Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Art and Life in Modernist Prague

by Drew Martin
This evening a coworker/fella Czech enthusiast dragged me to an event organized by the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences at the Bohemian National Hall on the upper east side of Manhattan. Actually, I really wanted to go but it was in the opposite direction of my commute home. In the end, it was totally worth it.

The event was an author presentation: Thomas Ort spoke about his new book Art and Life in Modernist Prague: Karel Čapek and His Generation, 1911 - 1938. Ort intensely engaged the audience with his depth of knowledge of the topic, clear view of his subject, and incredibly well-structured talk. It was such a thorough and intelligent lecture that I bought his book so I could continue to follow his train of thought.

From his introduction:
In most contemporary historical writing, the picture one gets of modern life and culture in...Central Europe is rather a gloomy the story goes, there was a retreat from public and social life and a narcissistic withdrawal into the self...paradigmatically, for the Prague of Franz Kafka. This book tells a different story. It is the story of a generation of Czech writers and artists distinguished by a more positive and affirmative encounter with the modern world in the years before the First World War. It is the story of those who greeted the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy not with despair and trepidation but with a sense of hope and liberation. It is the story of those whose early vitalism and anti-rationalism later led them closer to liberalism, not further away from it. The subject of this study is the "Čapek generation," the idea of a loose group of modernist writers and artists coalescing around Karel Čapek (1890-1938), the leading novelist and playwright of interwar Czechoslovakia.

Coming of age in an atmosphere of acute rebellion against the positivism of the nineteenth century, Čapek and his closest peers were strident critics of reason, emphasizing the subjective and provisional character of all knowledge and the impossibility of its disentanglement from individual beliefs, desires, and values. Yet, unlike so many of their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, their critique of reason issued neither in irrationalism nor in the dogmatic assertion of a particular truth, but in a pragmatic and relativistic vision that combined elements of reason and intuition alike. At a time when many of their modernist counterparts were turning to fascism or communism, the writers and artists around Čapek resolutely opposed the radical political alternatives of the left and the right and steadfastly defended the Czechoslovak state's fledgling democracy.