The world must be romanticized. In this way its original meaning will be rediscovered. To romanticize is nothing but a qualitative heightening. In this process the lower self becomes identified with a better self. (…) Insofar as I present the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar and the finite with the semblance of the infinite, I romanticize it.
These lines were long suppressed by the paradigms of modernity; ignored by discourses dominated by the postmodern. Yet over the last decade or so they have gradually begun to reappear. In the early 2000s they were anxiously uttered at art shows in Berlin and London; they were nervously repeated in polemical pamphlets and papers in New York; they were hesitantly replicated in Frieze, cautiously copied in the FAZ, the Observer, and The New Yorker. But by 2005, they had recurred so frequently, and so widely, that the tone with which they were re-iterated had become more confident. When, later that year, they were reprinted in Max Hollein’s catalogue Ideal Worlds: New Romanticism in Contemporary Art, they were expressed with such conviction that there could be no further doubt about it: a novel sense of the Romantic had emerged.It was seen in the sudden re-appraisal of Bas Jan Ader’s questioning of Reason, in the attention for Peter Doig’s re-appropriation of culture through nature, and for Gregory Crewdson’s adaptation of civilization by the primitive. It could be perceived in Olafur Eliasson’s obsession with the commonplace ethereal, in Catherine Opie’s fixation with the quotidian sublime, in Herzog & de Meuron’s attempts to unite the transient and the timeless. And of late it can be observed in in Justine Kurland’s and David Thorpe’s fascination with fictitious sects, or in Charles Avery’s interest for fictional elsewheres. Indeed, concentrating on the tragic and the sublime, the uncanny and the mystical, often figurative representation and what appears to be beyond the figurative categories, these artists present the commonplace with significance, the quotidian with mystery, the familiar with the aura of the unfamiliar and the finite with the appearance of the infinite. But theirs is a presentation which inevitably – and necessarily – fails. No commonplace ever becomes wholly significant, no quotidian utterly mysterious. Nor should they. For that, if we are to believe Novalis’ contemporary Friedrich Schlegel, is the essence of Early German Romanticism: ‘that it should forever be becoming, and never be perfected’. Romanticism is often misunderstood. Nature, nobility, dreams, a soothing sensibility and what not. We have so far given two interrelated intimations of Romanticism: the act of presenting the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with the mysterious, etc., and this undertaking’s inevitable and necessary failure. Of course, these intimations hardly characterize all that Romanticism is about, let alone that they define it. As Arthur Lovejoy noted in the 1920s, there are so many different, often differing definitions of the concept that we might rather speak of Romanticisms. Indeed, Isaiah Berlin commented years later in his canonical The Roots of Romanticism, if there were any one word to define Romanticism, it would be contradiction. Romanticism, he argued, is,
in short, unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular…and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.
The key is to understand Romanticism as a sens rather than as a system of thought, a sensibility rather than a paradigm, an attitude more than an aesthetic regime. Romanticism is about the attempt to turn the finite into the infinite, whilst recognizing that it can never – and should never – be realized. Of course, it is also specifically about Bildung, about self-realization, about Zaïs and Isis, but for our purposes, this general idea of the Romantic as oscillating between attempt and failure, or as Schlegel put it, between ‘enthusiasm and irony’, is sufficient. It is from this hesitation also that the Romantic inclination towards the tragic, the sublime and the uncanny stem, aesthetic categories lingering between projection and perception, coherence and chaos.
Interestingly, many of these artists engage with the most unlikely of realms: the everyday, the commonplace. Armin Boehm, for example, paints aerial views of commuter towns as at once enchanted and haunted. Gregory Crewdson photographs towns haunted by the nature they repress, disavow or sublimate. In his work tree-lined streets, white picket-fenced gardens and picture-windowed houses are sites for inexplicable natural events, from local twilights to people shovelling earth into their hallways and planting flowers in their lounges to robins picking at limbs buried below ground. And Glenn Rubsamen presents the most mundane objects as exceptional, the most artificial ones as natural: electricity poles turn into pine trees, lamp posts become oaks.
These artists’ engagement with the everyday and the commonplace is not surprising. After all, New Romanticism is a response to both the modern and the postmodern, just as Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment. The category of the everyday has been central to both the modern and the postmodern. Modernity can be characterized by an anxiety to reconstruct the everyday in the name of this or that universalism. Postmodernity can be described as the neurosis to deconstruct it along the heterogenous lines of race, gender, and place. New Romanticism attempts to both-neither reconstruct and-nor deconstruct the commonplace. It seeks to come to terms with the commonplace as it is while at the same time imagining how it could be but never will be. It presents us with the impossible possibility of another here-and-now.
The New Romantic engagement with the commonplace is often mistaken for the postmodern interest in it. Indeed, the two concepts, Romanticism and postmodernism, can be easily confused. De Mul has asserted that Romanticism can be understood as the irresolvable tension between postmodernism and modernism. Whatever other implications this might have, it implies that it inevitably has quite a few traits in common with both. Like Romanticism then, the postmodern discredits the teleological enthusiasm of its predecessor and distrusts its belief in Reason. Like Romanticism also, it turns to pluralism, to irony and deconstruction; it relishes chaos and ambiguity, it revels in fragmentation. But there is, as de Mul has noted, a crucial difference: in Romanticism, this rather ‘postmodern’ irony is employed to hold the somewhat ‘modern’ aspiration in check; in the postmodern it is used to annihilate it. Romantic irony is intrinsically bound to desire; postmodern irony is inherently tied to apathy. The Romantic art work deconstructs the modern piece by emphasizing what it cannot present, what it cannot signify: that which is beyond reason; the postmodern work deconstructs it by emphasizing exactly what it presents, by exposing precisely what it signifies.
But why now? Why have artists taken to these Romantic sentiments all of a sudden? Our answer is that Romanticism provides them with the vocabulary and iconography to express a dissatisfaction about a present that is increasingly uninhabitable, and a desire for a future whose blueprint has yet to be drawn. New Romanticism expresses the transition from a place not yet left behind, to another space it has not yet entered, and probably never will. Ominous ruins as symbols for the cliffs of the past. Mysterious sects in situ the shores of the future.