A bumpersticker in a parking lot at one of my work places reads: “Fear No Art.”

I did not expect to be drawn into a discussion of art. As I acknowledged in my first posting, other than an amateur enjoyment of classical music and opera, my artistic knowledge is woefully undeveloped. But I am reminded of Gilbert Meilaender’s phrase, “bringing one’s life to a point.” (That was all the way back in 1994—Prof. Meilaender’s reflection on the reaction to his participation in First Thing’s statement earlier in the year on homosexuality. Time flies.)

Certainly this moment can hardly be compared to Meilaender’s confrontation with the politically correct powers of Oberlin College. Still, one lives, one tries to be faithful, one waits for the point to manifest itself. Here this point seems to need to be held up to view.

Upon reading my first posting, a friend forwarded two essays in City Journal on the current state of art and opera. In one, Roger Scruton describes “Beauty and Desecration”. The transcendental value of art, beauty, has been replaced by “artistic self-expression.” According to Scruton, the self as defined by the contemporary artist is the one who is “outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it,” and who expresses his opposition by “disturb[ing], subvert[ing], or transgress[ing against] moral certainties.”

The first problem with such an program should be obvious: if the artist subverts received moral certainties, and produces his art out of his perceived “self,” then what vision, what value is being produced? “By their fruit you shall know them,” the Gospels tell us Jesus said. Moral wholeness is in the doing. One is just, if one acts the way an ideal just man would act, according to Aristotle. And what fruit is being produced? “Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it,” Scruton says.

He goes back to an earlier essay in City Journal by Heather McDonald, “The Abduction of Opera.” McDonald describes the travesties of Regietheater, where the director (Regie), brings his own inner vision to the music and drama. In the case of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, that vision “call[s] for a prostitute’s nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano...masturbation, urination as foreplay, [and] forced oral sex.” The director, Calixto Bieito, needed to hire prostitutes to carry out his stage requirements.

Scruton wants to restore “the presence of a transcendental claim,” and McDonald hopes that New York’s Metropolitan Opera will continue leave “Eurotrash” in the European landfill where it belongs. I am sympathetic. I certainly hope that “the Met” will still be presenting classic productions of La TraviataLa Fille du Régiment, or  La nozze di Figaro,when I finally get the opportunity to enter its doors.

I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief. He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic, he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain why one should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

The moral corruption of the Olympian pantheon is the moral corruption of art. (Don’t forget: “Western” art at least, has only two sources, the Bible and myths, mostly Greco-Roman.) According to Hesiod, out of Chaos came Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros—”who/Makes their [the gods’] bodies (and men’s bodies) go limp, / Mastering their minds and subduing their wills.” Gaia gave birth to Ouranos (“heaven”), and then mated with him to bring forth the Cyclopes, who had “hearts of stone,” and 3 monsters, Cortos, Briareos, and Gyges, “Strong, hulking creatures that beggar description.” From the beginning Ouranos hated all of them, and stuffed them back into the earth. These are the brute, stupid, amoral forces of nature, the powers that make us and consume us with equal disregard. (Much in this tale is parallel to Norse legend, especially the role of the giants. In Wagner’s version, they are powerful, darkly desirous, but dumb beings who initiate the chain of events that will lead to the fall of the gods, law, and life.)

Another son, Cronos, “hated his lecherous father.” He and his mother, Gaia, hatched a scheme: a Ouranos came down on her to mate, he cut off Ouranos’ genitalia and hurled them in the ocean. The foam in the water produced Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, while the blood created the Furies, “chthonic deities of vengeance,...of the anger of the dead (Wikipedia).”

This is the beginning. Look long and hard; think carefully before you choose to praise it. Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.

Fear all art.

Articles by David Layman

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