The social critic Camille Paglia has lamented in a recent radio interview that there’s currently a dearth of great, nourishing art in the West. After their predecessors killed God, she says, postmodern secular humanists have failed to replace theistic religion with a high culture featuring worthwhile art. On the contrary, modern rationalism, with its paeans to technoscientific progress towards utopia, gave way to postmodern cynicism, irony, and sneering at all ideals, myths and faiths, including the longing for atheistic spirituality. Current Western art tends to be trash, Paglia says, because postmodernists have no conviction that any work can be a testament for all times.
The plot thickens with Scott Timberg’s Salon articles on the hard economic times for culture producers in the creative industries, including the fine arts and publishing. (See The Creative Class is a Lie and No Sympathy for the Creative Class.) In the United States, most painters, musicians, dancers, novelists, and actors barely scrape by, working multiple jobs or freelancing if they can find any work at all in their fields. The internet was supposed to be a gift to the creative class, giving artists direct access to their audience; indeed, there are some success stories, but they’re in a tiny minority and the oddity is that the artist’s plight is virtually a secret in the culture at large. “Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen,” Timberg says, “write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners?”
Timberg points to numerous causes in the US. Pragmatists and puritans object to art’s uselessness or idolatry; the public worships celebrities and so has a distorted view of the creative class; there’s a culture war fought between liberals and so-called anti-elitists, and artists are on the losing side with the intellectuals; the technological revolution has democratized the production of culture, leading people to err in inferring that there’s likewise a democratization of talent, which in turn leads to resentment towards successful artists since we assume that anyone can produce great art. Finally, there’s socially Darwinian economics and the scientistic assumption that only what can be measured is real and worthwhile; hence, many assume that if art can’t pay its own way in the so-called free market, the artists ought to starve.
There are a number of fascinating questions here. First, is there such a thing as great art, and if so, what is it? Second, is there currently any such art in the West, and if so does that art matter? Third, is there a deeper cause of the creative class’s hardship, one that’s tied to the function of art?
The Irrelevance of Great Postmodern Art
Regarding the first question, there’s little academic agreement about art’s function. Surely, at a minimum, though, great art should be the result of some skill or talent. Modernists valued originality as a sign of individual genius unrestrained by dogmatic institutions. At best, though, newness is a necessary condition of great art, since there are scribbles, noises, and hackworks that have never before been seen, heard, or read. Also, the cult of originality takes for granted a teleological, progressivist view of history according to which what’s in the past is necessarily inferior to what will come. I prefer Spengler’s more naturalistic, cyclical theory of culture, according to which all civilizations come and go, passing through stages of vivacity and decline. Art should also hold up a mirror to the society in which it’s produced and to the spirit of its time. But this too doesn’t suffice for great art, since anything can be interpreted as indicating the state of current culture or of human nature. Perhaps art should also point the way to a solution to social ills. According to Paglia, for example, secular art should fulfill a spiritual need that can no longer be fulfilled by theistic religion. Even if artists have no clue about how to improve their culture, Paglia implies that viewing great art will advance culture by improving the quality of its citizens.
This isn’t a complete theory of art, by any means, but we can take the combination of those criteria as a rough guide and ask whether any current, postmodern art is great in those respects. Much postmodern art seems arbitrary and indeed fraudulent as opposed to demonstrating much skill. Some such art, however, in the attempt to push the envelope, is perpetrated on a vast scale, incorporating tons of steel or gallons of paint, showing off the artist’s skill, at least, in socializing or in otherwise raising the funds to pursue such large-scale projects. And much postmodern art does indeed prove that originality doesn’t suffice for greatness, since many postmodern paintings, for example, consist of just such novel forms of scribbling.
The pointlessness or pretentiousness of this art does reflect the apathy and jadedness of postmodern society, but this raises the further question of whether a corrupt society can produce objectively, universally great art. If a culture is rotten and its art reflects that degenerateness by being equally rotten, the art must surely be as poor, in a sense, as the culture that spawns it. But perhaps art can be so rotten, as in the case of any Michael Bay movie, that the depths to which the work sinks are as awesome as the heights of the most elevated art. Perhaps art can be so disposable that it stands as an odious warning of the end of human vice. In that respect, even the worst of postmodern art can be permanently useful, albeit only ironically and paradoxically since the “greatness” of this art would consist in the work’s encouragement to do much better. As for cultivating the viewer’s character, much postmodern art seems rather to reinforce the conventional cynicism and relativism; certainly, most postmodern artists would merely parrot obsolete liberal memes by way of recommending how Western societies might be salvaged.
However, the technological revolution complicates the evaluation of current Western art. The fact is that virtually every conceivable genre of art is now being produced and indeed made freely available on the internet. If you go to the Last radio website, for example, you’ll find lists of musicians occupying micro niches within niches. There’s electronic music, of course, but then there’s ambient music and then drone and then dark ambient and drone doom and then drone metal; then there’s funeral doom, drone doom metal, sludge, post-metal, stoner metal, sludgecore, sludge doom, and so on and so forth for all other music genres. Something similar is so with respect to painting, creative writing, and even acting. The internet has indeed allowed anyone to publish his or her own art. There are, for example, an astonishing number of blogs on every conceivable topic, including something as outlandish as existential cosmicism and the undead god. There’s more art created now than anyone can imagine and so as a matter of sheer probability you’d think that at least a fraction of this outpouring of art must be great.
