Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism

Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism

Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism

Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism

Synopsis

Primitive Renaissance argues that the radicality of early-twentieth-century movements such as expressionism was not their modernism but rather their primitivism. At the heart of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Carl Einstein, and others was a critique of modernity through a primitivist aesthetic that privileged art over science and reason. Although drawing on non-European cultural traditions, the new aesthetic was not merely exoticism, an artistic phase or fad that opened a window on the cultural other. It was conceived less as a simple negation of the trappings of civilization than as a more pervasive and structured critique of how life is organized in the modern world. Based on a traditionalist rather than Enlightenment view of the function of art in society, primitivism contended that art provides the core mythic structure for human consciousness. On a broader level, by negating modernity, primitivism also challenged its inevitability. Modernity became one of a number of equally plausible cultural strategies for organizing life in the contemporary world. Ranging insightfully across the visual arts, literature, and philosophy, Primitive Renaissance offers a provocative reassessment of the significance of primitivism and its contribution to the intellectual, artistic, and cultural climate of Europe in the early twentieth century.

Excerpt

In the “Sirens” episode of The Odyssey, Homer would have us believe that Odysseus, relying on nothing more than the wax in his sailors' ears and the rope binding him to the mast of his ship, was able to hear the song of the sirens without being drawn to his death like all the sailors before him. Franz Kafka, finally giving the sirens their due, points out that Odysseus's “childish measures” were obviously insufficient to escape the sirens. Their song could certainly pierce wax and would lead a man to burst all bonds. Instead of attributing Odysseus's survival to his cunning use of technical means, Kafka attributes Odysseus's survival to the sirens' use of an even more horrible weapon than their song: their silence. Believing that his trick had worked, Odysseus did not hear their silence but imagined he heard the sound of their singing. For no one, not even Odysseus, could resist “the feeling of having triumphed over them by one's own strength, and the consequent exaltation that bears down everything before it.” The sirens disappeared from his perceptions, which were focused entirely on himself. Kafka concludes: “If the sirens had possessed consciousness they would have been annihilated at that moment. But they remained as they had been; all that had happened was that Odysseus had escaped them.”

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have argued that this ancient epic clearly demonstrates the inseparability of myth from Enlightenment thought. Homer's Odysseus is the model of an Enlightenment optimism and faith in human technology: through clever technical means he is able to escape the injunctions of a mythic fate, creating an exception to the mythic law and thereby de-

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