An Empty and Posturing Hamilton

The much publicized and ballyhooed “statement” by the cast of the hit musical Hamilton directed at vice-president elect Mike Pence last week was worse than rude. As some have pointed out, it is yet another example of the left’s attempt to politicize almost every aspect of modern American life. More than that, it demonstrated yet again the hollowness of much contemporary art, dating from the birth of the form in the early 20th Century. Good art, much more transcendent art, speaks for itself. Hamilton, according to rapturous fans and critics, supposedly embodies the very ideas that actor Brandon Victor Dixon, threw at Mr. Pence. Were the musical as great as its friends in the media suggest, Dixon’s statement would have been unnecessary. That it was speaks to the empty nature of “art” like Hamilton and its ilk. 

I’ve not seen Hamilton and probably never will, but I’ve read plenty about it, and seen quite a lot of it in clips -- enough to get a good sense of the thing. There is nothing political about my aversion to actually shelling out money and sitting through the show. I don’t like musicals of any kind. Never seen Cats or Phantom of the Opera or The Producers. I suppose I could argue that musicals are not even “high art” but that has nothing to do with my lack of enthusiasm for the medium. I am not an especially fervent connoisseur of high art and I especially dislike opera.

And while I would agree with commentators who bemoan the left’s politicization of virtually everything, from musicals to sports to schools, in truth art has been politicized since the dawn of civilization. Not all of it to be sure, but an awful lot, covering political philosophies left, right, in-between and unknowable. However, regardless of political bent, the political content of the art was usually comprehensible, for otherwise it would have been worthless.

Modern art, which is overwhelmingly a leftist phenomenon, is strangely devoid of actual meaningful content. From minimalism in sculpture, to atonal music, to abstract expressionism in painting, there is a great emptiness instead comprehensible content, which however subtle ought to be there. It’s not that abstraction itself is bad -- aboriginal peoples used abstraction fraught with symbolism, virtue, and instruction. On the other hand, modern art, whether graphic, musical, written or spoken is largely devoid of worthy, coherent meaning outside the solipsism of its creators. Excellent evidence that of this where the artist(s) has to explain what the work is actually about. This is often obfuscated by critics and “experts” calling such work “analytical” or some such, what really what it means is “here’s the meaning the artist intended to convey by making this mess of a work.”

Take for example the famous and much lauded abstract expressionist painters Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Rothko’s and Newman’s oeuvres consisted respectively of monochromatic field paintings broken by straight lines and large painted approximations of squares on canvas. They display little technical skill and no meaningful content. To obviate this problem both were profuse spillers of prose about their art explaining to dumbfounded viewers the hidden ideas behind the works. Do not attempt to read any of them if you value your time.

Arguably even the greatest of modern leftist political paintings, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”, suffers from the same problem. Show “Guernica” to someone who does not know the context, and the picture is a cartoonish mess. Even when the context is known, the visual imagery doesn’t really align with the reality it is supposed to comment upon. A sophisticate would say my evaluation is ignorant, that the work provokes thought and inquiry while expressing authentic emotion. But that’s not clearly manifest, which it ought to be in a work that expressly rejects subtlety. “Guernica” almost always has to be explained.

Much modern literature and drama is the same, supposedly crammed with meaning, but not in a form that most people can reasonably access. If a college professor must laboriously explain Faulkner to students, one might reasonably question the ultimate worth of “art” that can only be deciphered by a clique similar to priests of a closed academy. Do people actually go see “Waiting for Godot” for any other reason than to say that they saw it, and thus by implication have been brushed by that elite set so they can also call themselves sophisticates, having actually experienced little but boredom and confusion?

Professors explaining Shakespeare or Homer, or describing the imagery of Velazquez across the hall from the modernists, are doing something different. Those works are difficult to comprehend for modern audiences because the literary and visual vocabulary is of a different time and requires translation for modern audiences. Students might initially be just as confused by “Las Meninas” as “Guernica” but that clears up quickly once imagery (that was instantly meaningful to 17th Century Europeans) is explained. And Velazquez lived before photography, assuming his work would be seen in person, framed and set on a wall at an appropriate height, where the meaning and purpose of the work opens itself to viewers. By contrast, the visual imagery of cubism -- beyond the obvious breaking-down of traditional forms -- almost by definition hollows out content.

Modern rap or hip-hop is similarly devoid of artistic content except as mediated by critics and doyens who mightily attempt to explain its celebration of misogyny, violence, and lawlessness as something more transcendent. I don’t begrudge rappers their popularity and wealth, nor their vast audience their absolute right to enjoy music that they like. However, the cultural relativism that allows Hillary Clinton and her supporters to cheer the explicit, unmistakable, and deplorable misogyny of Kanye West while condemning off-the-cuff remarks by Donald Trump shows the hypocrisy and worthlessness of the enterprise.

Hamilton supposedly retells the story of the nation’s founders with in a “rap” sensibility that celebrates multiculturalism and mocks the founders for their various foibles, though plenty of it is just a conventional musical. It’s got the usual show-stopping numbers that somehow have to be shoehorned into the “plot” with cumbersome lyrics and strained tunes (which is why I personally don’t like musicals.) Hundreds of millions if not billions of people do love musicals and Hamilton is evidently a popular example, which is fine and dandy. But again critics and self-styled sophisticates have imbued it with a transcendent social and political content that is, like so much of its ilk, mostly superficial and illusionary. If it wasn’t, why couldn’t Dixon and the cast let the “art” speak for itself?

