Monday, March 30, 2009

The Pendulum of History

Classical Period
Classical Greek Philosophy discussed the idea of "the Golden Mean." The Greeks believed there to be three ingredients to beauty: symmetry, proportion, and harmony and that ethical behavior constituted "nothing in excess." According to Wiki, one of the earliest representation of this idea in culture is the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus warns his son to "fly the middle course," between the sea spray and the sun's heat. Icarus did not follow his father; but flew too close to the sun until its heat melted the wax off his wings.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all taught about this principle. Socrates taught that a man "must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible". Aristotle in his work, "Eudemian Ethics," writes on the virtues and discusses how for every behavior, morality is flanked by immorality on both extremes. For example, if courage is the moral behavior, one should avoid the extremes of cowardice on one side and rashness on the other. Likewise, Aristotle taught that one should be generous but not stingy nor extravagance; or ambitious but not slothful or greedy. Despite this call for moderation, proportion, and balance, world history demonstrates wild cultural swings from one extreme to the other.

The Renaissance
The Western World emerged from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance between the 14th and 17th. The Renaissance Period encompassed a cultural rebellion of learning based on classical sources, development of linear perspective (depth) in painting, and educational reform. Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press made the Bible available to the common man, which resulted in an increase in literacy in Western Europe. At the same time Martin Luther's ninety-five theses catalyzed the Protestant Reformation and the Mèdici Bank in Florentine Italy gained enough wealth and political power to sponsor numerous artists and architecture projects to balance classical Greek and Catholic ideals.

The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution
Disillusioned with religion following events such as the Spanish Inquisition, and the loss of Jerusalem and Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, there was a great turning away from religion as primary way of life. Europe turned its attention from religious authority to the authority of politics, logical analysis and reason through the scientific method. This period from 1660-1836 goes by the names "the Enlightenment," "the Age of Reason," and "the Neo-Classical Age." Major figures of this era include Galileo, Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke; composers Mozart and Haydn.

This period also encompasses the Industrial Revolution. During the Industrial Revolution, the manual labour and draft animal–based economy transformed to an economy based on machine manufacturing. It started with the mechanisation of the textile industries, the development of iron-making techniques and the increased use of refined coal. Trade expansion was enabled by the introduction of canals, improved roads and railways.

Art during this period shifted away from an idealized neo-classical realism and began to depict ordinary workers and farming communities in scenes of everyday life. Realism, in contrast to Romanticism, showed an objective, unemotional view of the world. The goal of Realist artists was to record an impartial view of society.

Following the French Revolution 1789-1799 hostilities developed towards the new industrialisation. Known as the the Romantic movement; major figures of this movement included poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Lord Byron; composer Beethoven; authors Victor Hugo, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and James Fenimore Cooper and artists Eugene Delacroix, William Blake, Francisco de Goya, William Turner, Auguste Rodin, and John Constable. The period was strongly influenced by the philosophical theory of Rousseau. This movement stressed the importance of nature in art and language, in contrast to "monstrous" machines and factories; the "Dark satanic mills" of Blake's poem ." The movement stressed strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience and emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling over deductive reason.

Victorian Age
The Victorian Era of the United Kingdom took place during the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901. This period marked a long period of prosperity for the British people, as profits gained from the overseas British Empire, as well as from industrial improvements at home, allowed a large, educated middle class to develop. During this time technology brought urbanization, modern sanitation, photography, and electric lighting. However, the Victorian Era also experienced problems of urban poverty, child labor, gambling, prostitution. Art during the Victorian Era included many styles ranging from neoclassicism, romanticism, social realism. Major Victorian Era artists include Hughes, Millais, Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema, and Hunt.

The increase in urbanization, pollution, corruption and anonymity of the city led to a large increase in prostitution and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Prostitute came to have symbolic significance of a double standard toward women. Victorian Society placed enormous pressure on women to maintain a role of homemaker and sexual purity however the same was not true of men. Divorce legislation introduced in 1857 allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce if adultery was accompanied by cruelty. Dickens and other writers associated prostitution with the mechanisation and industrialisation of modern life, portraying prostitutes as human commodities consumed and thrown away like refuse when they were used up (from Wiki).

Modernism and Post-modernism
Modernism rejects the certainty of Enlightenment thinking, and religious faith. Modernists do not necessarily reject all religious or Enlightenment thought but seek to question the assumptions and axioms of the previous age. Religious, Classical, and Enlightenment philosophers are characterized by an underlying optimism. Conversely, Modernist philosophy and literature by Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus, Beckett, and Nietzsche are distinctly pessimistic. Suffering during the Great Depression and the genocide practiced by Stalin and Hitler during World War II promoted this new pessimism and the philosophy of nihilism. Nihilist philosophers were ardent atheists based on the "problem of suffering." Nihilism suggested that there was no meaning for life and therefore because there is no God then death causes the cessation of consciousness. Several other significant thinkers of the period were Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud

Artists also questioned old assumptions and consequently Modern art encompasses an array of artistic styles including impressionism, favism, cubism, art nouveau, art deco and abstract expressionism. Impressionist paintings demonstrated that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. Impressionists during the Modern Era include Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Morisot, and Degas. In addition to experimenting with light and color, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse abandoned the use of traditional perspective in cubism and abstract impressionism. Modern and post-modern music like art and philosophy is likewise experimental and deconstructionist in its focus to discover and accentuate exceptions to traditional rules of rhythm, harmony, melody, tempo, and dynamics. Post-modernists error when they conclude that the existence of exceptions is proof that the rules themselves don't exist. The error in their argument is that if the rules didn't exist, they couldn't be having the conversation in the first place.

As we seek to establish a more perfect union, in an age of religious and political extremism, my hope is that a majority of us are still searching for the happy medium.

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