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Reviewed by:
  • High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting
  • Paul Smith
High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting. David Carrier. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. Pp. 240. $39.50.

The “novelty” of this book, its author claims, lies in its “specifically philosophical approach” (xix). However, Carrier’s picture of Baudelaire’s aesthetic and its impact on modern art is sometimes as elusive, contradictory, and “hard to understand” (3) as the writing it considers. Carrier’s identification with his subject also means that he treats Baudelaire’s enthusiasm for an art of “high” states as akin to his own interest in the art and drug culture of 1968. Similarly, he likens Baudelaire’s eventual disillusionment by the failure of “high” art to compensate for the political alienation that he experienced after the revolution of 1848 to his own sense of frustration with the politics of 1968. Carrier also maps post-1848 onto post-1968 in arguing that the strange shifts and discontinuities in Baudelaire’s “artwriting” are finally reflexive— [End Page 209] rather as similar devices are in postmodernism—in that they are designed to show that no easy, coherent narrative of the world, history, or art is possible.

The one nodal point in Baudelaire’s thinking that Carrier does identify clearly is the concept of the surnaturel: the idea that the “world . . . can . . . be known ‘surnaturally’—more vividly and lucidly—with drugs, prayer, and art” (2). He thus characterizes Baudelaire’s aesthetic fundamentally as one of shock, and casts the art he recommended as unnatural, exacerbated, and intoxicated. In doing this, Carrier denies any dialectical possibility to Baudelaire’s views, even stating that Baudelaire believed, “Art can have no effect on political life” (5). Here, too, Carrier assimilates Baudelaire’s position to postmodern skepticism.

In a suggestive footnote (64), Carrier urges that Baudelaire’s aesthetic can be identified with a quasi-infantile intoxication with the kind of “shock” he experienced when looking into the kaleidoscope his father gave him as a child. Frequently, as Carrier shows, Baudelaire uses the terms ivresse and enfance almost interchangeably to refer to aesthetic experience or to such a state (37, 65, and 113). Into this same aesthetic of intoxication he assimilates Baudelaire’s enthusiasm for Delacroix’s heightened sense of color, as well as Baudelaire’s (highly contradictory) ideas on the naturalness or otherwise of color harmony, his notion of correspondence, and his ideas about memory as the organizing matrix of artistic creativity (24–28, 39). However, the most salient effects of Carrier’s determined view appear in the chapter devoted to the essay, “Le Peintre de la vie moderne.” Here, via a very difficult argument about the evident illogicality of Baudelaire’s view that beauty is dualistic in being composed of an éternelle and a transitoire component, Carrier concludes that beauté éternelle is merely a function of the spectator’s familiarity with an artwork, and that beauté transitoire, by default, is the quality of vividness or the virtue of being shocking. By this account, Baudelaire’s central aim in the essay is to urge the artist to give modern life the kind of forceful “presence” (59, 73) that it has in the work of Constantin Guys. In the chapter titled “Moving Pictures,” Carrier changes tack to argue that Baudelaire tries to come to terms with the inability of artwriting to narrate modern life, which, he suggests, has no available narrative structure since it is divorced from the past and tradition. Again, Carrier’s view of Baudelaire’s response to this situation is broadly consistent with the idea of ivresse insofar as he suggests that the poet attempts to capture the structure of a life-experience divided between “good highs” and “everyday misery” (104). Carrier goes on to argue that ivresse informs Baudelaire’s argument in Les Paradis artificiels that, “When high, we can have aesthetic experience, viewing the scenes of modern life with an intensity that makes them of artistic value” (123). His conclusion is that Baudelaire’s system collapses at this point; the split between the highs and lows of experience, like the split between past and present, cannot be overcome—no more than...

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pp. 209-211
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