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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: July 2016

Medievalism at the End of History: Pessimism and Renewal in Just Visiting

from I - Medievalism and Modernity: Some Perspective(s)


The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made all of us into deep historical pessimists.

– Francis Fukuyama

In the eighties [] painting seemed to show all the signs of internal exhaustion, or at least marked limits beyond which it was not possible to press.

– Arthur Danto

You can only be lost if you have no purpose.

– Thibault Malfete

When precisely the modern period begins and exactly what it means to be modern depend in part on whether we approach these questions from a historical, philosophical, or aesthetic perspective. For Fukuyama, modernity emerges from the political and philosophical revolutions of the Enlightenment and in the writings of Hegel and Marx on history; it is marked by changes in how the West thought about history and the progress of history. For Danto, modern thought begins with Descartes and Kant placing questions about the nature of thought itself at the center of intellectual discourse; but modernism as an artistic movement does not begin until sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, when artists make a similar self-reflexive move that deemphasizes mimetic representation of the world and makes aesthetic form and artistic representation itself the subject of art. However, by bringing the discrete intellectual fields of Fukuyama and Danto together, we may perceive a characteristic of modernity that runs through various strains and definitions of modernity. Both Fukuyama and Danto begin with a consideration of the pessimism that marks modern thought in their respective fields. Such pessimism is attached to the idea of modernity itself, where the modern thinker and artist senses that history was never teleological, never about progress toward a higher end, only about the discovery of the illusion of progress. Or where a feeling lingers that, while there may have been real progress once, now the progress of history and art and philosophy have come to an end, sadly divesting the artist and thinker of purpose and of struggle; a feeling of living in a world that, even if it is the end of some progressive plan, is an end that has proven disappointing. It is that pessimism, that quality, rather than any specific philosophical, historical, or aesthetic definition of modernity and modernism, to which many pop-cultural works about the Middle Ages respond.