Sweet Nothing

Charles Baudelaire provided his famous description of Modernity in his essay: ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: ‘By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.’1

Commonly, descriptions of modernism seem to pick up on the first half of this statement but the ‘eternal and immutable’, perhaps alternatively described as ‘soul’ are also absolutely an integral part of Baudelaire’s poetry and the art he advocates. The conflict between the two ‘halves’ in his statement are examples of the contradictions in Baudelaire’s writing and his life. Attempting to reconcile these two halves leads eventually to nothing.

In his writing Baudelaire criticises what he calls ‘Philosophic Art’, the humanitarian, realist painting of the nineteenth century that he claims attempts to teach morals in a manner similar to books. He argues that ‘Philosophic Art’s over-complicated depictions of antiquity are irrelevant in the modern world: ‘The more an artist turns an impartial eye on detail, the greater the state of anarchy”2. Abundant visual information is dense cloud obscuring the viewer’s imagination. ‘The more art strives to be philosophically clear, the more it will denigrate itself.’3

Baudelaire encourages curiosity in the artist and sites Edgar Alan Poe’s short story: ‘The Man of the Crowd’ as an example. In this story, a convalescing man sits in a café, idly watching the rush-hour crowd passing by on a busy London street. He identifies a variety of character types by their mannerisms and characteristics before developing a fascination with a particular old man who he follows in circles through the streets in an ultimately futile attempt to discover more. Eventually he gives up and the story ends with the words:

‘The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the “Hortulus Animae” and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that es last sich nicht lessen [translation: it does not permit itself to be read].’4

The ‘Hortulus Animae’ was a 16th century prayer book for moral guidance. Perhaps Poe is alluding to God’s instruction to Adam and Eve not to pick fruit from the tree of knowledge. The chaos of the modern city is analogous to the awe inspiring chaos of the firmament.


“The Man of the Crowd”
Illustration by Harry Clarke for a London edition dated 1923

Baudelaire celebrates the heroic Dandy’s disinterested, streamlined approach to life:

‘A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer, but in this case he will smile like the Spartan boy under the fox’s tooth’5

Baudelaire refers to an ancient tale of loyalty where a Spartan boy who stole a fox hid it under his clothes and rather than reveal it, allowed the fox to scratch him to death. The Dandy is the mould from which all subsequent disinterested and nonchalant artists have been cast.

Walter Benjamin picks up Baudelaire’s ideas and interprets them in a more technologically advanced historical context. In his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ he sites Baudelaire’s poetry volume: ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ as the last lyric work that had a European repercussion. Benjamin compares modern mass-media to storytelling observing that newspapers’ linguistic use paralyses the imagination of readers through: information volume, brevity, comprehensibility and above all, lack of connection between items. Once again, this points to the problems resulting from an abundance of data.

Benjamin compares the short, sharpness in descriptions of crowd scenes with the short, sharp actions of switches in mechanical technology:

“The invention of the match around the middle of the nineteenth century brought forth a number of innovations which have one thing in common: one abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps”6

This separation from a process results in a loss of experience and it is through experiences that thought and imagination are sparked.

The ‘eternal and the immutable’ referred to by Baudelaire can be seen as similar to what Benjamin calls the ‘aura’ in art – the ‘ritual value’. Technology increasingly removes this ‘aura’ as the experience or ritual is compromised. Benjamin uses photography as an example to illustrate another means by which imaginative capacity is affected:

“The techniques based on the use of the camera and subsequent analogous devices extend the range of the memoire voluntaire; by means of these devices they make it possible for an event at any time to be permanently recorded in terms of sound and sight. Thus they represent important achievements where practice is in decline”7

John Cage’s work reflects Baudelaire’s desire for non-didactic art. It responds to the problems associated with the rapid production and accumulation of information characteristic of the modern age.

“When the war came along I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me no truth, no good in anything big in society.”8

Eventually the quiet sounds were reduced to silence in Cage’s piece: “4’33’”. This silence does not represent passivity though. Here the complete silence forces the listeners to reflect on the physical, sensory and ideological context within which the piece is performed. The silence provides the space for experience which is commonly denied or obscured by the abundant noise and speed of daily life.

Robert Rauschenburg made blank white paintings that functioned similarly to John Cage’s piece. He described them as follows:

“I always thought of the White paintings as being not passive but very – well, hypersensitive. So one could look at them and see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast or what time of day it was”9

rob rauschenberg white
Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (3 panel) 1951

In his performance work (also written as a score): ‘Lecture on Nothing’, John Cage described methods for making nothing.

“If one is making something which is nothing then one must love and be patient with the material he chooses. Otherwise he calls attention to the material, which is precisely something, whereas it was nothing that was being made; or he calls attention to himself, whereas nothing is anonymous.”9

This is not ‘Minimalism’ – an expression Cage never applied to his pieces. Any aesthetic judgement on his part is deliberately avoided. He is, as Baudelaire described his quintessential painter of modern life, Constantin Guys: “the ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’”10.

John Cage acknowledges and accepts happily a lack of knowledge. He offers a blank book in which you are encouraged to write your own personal experience. Lyric poetry and other established art forms may be ineffective in the climate of the modern world but the raw materials remain, perhaps buried in forgotten memories, the subconscious or hiding somewhere in the familiar fog of daily life. Imagination must be employed in order to uncover these. This as the job of the artist as Baudelaire describes.

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

Charles Baudelaire, from ‘Fleurs Du Mal’



Nature’s a temple where each living column,
At times, gives forth vague words. There Man advances
Through forest-groves of symbols, strange and solemn,
Who follow him with their familiar glances.

As long-drawn echoes mingle and transfuse
Till in a deep, dark unison they swoon,
Vast as the night or as the vault of noon —
So are commingled perfumes, sounds, and hues.

There can be perfumes cool as children’s flesh,
Like fiddIes, sweet, like meadows greenly fresh.
Rich, complex, and triumphant, others roll

With the vast range of all non-finite things —
Amber, musk, incense, benjamin, each sings
The transports of the senses and the soul.

Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)



  1. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life 1863
  2. Charles Baudelaire, Philosophic Art 1857
  3. Charles Baudelaire, Philosophic Art 1857
  4. Edgar Alan Poe, The Man of the Crowd, 1840
  5. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 1863
  6. Walter Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939
  7. Walter Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939
  8.  John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, 1959
  9.  Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-garde, 1965
  10.  Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life 1863
  11. Charles Baudelaire, Fleurs Du Mal, 1857