Even were there now such hidden gems, though, the new ways in which this art is distributed raise the further question: Is all great art necessarily recognized as such? The works of many great painters, for example, became famous only after the painters died, having languished for years in obscurity, ignored or belittled by the art establishment--and that was before the advent of the internet and the information glut that afflicts consumers. There can be too much of a good thing; indeed, you can turn what was once a boon--when it was hard to come by or consumed in moderation--into a poison by consuming too much of it. An apple a day may be healthy, but twenty apples every day is not. Perhaps, then, technology has made art so abundant that we’ve become bored with it: not only have we peeked at the man behind the curtain, but we know everything there is to know about him; we have his cell phone number and he’s at our beck and call. When you can find not just free music, but any conceivable kind of music--and just by tapping a few keys--music may lose its charm. They say that the more you pay for something the more value you ascribe to what you buy, to justify the price, and thus the better you feel about paying so much for it. The corollary is that what can be so easily attained will seem all the more disposable and thus not worth having. (The stereotype of the loose woman works in the same way: when a woman is easily seduced, the man loses respect for her since he assumes she’s worthless as a trophy and likely won’t be faithful to him.)
This follows the pattern of Murphy’s Law: the harder something is to achieve, the more it’s worth having and the fewer the people who achieve it, whereas the fewer the troubles encountered in pursuing something, the less worthy the thing is and thus the more the suckers who settle on something so unimportant. The point is that prior to the democratization of art distribution by the printing press, television, and the internet, when art was truly a delicacy for the elite, art was prized if only as a status symbol, like a flat belly in the midst of so many MacDonald’s “restaurants.” Art in a postmodern society has no such high status, because it’s consumed along with the air we breathe. Thus, a democracy is usually the opposite of a meritocracy. Two heads are better than one only if one of the heads isn’t a dunderhead that will spoil things for the pair. The more heads you put into the mix, the more dunderheads you introduce and thus the lower the standard that must be suffered for group cohesion. You’d think that the dunderheads would be outweighed by the geniuses whose input would also be increased, but this assumes that the dunderheads equal the geniuses in number and influence. In those societies that are beset by poor public education systems and by waves and waves of media misinformation emanating from the likes of Fox News and talk radio, the dunderheads might well drown out the elites, which will shift the average and lower the standards of art, consumer products, politics, and everything else that depends on public demand.
To sum up, I suspect that there is great art now being produced in the West. This art is the product of great skill and originality and it deals with important topics. The problem with postmodern art may lie not with the artists, then, but with the consumers: we postmodernists are spoiled and we take our godlike knowledge and power for granted. The internet is the fabled horn of plenty, and just as the spirits in the Christian heaven would be insufferable, condescending pantywaists, so too our vices are exacerbated by the environment we help create. We steal much of what we find on the internet because we want the best deal possible, and that in turn is because we don’t make enough money to be carefree with our purchases; we don’t earn a living wage, because we settle for politicians who protect society’s naturally oligarchic structure, and we settle because the candidates’ technocratic handlers exploit our biological biases and so easily manipulate us. Then we enter a self-loathing phase as we realize we’re abusing a doomed business model in which content creators offer the fruits of their labours for free on the internet just on the off-chance that their work will go viral. Moreover, like decadent aristocrats we’re surrounded by such opulence that we become corrupted. We lose sight of the value of what’s in front of us because we equate its value with the ease with which we can obtain it (just by clicking away at the mouse for a few seconds); thus, we commit a form of the genetic fallacy. And so both the artists and the consumers suffer: the latter impoverish the former, and the former punish the latter with haystacks of mediocre art in which are buried perhaps some pins of great artworks.
The upshot, then, is that the quality of art is no longer decisive. Postmodernists are jaded because we’ve seen too much: too much art, too many religions, too many political scandals, too many celebrities, too many scientific discoveries, and on and on and on. The problem isn’t that we obviously have more history behind us than any previous generation; rather, we have much more information about that history, thanks to technological advances which have democratized the flow of information in general and not just the distribution of art. Our greater access to information has empowered and thus corrupted us. (Just imagine what a debauched tyrant God would be.) Wikipedia all by itself fulfills the adage that a little learning is dangerous: anyone on the internet now can learn a little about anything under the sun, and so we’re boastful and rude in our electronic mockeries of social interactions. Moreover, we’re inundated with media-generated images, news stories, jingles, and sales pitches, and so we’re glutted; we’re sick of our cultural follies. We’ve become desensitized to both the best and the worst of what we can accomplish. Somewhere in the cultural maelstrom may likely be found artworks that nourish the soul, but who has the patience to sift the swarms of inferior works or even the incentive to believe that nourishing anything is worthwhile or that there’s such a thing as a soul in the first place? The problem isn’t so much that art is dead, but that the postmodern art consumer is dead inside.
