Sunday, January 2, 2011

Creative Rebellion versus Capitalism

The work of a forest ranger is not easy. When old trees are not cut down, they rot and fall in the forest, and the forest ranger must be alert at all times to cut them down before they fall and injure someone. Without this, young trees cannot grow, because their light source is cut off by rotting dead trees. Soon, forest fires sweep through the forests, ravaging both old and young trees. In a similar way, the arts must be pruned or tended to. Without this, they die out. That which is old and dead must be cut or pruned, new forms must be sustained, and all that lives must be watered and nurtured. In our time, the long tradition of sacred or edifying music, poetry, literature and theater that was once supported by the church and the well-educated is in grave danger of dying out.

We can see that in all great civilizations, there is an innate need for each generation to differentiate itself from its forbears. This can take the form of either creative rebellion or destructive rebellion. Creative rebellion builds upon the cultural edifice of the past, adding to and embellishing upon the traditions that are wholesome, and discarding that which is contrived, outdated or superfluous. The impressionist painters, for example, saw the superfluity of realism in an age of photography, but didn't dispense with reality completely; instead, they supplanted it with a new technique. Modern jazz didn't merely spurn the jazz of the past, but expanded upon it. Destructive rebellion, however, seeks to destroy without building. It represents a negation of the past, and sees the wholesale destruction of society as the only possibility.

We are now seeing a society awash in destructive rebellion, one that can not differentiate between "art" and nihilism. Music, for instance, is based on the harmonic series,which comes from pure physical law. Even a newborn infant can readily tell the difference between consonance and dissonance, as based upon the tones of the harmonic series. That God is the creator of such laws was not lost on classical composers, many of whom dedicated their greatest works to God. 

In recent times, however, with the dawning of the post-Christian worldview, the arts lost their way. Rather than seek to work with the laws of nature, music rebelled, and instituted the artificial laws of 12 tone serialism, atonality, or "modernism". Man sought to become a law unto himself. At some point, rather than the arts serving God, the arts became and end in itself. In the name of "freedom", aesthetics were relativized to the extent that noise and music were considered exchangeable. Art for art's sake means turning art into an idol. When the artist is allowed to do all in the name of art (including destruction of art), then art no longer serves either God, man or nature, it becomes a false "god". As Ingmar Bergman said:
"Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God." 

Atheism is, of course, nothing new. Its advent in ancient Rome presaged Rome's fall into irrelevance and the dawn of a dark age. In our time, the same, tired old atheism is touted as something new and original. Brahms himself didn't see atheism as capable of producing great art:

"I know several young composers who are atheists. I have read their scores, and I assure you, Joseph, that they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration. Their works are purely cerebral. No atheist has ever been or ever will be a great composer." - Johannes Brahms in conversation with the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 - 1907). (Quoted in Arthur M. Abell: Talks with Great Composers. (1955))

We can see the results of such thinking in the dreary, unremittingly bleak films being produced. Film critic Mark Butterworth stated, "A stylistic mood, a fashion of dullness, dimness, of the ugly, gritty, and dirty has overtaken us. We have a very sick elite operating at large calling evil good. Fortunately, most of these movies attract a small audience, but the general effects are pernicious and seep into the culture regardless of their success. The success is that such movies get made and more of them every year."

In addition, capitalism tends to produce pseudo-rebellion. For instance, a trend is marketed as "rebellious" to the public, and sold. Burger King announces the "cheese revolution". By co-opting the word "revolution", the word loses its meaning, thus minimizing the risk that angry, dissatisfied people will associate the word with any form of political revolution. Ironically, even the image of Che Guavara is being marketed and sold, on bumper stickers, T-Shirts and magnets. Instead of real revolution, people are sold a marketed, plastic form of rebellion. Tattooing, originally a part of the punk/grunge movement in the US and UK, was seized upon by marketers and advertisers, and commercialized. The result is that millions of gullible people have stampeded into tattoo parlors to get flames tattooed on themselves. Mass rebellion is a form of conformity. Even grandmothers are tattooed and pierced, so the original intent of getting a tattoo to rebel against the older generation is now a moot point. Tattoos are now the mark of the gullible conformist.

 As Douglas R. Shearer describes it:
"Traditionally, art expresses the noblest impulses of the specific culture that produces it . But American art, since Andy Warhol, profanes the noble and ennobles the profane. And that's typically American. Americans distrust  "all embracing cultural ethics" because they threaten personal choice." 

The greatest cultures were awash in creative rebellion, ever seeking new techniques, assimilating influences from other cultures and combining different streams in new ways. We need only look at some of the greatest artistic movements of the past, the painters of the Italian renaissance or the composers of Vienna to see what a society can achieve when it is free to flourish. The greatest authors sought to illuminate truth, advance beauty and uplift humanity; today however, we no longer believe in beauty, unless it is simply physical, sexual beauty. We have replaced the divinity of the female form as depicted in the renaissance with the image of the busty stripper. 

