How Should We Then Live? Chapter 10: Modern Art


                                                       Nude Descending A Staircase - Marcel Duchamp

Chapter 10 is a retelling of how existential philosophy made its way through all of society.  Chapter 9 focused on the philosophers and what they were teaching, and threw in a little about art and culture.  This chapter inverts that, spending most of the time discussing how art, music, and films spread this destructive heresy throughout the West.

The general population was never going to adopt a new world view listening to bland lectures from philosophers.  But people will absolutely ingest ideas they hear in a beautiful song or see in a critically acclaimed movie.  That is the story in a nutshell.  Artists communicated through their output that mankind is only a biological machine when looked at rationally and that there is no meaning for life because it can't be discovered irrationally.  People can find meaning in whatever they choose, but those choices can't stand up to scrutiny or last through the difficulties of life.

Schaeffer also mentions that there was (and still is) a subset of the population that holds onto traditional values and beliefs, yet with no substantial foundation.  The best way to describe the situation is when conservatives believe in right and wrong because "that is how I was raised."  It is fine to fall back on the lessons your parents taught you, but you can't continue to live like that or pass on the values to your children if there is no reasonable basis for beliefs and morality.  Therefore over the decades younger generations have drifted away from how they were raised to follow the teaching of modern philosophy.  

                        "it spread from intellectuals to the educated and then through the
                         mass media to everyone."

The first group to add this philosophy into art were painters.  I will focus this article on them.

When a person looks at a painting, he sees what's on the canvas, but wonders what the painter's intention was.  Painters paint what they see in nature.  Impressionists like Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) tried to look past what we see in nature to determine how it represents reality.  Starting with Monet, Impressionists depicted this reality on the canvas as a dream.

I really like Monet and Degas.  Visually they made great works of art.  Technically what they did is blurred lines and used colors that weren't quite what you see in nature.  They used pastels or other deviations.  It created a picture where you could easily tell what the picture was showing, but it was blurred and blended to give it a dream-like look.  It was this technique which allowed "for art to become the vehicle for modern thought".

Post-impressionists tried to rediscover the existence of universals (the reality behind particulars) in their art.  It didn't work, but again they made some beautiful art.  Most notable were Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906).  Philosophically, emphasizing particulars with no universals creates fracturing between individual things and their purpose.  Visually, they communicated this by fragmentation.  They would paint geometric forms in substitution of life-like depictions.  It both showed fragmentation visually (think about how circles, triangles, and cylinders representing a horse would look), but also represented the existence or at the least the hope for the existence of universals.  That may be hard to understand.  The geometric forms represented concepts beyond the particular object.  For example, the idea of a triangle connects together all the triangular shapes you see in your home and outside your window.

Bottom line mankind looked unnatural and broken into pieces.  The philosophy of materialism that we are nothing more than building blocks of matter, molecules, was now communicated to fans of art.  Painter Wassily Kandinsky summarized the situation in 1912.

                            "the old harmony (a unity of knowledge) had been lost, only two
                            possibilities remained -extreme naturalism or extreme abstraction.
                            Both, he said, were equal."

At one extreme, some paintings were made that looked super real. I remember at the Chicago Art Institute seeing an example of this.  I had to get right up to the painting and inspect the texture in order to see that it wasn't photography.  The other extreme is called modern art.

Modern Art
The beginning of modern art was announced with Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907.  He mixed fragmentation and the noble savage together.  He even added an African mask on one of the women's faces.  One commentator described Picasso's artwork.

                            "Of course, not one of these pictures was actually a portrait but his
                            prophecy of a ruined world."

Schaeffer notes that Picasso didn't always paint in this way.  When he painted his children or one of his three wives, he portrayed them as real, complete humans.  These people gave his life some meaning and his art reflected that.

The next step in modern art was Dadaism, which preached that all of life is absurd due to there being no universals, no purpose.  Marcel Duchamp is the best example of this art style.  The painting at the top of the article is his.  The person is so fragmented there is no person there.  He was also known for making "ready-made" art, where he would sign random objects.  The message was that a bicycle tire or even a urinal could be art.  But if those kinds of things are art, then art doesn't exist.

Jackson Pollack did similar things where he would hang paint cans on rope and swing them to make a painting.  He was trying to create art by chance, to communicate that the universe exists and operates by pure chance.  The cans moved around and poured streams of paint on a canvas.  But he couldn't escape the order of the universe.  The design and laws of nature dictated how the paint cans moved and how the paint poured out.  He also designed the mechanism to make the painting.  

                            "the lines of paint were following the order of the universe itself.
                            The universe is not what these painters said it is."

These painters all followed the thinking of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard and injected it into their art.  However, the artists understood where this belief system ended up before the philosophers.

                            "Dada carried to its logical conclusion the notion of all having
                            come about by chance; the result was the final absurdity of 
                            everything, including humanity."

The developments in art went from dream-like portrayals to geometric based depictions of nature and humanity to complete fragmentation where the object couldn't be recognized to any object on the street being claimed as art.  These painters lost humanity in their art.  Once they made art out of anything and everything, they lost art itself.  That is modern art.  The next article will stay in chapter 10 and focus on modern music and poetry.


  1. I am sure you are familiar with Scruton's video, "Why Beauty Matters." For reference:

    Also, a look at art, going back further - looking at the transition even in the Renaissance:

  2. I read the article. I liked how it described some of the same things as the book. But it described thinking behind some of the differences in different ways. It was a good reminder that things are so straightforward. I think Schaeffer is correct generally, but it is always good to read other people commenting on the same things as a counter-balance.


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