A reader wrote to correct my recent observations about the contemporary culture of transgression. It was not Robert Mapplethorpe who put the cross in a jar of urine; it was Andres Serrano.
I’ll admit that most contemporary art blurs in my mind. A few months ago, I toured the Chelsea galleries. It was pretty remarkable how most of the work seemed tired imitations of avant-garde stuff from fifty years ago. One exhibit presented posters that amounted to journal entries from a jilted artist who was shocked, simply shocked, by the cold insensitivity of his now former girlfriend. Yawn. Other exhibits played at outrage. Again, yawn. The few artists who seemed to have anything fresh to offer seemed focused on the perverse darkness of the human condition.
The emphasis on pain and suffering and distorted, dismembered humanity only confirms Philip Rieff’s despairing assessment of our spiritual condition. A traditional culture draws its inspiration from the stretch toward the sacred. There is undoubtedly pain and suffering in a desire for God. Caravaggio’s painting of St. Francis on Mount Alverno testifies, as does the haunting portrait of the crucified Jesus in Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. But this realism about the human condition and the price of any real invasion of the divine into human life intensifies rather than denies the drama of transcendence.
In contrast, modern artists show a contemptuous superiority, a mocking attitude. Remember Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal? He was giving the finger to the viewing public. The energy and power of a great deal of modern art comes from hatred and a will-to-superiority, the arrogance of being able to run one’s fingers through the feces when others recoil in horror.
One thing I have learned from Philip Rieff is that politics has an aesthetic dimension. Our moral and political imaginations interact with our literary and artistic sensibilities. I’ve noticed, for example, the violence and contempt in the rhetoric of the sorts of folks inclined to give money to moveon.org. Someone who supports George Bush is not just mistaken—he is an ignorant, evil racist or a rigid, unthinking dogmatist. The political aesthetic of the Left is similar to the artistic culture of the avant-garde. It draws its energy from hatred, contempt, and a sense of superiority and entitlement. No wonder Middle America is on edge, slowly sliding rightward. James Dobson may not reflect the values of soccer moms in suburban Cleveland, but I think it’s fair to say that he does not convey anger, hatred, and contempt.
But the failure of the modern aesthetic and its assault upon the sacred does not translate into a victory for tradition. I think it is also fair to say that the emergent conservative populism that has put conservatives in power is primarily a “no” to the transgressive elite culture. But populism rarely provides alternatives. The silver standard proclaimed by William Jennings Bryan was patent medicine, just as family values are a two-dimensional solution to an all-too three-dimensional problem of social degradation. It will take a deep transformation of our collective artistic, moral, and spiritual imagination to change the direction of culture.
Shelley once wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. On this point he was right. What is needed is an aesthetic of love and life to replace the anti-sacral aesthetic of contempt and death.
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