Enlightenment Thinking and the Art that it Inspired

The Scientific Revolution sprung out of the Renaissance and suggested that individual human beings can interpret the world through experimentation on and within nature. This gave rise to Enlightenment thinking, where the type of knowledge coming from science became the accepted and only way in which objective truth claims could be validated. This effectively split what was once a unified view of reality into two dimensions:  that which was objectively true (facts, data, sense observations, and human reason) and that which is subjectively apprehended (value, metaphysics, art, beauty, and morality). This dichotomy impacted the artists (the culture makers) who accepted the fact/value split.  Some artists would choose to join the Enlightenment thinkers by adjusting their art to reflect an Enlightenment worldview, with the intent of gaining credibility by denying all that is transcendent (that is, accepting the Enlightenment worldview).[1] If the so-called elite thinkers were all materialists, then so shall the art be….

Empiricism

The first philosophy to arise in the Enlightenment era is known as Empiricism. This view elevated the senses (observation and experience) to being the single source of truth on the blank-slate of the mind; thus, a “biblically informed respect for empirical facts, which had inspired science to begin with,” was replaced by the data from the sensate world as the primary way in which we can know something.[2]

Artists likewise attempted to portray events as value-free and as a report on the visual data. Think, real life situations from an earthly perspective. This movement, known as Realism, attempted to portray a naturalistic account of events in which the heavens are closed- there is no visible presence of God.[3]

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, 1854. A Realist painting by Gustave Courbet

Going even further, positivists claimed that real knowledge is not derived from but just is sense perception. This means that sense perception is not just the organ of one’s epistemology, but sense perception is the sum total of all that can be known. Certainty is the foundation that positivists are claiming on this view.

This movement influenced the Impressionists movement which turned art into a record of optical sensations and mere color patches of uninterpreted sensation.[4]

Music followed suite and Impressionist composers abandoned the traditional notion that music told a story, but rather that music captured a mere moment.[5] These movements and their artists all accepted the philosophy of Empiricism and ultimately that art should portray a world without a necessary interpretation or even inspiration.

Rationalism

Enlightenment thinkers also produced the philosophy of Rationalism which elevated reason (through mathematical truths) as the sole standard of truth; it pictured the universe a vast machine performing mathematical operations even in the realms of social, political, and moral thinking.[6]

Artists reflected these ideas through methods of painting that elevated mathematics as geometric form. This led to the artistic movement known as Cubism, which viewed geometry as the hidden blueprint found in nature.[7] These were abstract pieces meant to convey the rational form of the universe, despite its subject or content.

Pablo Picasso, 1910, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), oil on canvas, 100.3 × 73.6 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Futurism was a spin-off of Cubism, which produced art that was machine-like.

Kazimir Malevich, The Knife Grinder (Principle of Glittering) (1912–13), oil on canvas, 79.534 cm × 79.534 cm, Yale University Art Gallery.

Eventually, artists who embraced Rationalism gave up subject content all together creating geometric shapes with primary colors to represent the mathematical structure of the world we live in. Some musicians also created works based on precise mathematical formulas (known as Serialism) to convey a rationalistic and mathematical worldview.[8]

Naturalism

Another Enlightenment philosophy, captured best in Darwin’s theory of evolution, is Naturalism which is the theory that nature is all that exists, that is, that the brute facts of nature are the only things that are objectively true.

In the arts, this was picked up by literary masters, novelists, and playwrights who portrayed human beings as nothing more than evolved animals and the material universe as all that is and all that ever was.[9] These novelists (like Jack London) attempted to portray the world as value-free, and that human beings are just the product of natural selection determined by the fix laws of nature. Survival of the fittest is the underlying assumption.

The Call of the Wild (cover of the June 20, 1903 Saturday Evening Post shown) is about the survival of the fittest

Logical Positivism

Logical positivism was an attempt by post-Enlightenment thinkers to combine the ideas found in Empiricism and Rationalism by positing the verification principle which states that anything outside of brute empirical fact and its logical proof as verification is meaningless.[10] The attempt here was to unify knowledge gained from science and philosophical deduction.

The framers of this philosophy also inspired the International Style of architecture. These are box-like geometric forms; machine-like places to live and work without any unnecessary details.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Poissy, France

Analytic Philosophy

While logical positivism would eventually be recognized as self-defeating, it was part of the same movement that gave rise to the predominant view of philosophy today. On this view, philosophy is merely a tool to aide science (the arbiter of truth). Thus, philosophy was reduced to testing language and using logic, and became known as Analytic philosophy.[11]

This carried over into art in the movement know as Minimalism, which reduced art to primary colors, patterns, and shapes.

A warming stripes graphic portraying global temperatures from 1850 to 2018

Sculptures were nothing more than common objects set in a particular pattern. Classical composers likewise produced minimalistic works with “scraps of melody repeated over and over, seeming to go nowhere.”[12] Ultimately, whether it was paint, everyday objects, or music, artists expressed the analytic tradition as a reduction to the artist’s materials and formalism.

Enlightenment Reductionism

The most interesting aspect of this discussion is that it is the realm of transcendent thinking (which artists never had a problem representing through-out all of history) that inspired thinkers to seek and develop the tools and methods of science in the first place.

Thus, it was not science itself that dispelled transcendent thinking but some scientists and philosophers who co-opted the tools and methods of science, elevated it to the realm of divine revelation, and transformed it into a comprehensive worldview. This would filter down into the culture creating a fact/value dichotomy, that would eventually be expressed in cultural products and the arts.

How bankrupt it all is… just one look and the progressive nature of the reductionism expressed in the arts demonstrates just how bleak the Enlightenment worldview actually is: the squandering of opportunity to declare the glory of God. The darkness of the Enlightenment is profound.


[1] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Books, 2017), 105.

 [2] Pearcey, 108.

[3] Pearcey, 109-110.

 [4] Ibid, 117.

 [5] Ibid. 122.

 [6] Ibid. 129.

 [7] Ibid. 130.

[8] Ibid, 135-136.

 [9] Ibid, 147.

[10] Ibid, 159-160.

 [11] Ibid, 160-163.

[12] Ibid, 165.

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