The contemplation of death, one's own in particular, cures one of the conceit that this life has a meaning absolute and self-contained. Only those who live naively in this world, hiding from themselves the fact of death, flirting with transhumanist arcadian and other utopian fantasies, can accord to this life the ultimate in reality and importance.
If you deny a life beyond the grave, I won't consider you foolish or even unreasonable. But if you anticipate a paradise on earth, I will consider you both. And if you work to attain such a state in defiance of morality, then I will consider you evil, as evil as the Communists of the 20th century who murdered 100 million to realize their impossible fantasies.
Guercino – Et in Arcadia Ego – 1618-22 – Roma, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini
Robert M. Thornton, ed., Cogitations from Albert Jay Nock (Irvington-on-Hudson: The Nockian Society, 1970), p. 59:
If realism means the representation of life as it is actually lived, I do not see why lives which are actually lived on a higher emotional plane are not so eligible for representation as those lived on a lower plane. (Memoirs, 200)
Exactly. If the aim is to depict reality as it is, why select only the most worthless and uninspiring portions of reality for portrayal? Why waste brilliant actors on worthless roles, Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses, Robert de Niro in GoodFellas and Casino, Warren Beatty in Bugsy, to take five examples off the top of my head from a potential list of thousands. The Grifters is another example. An excellent film in any number of respects. But imagine a film of the same cinematic quality which portrays in a subtle and intelligent manner a way of life — I avoid 'lifestyle' — that has some chance of being worth living. Notice I said "subtle and intelligent." I am not advocating Sunday School moralizing or hokey platitudinizing. And note that I am not opposing the above mentioned, but pointing out that a constant diet of dreck is both boring and unhealthy.
But I don't expect the folks in HollyWeird (Michael Medved's expression) to comprehend the simple point I have just made. They are too mesmerized by the color of money for that. Nor do I expect most liberals to be able to wrap their minds around it. So I'm preaching to the choir and to a few fence-sitters. But that has value: Maybe a fence-sitter or two will slide off to the Right Side; and perhaps the choirboys and girls are in need of a little extra ammo.
By the way, that is one of the purposes of this blog: to supply culture warriors with ammunition. So take it and visit it upon the enemy.
A deeper question concerns the purpose of art. To depict reality? That is not obvious. A good topic for someone else to take up. Conservative bloggers, get to it.
I am writing to you because I have a couple of questions . . . about your recent (May 12) blog post, and I was curious to hear a bit more about your views. [. . .] My questions concern your assertion that "I also agree that if one is going to violate people's beliefs in the manner of that 'artist' Andres Serrano then one ought to do it on one's own time and with one's own dime, as the saying goes." I assume that you're referring to "Piss Christ" and the controversy that surrounded it.
1. Why do you feel that "Piss Christ" (or Serrano's other works--again, I assume you're referring here mostly to the religious icons and bodily fluids) is (are) a "[violation] of people's beliefs"? The claim that it "violates beliefs" is much stronger than simply saying that it is distasteful, since it ascribes an active quality to the work.
Of course, it is more than distasteful or disgusting, although it is that; it shows profound disrespect and contempt for Christianity. And it is not the work itself that violates the beliefs and sensibilities of Christians and plenty of non-Christians as well, but the work in the context of its production and public display. It should be offensive to any decent person, just as "Piss-Buddha," if there were such an 'art work,' would be offensive to me and other non-Buddhists. Buddha was a great teacher of humanity and should be honored as such. (That is why decent people were offended when the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddhist statuary.) The same goes for Jesus and Socrates and so many others. Christians of course believe that Jesus was much more than a great teacher of humanity, but whether he was or not is immaterial to the point at issue. Or imagine "Piss-King" in which a figurine of Martin Luther King, Jr. is supended in urine. Everyone would take that, and rightly so, as expressive of contempt for the black American civil rights leader, as offensive as Southern racists' references to King back in the '60s as Martin Luther Coon.
