By Tim Gebhart 7:08 pm PST
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It’s everywhere and all-pervasive. It has been celebrated by the higher institutions and museums around the world; confusing and irreverent to most of us, yet still emulated in every aspect of our modern lives, wittingly or unwittingly. Modern art has defined our culture since its emergence during the 1850s in France. It has played a definitive role in how we think, act, view the world, and shaped our most fundamental notions to the depths of our souls. How we view our place in the universe and the purpose of human life have been molded and crafted by the narratives the modern art movement has constructed. 

The early modern artists who founded the Realist and Impressionist movements in the mid 18th century set to turn the centuries old art establishment in France and French culture with its Judeo-Christian values on its head. The early modern artists had an agenda directly tied to promoting Socialism, Atheism, Hedonism, and Materialism through their arts that has since become so pervasive in our society today, we would scarcely be able to fathom what people and society may have been like before the modern movements in art swept through that so effectively dismantled Western culture and thought.  

Originally taught in churches and classical academies in art, painters and sculptors adhered to the principles of truth, goodness, and beauty, the Socratic roots of Western civilization that described the universal order and shaped its aesthetic language. The arts reflected and revealed the truth of creation, beauty transported us there, and goodness was the temperament and characteristic of the universe to which one would try to assimilate. This wisdom developed the Classical and Greco-Roman styles that sought to harmonize themselves with the universal order. They had been an integral part of Western culture passed down through the ages since pre-Hellenic Greece. 

All the panoply of Christianity, including angels, cherubs, Saints, and heavenly scenes fused with classical aesthetics from Greek antiquity were the dominant source material for the old masters and traditional artists and architects. They in turn, created and shaped a culture that placed revering and respecting the Divine as the pinnacle of human endeavors which steered humanity and its visual inclinations towards goodness. 

Enter the Enlightenment French society’s understanding of beauty began to shift dramatically. Several key figures emerged in the 1800s which would radically shift humanity away from its sacred roots and begin a methodical and carefully orchestrated campaign to plummet humanity towards atheism, hedonism, nihilism, materialism, utilitarianism, scientific rationalism, moral relativism, and Socialism. 

The degrading aesthetics were all used by design, meant to culturally and spiritually alienate people from their roots. The Modern art movement’s most proud achievement in the West was severing this lifeline. The entirety of Western civilization afterwards had been tainted by their radical, modern ideologies that warped mankind’s morality.

Virgin and Child, Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, ca. 1670–72, Spanish, Oil on canvas, Rogers Fund, 1943. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) At the height of the Baroque era in the late 1600s, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s charming paintings of ethereal, sacred images of icons helped create the vehicle towards the divine. His Rubenesque paintings, crafted with unparallelled skill, were coveted by royalty throughout Europe. He was one of the premiere artists in his day. The modest and charitable Murillo however, had spent a great deal of time invested in his hometown of Seville which had been ravaged by plague and starvation trying to help those in need. His paintings of orphaned children tried to awaken sympathy for the less fortunate. Unfortunately for Esteban Murillo himself, after the emergence of the Modernist art movements that swept through Western Europe, his paintings and the subject matter he portrayed fell so far out of fashion, that they had been mocked and denigraded by art critics and the public. His legacy had been buried and nearly forgotten along with thousands of other artists and their exquisite works.
Virgin and Child, Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, ca. 1670–72, Spanish, Oil on canvas, Rogers Fund, 1943. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) At the height of the Baroque era in the late 1600s, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s charming paintings of ethereal, sacred images of icons helped create the vehicle towards the divine. His Rubenesque paintings, crafted with unparallelled skill, were coveted by royalty throughout Europe. He was one of the premiere artists in his day. The modest and charitable Murillo however, had spent a great deal of time invested in his hometown of Seville which had been ravaged by plague and starvation trying to help those in need. His paintings of orphaned children tried to awaken sympathy for the less fortunate. Unfortunately for Esteban Murillo himself, after the emergence of the Modernist art movements that swept through Western Europe, his paintings and the subject matter he portrayed fell so far out of fashion, that they had been mocked and denigraded by art critics and the public. His legacy had been buried and nearly forgotten along with thousands of other artists and their exquisite works.

