In painting, portraying reality the way it really was and filling the canvas with social commentary became a significant part of the artistic language. Honoré Daumier’s (1808-1879) Third-Class Carriage (Figure 9) is a classic example of this shift in aesthetic. No longer is the subject a well-known and prominent figure but an anonymous group of the lower-class population, letting audiences in to the “unrehearsed details of human existence from the continuum of ordinary life.”4 Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (Figure 10) is another piece that deviated from the accepted norms, depicting a funeral on a massive scale (10 by 22 feet) that, according to the art critic, Jules-François-Félix Husson Champfleury, could have represented any funeral of any little town.5 A painting of that scale should have been reserved for the death of an emperor or the victory of a battle, not a commonplace funeral of an unknown family in an unknown place.
Equally consequential to these social affairs was Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). His theories on human evolution placed man, as A.E. Housman (1859-1936) voiced, “in the position of one who has been reared from his cradle as the child of a noble race and the heir to great possessions, and who finds at his coming of age he has been deceived alike as to his origin and his expectations.”6 It is difficult for us now in 2020, who have been raised in a digital age and have acquired a relatively advanced understanding our world, to understand what this means. A great deal of this acquired knowledge had tremendous consequences for the power of the church and also instigated the existential sentiments that “reduced mankind even further into nothingness.”7 George Merediths's (1828-1909) poem, “Lucifer in Starlight,” expresses that angst and confusion at a world that has seen much change:
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.8
The pessimism and anti-idealism that pervaded the second half of the 19th century was highly influenced by the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who believed that the “very nature of the universe precluded the possibility of any continuing human happiness.”9 For him, the only “respite from the continual flux and frustration” humans had lied in the arts. Because music is the art form that least resembles the “world of appearance[s],” he considered it a way of unconsciously “apprehending the world in a manner akin to philosophical contemplation.”10 In his early years, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was greatly inspired by the writings of Schopenhauer, though he came to turn his back on this pessimistic outlook later in his career.11 He instead took a stance against the fashion of historicism and metaphysics; in art, he also advocated against decadence and all forms of corruption.12 His adoration of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) one day turned to aversion, when realizing his endless melodies were filled with deceit and promises that were never kept:
Wagner is a seducer on a grand scale. There is nothing exhausted, nothing effete, nothing
dangerous to life, nothing that slanders the world in the realm of spirit, which has not secretly
found shelter in his art, he conceals the blackest obscurantism in the luminous orbs of the ideal.
He flatters every nihilistic (Buddhistic) instinct and togs it out in music; he flatters every form of
Christianity, every religious expression of decadence. He that hath ears to hear let him hear:
everything that has ever grown out of the soil of impoverished life, the whole counterfeit coinage
of the transcendental and of a Beyond found its most sublime advocate in Wagner's art, not in
formulæ (Wagner is too clever to use formulæ), but in the persuasion of the senses which in their
turn makes the spirit weary and morbid.13
Leaving behind all romanticism, with its promises and deceptiveidealism, Nietzsche strongly advocated that music “should not become an art of lying.”14 In his eyes, the opera Carmen by George Bizet (1838-1875) became his form of the ideal. Having supposedly seen the opera 20 times, he was extremely captivated by its sense of organization, richness, and completeness.15
In the visual arts, paintings like Édouard Manet’s (1832-1883) Olympia (Figure 11) represented that impulse to present unidealized forms. Though Olympia clearly refers to the Titian’s (1490-1576) Venere di Urbino and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) La grand odalisque and, Olympia is no Venus. She lays on her bed, blatantly looking at her observers, making them aware that they are valuing her for her beauty and nakedness. She does pretend to be a god, who traditionally depicted as nudes, but instead embraces her character as a prostitute.