It’s the culture, stupid: its art, its history, its philosophy. Mike Walsh is on it.
My thesis is simple: we can learn more about the nature and practice of politics from, say, The Oresteia or The Aeneid—to give just two examples more than two millennia old—than we can from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and that the visit of Vladimir Horowitz to the Soviet Union in April 1986 (about which I wrote a cover story for Time magazine) did more to hasten the collapse of the USSR five years later than all the white papers and policy statements from the American talking-head establishment wonks of the day.
The new book is more prescriptive—a kind of how-to combat manual of cultural touchstones from which we as inheritors of the Greco-Roman enlightenment can recollect our strengths and moral authority, reject the false equivalences of multiculturalism, accept that Western syncretism (known disparagingly now as “cultural appropriation”) is something profoundly good and beneficial to all cultures, and from which we can draw a renewed vigor in our defense of ourselves.
In Monday’s speech in the beautiful new Visitor Center, I located a signal change in the Western education system that, at the time, looked like an advance: the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America felt it was losing its technological edge over the Soviets so American schoolchildren became acquainted en masse with the wonders and joys of the slide rule and the hard sciences. The effect was immediate: we quickly regained and maintained our advantage over our antagonists, but it came with a price: the downgrading of the importance of the arts as a civilizing and ennobling force in American public (and private) life.
So while the emphasis on tech eventually resulted in the creation of the personal computer and the iPhone, it also reduced the literary and plastic arts from essential elements of nationhood to “entertainments” for the wealthy; triggered the coarsening of society and, worst of all, cut both America and, shortly thereafter, the Western European nations from the wellsprings of their shared patrimony. This may not entirely have been by design, but it was seized upon by the nascent philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which by this time had been transplanted from pre-Nazi Germany to Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly spread throughout the American system of higher education.
The result? To take just one example, the New York City public school system went from offering a model education in music and the arts to needing police officers in the schools—a reflection of the overall changes in demography, to be sure, but also of the decivilizing effect the loss of a democratized high culture entails. More Mozart, fewer metal detectors…
In The Fiery Angel, I am not arguing that the arts should be politicized—that way lies the corpse of the old Soviet Union (and this is treated at some length in the chapter entitled “The Raft of the Medusa”). Rather, I am saying that the arts both predict and comment upon historical-political developments in ways that no dispassionate analysis can manage. Try this sequence of events on for size:
Beaumarchais–Mozart–The French Revolution–Beethoven–Napoleon. From Le Marriage de Figarothe play, to Le nozze di Figaro the opera, to the start of the French Revolution and fall of Louis XVI is a span of only five years, and yet in that time the royal edifice was first lampooned, then sexualized, and finally pulled down around the aristocrats’ ears. Those with sensitive antennae—among them Louis XVI himself, who initially forbade public performances of Beaumarchais’ play—could see what was coming. Most could not.
Our Progressivist-run government schools have thoroughly perverted and politicized the history curriculum, “balancing” any notion of American greatness, uniqueness, and benignity (when those notions aren’t excised altogether) with immaterial nonsense like “Washington owned slaves!” and other such irrelevancies, and that’s no accident. It’s resoundingly evident that any lasting reversal of the cultural enervation the Left has deliberately inflicted on us must begin with instilling a proper appreciation for Western civilization, its achievements, and the intellectual and artistic roots of its unprecedented success in young minds.
Breitbart had it right: politics is downstream from culture. The ultimate solution to our problems won’t come from voting, nor from politicians. It will come from cultural counterrevolution: from removing depravity, nihilism, and self-indulgence from the pedestal of perversion on which the Left has placed them and restoring real history, art, truth, and beauty to their proper place. Walsh’s new book concludes:
The history of our art reveals, and constantly revisits, the norms of Western culture. But no matter how “transgressive” we might wish to be, the fundamental things apply: the relationship of mankind to God; the physical and spiritual bond between men and women, and its absolute primacy in the world of human creation; and the need for heroes. Iconoclasm comes and goes, often literally, but it must be seen as an aberration, the yeast in the ferment of history, if we are to have faith in our culture, our civilization, and our future; it cannot be the norm. Revolutionaries—manqué and otherwise—come and go.
We must learn to distinguish between those who are the fulfillment of Western foundational principles, such as the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, whose revolution was against their own, and our, imperfection; and those whose transient “truths” have ended up, like Marx himself, on the ash heap of history, no matter how many icons they smash along the way to the boneyard.
History, therefore, is neither an arc nor a plot. Neither “his story” nor “her story.” It is our story.
All the Left has, all it has ever had, is deceit, destruction, and despotism. Their “classical music” is random, disassociated din; their “literature” is either tawdry and poorly constructed or thinly-masked political lecturing. Their “art” runs the gamut from ugly and brutalizing, to pointless, chaotic tripe, to…well…shit.
Starting Friday, an Italian artist with a sense of toilet humor will let visitors at the Guggenheim Museum relieve themselves in his new work — a solid 18-karat gold potty he has titled “America.”
