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Holiday Reprise (With Extras) - Esthetics as the Barometer of the State of our Culture
by Lindsay Perigo

America’s art culture is disturbed and I find that particularly scary because life imitates art. In real life how many people do you know who have aggressive behavior, take Prozac, dress badly, have little attention span, don’t know what they want, drone on about meaningless things, and whine? It’s all there in contemporary art museums. It’s not that there is nothing but hopelessness out there—there are brilliant exceptions And it’s the high/fine art that influences all the rest in the same way that philosophy influences all walks of life. So if you want to see where we’re heading spiritually, look at what is going on in the contemporary art museums, leading writers, contemporary music festivals, Hollywood, and major architectural buildings. It’s important because that all translates into your quality of life; if great art is not in the mainstream you’ve got nothing but the shit a culture offers you.

- Michael Newberry, 'Death of an Anti-American' thread, SOLOHQ



Before reprising the excerpt from Why SOLO? relevant to the above discussion, some additional observations...

First, it's been my impression, especially since the founding of SOLO, that persuading people of the significance of art in man's life, let alone the efficacy of life-enhancing art, is as difficult as persuading them of the significance of philosophy, let alone the crucialness of life-affirming philosophy. Discussion threads like 'Death of an anti-American' offer a glimmer of hope, in that they show the resistance to the importance of esthetics—and of the esthetic battle—breaking down. That much at least is progress, even though a few posts on SOLOHQ scarcely portend a worldwide sea-change. Yet. (When the contorted citadels of postmodernism are shattered by a global tsunami, Michael Newberry's contribution to the antecedent earthquake will be seen to have had a lot to do with it! I hope the discouragement he seems to be feeling currently is just temporary.)

Second, I quote Ayn Rand below as referring to the afterglow of a much better period in recent esthetic history. She speaks of those of us fortunate enough to have experienced that afterglow. The tragedy—and biggest challenge—of contemporary generations is that they have known nothing of the after-glow, let alone the actual glow, and not knowing what they've missed, they're not motivated to seek it out. (When even the best among them routinely cite The Simpsons and South Park as the pinnacle of artistic achievement, you know you're in trouble!)

In any event, by way of a reminder that SOLO is committed to fighting the battle for civilisation on both the philosophical and esthetic fronts, here is the relevant part of my opening presentation at the inaugural conference of SOLO, Why SOLO?
__________________________

"Francisco," Ayn Rand has remarked, "is the philosophical expression—the concretisation in a human character—of what I heard in the operetta music I fell in love with in my childhood."

Which brings me neatly & conveniently to that part of SOLO's mission statement that says, "We see ourselves most emphatically—unlike TOC—as being at war with the current culture: the culture of anti-heroes, nihilism & destruction. Hence a significant, but not exclusive, emphasis on esthetics." Art. The sphere of the passions, the spirit—the expression of & window to our souls. The source of spiritual fuel. If our battle is, as I quoted Nathaniel Branden saying at the outset, primarily a spiritual one, then we will surely want to enlist the aid of art for nourishment, just as surely as we'll want to smite the artistic poseurs who bottle their urine or frame their faeces & call that art. By "smite" I don't mean "ban"; I mean, create a culture in which it wouldn't occur to anyone that he could perpetrate such fraud & be taken seriously, let alone richly rewarded.

Now Ayn Rand didn't mention esthetics on the famous occasion where she was challenged to describe the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot. I suspect that's because she needed to bring the other foot back down in a hurry. Certainly none spoke more powerfully about the power & sweep of art, & none attacked the contemporary cultural sewer more vehemently than she. Here she is in The Romantic Manifesto:

As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history … If one has glimpsed that kind of art—& wider: the possibility of that kind of culture-one is unable to be satisfied with anything less. I must emphasise that I am not speaking of concretes, nor of politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's 'sense of life.' Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities &, above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends & political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, & of man to life. … It is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential & what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men—over the brief span of less than a century—before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) & the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.


Let's recapture for a moment the "sense of life" of the period Ayn Rand was talking about via the medium of music, & contrast it with today's, via the medium of what some call music but which I call headbanging caterwauling, right out of the sewer. The first is from 19th century Viennese operetta; it's the music I used to open my Politically Incorrect radio show with—a selection of melodies from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. Strauss was a pop idol of his time who set the world dancing; so too is the person who's going to follow him, a pop idol of our time who sets the world "dancing." The sense-of-life contrast couldn't be starker. Remember as you listen Rand's admonition: What an artwork expresses is, "This is life as I see it!"

[Musical interlude: Die Fledermaus; Eminem, Drug Song]

Now perhaps you can better understand why Ayn Rand said, "I am not willing to surrender the world to the jerky contortions of self-inducedly brainless bodies with empty eye sockets who perform in stinking basements the immemorial rituals of staving off terror, which are a dime a dozen in any jungle—& to the quavering witch doctors who call it 'art.'"

