Michel Foucault

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How does Foucault interpret Baudelaire's concept of "modernity" and his idea of the "painter of modern life"?

Foucault likens Baudelaire's concept of "modernity" with Kant's notion that it should be thought of as an individual "attitude" toward the present rather than a period of history. For the "painter of modern life," it is capturing the eternal and immutable in what is "fleeing, ephemeral, and contingent."

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In the essay "What is Enlightenment?," Foucault invokes the formulation of Kant, in the philosopher's response to that question as posed by a contemporary newspaper, as a relevant precursor to the perspective of Baudelaire on "modernity." He summarizes Kant's reply as stating that "modernity" should more properly be envisaged as...

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In the essay "What is Enlightenment?," Foucault invokes the formulation of Kant, in the philosopher's response to that question as posed by a contemporary newspaper, as a relevant precursor to the perspective of Baudelaire on "modernity." He summarizes Kant's reply as stating that "modernity" should more properly be envisaged as an attitude rather than "a period of history." In using the word "attitude," Foucault means "a mode of relating to contemporary reality...."

In like fashion, he says, Baudelaire defines "modernity" as not simply taking note of "the ephemeral, the fleeing, and the contingent" and mirroring that random activity, but adopting a specific "attitude" in relationship to it. And the conscious adoption of this "attitude" is a difficult task, requiring that the artist recapture "something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it."

Baudelaire cites the work of watercolorist Constantin Guys as exemplary of his concept of a "painter of modern life." To all appearances, he could be a flaneur, an idler, amused by the never-ending spectacle of Parisian street life that passes before him. But, he is always "the last to linger wherever there can be a glow of light, an echo of poetry," mentally storing those impressions to be transformed by his art.

This process of transformation, for Foucault, is the interplay between the "reality" absorbed during the day and the "attitude" of the artist, wherein natural things become "more than natural" and the beautiful things become "more than beautiful." It is this that defines the attitude of "modernity"; that the great premium that artist places on the present is inseparable from a "desperate eagerness to imagine it... and to transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is."

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