineteenth century, and the emergence of truly modern science all coincided with the blood-soaked plundering of overseas territories. The postmodern historical critique of imperialism was more than just an attack on Western hypocrisy, however, instead arguing that the very notion of history moving “forward” to a better future was obviously incorrect. History, from the postmodern perspective, has no overarching narrative - things simply change, with those changes generally revolving around the deployment of social and economic power.

    Perhaps the most famous and important postmodern philosopher was the Frenchman Michel Foucault. Foucault’s work analyzed the history of culture in the West, covering everything from the concept of insanity to state power, and from crime to sexuality, demonstrating the ways that ideas about society and culture had always been shaped to serve power. Foucault’s most evocative analyses had to do with how the definition of crime and the practices of punishment had changed in the modern world to justify a huge surveillance apparatus, one set to monitor all behavior. In this model, “criminality” was an invention of the social and political system itself that justified the system’s police apparatus.

    Postmodernism came under fire at the time, and since, for sometimes going so far as to question the very possibility of meaning in any context. Theorists like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (both, again, French) argued that authorial intent in writing was meaningless, because the text became entirely separate from the author at the moment of being written down. Likewise, both worked to demonstrate that texts themselves were nothing more or less than elaborate word games, with any implied “meaning” simply an illusion in the mind of a reader. At its most extreme, postmodernism went a step beyond existentialism: not only was life inherently meaningless, but even a person’s intentions and actions (the only source of meaning from the existential perspective) amounted to nothing.

    That being noted, much of postmodern theory was not itself pessimistic or dour. Instead, there was often a joyful, irreverent play of ideas and words at work in postmodern thought, even if it was largely indecipherable outside of the halls of academia. That joyful irreverence translated directly into postmodern art, which often both satirized and embraced the breakdown between mainstream culture and self-understood “avant-gardes.” Especially during the Modernist period in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century, artists and writers had often staged their work in opposition to the mainstream culture and beliefs of their societies, but artists in the postmodern era could play with the stuff of the mainstream without rejecting or breaking from it.

    In turn, the iconic example of postmodern art was pop art. The most famous pop artist was the New York-based Andy Warhol. Pop art consisted of taking images from popular culture - in Warhol's case, everything from portraits of Marilyn Monroe to the Campbell's Soup can - and making it into "fine art." In fact, much of pop art consisted of blurring the line between commercial advertising and fine art; Warhol transformed advertising images into massive silk-screened posters, satirizing consumer society while at the same time celebrating it.

    Andy Warhol's iconic painting of a can of Campbell's soup.
    Figure 14.3.2: Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, 1968