Charles Baudelaire

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What does Baudelaire mean by "modernity" in his piece "The Painter of Modern Life"?

"By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the continent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and the immutable"

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In "The Painter of Modern Life" Baudelaire argues that the painter should pay close attention to fleeting details in urban settings, details that capture the ephemeral nature of modernity.

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As well as being a great poet, Baudelaire was also renowned as an insightful art critic. When he wrote "The Painter of Modern Life" the French art world was going through major changes, a truly revolutionary upheaval in relation to form and subject matter. Artists such as Guy, Manet, and Delacroix were openly challenging the traditional standards of taste set by the conservative Paris Salon, scandalizing the art world with their radical departure from established aesthetic norms.

Baudelaire was all for the revolution in modern art. He believed that it was more adept at capturing the spirit of the contemporary age than the Neo-classical works beloved of the art establishment. This was an age in a state of almost constant flux, with rapid social and economic change transforming the lives of millions, both for good and bad. In such an ever-changing world, nothing was destined to last; everything was ephemeral: here today, gone tomorrow. So if the artist wanted to capture the essence of modernity he had to pay heed to its inherently ephemeral quality.

As well as being ephemeral, modernity was also fugitive in that it had no natural home; it was a reflection of what we would nowadays call a globalized culture, a culture that transcended national boundaries. Finally, Baudelaire argued that modernity was contingent. By this he meant that nothing in this world exists necessarily; it might well not have existed at all.

Given these aspects of modernity, and the raw materials they provide for artistic creation, the artist must somehow try to capture those brief, fleeting moments that drift in and out of his consciousness. And for Baudelaire it is in those moments that eternity—the ultimate goal of all great works of art—is to be found.

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Charles Baudelaire wrote his booklet The Painter of Modern Life as a means of defining true beauty in art. In the piece, he uses criticisms of the artist Charles Guys, named only in the essay as Monsieur G., to explore beauty. In Baudelaire's mind, true art was la boheme, bohemian, meaning unconventional, and he saw  Charles Guys as a bohemian hero. It should also be noted that Guys had also worked as a news "reporter and [a] war correspondent for the Illustrated London News" (Willette, "Baudelaire and 'The Painter of Modern Life'"). As a reporter and war correspondent, Guys was particularly skilled in the craft of observation, and Baudelaire saw that it is due to Guys's powers of observation that also made him such a skilled, unconventional artist and a bohemian hero. He saw Guys as able to create "primitive scribbles" based on his passionate observations, much "like a barbarian, or a child" (as cited in Willette).

The most significant praise Baudelaire had of Guys is that Guys had the ability to "distil" what Baudelaire calls "modernity," to "distil the eternal from the transitory." Baudelaire defines modernity in the quote in question:

By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. (p. 13)

The term ephemeral refers to that which lasts only a short time; fugitive refers to that which is fleeting; contingent refers to that which is dependent on something else. Therefore, Baudelaire is referring to that which is modern as being short lasting, fleeting, and dependent on other things, the complete opposite of the eternal. Baudelaire also illustrates his view of modernity by referring to artists who reject using costumes in their art as ugly without even trying to search for that which is eternally beautiful in the costumes. Plus, it's important to remember that Baudelaire is using this essay to essentially define what the beautiful is. Hence, in Baudelaire's mind, Guys is able to abstract that which is eternal from modernity through his powers of detailed observation, and express the eternal in his art, which makes it beautiful.

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