Creative rebellion, like an orchid, cannot grow and thrive in the acrid soil of atheism, nihilism and bitterness.  It needs to be nurtured and  can only occur under several conditions:

Firstly, there has to be a cultural tradition that serves as a framework. This is an agreed-upon common set of culture, beliefs, values and morals.  If you destroy the framework, there is no longer the possibility of creativity. The framework can be modified, but too sudden changes spell the destruction of society itself. Like a living organism, society can be healed by necessary surgery, but cutting off entire organs kills the patient. What we see, however, is that in an effort to be inclusive, we have, too often, neglected our cultural traditions, dismissing them as irrelevant. "Political correctness" has demanded that works by Shakespeare, Milton or Dostoyevsky must be balanced by authors "of color" (as if there is such a thing as a colorless person!) or female authors, ignoring the fact that not all cultures have a strong literary tradition. With fewer and fewer students being exposed to the European cultural heritage, a European artist's work cannot draw upon such cultural references without risking the loss of a potential audience. As a result, the only "art" that succeeds is largely art that contains many pop cultural references, gimmicks or kitsch. Furthermore, America has seen mass immigration on such as scale as to nullify any pre-existing "common culture". This cultural Balkanization may prove to be a boon to the Latino community, but will, at any rate spell the death of European-American art. In Europe, as well, with the declining birthrate, it would be dubious to expect any vestige of a "common culture" to survive the decades to come. We are seeing a slow decay into ruin.

Secondly, creative rebellion is in need of  a culture that is at least somewhat conservative; otherwise,  there is nothing to rebel against. The arts, by their very nature, tend to be made by liberals. However, when even the conservatives are liberals (that is, when they no longer hold to the traditional moral, ethical or aesthetic tenets of the society), then there is nothing to rebel against, except life itself. The result is nihilism. 

The opposite extreme, however, is equally deadly. Fundamentalist or puritanical societies tend to view the arts with suspicion, even banning forms that they feel are evil. China's "cultural revolution" resulted in the suicides of classical musicians. The Taliban's rule in Afghanistan means the annihilation of a rich folk music tradition, which now is only a distant memory. No music of great substance is coming from America's fundamentalist movement; many of the right-wing universities that have sprung up in the past twenty years have no music or arts departments. Among America's "Bible Belt", classical music, painting and theater are often considered "worldly" and sinful. Among the liberal elites, they are invalid, unless they appeal to populism, radical politics or atheism. 

Thirdly, there has to be an arts education in place, which is accessible to a reasonably large segment of society. Those who are inclined towards a career in the arts must be nurtured at a young age; those unfit for such a profession must learn the rudiments so that they can participate as amateurs and provide the arts with an educated public.

Capitalism and market forces are not sufficient to sustain the arts. Capitalism markets "products" the same way, regardless if the product is shaving cream or opera. Fine arts, however, cannot be sold like cigarettes or autos. Their appeal lies in the intangible, not the marketable. Furthermore, capitalist, mass-produced "art" tends to need a cult of personality around it in order to market the goods effectively. In recent years, this has had a profound effect on the production of the arts, causing artists to select their subject matter more on marketing principles than on their artistic worth. The best photographers become commercial photographers, tonal composers, unable to find work as "serious" composers, score for films. Film makers begin to eschew themes that are unlikely to have mass appeal, and "tie ins" with advertisers begin to have a substantial impact on the plot and characters, to the extent that in the future, I predict that all films and television will be simply extended commercials. The lines between advertising, art and entertainment will become so blurred that the arts will become entirely irrelevant. 

Mass appeal for the arts could only be achieved by an educated public which would take the time to learn the cultural traditions. Capitalism, however, schools the public in the joys of instant gratification. There is no place for the intangible, the mysterious, the profound, the sacred. Any profundity that cannot be expressed in a five second commercial, a subway billboard, or an internet popup must be dispensed with. This approach is at work in all segments of society, resulting in churches that offer short sound-bite inspiration instead of depth and profundity, schools that emphasize entertaining, easy projects and wishy-washy discussions rather than hard work, and parents who demand pills to help them control their children, instead of disciplining them. The culture of convenience has turned into the culture of indulgence. 

In the past, the arts were sustained by the nobility, who were well-schooled in cultural traditions, and tended to be somewhat conservative in their tastes. This served as a braking mechanism on society, preventing  drastic changes that would be destabilizing and destructive. This also served as a backdrop of "old fashioned" taste which could be rebelled against. In time, the new forms and styles would be assimilated into the musical and artistic traditions, becoming the new backdrop for preceding generations. 

Today, the "old money" nobility is being replaced by the nouveau riche, who have not grown up with a fine arts tradition, and are more likely to buy pornographic sculptures, or support pop music than support "fine arts". Many would not see any use for such things, figuring that the public can best decide what is and isn't good art. In the modern world, what isn't of benefit to the marketplace, or isn't utilitarian is easily set aside. 