The foundations of the modern movements in art began with the musings of Baron d’Holbach and his influential book, “The System of Nature,” published in 1770. In the book, Holbach touted atheism, materialism, and scientific rationalism as the means and method of understanding the world. Holbach goes on to describe the creation of Man and the universe as only machinations of motion, the soul as a physical impulse, and morality only as a material concept to secure safety in a decidedly material world, and the five senses as being the only reliable methods for understanding the world we live in. Belief in the divine to Holbach was a human construct, meant to attach greater significance to mortal, material life. 

“When the human mind permits itself to be guided by authority without proof to be led forward by enthusiasm — when it renounces the evidence of its senses; what can it do more than sink into errour? If man wishes to form to himself clear ideas of his soul, let him throw himself back on his experience; let him renounce his prejudices; let him avoid theological conjecture; let him tear the sacred bandage with which lie has been blindfolded only to confound his reason. Let the natural philosopher, let the anatomist, let the physician, unite their experience and compare their observations, in order to show what ought to be thought of a substance so disguised under a heap of absurdities: let their discoveries teach moralists the true motive-power that ought to influence the actions of man…”
~Systems of Nature, pg55

With faith in the divine out of the picture, Henri de Saint-Simon delved further into Holbach’s rabbit hole and introduced political and philosophical theories and movements that centered around de-Christianizing France and freeing people from the yoke of any and all moral restraints. Among them were the theories of Anarchy, Communism, Utopian Socialism, and Atheism. In the cafes and salons of France, these new radical ideas were a hot topic of discussion by the intellectuals, philosophers, and cultural elite in their lively debates. The new philosophies were seen as risque and highbrow, a way to separate oneself from the uneducated. Several artists were among their ranks that would lead the charge in implanting these new “isms” into French society.

The first Socialist organizations and communes in France and Western Europe began to spring up, experimenting with and living out Holbach and other philosophers’ theories that focused on Atheism, Materialism, and Communism. Within the communes, liberation from traditional values and morality began to take root. Anatole France, a French poet at the time,  described the Communes as “A committee of assassins, a band of hooligans, a government of crime and madness.” Édouard Manet and Gustav Courbet, the radical shock artists, as well as the early Impressionists including Monet and Cézanne, antagonized human dignity and mocked the traditional academies with nearly every one of their paintings, found their inspirations within the communes surrounded by like-minded individuals. 


“Impression,” Claude Monet,1872, Oil on canvas. (Public domain)
The term impression had been used to deride the painting because of its lack of finish. It had been adopted by the rebellious painters who saw traditional techniques and subject matter stifling. They adopted the term “impression” and called themselves the Impressionists.

Modern Art Goes Mainstream

Gustav Courbet was one of the most outspoken members of the new modernist trends in art. A staunch Atheist, and Anarchist, Courbet was a leading figure in the Paris Commune uprising in 1871. He adhered to the Communist Manifesto, published by Karl Marx in 1848, who laid out stratagems in using the working-class to break and topple society’s social structure, “dictatorship of the proletariat” and liberating citizens from the bourgeois, which was in reality a way to take down and remove influential segments in society and have Socialist elements take total control. 

Along with Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a writer and philosopher, found an adoring fan in Courbet, who took to his musings, particularly on the role art plays in society. Proudhon’s views on art were that it was a tool of reforming society and making political statements. It radically shifted art’s role as it was as acting as a vehicle to understand the transcendental and creating dignified, beautiful works.

The foundations of modern art lay in this shift in the understanding of art and its purpose. Art would from then on be viewed based on a praxis based approach to art. It means to study art through theory, which could mean studying it through a social, political, or philosophical lens. It was almost a prerequisite then for artists to attach deep philosophical and political statements in their artworks. 

Art was evolving into a mode of pure self-expression in theme and technique, and for Courbet, it meant sharing his political and social opinions. He created the “Realist” philosophy of art, to not dramatize life in any way, but to show how it is –(according to him) ugly, macabre, and nihilistic. 

Painting how life “is” and “Realism” were foils to spread his beliefs. He was depicting scenes with some amount of accuracy in terms of his subject matter, having studied in traditional art academies himself, but the themes were demeaning, immoral, and relied on shock and outrage to attract attention. Many citizens in France were furious over Courbet’s insensitive and provocative paintings. The National Guard had to be called in when Courbet’s prostitute painting “Olympia” made its hesitant debut at the Paris salon in 1865. 

The art academies and salons refused many of his and his Impressionist friends works on account of the indecent subject matter and the confusing and rough techniques used in producing their compositions.The modernist artists didn’t take the rejection lightly. They launched a propaganda campaign against the traditional academies, using arguments that they were oppressive, old-fashioned and stuck in irrelevant themes, and were outmoded by the invention of the camera.