“Whatever you eat, a $200 lunch or a $2 hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise,” Maurizio Cattelan told The New Yorker.
The poopy piece, the museum says, represents “the American dream of opportunity for all.”
The working toilet is installed in a tiny unisex rest room on the fourth floor. Anyone who pays the price of admission can use it, and a guard stands sentry outside.
As Walsh says, there is indeed a place for iconoclasm, for transgression, for rebellion and the testing of boundaries. They can be indulged, even enjoyed for what they are. But they should neither become paramount nor made out to be more than they really are. The Guggenheim affront is nothing but pure garbage, puerile provocation exclusively for its own sake—a vulgar brat cocking his snook at timeless works he hasn’t the slightest hope of ever rivalling. The Guggenheim justifies its grotesque insult to all truly great artists thusly:
“Its participatory nature, in which viewers are invited to make use of the fixture individually and privately, allows for an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art,” the museum says.
According to the museum, “America” invokes “the American dream of opportunity for all — its utility ultimately reminding us of the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity.”
Again: pure garbage. For one thing, precisely what in the ever-loving blue-eyed hell does this shithouse sculpture have to do with “opportunity for all”? Moreover, nobody, not a single one of us, needs any “reminding” of “the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity,” thanks very much. We get reminder enough every day. Then we flush and get on with our lives, without ever claiming artistic merit for any brilliance or creative spark involved in the process of blasting last night’s dinner into the city sewer system.
If the Guggenheim’s curators honestly consider this “reminder” such a wonderful and necessary thing, then why not put their 24-karat crapper right out in the middle of one of their larger rooms—no walls, no screens, no curtains—and invite art lovers to pop a squat in full public view, to include all the grunting, straining, and wiping that accompany it? Hell with “privately”; let’s make this a real “opportunity for all,” by allowing fine-art afficionados to share in the creative experience. Hey, it takes a village, right?
Maybe chronic diarrhea sufferers could be awarded a future free admission or a keepsake lapel pin for their messy participation. Maybe they could shanghai a crackhead to pick his nose and wipe the product of his digital spelunking onto a canvas next. If the Guggenheimers promote the masterpiece with just the right confounding bafflegab, it could fetch a mint and wind up mounted on some emptyheaded SoHo dilettante’s wall, the pride of the household and the envy of her snooty friends.
A thunderous, paint-peeling fart does NOT become a symphony just because some precious, overeducated egghead says it is.
The practice of equating the mundane with the sublime is a type of moral equivalence akin to what we’ve seen way too much of in politics, and it’s every bit as reckless and destructive. It doesn’t elevate the trite; it cheapens the meritorious, or hopes to. Warhol’s painting of a soup can didn’t put him on Rembrandt’s level; Pollock’s paint spatters will never rival the Sistine Chapel. You can inflate the value of ordinary hack-work as much as you like, but you can’t increase its intrinsic worthiness that way. Just because pretentious chowderheads are willing to pay millions for an eyesore in acrylic that looks like somebody puked on a canvas after drinking clabbered milk doesn’t mean they got their money’s worth.
The exaltation of the artless and unworthy should have been resisted from the beginning; the misguided curators who went along with it failed in their function as gatekeepers, guardians of a priceless legacy. An entire culture has been debased as a result: its judgment impaired, its taste warped. How could such a depressingly successful assault on any and every standard—on the very concept of standards—fail to bring forth anything but a rudderless, confused, floundering mess of a society, imprisoning a timid populace behind walls of fear, uncertainty, and doubt?
I repeat: not an accident. NOT.
Now mind, I’m the last guy in the world who wants to come off all stuffed-shirt about these matters. As a lifelong musician and songwriter, I never harbored any lofty ambitions to compose a symphony or concerto that would still be in the orchestral repertoire three hundred years hence. I ain’t Mozart. I ain’t even Elvis or Chuck Berry. I know my limits, and I’m fine staying within ’em.
When it comes to the visual arts, I am incapable of sketching a credible stick figure that my eight-year-old daughter can’t already outdo with ease, much though I’ve always wished it were otherwise. I do thoroughly enjoy and appreciate good painting, from Matisse to Monet to Van Gogh to Picasso. I also very much dig what has come to be referred to nowadays as “lowbrow” art. But I doubt that even the great Robert Williams would argue that his paintings, while wonderful on their own terms, occupy the same artistic or cultural plane as those of the universally acknowledged masters in the field.
Maybe our biggest mistake was in allowing “discrimination” to be turned into a dirty word. In surrendering the word, we also lost the ability to discriminate—between profundity and fluff, between noble and base, between worthwhile and waste of time—and to order things appropriately, in a sound and constructive fashion. That ability is no frivolous luxury; it is essential, a prerequisite for a healthy, lively, advanced civilization. If we’re going to preserve our heritage and reinvigorate our culture, the word will have to be rehabilitated and de-politicized.
Which, now that “the personal is political,” is also true of one hell of a lot of other things, actually.