The Nineteenth Century gives me real insights into human and social issues that are
still current in the 21st century.
“This humanistic model is sloppy. It has no bottom line. It is not geared for maximum productivity. It will not increase your arsenal of facts or data. But it rivals with rockets when it comes to flight and the visions it enables. And it will help create denser and more generous lives, lives aware that others are not only other, but are real. In this regard, it adds depth and resonance to what I regard as the shadowy, impalpable world of numbers and data: empirical notations that have no interest nor purchase in interiority, in values; notations that offer the heart no foothold.” So said Arnold Weinstein in his New York Times OpEd Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life.
This sentiment is one that echoes the voices of the 19th century; it is a notion that was shared by them, and understood by them. With the oncoming wave of the Industrial Revolution and its mechanical fingers gripping hard onto society, artists of the 19th century had a firm understanding of the true underpinnings of the world they lived in.
In the age of the 21st century, humans are faced with new challenges that are eerily similar to those that were faced in the 19th century. There is much uncertainty regarding our world and the direction it is heading in, and while big corporations and warehouses were the result of the Industrial Revolution, the 21st century is at the helm of the Information Age. This is an age of AI technology; there are talks of robots and galactic travel and communication absent of speech, an age built on capita and political warfare and the stock market. We do not protest to have our working age increased, but we participate in a different kind of protest everyday: one that is spiritual in essence, one that we must strengthen if we are to fight back against the capitalist society we have built for ourselves and keep our inner soul protected.
This is the same kind of protest that the artists of the 19th century engaged in. Through their works, they ripped through the facade of the sciences, the facade of the pretences and the social standing and the quest for factual knowledge. Wordsworth’s wise passiveness, Dickens’ reflection of the town of Coketown and its inhabitants, and Wilde’s satiric irony portrayed through The Importance of Being Earnest are all just examples of the moments of protest these artists attempted; their art was their way to shout, their weapon against the decaying nature of humanity they felt was occurring.
In the same way that many 21st century artists fear for the direction of our future, these artists also pondered where their worlds were headed, and why not enough people stopped to appreciate the magnificent beauty of their sweeping landscapes. This fear, the apprehension for a new way of being and the austere focus on material possession, led them to create and express and declare solutions.
These solutions they suggest – cultivating wise passiveness, being still, appreciating the world around you, reflecting on which material possessions take away from your spiritual essence – are all solutions that could be applied to our modern issues.
The 21st centuries intense obsession with new cars and big houses and cyborg technology is all a reflection of the absence of soul, of stillness, of reflection. With a more careful appreciation and understanding, new ways of existing can be reached; new ways of being human and feeling wholesome instead of participating in competitive outbursts with our next-door neighbours.
Through the study of 19th century literature and its artists, whether it be reading Tolstoy and understanding through Ivan Ilyich what actually makes a life worth living – love and hope and family – or reflecting on the paintings of Botticelli, I have been able to grasp slices of wisdom to carry through life. This life of mine which happens to be occurring in the 21st century, with all its alien propaganda and brain chips to increase cognitive function, that is very different to the life of a young woman in the 19th century. The study of the 19th century holds no barriers to the modern age, and this is because human essence does not change. While we are continuing evolving, our issues still remain constant: we all want love, we all seek understanding, and at the end of the night we all want someone to love and understand us. Yet, we still value activities which will give us the highest prestige, or inflate our bank accounts to the highest potential. Our issues wear different faces, but our internal conflicts are still the same, the lessons we can learn from art are still the same.