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The Aesthetic Revolution in Germany

1750–1950 – From Winckelmann to Nietzsche – from Nietzsche to Beckmann

Meindert Evers

The Aesthetic Revolution in Germany refutes the stereotypical image of Germany as the country of romantic but unworldly poets and thinkers. In 1750, an aesthetic revolution takes place in Germany, at the beginning of which stands J.J. Winckelmann. The romantic movement (Schiller, Hölderlin, Kleist) paves the way for this aesthetic revolution, which Heine is one of the first to criticise. Since then, criticism has never fallen silent. Opposing the rationalisation of the world (Wagner), the aesthetic revolution climaxes in the philosophy of Nietzsche. During the 1920s and 30s, it becomes a conservative revolution (George, Spengler, Th. Mann, Benn) and fails inevitably. Beckmann and M. Walser show that particularly after 1945 the aesthetic perspective is still necessary.

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1. The birth of the aesthetic man in Germany


1. The birth of the aesthetic man in Germany

1.1. The birth of the aesthetic man. Johann Joachim Winckelmann

The aesthetic revolution in Germany begins with Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768). With Winckelmann, this revolution articulates itself as a protest against affectations and mannerisms, against the academic and the conventional, against the French classicistic model, against a bloodless, decorative classicism which has been robbed of its original vitality. Winckelmann’s protest against French classicism was basically a protest against the mechanical and materialistic view of the world which characterised the French Enlightenment of the 18th century as a result of Cartesianism.

In the France of Descartes, the esprit géométrique is most deeply anchored, most radically practised. And since Louis XIV, the specifically French culture spreads across all countries and continents – including the German states. Frederick the Great, a contemporary of Winckelmann and his sovereign, spoke and wrote French; his taste – as shown in the Sanssouci palace, built in the Rococo style – was completely derived from France. When Shakespeare was performed during his time, the Prussian king could only see in it a modern lack of taste. The courts of the German aristocrats are especially influenced by the French example, to the displeasure of many young intellectuals. Their vision is of a new, national culture which should be founded on authenticity, naturalness and simplicity.

From the second half of the 18th century onwards, the Greeks replace the Romans as the ideal. With...

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