To the left is an example of kitsch from that master of kitsch, Thomas Kinkade. Is there no visual cliché that he will not avail himself of? Note the wisps of smoke emanating from the chimneys. Just as we are annoyed by those who thoughtlessly retail platitudes, we are also annoyed by the analogous thoughtlessness of those artists who serve up what the average Joe 'knows' to be art and expects. This, I take it, is part of what we object to in kitsch, and part of what we mean by kitsch. (But there is a lot more to it than this, and your humble correspondent has only begun to think hard about these questions.) What is offensive in kitsch is the thoughtless purveyance of visual cliché's, the pandering to the viewer, the 'pushing of his buttons,' and in some cases the cynical attempt to elicit a stock emotional response in order sell the stuff. Wholesome schlock for the masses mass-produced for a tidy profit. Art for the overfed denizens of Dubuque and Fargo who, wallowing in complacency, want to be reinforced in their tastes and prejudices. Art for the malls of 'fly-over country.' None of my discerning readers, I trust, could be paid to hang such a thing in their homes. Well, if you paid me, and I had an empty wall needing a splash of color, then I might display it for didactic and ironic purposes.
But clichés, by definition, are true and meaningful, albeit flattened by overuse, and this is the other side of the coin. Kitsch is offensive, but so is what might be called anti-kitsch, the mannered result of trying to be far-out and avant-garde. Isn't a boring truth better than an 'original' falsehood? Doesn't truth trump novelty in a sane scale of values? Isn't beauty, even of a conventional sort, better than ugliness? The febrile and adolescent attempt to to be original and avant-garde at all costs has led in the 20th century to a crapload of art and music without human meaning. It is at least arguable that wholesome schlock that has some human meaning is superior to decadent junk like this from the house-painting brush of Mark Rothko:
April Stevens' and Nino Tempo's version of Deep Purple became a number one hit in 1963. I liked it when it first came out, and I've enjoyed it ever since. A while back I happened to hear it via Sirius satellite radio and was drawn into it like never before. But its lyrics, penned by Mitchell Parish, are pure sweet kitsch:
When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls And the stars begin to twinkle in the night Through the mist of a memory you wander back to me Breathing my name with a sigh.
In the still of the night once again I hold you tight Though you're gone, your love lives on when moonlight beams And as long as my heart will beat, sweet lover we'll always meet Here in my deep purple dreams.
Kitsch is bad art, but what is the essence of kitsch, and why is it bad? Presumably it is sentimentality that makes kitsch kitsch, and it is this sentimentality that makes kitsch aesthetically and perhaps even morally dubious. One self-indulgently 'wallows' in a song like this, giving into its 'cheap' emotions. The emotions are 'false' and 'faked.' The melody and lyrics are formulaic and predictable, 'catchy.' The listener allows himself to be manipulated by the songwriter who is out to 'push the listener's buttons.' The aesthetic experience is not authentic but vicarious. And so on. Adorno would not approve.
There is great art and there is kitsch. I partake of both, enjoy both, and know the difference. What is wrong with a little kitsch in moderation? No, I don't collect Hummel figurines and my stoa is not carpeted with astroturf. What is sentimentality and what is wrong with it? There is a literature on this, but I've read almost none of it. Who has time? No job, no kids, no social entanglements -- and still no time.
Marcel Duchamp abandoned art for chess because of the latter's superior uselessness. Art objects, after all, have exchange value as commodities, and may make the artist some money. But with few exceptions chess lies entirely beyond the sphere of the utile. In this sense, the art of the 64 squares is the highest art. There is little danger that Caissa's acolytes will fill their bellies from her service. There is just no market for the artistry of chess games, not even those of the very highest quality. Here you can review some of Duchamp's games.
Herewith, comments on some aphorisms of Wallace Stevens from Adagia, aphorisms that sum up much of the aesthetic attitude I am concerned to oppose. (To be precise: I am out to oppose it in its imperialistic ambitions; I have nothing against art properly chastened and subordinated to the ultimate dominatrix, Philosophia.) I have bolded Wallace's lines.
Thought is an infection. In the case of certain thoughts, it becomes an epidemic.
If thought is an infection, then poetry is mental meltdown.
After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption.
What a paltry redemption! It would be better to say that there is no redemption than to say something as silly as this. Learn to live with the death of God, my friend! Don't insert a sorry substitute into the gap. Don't try to make a religion of what is only a dabbling in subjective impressions. Compare John Gardner, "Fiction is the only religion I have . . . ." (On Writers and Writing, p. xii.)