Sunday, November 10, 2013

The beauty of disenchantment

A long time ago I saw a painting by the German painter Michael von Ofen in Kunstforum. It was called "Frühindustrie" (Early Industry) and showed an old factory in an (otherwise) idyllic landscape. I mis-remembered the artists name and it took me a long time to find the painting on the Internet. But is still has the same effect on me, one of enchantment:
It felt very romantic, pastoral and magical. But according to Max Weber this should not be the case:
Max Weber famously discussed the “disenchantment of the world” in a 1917 lecture, by which he meant the loss of the overarching meanings, animistic connections, magical expectations, and spiritual explanations that had characterized the traditional world, as a result of the ongoing “modern” processes of rationalization, secularization, and bureaucratization: “the increasing rationalization and intellectualization . . . means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted.”
This single painting has sensitized me to the beauty of early industry in other artworks. Somehow early industry (and science) don't feel cold and disenchanted, but romantic, cute and human-scaled. Warmer and friendlier than our own industries. From Marx I know this is wrong, but the feeling persists anyway.
Johan Bartold Jongkind - View on Montmartre - ca. 1850 - oil on canvas - Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
Notice how in the early Jongkind steam power still competes with wind power and even animal power. It would be interesting to read more about the struggle between wind, water and steam. Probably it took longer and it was more gradual than the term "industrial revolution" suggests.
Camille Jacob Pisarro - The Oise near Pontoise in gray weather - 1876 - oil on canvas - Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
Disenchantment ... is the historical process by which the natural world and all areas of human experience become experienced and understood as less mysterious; defined, at least in principle, as knowable, predictable and manipulable by humans; conquered by and incorporated into the interpretive schema of science and rational government. In a disenchanted world everything becomes understandable and tameable, even if not, for the moment, understood and tamed.

George G. Lemmen - Factories on the bank of the Thames - ca. 1892 - oil on canvas - Museum Kröller Müller
But the many charming paintings with early industry prove that contemporary painters saw their beauty and maybe were aware of the romance of the subject. But maybe they just registered the contemporary landscape with an analytic and objective eye. No added significance. Just "what you see is what you get".
George Hendrik Breitner - Timber rafts in the snow near Zandhoek - 1903 - oil on cardboard on panel
Enchantments did not disappear entirely, but were marginalized in various ways. Wonders and marvels were relegated by elites to the ghettos of popular culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the new mass culture that succeeded them in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In addition, enchantments became associated with the cognitive outlooks of groups traditionally cast as inferior within the discourse of Western elites: “primitives,” children, women, and the lower classes. Rational adults could partake of enchantments through the exercise of their imaginations, but despite the protestations of romantics, the imagination continued to be cast as inferior to reason.

Michael von Ofen:
Early industrialization:

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