'...an enemy called ignorance'
0 comment Tuesday, July 8, 2014 |
Art hath an enemy called ignorance. - Ben Jonson
James F. Cooper asks, in an essay in First Principles, why conservatives should be concerned with beauty.
The Problem With Modern Art: Or, Why Beautiful Art Matters
...Why should a dissertation on beauty be addressed specifically to conservatives? Does the topic of beauty hold more relevance for conservatives than, say, liberals? If the answer is yes, as I propose it does, why hasn�t there been more attention paid to the subject of beauty by Republican and conservative leaders? This blind spot about cultural issues has hurt conservative credibility with the public. But, more importantly, it hurts true conservatism at its moral, spiritual and philosophical core. At this critical post 9/11 time of world terrorism, this nation finds itself culturally disarmed, its moral strength sapped. The reason for this decline is no mystery. Conservatives abandoned the culture some time around the end of the First World War. By century�s end much of the old master legacy was being ignored, and major art museums were aggressively collecting postmodern minimalist and neo-Dada works. Beautiful architectural treasures such as Pennsylvania Station were torn down to make room for highways and high-rise glass boxes that destroyed the soul of inner cities in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. If one political party stands more responsible for the precipitous decline in cultural standards, the other blindly ignored it.
Conservatives clamor to lead in the twenty-first century, but they choose to ignore the legacy of 2,500 years of Western civilization, which could elevate their cause to a higher level. The cultural direction isn�t to the left or right, it�s hierarchical. Beauty provides the key to a door that conservatives have been trying in vain to unlock for almost a century. That door leads to a world that reflects the timeless values and permanent truths that conservatives hold dear: faith, transcendence, virtue, freedom, God, patriotism, natural law, conservation. In short, what I am suggesting is that beauty provides the epistemological structure of a good society�not only through the ideological infrastructure, its laws, religion, customs, and government, but in the physical structure of its architecture, homes, public works, monuments, roads and bridges.
For those of us who consider ourselves conservatives, the recovery of beauty is a pilgrimage. I use the word pilgrimage because, in some ways, the recovery of beauty involves the recovery of the sacred. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," wrote Keats. "That is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Beauty is not about pretty pictures, pleasing flower arrangements or some Hollywood star�s sumptuously decorated mansion featured on the cover of Architectural Digest. It is about offerings inspired by the noblest, most profound and sacred works men can create. It is about the inner sanctum, the oracle, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, the Golden Mosque.
Across civilizations, from antiquity to the present, we see basic formal aesthetic qualities reoccurring in music, art, architecture and literature. There was an acrimonious debate between the nineteenth-century Academy and the early modernists, but aesthetically pleasing works from both schools share important formal qualities. When modernism declined into postmodernist theory in the late twentieth century, artistic discourse lost sight of the universality of art, including beauty and formal excellence. The revival of Realism in our own time has as much to do with the recovery of the ideas that have been lost�aesthetics, myth, spiritual, virtue�as with the recovery of high standards of quality in the arts. When modernism began to embrace a political agenda and cut off the ties to 2,500 years of Western civilization, it lost the moral high ground in the culture wars. The argument about whether "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" matters. There can be legitimate differences in taste over what is beautiful or merely adequate, but the idea that beauty is relevant to civilization is once again gaining ground. In the last decades of the twentieth century the mainstream establishment lost sight of the basic principles of art and beauty.
Why is beauty important? Because beauty�the idea and physicality of beauty�suggests a universal truth. The idea of truth, any truth, is abhorrent to those who believe that everything is relative. The war against beauty has been going on in the culture for much of the twentieth century. Conservatives, indeed most Americans, pay it no mind until some scandal in government or corporate funding to the arts reminds everyone that much of contemporary high and low culture is ugly, pornographic or anti-religious. You don�t have to launch a frontal attack on religion or God if you have already deconstructed the idea of absolute values.''
The writer suggests that conservatives need not only to oppose the ugliness and the decadence that is modern 'art', but to support and sponsor real art, art that expresses the idea of beauty and truth and transcendence. So far, this is not being done in any significant sense.
One hopeful sign is found in the existence of The Art Renewal Center.
ARC is the Eye of the Storm, at the core, hub and center of a major cultural shift in the art world. With a growing body of experts, we are setting standards to become ARC Approved� for artists, art schools, systems of training, museum exhibitions and historical scholarship, to bring guidance, direction, goals and reality to an art establishment that has been sailing rudderless for nearly a hundred years.
Additionally, the Art Renewal Center is a non-profit educational organization committed to reviving standards of craftsmanship and excellence. Only by gaining a full command of the skills of the past masters can we create the masters of tomorrow. This is a step forward for our culture. Experimentation and creativity can only succeed and prosper when built on a solid foundation of past accomplishments, with the tools which empower artists to realize their visions.
