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April 15, 2004

Manet's "Old Musician"

Yesterday, I was rereading part of Legal Modernism, a book by my friend and former colleague David Luban, and I remembered that it was thanks to this book that I first saw Manet’s “The Old Musician” as one of the greatest and most interesting paintings ever painted. It’s in the National Gallery in Washington, where I live, and I often force friends and relatives to look at it with me.

Here’s the argument for its enormous significance (drawing heavily on Luban and on Charles Fried, but with some wrinkles of my own):

Modernism arrives in any art or discipline when practitioners regard the present as the dead end of a long historical tradition. This happens partly because they come to believe that no further progress is possible along traditional lines. For instance, for centuries European artists pursued a great adventure in representing all kinds of three-dimensional scenes on two-dimensional surfaces; they mastered perspective, chiaroscuro, oil paint and other media, modeling, the representation of artificial light, everyday urban life, nudes, exotic landscapes, and movement. This was an exciting and aesthetically satisfying drama of discovery, but it seemed played out by 1900. There were no frontiers to cross. The same could be said of narrative prose or “classical” music at that time.

Modernists in any discipline also face a more profound problem. They begin to view the tradition itself as arbitrary. It has pursued certain values and made certain core assumptions, but it could have started elsewhere. The careful study of works from distant cultures underlines this point. So modernists, in a neo-Kantian spirit, ask “Why should we do art or philosophy this way—or any other particular way? What justifies or grounds the assumptions of our discipline?” They regard Enlightenment as freedom from prejudice, and they condemn as immoral the continued production of art that rests on unquestioned assumptions. Unfortunately, there is no art (or any other human creation) that doesn’t rest on groundless values provided by some kind of tradition. That is the modernist dilemma.

There are a set of available responses. For example, one can try to create works that are not arbitrary because they are based on changeless nature, mathematics, or science. This is the impetus behind the functionalist architecture of the Bauhaus (no style, just engineering). That impulse created some lasting works in several arts, but it soon became patently obvious that “scientific” forms of art were actually time-bound styles, instantly datable.

Another option is the sophisticated reactionary art of a T.S. Eliot or a Richard Strauss. These men could make modernist art, but they deliberately preferred to work in the pre-modern tradition, for ideological reasons (at least in some of their work).

Yet another option is common in postmodernism, which often treats any serious attempt to create something authentic as a bit of a joke, and provides irony in place of beauty or truth.

Manet’s “Old Musician” represents the final option, one rarely achieved in any art, but characteristic of the greatest High Modernism. Manet makes a work of art that is successful as such (in other words, it is moving, beautiful, and memorable), but it happens to take as its theme the End of Art. Six figures and an infant stand before a sketchy background. It turns out that each of these figures represents a classic work of art, from an antique sculpture of the philosopher Chrysippus to Manet’s own “Absinthe Drinker” (1858-9). The whole painting, then, is an anthology of the history of art. The frame awkwardly truncates part of one figure and a vine—reminding you are observing a framed picture on a flat surface, hanging in a museum. The figures seem isolated and inert. Not one meets another’s eyes, and none is doing anything. The Chrysippus figure in the middle has put down his violin, and there is a powerful sense that the music that once animated and coordinated these figures has stopped. The Old Musician, strikingly, stares directly at the viewer.

Isolation (or alienation, or anomie) became a 20th-century cliché, presumably because of the reality of life in a modern metropolis, where (for the first time in history) we don’t know most of the people we see. In “The Old Musician,” the figures incorporate portraits of displaced people from a cleared slum near Manet's house. But in this work, the theme of isolation is more than a valid criticism of modern social injustice. I think Manet cannot find a place for himself in the trans-historical community of artists, because he has achieved a painful “Enlightenment” in realizing that all art is conventional and arbitrary. At that point, all the past moments of art look disjointed (not stages in an inevitable progression), and there is no room for Manet to join the tradition. Instead, he steps outside of the story, where we are standing, and declares it over. The result is moving, strange, and unrepeatable, but there are analogies in other fields. I’ve argued that Ulysses plays a similar role in the history of narrative prose, and all of Nietzsche’s mature works are philosophical analogues to “The Old Musician.”

Posted by peterlevine at April 15, 2004 11:11 AM


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