Project 1-7: Leisure time and Consumerism – The Flâneur

For this project we are required to search the web for articles on the flâneur making notes on the phenomenon and what thinkers like Walter Benjamin have to say on the subject.

We are also asked to consider what effect we think this phenomenon had on the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Flâneur is a French term with no direct English translation popularised by Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and linked to the emergence of consumer culture in the late nineteenth century. Baudelaire describes the elegant flâneur, strolling through the streets and arcades of Paris, simultaneously taking pleasure from the act of looking at items of commodity culture and remaining detached from the cityscape around him. He neither belongs to the richest or poorest class and existed on the margins of the city, he takes in the sights – especially the new phenomenon of consumerism found in the displays of the shop windows of the arcades. For the flâneur the act of looking becomes a pleasure in itself.

Sturken and Cartwright offer one of the most concise and interesting definitions of the flâneur that I came across:

“A flâneur is a kind of urban dandy who strolls through a modern city (such as Paris), a space that is newly organised in modernity to encourage a mobile and specular (looking) relationship to urban space and the new consumer goods that are displayed there.”

The phenomenon of the flâneur is tied to the quickly changing landscape of the late nineteenth century: the modern city and its changing architecture, dramatic changes population densities, emergence of factories, industrial manufacturing and production, the growth of the bourgeoisie, advances in technology and communication as well as developments in capitalism. Interestingly, the flâneur of the nineteenth century was always male because society at the time did not allow females the freedoms that men enjoyed.

Walter Benjamin, who was much influenced by Baudelaire, took the notion of the flâneur and turned it into a kind of mythological figure, using it to explore the development of consumer society, that is a society where the practices of consumption rather than production are predominant. For Benjamin the flâneur is a sociological icon of the nineteenth century and emblematic of modernity and his use of the term in his unfinished and posthumously published major work ‘The Arcades Project’ is seen as being responsible for the term entering critical theory.

The ‘Painter of Modern Life’ Baudelaire describes in his essay is the artist he also describes as the archetypal flâneur: Constantin Guys. Baudelaire admires his ability to capture the ephemeral but irreversible changes brought about by fashion and the new commodities of the arcades. Guys paintings employed a new realism both in terms of subject matter and style that marked a radical departure from traditional academic history paintings. This theme was further developed by Manet and then the impressionists before continuing into other avant-gardes such as futurism and surrealism. For me, the idea of the flâneur as artist is perhaps best encapsulated by the street photographer. Researching this project, my mind kept returning to photographers who I have grown to love as masters of street photography such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Martin Parr and Garry Winogrand. Indeed, the mental image I have of Winogrand prowling the streets, camera in hand, trying to create order and meaning out of the chaos of modern city life is one that stays with me. The image of William Eggleston also springs to mind because although he does not photograph city life his detached style and privileged background (meaning he could concentrate on taking photographs as an interest rather than by any need to make money from it) seem to fit the notion of the flâneur well. I often have the sense when looking at Eggleston’s work that although the subjects portrayed are on the main the banal and every day we are somehow sharing his way of seeing. Personally, being a flâneur is also something I enjoy doing myself. I love nothing more than picking up my camera and exploring the streets with no other preconception than to make images of what I see.

Thoughts…

The subject of the flâneur is an interesting one, but I am not sure that studying this is the real purpose of the project which I suspect is more concerned with study techniques, time management and introducing Walter Benjamin. It is interesting that the course notes offer no direct article or work as reference but direct us to conduct study on the internet. A google search for flâneur invariably makes Wikipedia the top hit before branching into many varied sources. I quickly decided to conduct my research in the way I have all other projects using the text books I am beginning to become more familiar with and learning to trust, making notes and also jotting down  further keywords and concepts to research further. Having done this first I felt much more equipped to tackle internet search results and identify articles potential value as well as being able to directly search for essays and books that I had found referenced. I quickly amassed a large amount of reading material and was left with the difficult choice of how much further research to do – by this point I had probably gained enough knowledge to complete my write up and I must admit being torn between wanting to gain as much understanding by reading as widely as possible and progressing. Up until now I have continued reading until all of the sources I have identified are completed, I decided to moderate this approach here by putting a timescale of a week on my further research. This meant rather than trying to read each source in detail and take notes I needed to skim moist of them and prioritize those which appear of most value. For example, looking at Benjamin’s ‘The Arcades Project’ meant merely skim reading and concentrating on passages that caught my eye. At 1000 pages and extremely complex, trying to assimilate the work would have been a major distraction, but, gaining a sense of the tone of the piece by allowing it to wash over me did help inform the project.

I note that after assignment one, the first project of part two concerns Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, a work I expect to be extremely challenging given what other students have noted. That said, as I have now been introduced to Benjamin as a writer I feel I can tackle the project without becoming side-tracked by studying his biography. The experience of his writing I have gained here also means I have some understanding of what to expect.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Consumer society, phantasmagoria, modernity, situationism, dérive.

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy Debord, Constantin Guys.

Bibliography:

Baudelaire, C (1863) The Painter of Modern Life. (translated and edited by Johnathon Mayne) Phaidon Press

Benjamin, W. (1999) On Some Motifs in Baudelaire                                                                                                   in Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Benjamin W. (1999) The Arcades Project. (Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin from the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann) Cambridge:Harvard University Press

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York:Oxford University Press inc.

Friedberg, A The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flaneur/Flaneuse                                           in Mirzoeff, N. (ed). (2002) The Visual Culture Reader Second edition. Oxford:                       Routledge

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Seal, B. (2013) Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur. Available at http://psychogeographicreview.com/baudelaire-benjamin-and-the-birth-of-the-flaneur/ [accessed February 2015]

Sontag, S. (2008) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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