The “Realist” painter had many influential connections to help sway public opinion. Emperor Napoleon III was a friend of Courbet and fell for his raison d’être and took pity on him. The Monarch of France built the Salon des Refusés to exhibit Courbet and his friend’s works that were rejected by the traditional salons. 

Over time, the smear campaigns waged on the old-fashioned, out of touch, stifling, and sentimental academies took their toll. Many traditional academies, the heart and soul of France, founded by King Louis XIV, had shuttered their doors. The French populace had been coerced into accepting the new, in-vogue works by the new “tastemakers” and under the tide of the Modernists arguments and attacks against their historic institutions.

Having paved the way and knocked out the competition, new, more modern and deviant styles in art had free reign, all completely influenced by Communist beliefs that ridiculed traditional morality. The many prostitute paintings from Courbet, the “Absinthe Drinker” of Manet, to the ear-mutilated self-portrait of Van Gogh upended traditional techniques and morality in favor of absolute self indulgence in depravity. Their deleterious lifestyles and bizarre behaviors influenced by Communist ideologies gave rise to the modern concept we have of artists as being unhinged derelicts that visit brothels, do copious amounts of drugs, extol morose and nihilistic outlooks on life, and who dive into demonic states of mind. This behavior became the customary and expected way artists should live. Their lifestyles were soon viewed and risque and fashionable.

Society in Western Europe deteriorated rapidly with the mainstream acceptance of these arts, philosophies, and lifestyles as normal. Traditional morality plummeted to a frightening degree. 

Belief in God became a quaint superstition. People lived life without duty to society or family, with the only goal of life being to live unhindered by responsibility towards others. Any hindrances towards pursuing hedonistic desires were now viewed as attacks on “freedom.”

Modern art evolved into ever deeper depravity in the time to come as the French populace, and soon after, all of Europe and the international community unwittingly had been steered to disparage traditional morality. With no moral foundation, anything went; anything became acceptable. Any protests to the new styles of art were handled easily with accused attacks on freedom of expression. 

After Realism and Impressionism, came Abstractionism, Fauvism, Dada art, Cubism, Surrealism, along with Pop-Art, and so on. Modern ideologies affected architecture as equally as it did fine art. Now people were encased quite literally in the modern aesthetic.

The Bauhaus movement under Walter Gropius turned our city-scapes into lifeless, utilitarian hives for people to “live” in under their mantra, “form follows function.” To clarify, they believed that architecture should resemble the absolute function it served. A house was only to live in, no extraneous fun or decor allowed! Cities and businesses were to only be places people “existed in” to fulfill tasks in an orderly manner. Humans, as depicted by our pervasive, modern architecture have been designed under the ideology that see humanity as nothing more than the sum of our parts. Look around and you’ll see their utilitarian utopia realized in full. 

In art museums, the disintegration of the human spirit can easily be seen. Usually divided into eras, museums display ancient and medieval artworks, nearly entirely consisting of Gods and sacred images, to the Renaissance and Baroque eras, to the Impressionists, and on to modern, Abstract art. It is a journey from the sacred, to the profane. The artworks give a clear snapshot in time to the values, ways of life, and beliefs of those who made them. Our internal world shapes the external world, and the external world, likewise shapes our internal world. The artworks displayed guide society. Society also creates the artwork. It can be an upward or downward spiral. 

“The Three Angels Appearing to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre,”Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Italian, Pen and dark brown ink, brush and brown wash, over black chalk, Rogers Fund, 1937. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Rekindling the Past

Most art classes in our public school systems and universities put Van Gogh and Picasso, both lunatics, as the pinnacle of artistic expression and achievement. The old Masters, like the charitable Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the serene early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, the charismatic Guido Reni along with thousands of others have been nearly forgotten and erased from history. What remains of the old master’s works and legacies have been brought down to the level of a Hallmark postcard. A vast majority of the entirety of Western art’s most glorious artwork have been intentionally buried. 

As our culture indulges in the behaviors and ethos flaunted by the Impressionists and their successors, we delve further into their ways of thinking focused purely on the material world and our losses and gains within it.

Throughout the West’s history, art played a critical role in disseminating transcendental wisdom, and maintaining a moral and upright society. Art can still have that effect. If we can understand the effect art plays in our society, we can use it to create a healthy, respectful society that cherishes life and the Sacred.