Good for her! And I want SOLO to do its part in seeing that the world is not surrendered to such animals & their excrement. In this regard, I couldn't be more pleased to have as a guest speaker at this inaugural SOLO conference, painter Michael Newberry, fresh from smiting some post-modern dragons. I'll leave it for him to tell you all about that.

But there's a problem here. Talk in these terms & folk get very defensive & upset. First, they think you're attacking them personally & go into typical modern era crybaby "I'm so offended" mode; second, they think you're arguing that the excrement be banned.

Well, I suppose you are attacking them personally, if you're attacking excrement & they like excrement. You're telling them they like excrement. By extension they might infer that you're saying they are excrement. Well, if the crap fits ...!!

Luckily for them they have a fallback position, which, though they still go through the motions of being so offended, they seize upon gleefully. Ayn Rand herself. Did she not say, "At present our understanding of music is confined to the gathering of material, i.e., to the level of descriptive observations. Until it is brought to the stage of conceptualisation, we have to treat musical tastes or preferences as a subjective matter—not in the metaphysical but in the epistemological sense; i.e., not in the sense that these preferences are in fact, causeless & arbitrary, but in the sense that we do not know their cause. No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it's every man for himself-& only for himself"?

Did she not say that? Well, yes she did. She also said that she was talking physiologically. She went on to say that there was, nonetheless, a great deal one could observe on the psychological & existential levels. For instance: "The deadly monotony of primitive music—the endless repetition of a few notes & of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull—paralyses cognitive processes, obliterates awareness & disintegrates the mind." And she observed, "The products of America's anti-rational, anti-cognitive 'Progressive' education, the hippies, are reverting to the music & the drumbeat of the jungle." Today, I would say the same of the MTV generation. And I have no hesitation in saying that anyone who says he gets an exalted sense-of-life reaction to that stuff is in that instance at least sub-human. I am the first one to ask, Where is the animality in man?, when it comes to countering Objectivist flights of rationalistic fantasy, but to call this musical maggotry "animalistic" is an insult to animals.

Let me resurrect my radio editorial of July 11, 2000:

One of the most terrible paradoxes of our time is that human reason, our distinctive tool of survival, is committing suicide. Human reason devises exquisite technologies which it then deploys to kill itself. Modern pop culture is a case in point, where sophisticated electronic instruments & amplification equipment are used to create dissonant, ugly cacophonies which batter the brain into a state of catatonia. Yes, catatonia, defined in my dictionary as "a form of schizophrenia characterised by stupor, with outbreaks of excitement."

During my recent stint in the United States, on a web site called newcriterion.com, I read about a New York Times review of a concert by a hard-rock band called Slipknot, described by the reviewer, Neil Strauss, as "one of the most exciting & enigmatic of rock's current crop of new bands." Mr Strauss recounts how the group drove its fans into a frenzy with some preliminary "ferocious screaming." "Two teenagers had already been treated for injuries before Slipknot had even finished thrashing, banging & raging through its first song about exploding angst," he writes. "Teenage angst demands its anti-heroes, & in the absence of any other popular music uprising since grunge these acts have made it exciting again to grow up a rock fan."

Now what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with individual liberty? Am I implying that musical atrocities like Slipknot should be banned? Quite the contrary - I believe everybody should be free to pursue his own tastes, even if they are too abysmal to be called "tastes." But it's important to realise that not only governments can threaten freedom—freedom is also threatened by a culture of grunge, angst & anti-heroes. Freedom is inseparably linked to reason —& proponents of reason, in their reverence for life, concern themselves with beauty, life-affirmation & heroism. Only so much coexistence is possible between these conflicting sets of values - or rather, these values & anti-values - before one of them breaks down.

Mr Strauss quotes Slipknot's drummer as saying, "A guy at Sony told us, 'If this is the future of music, I don't want to be alive.' I just thought, if that's what he thinks, then we are doing something right." Seldom is the snide nihilism of our times expressed so candidly. And just as this snide nihilism revels in death & destruction, so too it has no qualms about dictatorship.


Ladies & gentlemen, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance - & the anti-liberty state of our culture has never merited more vigilance than right now.

To quote from a different editorial, "Mollifying Marcus" in FreeRad 46:

Here's how it works: respect for reason gives rise to respect for the right to exercise it—freedom. See Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the 19th century. Freedom gives rise to prosperity & enormous diversity, including ideas & art works that are inimical to it. Against such ideas & art, while defending to the death their right to exist, we should be eternally vigilant.

I exhorted Objectivists then & I do it again now—to "get out there in the marketplace & promote good art as zealously as you promote good philosophy, both being necessary for the preservation of freedom." The tide is against us at the moment—wherever we turn our ears are assaulted by jungle cacophony of the kind we've just heard. In the visual realm ... well, we've just been reading on the SOLO Forum about the Canadian artist who won a prestigious award for ejaculating into vials; there was the Turner Award in Britain, recently bestowed on someone whose "artwork" was a room with an electric light in it. These abominations are a dime a dozen right now; it is, as I often say, the Age of Crap. I want SOLO to wage an intellectual war on it every bit as relentless as the physical War on Terrorism.

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