The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (In Vivo)

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Robert Brain traces the origins of artistic modernism to specific technologies of perception developed in late-nineteenth-century laboratories. Brain argues that the thriving fin-de-siècle field of "physiological aesthetics," which sought physiological explanations for the capacity to appreciate beauty and art, changed the way poets, artists, and musicians worked and brought a dramatic transformation to the idea of art itself.

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Historians of the arts have often described modernism as what art looks like when it turns its back on nature and similarly emancipates itself from the literary and linguistic. Physiological Aesthetics: Experimentalizing Life and Art in Fin-de-Siècle Europe contends that, on the contrary, modernism was what the arts looked like when they were made from human nature, amplified through specific technologies of perception developed in late nineteenth-century physiology laboratories. Physiological Aesthetics shows how several key paths to modernism passed through the fin-de-siècle field of "physiological aesthetics," a thriving sub-discipline concerned to "elucidate physiologically the nature of our Aesthetic Feelings" and "to exhibit the purely physical origin of the sense of beauty, and its relativity to our nervous organization." Painters, poets, and composers encountered physiological aesthetics through various channels, either working directly in physiology laboratories or taking their lessons from critics, aestheticians, and other intermediaries. Beginning in the 1880s artists adopted ideas, instruments, and techniques from experimental physiology to reconfigure the human sensorium and devise new formal languages of art, including notions of rhythm, automatism, abstraction, empathy, and montage. By the eve of the First World War the artists' experiments with physiological aesthetics brought a dramatic transformation in the very idea of art itself. Physiological Aesthetics examines the networks of European scientists, aestheticians, critics, and artists who developed the physiological approach to the arts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating some of the key vanguard "artworlds" of early modernism.

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