Friday, May 18, 2012

Viewing the Past With Eyes Wide Shut

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Charles Murray has historically promulgated racism and profoundly stupid culture war claptrap, but  he has a recent piece for The New Criterion about today's supposed lack of powerful, enduring art that's actually worth grappling with. To be sure, it's essentially an elaborate "get off my lawn" demand. But it is an argument that a great many people likely find compelling, and it is at least responding to actual issues, so it's worth unpacking how wrong it really is.

Murray begins by saying there is a dearth of great art today, meaning the next generation that will create tomorrow's art has nothing to draw on.
The insight that great accomplishment begets more great accomplishment goes back two thousand years to a Roman, Velleius Paterculus, who first analyzed the clustering of genius in Athens and concluded that “genius is fostered by emulation.” In the modern era, that insight has been confirmed in rigorous quantitative studies, and it is one of those social science findings that shouldn’t surprise anyone. If children who have the potential for creating great art are watching a Leonardo da Vinci set the standard, they are more likely to create art like Michelangelo, Dürer, or Raphael did. This is relevant for thinking about the future of American accomplishment in the arts because, as far as I can see, we do not have any great models in the current generation who will produce greatness in the next generation.
Murray lists the exhaustion of forms ("What’s the point of writing a great symphony in the classical style (from the ambitious composer’s point of view), when we already have so many of them?"), and the persistent obscurity of abstract, nonrepresentational, and atonal work among the general public among reasons for concern. Hamlet can only be written once; with hundreds of years of low-hanging artistic and literary fruit having been plucked, artists have to push into ever more esoteric forms in order to break new ground.

The key to innovation, thinks Murray, is technology, which opens up new forms of expression. This is true, though it's largely premised on the idea that nothing of value is being created in the old fields, which the creators and audiences would vehemently dispute. Notably, Murray makes something of an exception for film:
The richest new organizing structure of the twentieth century was the motion picture. It is also the only organizing structure that does not show signs of being filled up. A plausible case can be made that the film industry is still making products that rank somewhere among the all-time best, and there is reason to hope that even better are yet to come.
I suspect this has less to do with film's superiority as an artistic medium or even its relative youth, than with its ease of transmission. Movies require a relatively short investment of time, are promoted across TV and the internet by multi-million dollar ad campaigns, and are easily reproduced and distributed so that they can leave an enormous cultural footprint. The most brilliant work of art will never be canonized if there isn't a mass awareness of it first. Theatre and the fine arts struggle with this, as well as books, a non-visual medium in an image-saturated media environment (book trailers are illustration of this dilemma).

More importantly, technology has lowered the barriers to entry in many creative fields, and paradoxically made it far more difficult for any single person or work to tap into the multiplicity of zeitgeists. This is to say nothing of the replacement of 'high culture''s previous trickle-down significance with popular culture--fifty years on, I think it's safe to say that posterity remembers the Beatles more than it does, say, Phillip Glass.

All of this, it ought be said, is enabled by the moral promiscuity of post-industrial capitalism. The entertainment industry cares for no virtue but profitability. Robert Bork glimpsed this truth when he sighed that "“You almost began to want to put the [Berlin] wall back up,” because of crude American rock music's unimpeded flow into post-Soviet Union Eastern Germany. Murray is not so observant as the already obtuse Bork, but as it turns out, he shares with him a similar reactionary strain.


All the discussion of form and medium is actually peripheral to Murray's bigger argument, which stands on much shakier ground. The deeper problems, he thinks, are a nihilistic mindset, characterized by a rejection of God and religion, that has gripped the intelligentsia and now the culture at large. This has led to an absence of the transcendent, of a sense of "the good," that animates great art:
Beauty is not the only transcendental good that the arts require. A coherent sense of the good is also important—perhaps not so much for great music (though I may be wrong about that), but often for great art and almost always for great literature. I do not mean that a great painting has to be beautiful in a saccharine sense or that great novels must be moral fables that could qualify for McGuffey’s Readers. Rather, a painter’s or a novelist’s conception of the meaning of a human life provides the frame within which the artist translates the varieties of human experience into art. The artistic treatment of violence offers an example. In the absence of a conception of the good, the depiction of violence is sensationalism at best—think Sam Peckinpah. When the depiction of violence is taken to extremes, it can have the same soul-corroding effect as pornography. But when it is informed by a conception of the good, the depiction of violence can have great artistic power—think Macbeth. So whereas some great works of art, music, and even literature are not informed by a conception of the good, the translation of this concept to the canvas or the written word is often what separates enduring art from entertainment. Extract its moral vision, and Goya’s The Third of May 1808 becomes a violent cartoon. Extract its moral vision, and Huckleberry Finn becomes Tom Sawyer
To generalize my argument regarding the importance of the transcendental goods, I believe that when artists do not have coherent ideals of beauty, their work tends to be sterile; when they do not have coherent ideals of the good, their work tends to be vulgar. Without either beauty or the good, their work tends to be shallow. Artistic accomplishment that is sterile, vulgar, and shallow does not endure.
Murray singles out Peckinpah as an example of sensationalist violence that "can have the same soul-corroding effect as pornography." The Wild Bunch's vision of humanity--summed up in its opening scene of children setting a fire ant colony after a couple scorpions during a preacher's sermon--isn't especially uplifting, but it still has considerable power forty years on. A much more accurate target would be something more tawdry and commercial and disreputable; the Saw franchise, perhaps, which certainly doesn't lack for sensationalism and aims for gross disgust rather than any deeper horror.

