Academic journal article Trames

An Attempt to Understand the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Trames

An Attempt to Understand the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

1. Jose Ortega y Gasset

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset published in 1925 an essay "La deshumanicazion del arte". He chose the title of the essay to protest the art of the nineteenth century. The Realism and the Romanticism of the nineteenth century had appealed to emotions, while the modern art of the time declared to be l'art pour l'art, or artistic art, as Helen Weyl translated it in English ("The Dehumanization of Art", 1948).

A few quotes from the essay illustrate Ortega y Gasset's message: "---the characterization of the new art, is, in my judgment, that it divides the public in two classes of those who understand it and those who do not. This implies that one group possesses an organ of comprehension denied to the other--that they are two different varieties of the human species. The new art obviously addresses itself not to everybody, as did Romanticism, but to a specially gifted minority. Hence the indignation it arouses among the masses" (p. 6). "That is why modern art divides the public into two classes, those who understand it and those who do not understand it.--That is to say, those who are artists and those who are not. The new art is an artistic art" (p. 12).

Ortega y Gasset joined this debate with his "La rebellion de lasmasas" in 1930, in English "The Revolt of the Masses" (1950). In it he was blatant enough to argue for the division between the select minorities and the gifted few from the masses. He asserts that masses are "mere buoys that float on the waves" and that they "comprise individuals of minus quality" (p. 10). He, however, admits: "The rule of the masses, then, presents a favorable aspect, in as much as it signifies an all-around rise in the historical level, and reveals that the average existence to-day moves on a higher altitude than that of yesterday" (p. 19). But, still, the rebel of the masses may lead to a catastrophe in the history of the human kind. So said Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930.

It is upsetting to read Ortega y Gasset now. His view of history and arts is radically aristocratic. His visions have not proved right. Realism was not rejected during the twentieth century. On the contrary, there were influential social and political manifests in the art of the last century. The historical catastrophes prophesized by Ortega y Gasset have not come true either. What he saw as signs of decadence, have been absorbed by the new times and generations as an essential part of their culture.

We are told about catastrophes every time we open our television or newspaper in the morning. But they are not what Ortega y Gasset envisioned. He detested communism and National Socialism, but World War II was not the kind of catastrophe he warned the mankind about. Someone might say that Hitler was raised into power by brutal masses. Even more liberal interpretation would see the Soviet communism the same way. True enough, Ortega y Gasset himself was good at stretching his interpretations.

On reading Ortega y Gasset one cannot help being fascinated by his language, exciting metaphors and sweeping generalizations. His text is sharp, full of paradoxes and intellectual twists. His style reminds the reader of Egon Friedell's "Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit" 1927-1931 ("A cultural history of the Modern Times", 1930-1933). The grand style reflected the contemporary culture and intellectualism. Serious academic historians requesting source criticism find the radical views, paradoxes and irony of Friedell and Ortegay Gasset much too much for their hard-earned scholarship.

2. Postmodernism

Postmodernism heralds a changing epoch. It was originally a movement in arts and later it developed into a general philosophy of everything and a method of analyzing anything. It is an enigmatic concept, and it evades all definitions (see, Lyotard 1984). But it can also be taken literally in that it talks about the end of the Modern Times as a period of Western history. …

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