Leisure Time and Consumerism- flâneur

Leisure Time and Consumerism- flâneur

The Modern World

By convention, aspects of the modern world may be split into 3 categories. Modernization consists of the technological and scientific advances which were occurring; Modernity was a more subjective cultural and social description of the experience of life under these changes; and Modernism was a way of seeking answers as to why the world had become the way it was (Harrison and Wood, 2003: 128). This small discussion around the idea of flâneur will involve all three categories.

Modern times

When do we consider modern times to begin? I like the following definition: modern times are ‘the circumstances and ideas of the present age’ (Free dictionary, 2003). This allows for a rolling idea of the modern, and is in no way inconsistent with the three definitions above, which are all relative. This discussion starts in the early 19th Century with the development of the Arcades of Paris , and finishes upon the death of the philosopher and thinker Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).

The Paris Arcades

These were developed in the 1820-30’s, and represented a technological and architectural advance in relation to the phenomenon of increasing leisure time and consumerism in 19th Century Paris. They were formed by widening the streets, converting buildings into shops, and installing glass and iron frameworks to cover the arcades and provide shelter and comfort for the shoppers. They were lit by gas lamps, heated, and provided cafes too. Although they were soon superceded by larger buildings and the development of the Department Store, these arcades were the beginnings of the comfortable shopping experience which we know today, developed for an increasing bourgeoisie and consumer society in 19th Century Paris (Woodward, 2007).

The philosopher Walter Benjamin famously used these arcades to investigate and grapple with ideas of modernity. His ‘Paris Arcades’ was a massive and complex project which was left unfinished at his death. The project nevertheless popularised these arcades and helped lead to their preservation in the 1970-80s (Woodward, 2007).

The Flâneur and his relationship to 19th C Paris

The flâneur was a popular concept in 19th Century Paris. The poet Charles Baudelaire described it well in his book ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. A flâneur was someone ‘dominated, if ever anyone was, by an insatiable passion, that of seeing and feeling’, and who was ‘to be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world’. Most importantly, he was ‘looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’ and sought to ‘extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.’  (Baudelaire (no date) cited in Birkerts, 1982(1983))

Walter Benjamin’s flâneur

Baudelaire’s flâneur was specific to 19th C Paris. During Walter Benjamin’s later investigations on this subject he saw that the demise of the flâneur was correlated with the progress of Modern times. He appropriated the idea of flâneur in an expanded form, and it became a motif in his writings (Birkets, 1982 (1983)). As well as suiting his style of working which involved collecting and commenting on topics, the idea may also have allowed him to understand and legitimise himself, as his life had also included failure, lack of acceptance and a sense of social isolation (he had no wife and family for example) (Birkets, 1982 (1983)).

Benjamin’s flâneur was a collector of all types of phenomena and sensory details, not just fashion. The apparent idleness of the flâneur was contrary to the modern ideas of work and industry (Birkets, 1982 (1983)), but he believed that this idleness was necessary to perceive the truth. Interestingly, I recently had a conversation with a friend where I discussed that I had down-sized my full-time job in order to develop other working opportunities. He quoted the following

It’s necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant.
James D. Watson (Co-discovered the      structure of DNA with Francis Crick) (izquotes, 2017)

Some of the ideas concerning modern society and ones relation to one’s own Modern life, which I will discuss later, were very much behind my sense of anxiety at the down-size, but my friend’s insightful comment gave me considerable optimism, and helped me through some uncertainty.

Benjamin believed that the truth has been scattered into pieces by modern life and that it could ultimately be pieced together by the flâneur (Birkets, 1982 (1983)). His biographer said that ‘he was concerned with the correlation between a street scene, a speculation on the stock exchange, a poem, a thought….’ (Hannah Arendt 1968, cited in Birkets, 1982 (1983)) .

Birkets describes Benjamin’s flâneur as a medium through which the external is captured and made sense of, in terms of both history and truth (Birkets, 1982 (1983). However he admits that Benjamin’s flâneur is not totally passive, and that there is an implied ability to discriminate which ‘pieces’ relate to one another and how they relate to the truth. This is perhaps a warning that Benjamin’s ultimate goal, that flâneur allowed one to give up intellectuality and simply feel the truth, was flawed Birkets, 1982 (1983) . Benjamin’s friend, the Marxist Theodor Adorno, criticised areas of the Arcades when he read it, telling Benjamin that the proposed correlation between the detail and the structure, using Marxist methods, was not rigorous and lacked causal explanations Birkets, 1982 (1983). Birket suggests that this was because Benjamin was too ‘atuned to the singular sensory details……’ Birkets, 1982 (1983).

Focussing on the modern once more, Benjamin thought that experiencing modern life was akin to experiencing and surviving a series of ‘shocks’ and that the price may be ‘the disintegration of aura in the experience of shock (Benjamin (no date) cited in Birkets, 1982 (1983). ‘Aura’ was central to Benjamin’s thought- it is found when we perceive the world in a way in which the world can perceive us too, and it guarantees an authentic experience. To get an aura of the past, involuntary memory was crucial. This memory, unlike voluntary, was independent of habit and personal projection Birkets, 1982 (1983) – it seems to be more visceral and less contrived.

