June 24, 2007
Speaking Truth to ArtBy Gary Wolf
Looking out across our society and its recent development, one can no longer pretend that we are not in a state of severe decline. On virtually all fronts, Western civilization has arrived at its most dismal cultural and intellectual output. One need only compare the accomplishments of a mere century ago with our latter-day creations to see the enormity of the change. At art galleries and museums, one sees old masters alongside monstrosities that resemble elaborate displays of childish anger.
The same applies to the general discourse, which is marked by derision of art that is traditional and untendentious. This can be contrasted with the furious nihilistic "art" that is one of the hallmarks of the anti-Western tsunami that is overtaking us.
Communication of ideas, of messages with universal import, has been all but abandoned. It has been replaced by emotion. As French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut points out,
When art is subjective, it fails to constitute a link in the great chain of civilization. This is because subjectivist communication of thoughts and emotions cannot rise above the limits of time and space. It is by nature trapped in the vicissitudes of a personal moment, and as such is washed away into the vast stream of isolated and fragmented accidents of experience. In this regard, a subjectivist work (for example, a crucifix in urine) is no different than a salmon jumping from a stream to escape the paw of a bear. Each incident is merely a fleeting impulse.
Art and freedom
There is a deep confusion regarding the interplay of art and freedom. Many contemporary "artists" have taken freedom to mean license, and license to mean an imperative to subjectivity. Here is how Epictetus frames the issue:
The advocates of this genre of expression claim that they are breaking down the last vestiges of the old way of thinking. This is to be expected, to a certain extent. Every academy seeks to distinguish itself from the previous academy, and from previous styles in general. But that doesn't mean it hasn't become an academy of its own. The art world of today is as inflexible, regimented, and devoid of original thinking as any entrenched school of the past. There is no question that the last vestiges are gone. What we now see bears no resemblance to anything that came before, say, 1940. Now, however, after holding exclusive power for several generations, they themselves have become the old way of thinking.
Are we in danger of distancing ourselves irretrievably from the great artistic accomplishments of the past? Already more than a century ago, Nietzsche poignantly observed:
There is yet another problem with our "artists." They believe that all prior rules can be tossed into the dustheap. What they do not realize is that no area of human endeavor, be it medical research, fine art, or football, can exist without a foundation of rules. These rules are the result of characteristics inherent in the material, and of the interaction between the material and man. For instance, in the visual arts, certain proportions are more pleasing to the eye than others. If the rules are rejected, the domain ceases to be what it was. A person submerging a cross into a beaker of urine is no longer an artist, just as a group of people running aimlessly around a field is not a football team.
Of course, this line of argument presupposes that the artist wants to produce something that is gratifying, that contributes to humanity, that enriches people's lives. But when the goal is to devastate, the whole scene shifts.
Literature: Going to the dogs
The above observations also apply to the scandalous state of literature, which has become a sewer of nihilism, vulgarity, and moral relativism. A stroll through a bookstore in a major American (or other Western) city should dispel any doubts regarding the level of deterioration. In a recent visit to one of the major bookstore chains, I beheld a new masterpiece: Walter the Farting Dog. It was prominently displayed in the children's section.
What we see today is a far cry from literature in the classic sense, a story that examines and critiques contemporary society's manners, customs, and way of life. One reason for its demise is that a work of this nature is viable only as a counterpoint. When society has no intellectual foundation, when there's no world out there, there can be no counterpoint. There can be no satire and no humor because these are based on a sense of the ridiculous. In the relativistic universe of today's printed word, anything and everything is considered normal. The only thing seen as absurd is someone trying to portray the absurd.
Our writers have forgotten the one role in which they can truly serve humanity, in which they would justify the title of "intellectual," which has become so cheapened. Our literati are not meeting their satire quotas when they lampoon the views of the landed aristocracy, the Pope, the faculty of West Point, or "Big Business," none of whom engender the trends that influence the behavior of our elites, nor for that matter of most of the general public. If writers and artists are not swimming against the tide, who needs them? How does any consumer of their products benefit when the producer is beholden to the dominant ideological wave? If they were practicing their craft in Athens in 399 BC, they would have condemned Socrates for standing in the way of progress.
Yet this is what we are served on a daily basis. Could one imagine a more blatant display of the tendentious and subservient artist than the appearance of film director Davis Guggenheim alongside former Vice-President Al Gore at the Academy Awards ceremony of February 2007?