Nothing has been more restricting and debilitating than the theories of modernism, which eliminated these tools, along with the skills to employ them. We are providing a forum for artists, scholars, collectors and the public to appreciate great art, and to recognize that they're not alone in their suspicions about the emptiness of modern and postmodern art. These suspicions are fully justified by the overwhelming body of evidence and historical facts.'' - Fred Ross, Chairman of ARC
I can't say I really understand Ross's explanation of how modernism gained control of the art world in the last century or so. He ties the 19th century masters, like William Bouguereau, John William Waterhouse, William Godward, and others to the Enlightenment ideals, to the revolutionary ideas of 'liberty, equality, fraternity', and thus to what has since become our present-day liberalism. But I don't see how these things fit together. Yes, Bouguereau painted common people, peasant girls, rural folk, rather than kings and queens, lords and ladies, as the court painters of an earlier age did. But to my eye and my perception, it seems to me that the painters Ross holds up as exemplars (and I agree with his high opinion of their work) also presented a rather idealized, idyllic, etherealized image of their subjects. The peasant girls Bouguereau painted looked like celestial beings and Madonnas, and would not have been out-of-place in one of the Renaissance paintings of Biblical scenes, of angels and saints. Bouguereau's barefoot peasant maidens were not dirty or disheveled as real-life girls of that class would be; they looked like goddesses.
Many of the other painters represented on ARC's website often painted scenes from mythology or medieval legend and lore, or literature: The Lady of Shalott, Ophelia, Morgan le Fay, Sleeping Beauty, Pandora. The world these artists portrayed so masterfully was an idealized world of the past. And I say this not disparagingly; this adds to its value. It shows us the misty world of our remote ancestors, the world we all read about when we read the legends of King Arthur or Sir Gawain. It has a mystical and transcendent quality for those of us who care about our past and our heritage. The scenes seem to resonate on a deep level for many of us who feel a bond with that past, idealized or not.
But Ross proclaims that the artists in question were part of the liberal tradition, deriving from the ideas of Rousseau et al. To me, it seems that Rousseau, with his 'noble savage' idolatry, was the father, indirectly at least, of the movement to pull down standards and distinctions. The liberal movement sought to exalt the low, the crude, and the base as being on a par with the great. Once it was decided by the 'enlightened' liberals that distinctions and standards were the enemy of equality and 'justice', then all standards of excellence and beauty and even truth had to be pulled down. The common and crude came to be exalted over the holy and the beautiful and the sublime.
By the 20th century, primitive art from backward cultures became more valued by the Western 'cultured classes' than the beautiful works of their own ancestors. Rough, childish carvings of voodoo gods and the like were put on a par with the great art works of Europe at its height. The arts became dominated by the ugly, and as the century ended, 'art' often consisted of the shocking and the scatological or the simply banal.
And I would say this was the logical end of this sanctimonious drive towards "equality" and the destruction of standards and rules in every area of life, in other words, this was simply the fruits of liberalism/leftism. It was the enlightenment taken to excess, or perhaps to its logical (and ugly) conclusion.
Art became commandeered by leftists and assorted nihilists who wanted to use it to promote their corrupt agenda, and to destroy whatever was left of the classical heritage of the Christian West. After all, that heritage was declared to be guilty of 'male supremacy, bigotry, sexism, elitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and imperialism.' Down with it. Just as the French Revolutionists wanted to pull down the monarchy, the aristocracy, and to start from scratch, even declaring a new calendar, so do our present-day leftists and post-modernists want to deface and dishonor everything which signifies the excellence and the achievement of our past.
Even now, a popular device of many of today's ''artists'' is defacing images of Christ or of other sacred Christian symbols. The war against our Christian Western heritage is still very much in progress.
As Cooper says in the essay from First Principles, we must do more than merely react by protesting these outrages and blasphemies; we must present an alternative. We must do all we can to revive and promote and support a renewed Western art which honors beauty and truth and the best of our traditions.
This creation of a renewed art need not mean just the fine arts, or high culture, which after all, is patronized by a relative few people. It should extend to all of the arts, including, broadly speaking, pop culture and the entertainment media. We need to foster and support the good and the beautiful and the true in all ares of culture: music of all kinds, movies, plays, literature. It's true it won't be easy to do so, considering that the arts and all cultural institutions are dominated by leftists and cynics who are no friends to our Western heritage or to traditional standards. But we have to create ways of doing this, if we are to change our society for the better. Politics, elections, and the realm of government have their place (although I increasingly think they are also merely a show of 'democracy') but they are not the be-all and the end-all. Societies change, or are changed, in other ways. The men who sit in seats of power, dominant though they may be, are not in control of everything. Many real changes begin with the people, with a change of heart and mind, or to use a favorite liberal term, a 'change of consciousness.' Those things are not yet completely under the control of the political classes. Though they may pass laws to try to control our thoughts and our words and our feelings, those things are still practically speaking beyond their reach. They are not, after all, omnipotent or ominscient.
We might make a modest, but necessary, start by re-familiarizing ourselves with our artistic and cultural heritage. We in the West are often like an unknowing heir to a great fortune who is living in poverty and squalor. Most of us, it seems, are oblivious to the treasures of our past, and too many of us, especially younger generations, are unfamiliar with our great cultural heritage. Those of you who are wise enough to homeschool your children, I hope you are introducing your children to the great artists of the past, and all the great works of literature and music. Re-discover, or discover for the first time, the classic movies of the last hundred years or so. Yes, even the old silent movies are often works of beauty. Not all art, as I said, need be 'high' art.
If we live only in our present era, neglecting the riches that we have forgotten we possess, we are truly impoverished.
Conservatism means not just conserving ideas and philosophies, but our cultural traditions, folkways, arts, and crafts. All of it is an outward manifestation of the soul of our people, and all of it is a kind of spiritual sustenance for us. This may be what is lacking in our dispirited and jaded age.

Labels: , , , , , , ,