Moreover, the accusation of 'cultural nihilism' is just a broad-stroke evasion. The "rejection of traditional religion... among intellectual and artistic elites" didn't just happen in a vacuum. The intellectual groundwork was already laid in the 19th century by challenges from the usual suspects, Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche. Since the 1990s, the period with which Murray is most concerned, the moral authority of the traditional American religion has collapsed, both with the Catholic Church's complicity and conspiracy in child rape and in conservative Christianity's archaic views on sex, birth control, and gays. To call this nihilism is to take the moral rectitude of Christianity and its institutions for granted, regardless of their real-world effects and the changes in attitudes surrounding them. Merely wishing a return to the older, more comforting zeitgeist is not going to bring it back, nor is it even necessarily desirable.

This is not to say that the current order is without its problems. In the arts, the absence of a guiding moral sense can lead to solipsism and a self-impressed cleverness (Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists are for me some of the worst offenders). Yet it isn't like no one else was aware of this. Most visibly, David Foster Wallace grappled with the perils of postmodern irony and its tendency toward hall-of-mirrors vacuity:
For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back–I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back–which means “we’re” going to have to be the parents.
Wallace, though, was a part of the group under examination and had a stake in seeing the art redeemed, unlike Murray, who uses the state of the arts as a Trojan Horse for attacking the current liberal social order.


Toward the end of the essay Murray gets to his real point, which is (what else?) to criticize the welfare state. Essentially, ours is an aging society, such that in 50 years the old will outnumber the young. Part of the reason for this is extended life expectancy, which Murray believes robs people of their sense of urgency in life and their motivation to make great art:
In a world where people of all ages die often and unexpectedly, there’s a palpable urgency to getting on with whatever you’re going to do with your life. If you don’t leave your mark now, you may never get the chance. If you live in a world where you’re sure you’re going to live until at least eighty, do you have the same compulsion to leave your mark now? Or do you figure that there’s still plenty of time left, and you’ll get to it pretty soon? To what extent does enjoying life—since you can be sure there’s going to be so much to enjoy—start to take precedence over maniacal efforts to leave a mark?
Naturally, this mindset finds its fullest expression in the conservative bogeyman of Europe:
I believe this self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When I have spoken in Europe about the unparalleled explosion of European art and science from 1400 to 1900, the reaction of the audiences has invariably been embarrassment. Post-colonial guilt explains some of this reaction—Europeans seem obsessed with seeing the West as a force for evil in the world. But I suggest that another psychological dynamic is at work. When life has become a matter of passing away the time, being reminded of the greatness of your forebears is irritating and threatening.
Murray looks at European history and sees only its intellectual achievements. These are vast, no one would argue otherwise. But it is simply willful blindness to not see that as enlightened as these advances were, they stand amid a backdrop of serfdom, high infant mortality, and any number of scourges and follies that the modern liberal project has devoted itself to minimizing if not outright eradicating. Goya and his audience could afford to be great--the peasantry, not so much.

Which all to point out that Murray is complaining about standards of living being higher than they ever were.

It's of a poisonous reactionary nostalgia that has gripped the right of late--whether in the form of fundamentalist Christianity, neo-conservative war hawkishness, or the Tea Party, whose shrieks about big government (at least that which isn't benefiting the "deserving" them), Murray's gripe matches best. The urge to turn back the clock, whether with sexual mores, military glory, or anti-government individualism comes from a blinkered view of history and an inability to cope with the world as it is today. To the extent that there exist postmodernism's discontents, a retreat into the past is no solution at all but intellectual surrender.

It may well be that under the welfare state, and the consumer capitalist system that exists alongside it, life accomplishment is viewed with less urgency than it was in more trying times (though I seriously doubt it--ask any creative person if she doesn't feel a "'this-is-what-I-was-put-on-earth-to-do' motivation to create great work," and while you're at it, ask a poor person if, living "In a world where people of all ages die often and unexpectedly," he feels inspired to live out his full potential). But even if we were to grant all this, it would not make Charles Murray's complaints any more valid. Art is inextricably tied with the circumstances surrounding its creation. It's circular to say that 19th century art could have only been produced in the 19th century, but there you go. Really, I'm eager to revisit this argument forty years down the line, if only because at that point I may be filling Murray's role; after all, today's liberal is tomorrow's conservative.

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