Flâneur and the mental life

Benjamin was not alone with his ideas about the shock of modern life, and its stifling of the aura and of ultimate truth. The sociologist and philosopher George Simmel (1858-1918) believed that the problem with modern life was that the metropolis changes so frequently. The sights, sounds, stimuli, and the feelings we have as a reaction to them make it hard for us as individuals to maintain our identity (Simmel, 2003:132). This concept seems to mirror Benjamin’s ‘shock of the modern’. Simmel extolled that modern man becomes a subject of the modern world in so many ways (just think of our working lives both now and then, where he has punctuality, exactness, expectation, and discipline thrust upon him). This sense of being a subject reduces the life which one feels in oneself, which Simmel counters is a more instinctive and sometimes irrational process (Simmel, 2003:133).

Simmel proposes that modern man develops a protective reaction to the overstimulation, which he calls Blasé, which both prevents proper discrimination in an observer, and also causes us to depersonalise within our relations with our ever increasing numbers of neighbours and contacts. This depersonalisation is also clearly seen within the anonymity of the mechanisms of economic trade (Simmel, 2003:132). Simmel described the result of ‘the preponderance of what one may call the ‘objective spirit’ over the ‘subjective’ spirit’ in modern culture -that modern man has a ferocious ‘urge for the most individual personal existence’(Simmel, 2003:135). Both Simmel and Benjamin seem to agree that modern life has short-circuited our emotional systems such that we can no longer see the truth within ourselves or in our history- and that a change is needed.

Modern times and Modern art

In the latter part of the 19th and the start of the 20th Century, the art world was changing in a drastic manner, so drastically that it was almost turning in on itself. At this time Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) discussed Expressionist art, using the term broadly as a turning away from Impressionism (Bahr, 2003:117). This art included the Cubists (such as Picasso and Braques), the Futurists (founded by Marinetti), and the Blue Reiter (including Kandinsky and Marc).

This revolution in art (Modernist art?) was described by Bahr in very similar terms to those of Benjamin’s updated flâneur and Simmel’s urge for something more individual. He believed that modern man was in battle with machines and modernity, and that ‘man cries out for his soul’ (Bahr, 2003:119). Not just that- but that ‘Art too joins in…. she cries to the spirit’ (Bahr, 2003:119). This was Expressionism. He proposed that real art was not the Impressionist’s seeing and recording of a natural sensation (an illusion of nature), but precisely the opposite. To the Expressionists, art was the recording of anything that nature did not admit- and that yes they too painted what they ‘saw’– but they did not see as the Impressionists did (Bahr, 2003:117).

How art changed in response to the Modern world (and ideas behind the flâneur)

So in the last part of the 19th Century and the beginnings of the 20th Century we have a sea-change in how artists see and paint the world around them. This might be condensed by saying that this was the beginning of Modern art as we know it today.

In the latter part of the 1800’s Van Gogh painted quickly, and outdoors, and produced canvasses which were completely dominated by his own feelings, and his mental state, which was frequently either manic or depressed. He never sold a painting in his lifetime. In the early 20th Century the German Expressionists were represented by both Die Brücke, and the Blue Reiter groups. Die Brücke responded to the modern world and established art, with a programme which hailed that ‘Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us’ (Kirchner, 2003: 65). These painters were interested in expressing themselves rather than concentrating on the subject. They were completely against the classical art establishment, and had an interest in primitive art, religious art, woodcuts, and (like Van Gogh) art from the Eastern world. The second branch of German expressionism Der Blaue Reiter group included Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Marc was interested in the spiritual and mystical character of the natural world- in response to the modern, the technical and the urban (Harrison and Wood, 2003: 93).

In contrast to the more idealist response to Modernity, extolled by Benjamin, Simmel, Bahr, and importantly, Henri Bergson, the Futurist movement was excited and full of admiration for the Modern world. They based Futurism on a manifesto containing a weird and wonderful story about a group of friends who are involved in a car crash, but are changed irrevocably by the experience, and come to worship all things Modern- cars, factories, speed, machines (Harrison and Wood, 2003: 128-9). These Modern ideas were revered by the group who painted pictures of cars, trains, (and the occasional dog), and suggested their characteristics in paint (such as speed and rotation).


Arendt, H (1968), ‘Illuminations’ in Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Bahr, H (2003) ‘from Expressionism 1916’ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 116-121

Baudelaire, C (no date) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ In Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Benjamin, W (no date) ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire’ in Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at : http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Birkerts, S. (1982 (1983)) Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at  http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Free dictionary, 2003 Modern times (defn) [online] at “http://www.thefreedictionary.com/modern+times”>modern times</a> (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (1993). ‘The Idea of the Modern World-Introduction’ In Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.s). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 127-131

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003) Introduction to ‘The ‘’Savages’’ of Germany’ and ‘Two Pictures’ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 93-95

Izquotes (2017) ‘It’s necessary to be slightly underemployed…’ [online] At http://izquotes.com/quote/194028 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Kirchner, E (2003) ‘Programme of the Brucke 1906’ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 65-66

Simmel, G (2003) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ 1902-3 in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 132-136

Woodward, R. (2007) Making a Pilgrimage to Cathedrals of Commerce. [Online] at htp://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/travel/11culture.html#story-continues-1 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)



Author: PhilHepArt

This site contains my BLOG for my Open College of the Art's module 'Understanding Visual Culture'. I am currently on Level 1 of the degree pathway BA Painting.

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