I’ve been skipping all around the world.
In this article, I will try to sum up the case that I have made so far and where I am going with this argument, which is that the rise of Modernism is central to understanding our decline.
In his book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, Eric P. Kaufmann argued that the American elite became modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist during the first three decades of the 20th century. WASP elites began to reject their own ethnicity and “Anglo-conformity” which was the process by which European immigrants came to America and were expected to assimilate into the American nation. Instead of assimilating into a common American culture, European immigrants were encouraged to retain their own culture and enrich an otherwise sterile, bland and philistine Anglo-America. This idea which gained traction on the Left in the 1920s was later broadened into multiculturalism.
Modern America, which is our own age, began in the Roaring Twenties. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Victorian establishment of 19th century America was discredited by World War I and our present day “mainstream” came into existence. The modern Left, which is left-libertarian, emerged in this period when the Young Intellectuals broke with Progressivism. The Progressive Era had a different idea of progress which was left-conservative, not left-libertarian. The modern Left was created when Modernism arrived in America in the 1910s and fused with progressive liberalism in Greenwich Village which rejected the old culture of Victorian America. The result was a new aesthetic form of liberalism – cultural liberalism or social liberalism – which valued expressive individualism, cultural egalitarianism and individual “experience” and is focused on transgression or cultural liberation whereas classical liberalism had been focused on the extension of political rights and laissez-faire economics.
In his book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917, the historian Henry F. May describes the beginning of this turbulent transition between Victorian America and Modern America in the years before World War I. The Victorian establishment maintained what George Santayana labeled the Anglo-American “genteel tradition” which valued moralism, progress and culture. Traditional moral values were held in high esteem by virtually all Americans who were optimists who took great pride in scientific and technological progress and the growth of material comfort. This worldview was wedded to reverence for traditional British and American literary culture. The young Moderns of the Chicago Renaissance and the Village Renaissance rebelled against the culture of Victorian America, which they dismissed as shallow, moralistic and materialistic, and embraced the new culture which swept into America from Europe.
The roots of Modernism can be traced back deep into the culture of 19th century France to the poet Charles Baudelaire, the author of The Flowers of Evil, who argued that evil could be beautiful. In his book Scènes de la vie de bohème, Henri Murger had romanticized the carefree life of young artists in Paris who lived in the moment like gypsies attached only to a small group of self chosen friends. The French poet Théophile Gautier called for art for art’s sake – the autonomy of aesthetics from morality – and rallied his fellow artists against catering to the tastes of bourgeois philistines. Gustave Flaubert declared himself “bourgeoisophobus” and led the way in attacking the culture of the bourgeois in Madame Bovary. This project was carried on by Émile Zola in the late 19th century. Édouard Manet broke with tradition and carried Baudelaire’s call for a new art for a new age into painting. In the French Third Republic in the late 19th century, this all built up into the cult of the artist. Henceforth, art would be about art and it would increasingly be about expressing the subjective inner world of the artist. Art would cease to be about objectively and faithfully depicting the divine or nature. As artists focused on depicting their inner selves, art would be liberated from the restraints of society, morality, rationality and ultimately from reality itself. The thing that mattered was the autonomy of the artist as the creator to express himself.
In the late 19th century, avant-garde poets, painters, novelists and playwrights began to march European high culture toward self-absorbed transgression against bourgeois cultural norms. At roughly the same time, Darwinism landed a major blow against Christianity. There was also an explosion in the size of Europe’s population. Alienated intellectuals began to have nothing but contempt for the masses. Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde began to develop the novel idea that aesthetics shouldn’t only be autonomous from the limits of religion and ethics, but above them. Nietzsche argued that the masses were herd animals and slaves who held back the self-realization of higher men with their slave morality. Religion and traditional morality were bullshit masks for power relations. As the traditional limits of religion and morality began to crumble, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen invented the ideal of the liberated New Woman and H.G. Wells popularized free love and the World State.
Naturally, people who were exposed to all of these new ideas and who began to see the world this way and reject the constraints of their traditional culture, i.e., Moderns, wanted to seek experience, cultivate their own lifestyles and live among other people who shared the same beliefs, values and mindset. In the decades before the rise of the mass media, they migrated to bohemian enclaves which arose in major cities like Montmartre on the Right Bank in Fin-de-siècle Paris, which was the epicenter of it. It was in these enclaves that a new Western culture was germinating in which the Modern self would be liberated from all restraints. It was inspired by Modern art which Picasso described as “a sum of destructions.”
It is one thing to imagine a small group of eccentric artists like Baudelaire and Whistler living this way. They were working with a small canvas. What happens though when it becomes normal for everyone to live this way because this is the ideal that is promoted by film and television?