The authors look at our times and wonder whether the world is on the brink of a second Belle Époque, a new era of humanistic thought and progress.
The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011
Parisian subway riders careening through the tunnels of the 3rd arrondissement barely notice a particular stop, one whose name contains a clue and potential warning as to the direction culture is headed in the coming era. The name of the station is Arts et Métiers, Art and Technology. It’s a name born of the era known as the Belle Époque, which occurred during the last decades of the Industrial Revolution, approximately 1880–1910.
There’s a distinct arrogance emanating from a period of time whose inhabitants refer to it as a ‘beautiful era’. To make such a claim alone implies a single-minded confidence in the righteousness of one’s own actions. But the Belle Époque was sincerely powered by noble aspirations, a religion of progress, which held high hopes for the marriage of technology and art, and the sense that with such a conjunction everything was possible. Contained in this unbridled optimism was the powerful notion that beauty could be given to all at the same time. And that such beauty could be dispensed on any scale, with the orchestra as a meme for the simple model of progress, subdisciplines intersecting to create a harmonious whole. In today’s language we would call the phenomenon good management of new technologies.
In the new millennium, we regard the visual style called Steam Punk—rivets and girders and turning gears—inseparable from Belle Époque’s worldview. Our conception of the era recollects Verne, Eiffel and Méliès. The submarine-builder, the tower-maker, the lunar explorer scientists. Theirs was a religion of progress, poised at direct odds with the church of Mother Mary. Technology had become the primary vehicle of faith, in which all grand aspirations were invested. It was an era that canonized its own creators.
The transmission of knowledge mattered heavily to the technocrats of Belle Époque. Even the original lycées built during the era look like castles, lofty temples of enlightenment, unmistakeable semiotic statements about how human intelligence and potential were venerated. It heralded the heyday of the École des Beaux Arts, and the flowering of Art Nouveau. Great improvements were made in public education, resulting in concurrent elevation of literacy levels. Across the Atlantic the spirit of the times infected the consciousness of Andrew Carnegie, who in his lifetime built 2,811 libraries throughout the US and English-speaking world. The direct result could be gauged in the success of self-education pursued in libraries by individuals like Thomas Edison.
So Belle Époque was real, the beginning of a new era, and it paid in discernable dividends. It was an age of notable advancements in public health, hygiene. longevity, nutrition, in the eradication of disease, and the completion of monumental public works like the Panama Canal. In 1908–9, during construction of the Parisian underground Number 4 Line, excavation for the tunnel crossing under the river Seine was effectively achieved by freezing the river, and involved the installation of two huge refrigeration plants which allowed the movement of supercooled brine to stabilize the saturated ground. In a world whose dreamers felt nothing was impossible, every great challenge like this one could be met, and every guiding mind was thought of as un marchand d’espoir, a dealer in hope.
Belle Époque occurred during a long period of unprecedented peace in the western world. Its accomplishments, albeit remarkable, ended with the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in 1914. What followed the era of such a religion du progrès was all the more surprising for the horror it brought, monumental demonstrations of the brutality of humanity which deployed the very technology once worshipped for all the good it promised. Over the next seventy-five years the world would experience WWI, Nazism, the Shoah, Hiroshima, the genocide in Rwanda, 9-11, the international ﬁnancial collapse of 2010 and the epidemic suspicion that something unsavoury and sinister is at play with the globalization of our industrial economy. Perhaps we are poised at the threshold of a rebirth.
The recent passing of Steven P. Jobs was followed by a wave of soul-searching and deconstructionist thinking about what made for the success of the Apple brand under his leadership. What had Jobs known, done, understood, achieved that explained the rise from a two-man start-up founded in 1976 in a garage to a company briefly rated the world’s most valuable in 2011? What explained the massive outpouring of grief for a man who gave the world devices: the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad? More than once the consensus turned in the direction of a successful intersection of art and technology, arts et métiers. We had been here before. The products Apple continually created brought the best of both universes together in the interest of progress and hope. Steve Jobs had demonstrated good management of new technologies.
All the same signs are here again: visionary people deploying new technology, merging it with humanistic and artistic vision. If we are witnessing the beginning of a new and beautiful era, let it proceed like the last one. But let it not be followed by a gross abuse of the power, or the leveraging of these advancements for greater horror. The opportunity is here to push the reset button, to launch a renaissance of humanistic thought that optimistically celebrates the intersection of arts et métiers.
Let’s think of it as a Belle Époque 2·0.