Charles Baudelaire

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What is Charles Baudelaire's understanding of modernity?

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In both his poetry and his art criticism Baudelaire understood, as few of his contemporaries did, the nature of the rapid social and economic changes transforming French life. In particular, Baudelaire understood that this new era, the era of modernity, needed a new kind of art to reflect the changes...

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In both his poetry and his art criticism Baudelaire understood, as few of his contemporaries did, the nature of the rapid social and economic changes transforming French life. In particular, Baudelaire understood that this new era, the era of modernity, needed a new kind of art to reflect the changes taking place in society. Baudelaire did not see this development as something to be lamented. Rather, he welcomed this exciting new historical and cultural epoch as a source of new aesthetic and political insights.

Baudelaire famously defined modernity as

[T]he ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.

What he meant by this was that modernity took its inspiration from the rapidly developing world. Everything was changing at an alarming pace, and yet people were still able to produce enduring works of art that aspired towards the eternal.

Baudelaire strongly insisted, in contrast to many advocates of Neoclassicism, that the modern age was one of heroes. And for Baudelaire, what was heroic was the quasi-superhuman ability of artists such as Guys and Delacroix. People such as them could derive something timeless from the fleeting sensations of the world around us, while at the same time capturing the pulse of their own historical moment.

In other words modernity in art was a recognition that something of value still existed amidst all the constant flux of daily life. That value could be retrieved from it by the visionary artist. Artists who were in tune with Modernity could produce something that was firmly rooted in the contemporary world but at the same time transcended that world and aspired towards the eternal.

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