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The Primitivist Critique of Modernity: Carl Einstein and Walter Benjamin

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Abstract

Compares art historian Carl Einstein's (1885-1940) critique of modernity with that of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) to explore the modern belief in human achievement, & a primitive awe of mythic fate, as two basic perspectives that defined the 20th-century development of German culture. Both men were interested in the relationship between art & religious forms, but Einstein's writings are relatively unknown, while Benjamin's work has enjoyed a recent revival. Benjamin's concept of modernity is rooted in a progressivist consciousness that accepts evolution from a traditional to a modern world, while Einstein's primitivist rejection of an evolutionary understanding of differences between tradition & modernity led him to see them as "opposite poles of a constant conflict within human society." Benjamin claims collective experience can no longer be transmitted by storytelling & turns to modern methods to relieve the resulting alienation. Einstein's position is conversely based on the assumption that the position of the modern to the outside world is no different than that of the primitive. These distinctions are demonstrated in the two men's readings of fascist cult rituals. J. Lindroth

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