Okay so I don’t know if the first one worked or not so here is it again!
So as I was writing this response the other day, a lot of topics kept popping up in my mind and as I was re-reading the essay before posting even more came up! I’ve tried to include most of what initially struck me and also some from my re-reading. Enjoy.
“The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays” by Charles Baudelaire
“I know my Museum,” I know myself, I know my city. We say these things to ourselves to justify our fast-paced lifestyle, one that rarely stops to appreciate the beauty of that particular moment. To Monsieur G, Baudelaire’s flâneur like character in “The Painter of Modern Life” life is a museum that constantly has more to discover. The beauty of the people and the surroundings, like art is completely subjective and designed by people, yet something that if taken the time to observe closely can become a timeless and unique treasure. To Baudelaire people are constantly consumed with staying present and defining the moment, much like how an artist defines the style of art of time. They write off past beauty must like the permanent art collection in a museum. They are constantly searching for the beauty of the fleeting moment. Yet, just like that moment, their minds become consumed with the modernization that they neglect to observe the particular beauty inherent in everyone. Baudelaire discusses how Monsieur G, unlike the Dandy or other flâneur types of his age, is an active and passionate observer of beauty, and how unlike many artists who too fall into the same pattern of the Dandy, Monsieur G is able to capture not only the “general” beauty but also the “particular” beauty of each type of person.
Beauty (particular beauty); everyone and everything has it in some way, shape or form. Our appearance is what makes us stand out, what makes us be individual. Baudelaire discusses the dualistic nature of beauty inherent in all its forms: “an eternal, invariable element…and a relative, circumstantial element.” While the concept of beauty is timeless, beauty’s subjects bask in the pleasures of modernity in its ever-changing nature of staying present.
Monsieur G as an artist and “a passionate lover of crowds” observes and admires all forms of beauty like a true artist or how the flâneur observes the cityscape. He finds the aesthetic beauty in all inhabitants of a city: in the Dandy, the military man, and the woman. As an artist he portrays the beauty of the city by capturing the beauty of the people—the diverse and circumstantial beauty of the people. For all citizens of the city, be it Paris, London or New York, create the aesthetic of the city—like the machine, the individual performs a function, and each is necessary for the city to function.
Take the first, the dandy. The purpose of life for the dandy, a man of poise and elegance, is the cultivation of the notion of beauty. The dandy, like the typical flâneur, is often a man of upper class who can afford to have leisure time to wander down the rues and jardins of Paris or spend hours idly watching the herds from a seat at a café. This constant forward movement that the dandy so consumed itself with, this aesthetic of the present, is also characteristic of the luxurious life of productive transformation and reinvention. The dandy is defining what is beauty and sets a standard, while others may not follow, of the highest quality of modern aesthetic beauty. A quality unique to the bourgeoisie Dandy, that lower and middle class citizens could not afford to do.
While Monsieur G can be a dandy, he does not share the quality of idle observation and blasé outlook. Unlike this group, he observes the crowds with a focused passion and gusto—like an anthropologist studying “the other” in order to learn more about human nature, he studies the forms of beauty to understand the whole picture of the town. After all, his art is to depict the world and the world with all the variances of beauty is his canvas.
Baudelaire goes on to describe Monsieur G’s other two subjects: the Military Man and the woman—classifications that have a different flavor of beauty than the dandy. Both groups are also crucial to in understanding the whole—the city infrastructure. The military man, unlike the dandy is not consumed by a life of luxury, in fact “the face of the ideal military man [can be…] characterized by a great simplicity; for living a communal life like monks or schoolboys.” The military man’s beauty is one of brave nonchalance that “springs from the necessity to be ready to face death at every moment,” it is marked not by the moments of modernity like the dandy but in the moments of that very instant. The military man’s beauty is focused on the conflicts of human nature. This beauty may not be as physically charged as that of the dandy or the woman, but it is in the air of beauty that gives the military man a unique aesthetic. The woman, a diverse class in itself, embodies many forms of beauty: youthful, luxurious, and indecent. Monsieur G, like many artists sees the woman as subject of divinity—“a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of Nature, condensed into a single being.” The manner in which Monsieur G appreciates the diverse female figures, for their individual beauty is similar to the way a flâneur observes the city.
In his art he succeeds in capturing exactly what the flâneur admires the “fleeting beauty of present-day life, the distinguishing character of that quality which…we have called ‘modernity’” the object of the dandy’s passion, and the fuel for all things beautiful. Baudelaire does not specifically define what a flâneur is, just like he does not specifically define what beauty or modernity is. Instead he discusses the range of qualities and their commonalities: the drive to stay present, and the bohemian—detached lifestyle, while approached differently between a dandy, a military man, and a woman still share a similar quality in the manner they define themselves with their interactions with the surroundings.
Baudelaire’s comments, like beauty, are timeless yet changing; he is essentially describing the people that pass, you or me today. It is an eternal anthropological study of urban life. Today there are figures that share some resemblances to the flâneur-type of his age: the dandy, the military man, and the woman. The dandy is perhaps the modern day “hipster” who in the general sense of the term often defines a group of young people of fashion forward mindset who strive to appear apathetic or aloof, while also defining what is the style of the moment. The military man, in terms of the sense of beauty in the work ethic of their profession lives can resemble some qualities of the modern day YUPPIE, who strives for professional and social success with bravado but unlike the military man, strives for the luxurious external beauty of the dandy but fails to maintain the present-forward thinking mindset. The flâneur like beauty is a transitory figure, its constantly fleeting from the current moment. Aspects of Baudelaire’s arguments are timeless and still current. This idea of staying in style and maintaining one’s beauty is still something present today, I envision this search for modernity as a game of sorts, a quest to stay ahead, to stay “hip” to maintain one’s unique-ness.
This unique-ness that everyone in our time and his, is not entirely individual. Baudelaire addresses this struggle between maintaining one’s individuality and the group mentality; in the manner he describes each group. When describing the various types of people he refers to them as individual people, however that “individual” is in fact a group people who have come together based on their similarities. While he does refer to each category of beauty in the singular form, as an individual, it is crucial to remember that each “individual” is in fact a group of people who have come together based on their similarities, their categorical “otherness.” So these individuals that although are quite unique, are each unique in the same fashion, can they still be considered individual? How crucial is it to be the defining individual in such a group mentality?
 Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays,” pg 3
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