The Painter of Modern Life

Charles Baudelaire wrote a great many wonderful essays, of which ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ is one. In the opening portion on ‘Beauty, Fashion and Happiness’ he makes a play for my own heart. I have forgotten which literature course listed this as part of its required reading, but I’m grateful it did. Hopefully I don’t betray my old-man curmudgeon status by stating that this speaks to a generation that likely won’t listen, but needs to hear it.

“The past is interesting not only by reason of the beauty which could be distilled from it by those artists for whom it was the present, but also precisely because it is the past, for its historical value. It is the same with the present. The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

Is there a place in this fast-paced selfie-obsessed world for such thoughtful reflection on our social condition, or is all that simply lost in the speed of everything today? I’d like to believe that such nuances, and such subtlety, are still able to be gleaned and understood, that some of us are capable of holding our focus and attention to have a succinct conversation and experience, uninterrupted and not chopped up by other distractions. Enough with the multi-tasking and light-speed-shifting social plate tectonics.

“The idea of beauty which man creates for himself imprints itself on his whole attire, crumples or stiffens his dress, rounds off or squares his gesture, and in the long run even ends by subtly penetrating the very features of his face. Man ends by looking like his ideal self. These engravings can be translated either into beauty or ugliness; in one direction, they become caricatures, in the other antique statues.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

What will last? What aspects of beauty are we preserving? What will survive the test of time, and what will fall by the wayside? When we look back at all these selfies years from now, assuming that we even do, what is it that we will see and remember? Will any of it linger beyond this fleeting second? I’m not convinced much of it will. You need to do something different, something daring. You need to make your mark and make it stick. Otherwise you’ll get swept away, lost and indistinguishable in the massive wave of self-promotion that social media has crafted and fostered. In a sense, social media is fashion. Baudelaire would, I’d guess, be quite taken with Instagram and Twitter.

The selfie is the modern-day artistic statue, erected with far less permanence, yet far greater reach.

I also want to believe, given that I’m writing this in a blog (the modern-day printing press, the current means of presenting work to the world), that even in this raw and rough method of transmission, there is the possibility for something beautiful, for something meaningful, for something that might last. A lot of sifting may be required, some searching and weeding through all the fluff, but in some select posts I have to believe there is something more.

“Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. I defy anyone to point to a single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

And so I seek to find such beauty, to bring it to light, to give it a chance to embed itself within the continuum of human history. It’s getting more and more difficult to make something that sticks, and in my heart of hearts I think I may have failed thus far – but that’s the very thing that keeps this site going. There is the possibility of beauty, the potential for greatness. It’s just out of reach, but on my best days I’ve tasted it, I’ve felt it, and I know I’ve come close.

“…even in those centuries which seem to us the most monstrous and the maddest, the immortal thirst for beauty has always found its satisfaction.”  ~ Charles Baudelaire

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