The much publicized and ballyhooed “statement” by the cast of the hit musical Hamilton directed at vice-president elect Mike Pence last week was worse than rude. As some have pointed out, it is yet another example of the left’s attempt to politicize almost every aspect of modern American life. More than that, it demonstrated yet again the hollowness of much contemporary art, dating from the birth of the form in the early 20th Century. Good art, much more transcendent art, speaks for itself. Hamilton, according to rapturous fans and critics, supposedly embodies the very ideas that actor Brandon Victor Dixon, threw at Mr. Pence. Were the musical as great as its friends in the media suggest, Dixon’s statement would have been unnecessary. That it was speaks to the empty nature of “art” like Hamilton and its ilk. 

I’ve not seen Hamilton and probably never will, but I’ve read plenty about it, and seen quite a lot of it in clips -- enough to get a good sense of the thing. There is nothing political about my aversion to actually shelling out money and sitting through the show. I don’t like musicals of any kind. Never seen Cats or Phantom of the Opera or The Producers. I suppose I could argue that musicals are not even “high art” but that has nothing to do with my lack of enthusiasm for the medium. I am not an especially fervent connoisseur of high art and I especially dislike opera.

And while I would agree with commentators who bemoan the left’s politicization of virtually everything, from musicals to sports to schools, in truth art has been politicized since the dawn of civilization. Not all of it to be sure, but an awful lot, covering political philosophies left, right, in-between and unknowable. However, regardless of political bent, the political content of the art was usually comprehensible, for otherwise it would have been worthless.

Modern art, which is overwhelmingly a leftist phenomenon, is strangely devoid of actual meaningful content. From minimalism in sculpture, to atonal music, to abstract expressionism in painting, there is a great emptiness instead comprehensible content, which however subtle ought to be there. It’s not that abstraction itself is bad -- aboriginal peoples used abstraction fraught with symbolism, virtue, and instruction. On the other hand, modern art, whether graphic, musical, written or spoken is largely devoid of worthy, coherent meaning outside the solipsism of its creators. Excellent evidence that of this where the artist(s) has to explain what the work is actually about. This is often obfuscated by critics and “experts” calling such work “analytical” or some such, what really what it means is “here’s the meaning the artist intended to convey by making this mess of a work.”

Take for example the famous and much lauded abstract expressionist painters Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Rothko’s and Newman’s oeuvres consisted respectively of monochromatic field paintings broken by straight lines and large painted approximations of squares on canvas. They display little technical skill and no meaningful content. To obviate this problem both were profuse spillers of prose about their art explaining to dumbfounded viewers the hidden ideas behind the works. Do not attempt to read any of them if you value your time.

Arguably even the greatest of modern leftist political paintings, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”, suffers from the same problem. Show “Guernica” to someone who does not know the context, and the picture is a cartoonish mess. Even when the context is known, the visual imagery doesn’t really align with the reality it is supposed to comment upon. A sophisticate would say my evaluation is ignorant, that the work provokes thought and inquiry while expressing authentic emotion. But that’s not clearly manifest, which it ought to be in a work that expressly rejects subtlety. “Guernica” almost always has to be explained.

Much modern literature and drama is the same, supposedly crammed with meaning, but not in a form that most people can reasonably access. If a college professor must laboriously explain Faulkner to students, one might reasonably question the ultimate worth of “art” that can only be deciphered by a clique similar to priests of a closed academy. Do people actually go see “Waiting for Godot” for any other reason than to say that they saw it, and thus by implication have been brushed by that elite set so they can also call themselves sophisticates, having actually experienced little but boredom and confusion?

Professors explaining Shakespeare or Homer, or describing the imagery of Velazquez across the hall from the modernists, are doing something different. Those works are difficult to comprehend for modern audiences because the literary and visual vocabulary is of a different time and requires translation for modern audiences. Students might initially be just as confused by “Las Meninas” as “Guernica” but that clears up quickly once imagery (that was instantly meaningful to 17th Century Europeans) is explained. And Velazquez lived before photography, assuming his work would be seen in person, framed and set on a wall at an appropriate height, where the meaning and purpose of the work opens itself to viewers. By contrast, the visual imagery of cubism -- beyond the obvious breaking-down of traditional forms -- almost by definition hollows out content.

Modern rap or hip-hop is similarly devoid of artistic content except as mediated by critics and doyens who mightily attempt to explain its celebration of misogyny, violence, and lawlessness as something more transcendent. I don’t begrudge rappers their popularity and wealth, nor their vast audience their absolute right to enjoy music that they like. However, the cultural relativism that allows Hillary Clinton and her supporters to cheer the explicit, unmistakable, and deplorable misogyny of Kanye West while condemning off-the-cuff remarks by Donald Trump shows the hypocrisy and worthlessness of the enterprise.

Hamilton supposedly retells the story of the nation’s founders with in a “rap” sensibility that celebrates multiculturalism and mocks the founders for their various foibles, though plenty of it is just a conventional musical. It’s got the usual show-stopping numbers that somehow have to be shoehorned into the “plot” with cumbersome lyrics and strained tunes (which is why I personally don’t like musicals.) Hundreds of millions if not billions of people do love musicals and Hamilton is evidently a popular example, which is fine and dandy. But again critics and self-styled sophisticates have imbued it with a transcendent social and political content that is, like so much of its ilk, mostly superficial and illusionary. If it wasn’t, why couldn’t Dixon and the cast let the “art” speak for itself?