Roger Kimball summarizes the problem of tendentiousness in contemporary art:
Wanted: mad scientist
Contemporary architecture is yet another creative domain that has hit rock bottom. The hideousness of most post-World War II construction speaks for itself. But there is something deeper at work. Our recent architecture, by and large, has eliminated the secret and the mysterious from its creations. It has eliminated elements that incorporate the isolation of a human activity from the masses. A walk through a European city, or even an older American city, reveals to the eye numerous architectural anomalies-or, shall we say, apparent anomalies. There are attics with turrets, various chambers and studios, and odd-shaped towers.
Closer inspection often uncovers their purpose. These are places where one could easily imagine an artist or writer or mad scientist practicing their craft. These are places that cannot be equally used and enjoyed by the entire population. On the contrary; in each case, only a select few would even know what to do in these spaces.
Today, the secrets have vanished. There may be exclusivity, as in an expensive penthouse apartment, but such locations differ more in degree than in kind. They belong to the same genus. The widespread use of exterior glass, exposing the activity within, blurs the distinction between the public and private domains. This hinders the pursuit of activity that is limited in scope and mysterious in nature. In office buildings, the interiors are frequently uniform, often a sea of cubicles, with a minimum of private offices. These offices, such as they are, are small and unobtrusive, with few distinguishing characteristics other than being fully partitioned. The furniture within is only marginally different. Throughout the building, one seldom sees a variation in style; a single motif is ubiquitous or nearly so.
This lack of mystery hinders the ability of our educated classes to generate independent thought. Transparency eliminates environments that served as incubators for the great thinkers of the past.
A divine power
The pendulum can swing back, as it has many times before. Of course one could argue that the human intellect has never atrophied to such an extent. Nevertheless, there is a great likelihood that intelligent people will become disenchanted for either or both of two reasons: First, because they see its deleterious effects, such as the collapse of art; and second, because they simply become bored.
Coolheaded, logical analysis may be slow and painstaking, but it's worth it, because it leads to wisdom-and nothing can be more appealing to the person of true intellect. In the words of Plato:
It will be a slow process. This is because we do not make change, we simply precipitate it. This is not mere semantics. What we normally think of as change in society, be it a new law or a new fashion, is actually the result of complex processes that have been brewing for generations. The cause and effect may appear to be proximate, but this is an illusion. The people who invent ideas are generally not the same as those who implement them. New ideas spread slowly, from individuals to a select group, and from there to the broader society, where they are accepted or rejected. This can take many years.
There is a dire need to revisit basic principles, to fortify the foundations, to revitalize common sense. People used to understand much more about life and how it functions. We've become too myopic. The individual, highly specialized, often knows a great deal about a narrow subject. When it comes to general knowledge, however, and a sober view of life, he knows less than ever before.
There is a need for a second renaissance. The original Renaissance was marked by a heightened awareness of the ancient world, with its expansive intellect and relentless probing of reality. This conceptual recycling provided much of the fuel needed to launch principles of thought and inquiry that provided the escape hatch from the Dark Ages, and that formed the basis for the subsequent growth of material and spiritual riches. Now it is up to us to realign ourselves with the Renaissance thinkers, using their ideas as a springboard. It may be the only way to reverse a century or more of precipitous decline, and hoist our miserable civilization, kicking and screaming as it may be, out of the current dark ages.
[i] Alain Finkielkraut (1987) La Défaite de la Pensée, Gallimard, Paris, p. 157. In the original: "Nous vivons à l'heure des feelings : il n'y a plus ni vérite ni monsonge, ni stéréotype ni invention, ni beauté ni laideur, mais une palette infinie de plaisirs, différents et égaux. La démocratie qui impliquait l'accès de tous à la culture se définit désormais par le droit de chacun à la culture de son choix (ou de nommer culture sa pulsion du moment)." (Emphasis in original.)
[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche (1878) Human, All Too Human, Cambridge University Press, 1996 edition, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, pp. 105-6.
[v] Plato, Timaeus, trans. B. Jowett, from The Dialogues of Plato, Macmillan, New York, 3rd ed. (1892), reprinted by Dover Publications, 2003 as Plato: Gorgias and Timaeus, p. 247.
Gary Wolf is the author of futuristic novels that portray worlds in which multiculturalism and political correctness have run amok. His website is http://www.awolcivilization.com/.