To make matters worse, the line between art, advertising and corporate entertainment has been obscured to such an extent that advertising itself is deemed "pop art", and music and art of little artistic value is over-hyped by a corporate media that is suspicious of anything that cannot be readily commodified or controlled. For example, Lady Gaga's value-free musical and video "artistry", including scenes depicting nuns being raped, is considered worthy of gallons of newsprint ink, while composer John Adams is seldom mentioned. Most young people have heard of Madonna, whose "music" is mainly the product of teams of producers and studio musicians, but many wouldn't be able to guess who Thelonious Monk was. 

This promotion of music and art that is plastic, pliable and free of values or morals is not accidental. Music with higher meaning cannot be easily used to sell soap or autos. Music and art that is sublime draws us to higher things, or to the art itself. Only the superficial can lead to the superficial. Materialism and the consumer mentality require making consumer objects the focal point of worship, thus necessitating art, film and music that will not compete with the consumer's affections. The car is the object of desire, so the music must not draw the heart towards heavenly desires. The new shoes must satisfy, so any insinuation that shoes alone cannot bring satisfaction must be suppressed. 

Religious art, which played such a huge role in the founding of Western Civilization, has, in the process, become a victim of de facto censorship by the corporate media fascists, who will allow songs about sodomy and murder to be played on the radio, but will not allow music depicting Jesus as the Son of God. In the end, capitalism has morphed into new breed of fascism, a rabid serpent devouring its own tail. And because music, art and entertainment of quality is not seen by the public, they take the paltry offerings they are given. The corporate plutocracy then justifies its actions by claiming that they are only giving the people what they want.

The public could decide, of course, if they were well-educated in the arts. However, in recent years, funding for public arts education has declined, due to pressure from corporations who demand a workforce that will be competent in math, science and technology.  The result? Marketplace demands are being met, schools have installed computer rooms, corporations, eager to get qualified workers, have donated technology and resources to schools and universities. They have not, however, contributed to arts in education, and why would they? It isn't in their best interests. 

Fine arts open people up to things that cannot be bought with money. They remind us of our humanity, spirituality and transcendence. If enough people experienced these things, we would no longer be so easily manipulated, or drawn into the web of consumerism, debt and insatiability. The market promotes whatever sells, and the public, ignorant of art, and primed to buy only what provides instant gratification, does not have the attention span to listen to something that lasts longer than three minutes. 

In contrast to the past, in which enlightened, educated aristocrats chose the music they felt was most profound, and set it before the public, nowadays the lowest segment of society sets the tone, and the result is clear to see. Incapable of understanding chord progressions, unable to carry a tune or even understand a melody that is more than two measures long, wanting only a steady beat, grunting, and pornographic lyrics, the modern Neanderthal gets exactly what he wants- grunting, crude rhythms, repetitive, five note melodies endlessly repeated, all accompanied by images of gorgeous women dancing half naked. 

Furthermore, the corporate plutocrats of our day and age don't want a public that is schooled in the arts, for the simple reason that the arts can be a powerful means to empower the poor. Keeping the arts ensconced in an ivory tower, to be gazed at by a privileged few means less chance that the unwashed hordes will storm the tower, and set the arts free to live among humanity, willingly serving both God and man. 

Some feel that the arts are to be left at the hands of the government. In every industrialized nation, there is some sort of ministry of arts, or arts organization. However, these organizations are more likely to be run by the enemies of artistic tradition, not their supporters. Government officials often have no concept of higher art, and are likely to abuse their positions to promote political agendas. 

Under communism, for instance, only openly pro-communistic, atheistic art is allowed. Similarly, in America, artists of questionable talent and ability are awarded grants and prizes for political reasons, often by radical nihilists within such organizations. This serves to further alienate the public from the fine arts, causing them to demand even less funding for the arts. The destructive spiral continues, as artists scramble to make art that will please the current set of political appointees. 

As a result, artists whose political or social views are unpopular, unclear or uninteresting tend to be marginalized. Those who are "scandalous" can get press coverage, thus providing the capitalist marketplace with a selling point. Those who make easily digested, accessible art that can be "marketed"  or used as film music, background music for television commercials and the like, are also rewarded. This leaves little room for genuine creativity, which can often take years to develop, and cannot be understood without patience and a fine ear. 

Political correctness decrees that the droning of a digeridoo is the musical equal of a Symphony by Brahms or Beethoven, or a jazz piece by a piano virtuoso. To state otherwise would be political suicide. Music that took decades to perfect is cast aside for grunting and murmuring; the public refuses to pay for live music, because they can listen to a DJ for free. Why should they understand the hard work and years of dedication that allows a jazz musician to play a competent solo, or the hours of practice that enable the pianist to perform a Ballade by Chopin? A public that has been stupidified by an educational system that will not teach them how to carry a tune, clap in time or play a simple instrument will certainly not produce a public that can appreciate the arts.