My mind makes strange jumps, I think we can all agree on that. I was listening to yet another news story about Millennials and like-minded younger people preferring experiences and clean lifestyles to material goods, families, and houses, and for some reason my thoughts leaped back to central Europe in the post-Napoleon era. Because I’d read this before, just phrased in a different way, and in descriptions of furniture and art.
Cultural historians sometimes describe the period between 1815 and 1830 or 1848 in Central Europe as the Biedermeier Period or Era. The art focused on genre paintings, rural scenes or slice-of-life scenes showing peasants and servants doing their thing, families at home reading, or playing house-music, children playing under their mother’s and nannies’ eyes, often with a pet in the scene somewhere. The furnishings are simple, often sparse, and far less ornate than the Empire style of Napoleon or the later heavy Victorian interiors. Dress is also simpler in many cases, but not always. The era name comes from a satirical character who was popular in the papers that middle-class families read.
In some ways, the Biedermeier Period was one of turning inward. The Napoleonic unrest had come to an end, and the governments of the German-speaking lands (Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia, Bavaria, and the smaller princedoms, Switzerland) tried to turn the clock back by restricting the ideas of the French Revolution. At the same time, all of Europe was trying to recover economically and socially from twenty-three years of war (1792-1815). Debts had to be paid, infrastructure and populations needed to be rebuilt, farms reclaimed from battlefields, and unemployed soldiers brought back into society. The growing middle class tended to turn their attention to more domestic concerns, while working with smaller budgets and a scarcity of some luxury goods, like exotic woods. They made a virtue of having a few, choice pieces of furniture and art, a good collection of the proper books, and extolled spending time with family and select friends. Public life didn’t wither entirely, but it took on new forms as the governments tried to re-shape what had developed over the past twenty years into something useful and controllable.
Jump ahead two hundred years (!) and look at the younger people in the western world, those not engaged in radical political action. There is an emphasis on life lived in select company (one’s blog-readers, Instagram or Twitter followers, Snapchat followers), while often claiming to be outside certain public activities. People are more guarded in some ways, lest the attention of the “authorities” turn their direction. Instead of settling down and starting families, buying houses and cars and appliances, the 20-40 year old cohort talk about valuing experiences, about watching sunsets from remote beaches, about doing things, one might say living things instead of owning things. Experiences are more moral, more uplifting than mere material possessions (or so some insist.) I’m reading more articles about having a select, well-chosen small wardrobe, about the virtues of little apartments and small houses instead of “McMansions.” How much of this is a nice gloss on the student-debt problem and not being able to afford many material possessions vs. a true spiritual and cultural movement I leave to others to discuss.
There are major differences between 1818 and 2018, and I hesitate to draw too many parallels. However, Biedermeier ended either with the 1830 rebellion in France, or the 1848 uprisings in all of Western and Central Europe. Are we going to see something similar, when the younger set finally get pushed too far by the social-media authorities and do something “interesting,” while the forces of tradition and order at last collide with ANTIFA and their ideological allies?
No idea. But the parallels are interesting, as far as they go.