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Ferdinand Avenarius on the Fine Arts: Inaugural Issue of Der Kunstwart (October 1, 1887)

Ferdinand Avenarius (1856-1923) studied science, philosophy, literature, and art history. In the 1880s, he worked as an author and publicist in Dresden. In 1887 he founded the magazine Der Kunstwart – loosely translated as The Guardian of Art – which he edited until 1923. The programmatic article below was published in the first issue of Der Kunstwart in October 1887. Here, Avenarius criticizes contemporary German society for favoring rationalism and science and neglecting the arts. He also laments the lack of consistent, unifying principles in German art.

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Our Arts. An Overview.

Before we commence a series of essays dedicated to examining important and contentious issues in our contemporary art scene, we will provide a quick overview of the present state of the arts. It should do nothing more than remind us once again of the path we are taking.

When future researchers characterize the reigning spirit of our generation, they will perhaps emphasize one thing: the virtually limitless esteem for rational education that operates at the expense of the development of sentiment and the imagination. And, if we are advancing at all towards a harmonious humanity, it will not be difficult for these researchers to prove on the basis of this fact alone that the intellectual culture of our period did not exist on a pure and lofty plane. Certainly, after the emotional wallowing of the era of Sentimentalism – which was then followed by a period in which most educated minds participated in the one-sided cultivation of aesthetic indulgence – today’s cult of reason almost seems like the belated strengthening of a neglected organ. A generation, however, only marches on the heights of humanity once it has striven for and achieved the balanced development of all its powers.

As a result of the weakening of imagination in the recent past, the superficial aspects of works of art came to be prized more and more. We are not speaking of the main interest of the masses, of material things entirely removed from the artistic sphere; [we are not speaking] of an interest in the object of depiction rather than the depiction itself, not of the pleasure of the “what” instead of the “how.” We are speaking of the fact that enjoyment of a baser sort has increasingly displaced the loftier kind, even in purely artistic perception. The ear’s pure sensory delight in a melodious rhyme or agreeable sound, the eye’s delight in a pleasing line or charming color, had a dulling effect, making it difficult to perceive that perhaps this rhyme or sound, this line or color, was fulfilling its main duty very poorly: to inspire some kind of conscious experience in the listener or viewer by stimulating his or her imagination. For lovers of art, the expression of this attitude – against which an ever stronger opposition is forming – amounted to an increasingly diminished appreciation of art, which people became more and more accustomed to regarding, if not designating, as mere “entertainment.” And for the creators of art, it amounted to an increasingly high appreciation for and emphasis on the decorative element.

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