Aesthetics, Music and the Death of the Artist
Historically most cultures witness little change over centuries and even millennia. Western culture was unusually open to change which partly explains how quickly its art died about a 100 years ago when it was taken over by leftist intellectuals who hated tradition and were mainly interested in art manifestos and political activism (e.g. Picasso) and by coteries of pretentious gate keepers who run public institutions like universities and museums but despise the public.
The only art forms that still have some life in them are the ones like prose where a writer can achieve some popularity without relying that much on gatekeepers.
I appreciate what you’ve said here. It’s important.
The West appears culturally dead, but I see very young green shoots.
There are old stories which have been forgotten and could be rewritten. The stories and myths of the ancient Christian saints. Stories of great heroism, tragedy and martyrdom.
There is a different way of seeing the World in the Christian tradition, which is alien to the Modern World. For example, Christianity believes that we are one person, not a spirit trapped in a body. The individual is just as important as the community. And objective reality is greater than subjective experience.
These are ripe for artistic endeavour.
modern aesthetics are stuck in the utilitarian definition of “art as entertainment” *only* - entertainment to fill leisure hours so people don’t create unrest, instead of art as an experience of transcendence - something outside the self. art is stuck in “self-expression” of often undeveloped, narcissistic selves, rather than a reaching for something outside of the self. we cannot break free from that until we are free from the moré of personal desire and perception being the measure of truth and reality. Josef Pieper has really good things to say in about this. my very favourite is “Only the Lover Sings,” which is short and very beautiful.
Past art and literature was always rooted in the real world, very often a past real world. But today people try to construct a world that nobody's ever seen. Jackson Pollack purposely painted over anything that looked like something, in order to attain pure abstraction. Now anything that looks like something is mean to be ironic, i. e. not serious.
The idea was always to create something that no one has ever seen before. Boris Godunov or the Marriage of Figaro are thus by definition not real, contemporary art. They only have meaning with regard to the past, not the bright, peaceful, fair, equalitarian future that must negate the past.
And the result certainly is something no one has ever seen before.
Burgeoning wars in almost every corner of the globe...
And a banana duct-taped to a wall...
The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat raised this question in slightly different form in a little book. He called the phenomenon “decadence” for lack of a better word, and described it as, essentially, the cessation of creativity and the substitution of recapitulation—essentially creating variations on known themes rather than working out new things. Whether this is, as TonyZa posits, a reversion to humanity’s default settings, or whether it’s an unintended consequence of a variety of choices elsewhere that cut off the wellsprings of creativity, it does seem to be real and, for a child of the earlier world, lamentable. The interesting question is whether the kids will even notice. If it’s basically consonant with human nature, they might well not. Or, some Promethean bright spark might well upend the apple cart again…and things could get interesting again.
This is a beautiful, moving, and galvanizing little essay. Thank you.
We’ve seen this before in history, when a totalitarian orthodoxy takes hold (eg Christianity during the Dark Ages, Communism in Soviet Russia) there is no room for thought that does not specifically reference and support the Movement. Only pro-Woke topics qualify for artistic representation.
I think broadly true, and where exceptions exist they are likely on the fringes or in places normally not considered artistic - engineering and computer science for instance. Even Physics seems to have lost most of its 'mojo' / heroic spirit. Hard to blame any one thing, but I would probably pick the pasteurising effect of modern education.
Would be interested in you writing more to explore the thesis that this is a reversion to the norm, and that the period culminating in the long 19th century was the exception.
Is this not the same lament heard every time a culture reaches this late phase? All anyone can do is fiddle on the margins or engage in reinterpretation of well worn paths, as the entire available space has been used and worn out.
Ivan’s words from The Brothers Karamazov seem apt:
‘ I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha; I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it's a most precious graveyard, that's what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I'm convinced in my heart that it's long been nothing but a graveyard. ‘
I dunno broseph
There's still nutters out there dragging humanity forwards who make their lives works of art.. for George Mallory look at the film The Alpinist and the chap in that.
The mainstream just hasn't caught up yet! It never will because of the decentralising effect of modern technology and mass communications. As Skallas et al say, culture is stuck. There's never been better artistic output than now but the average person will never see it if they aren't in the loop.
There's something to be said for pastiche and tribute - this coming up a lot in architecture. All the classic revival twitter accounts never really document things other than throwbacks. Rather than keeping a tradition ALIVE by embracing it for the present moment we see photocopier designs of the past.
>I am suspicious that anyone can feel like that anymore - hear a piece of music that keeps you awake for days on end with pure excitement
Maybe there are glimmers out there.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_64XAqYgJ0
Oh ! You summed up the dilemma of twenty first century living so well.
Perhaps, to be generous, we are in a cultural pause, waiting for the gatekeepers to reach retirement.
Have you looked at what people are actually reading these days?
The good news is that it's not any of the pretentious leftist crap. Then bad news is that is appears to be Isekai harem fantasies.
"Politics is downstream of culture" and we could extend this to art. Art is a reflection of the culture in which the artist finds himself in. Art gives an indicator of society's flourishing or degradation.
It becomes more concerning when you contemplate this: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html
The purpose of art, IMO, is to help us achieve wisdom. By contemplating art, we can come to see the world as it truly is, rather than as it appears to our senses. Art helps us cultivate our moral and spiritual qualities. Art can be used to educate people about morality and virtue.
As with the dismal examples you point out in this article we have been far removed from what art was and what art ought to be.
I do not think it is too late to save the arts but we have a lot to do. The first step is recognizing the problem and that it is a serious problem.
James MacMillan (64) and Arvo Pårt (88) are the only recent composers who aren’t of the film/game score variety, that I can think of, who don’t suck. Admittedly, I am not very cultured, so there may be more.
I note that a) neither of them are young, and b) their music is mainly religious (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, respectively).
I have a tendency to over-simplify but I think one of the biggest reasons for this is that men are not allowed to gather. There is a more fundamental issue that causes this, but, at least to me, this is a clear expression of part of the issue. I think male friendship is the catalyst for much greatness, artistic or otherwise. It's also in direct opposition to The Longhouse (bonds that are greater than the state or the collective, see also nuclear families) and is stifled at every opportunity. To even bring up male love, one is accused of being gay. All sex-segregated spaces have declined in number across our shitty timeline. One hope I have is that the internet might allow this to be re-discovered--healthy competition and the love of excellence with your bros.
Alexis Rockman is a good contemporary painter. Not as well known as some who paint worse than him though.