Art and the Culture War
Finally, I’d like to address the third question I raised, about the deeper cause. Timberg says, suggestively, that “Serious art – novels, what you have in the galleries – brings you back to reality and makes you look at your life. Serious art makes people uncomfortable – and during these times, we don’t need more discomfort.” Again, he says, “‘the tale of our times,’ O’Neill wrote in his piece on the silence of the new depression, ‘is mostly being told by our unwillingness to tell it.’” I think Timberg here points to a major cause of the contemporary Western artist’s struggle. In a degenerate society, great art will reflect that abysmal condition and so present a message that the majority is unwilling to hear. Likewise, in a corrupt political system, the politician who “gaffes” by telling the politically incorrect truth will be despised and ridiculed as insane or as otherwise not Serious, not to mention voted out of office. So the environment and the conventions that spellbind us set up a vicious feedback loop, worsening trends that begin with our innate weaknesses and sealing our minds within self-reinforcing delusions. After all, the postmodern know-it-all, lost in pretentious irony and feigning the weariness that would come with godhood is a mere poseur. The universe outside our cultural playgrounds is thoroughly inhuman and to appreciate that fact is to sink to your knees in horror, to despair that your cherished ideals are farcically irrelevant, not to play idle games with cultural dross.
We’re the killers of postmodern art as well as the victims of a paradoxically artless culture. We have access to so much art that we might as well have access to none; we take it all for granted, losing the ability to assign things their proper value. We don’t deserve timeless, transcendent art, because we wouldn’t appreciate it even if it fell into our laps. We are smug, soulless, contemptible creatures; our modern ancestors bet on Reason to replace religious Faith, and so we’ve inherited godlike technoscientific power, but not the wisdom to apply that power well. Paglia is right when she says that we lack but desperately need great art; however, the problem isn’t so much that this art doesn’t exist, but that we haven’t the eyes to see it or the character to normatively distinguish the great from the inferior. She blames postmodern art critics for their pompous, juvenile and self-refuting relativism, but I suspect that academic postmodernism is only a symptom of the disease.
The ultimate problem of postmodernity was prophesied over a century ago by Nietzsche, who was an early postmodernist: when God dies, so does the basis of theistic values, and without new myths--expressed by great art--to sustain atheistic replacement ideals, functional atheists will revert to nihilism. Postmodern art consumers are nihilistic: we don’t care about art in the first place, because our culture is deluged with information of all kinds, and so we’re unwilling to take up a quest to find the art that might save us or to pay much if anything for that art were we to encounter it. We are philistines posing as connoisseurs, pragmatic system-managers pretending to be high-cultured heralds of posthumanity. Our vaunted “high culture” is the seepage, the flatulent discharge, the stink from the decay of our paltry portion of the undead god. We are the frogs in the boiling pot, mesmerized by our melting flesh and mistaking our decadence for good taste.
But more to the point, were some noble artists to sublimate the forces of that corruption and to produce inspiring artworks, art that might catalyze a social process of rejuvenation, and were that art so powerful as to be able to stir us even within the depths of our personal cocoon of delusions, there’s yet another cocoon that would first have to be cracked open: the collective version of the self-reinforcing delusion. There is a largely automated social system that prevents subversive messages from reaching a wide audience, and this filtering happens even on the internet with its democratic powers of liberating information. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, there is no cabal of elites that controls this system of managing public opinion, although there is a minority that surely benefits from the natural sorting process.
What happens is just that most social groups ultimately succumb to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, and one aspect of this assignment of status in the pecking order is the differential flow of information. The elites in charge have their top secret access to the truth, while the masses are fed a diet of nonsense; more precisely, though, the masses flock to gobble up their gruel, because they lack the skills and the social connections to occupy a higher position in the power hierarchy. Even the movers and shakers can watch Fox News or the dreck of the most-watched YouTube videos, but only those who aren’t educated to think critically or who have nothing else to do because they’re stuck with low-level jobs will mistake those disposable infotainments for revelations worthy of the time to consume them. The social system runs according to natural laws that spell out the patterns that result from nature's complexification and evolution (synchronic and diachronic processes). One such pattern is the emergence of oligarchy which distributes power to stabilize a group of social animals. Democratic or libertarian social structures merely free individuals to assume their natural positions in the power hierarchy.
And my point here is that postmodern societies in decline or at least in denial about their deficiencies will make great art all the harder to find, to reinforce the delusions that sustain the currently-unfashionable oligarchic structure. The bad art of infotainment distracts the masses while the elite are free to buy and sell masterpieces of yesteryear. Artists suffer, then, for the sake of social stability. After all, artists tend to be omega men and women, alienated outsiders, outcasts and introverts whose detachment from society allows them to see what the insiders and mainstream masses can miss. Secular artists tend to be subversive because their art is the product of their mentally disturbed personality, which prevents them from adapting to social conventions. Antisocial outsiders have less at stake in protecting politically correct delusions, and so these artists--painters, novelists, bloggers, poets, singers, independent film-makers, unconventional architects--use their art as weapons against the social order that ostracizes them. In modern or postmodern societies, at least, in which there’s a sharp divide between religious and secular forces, there’s typically a cold war between artists and defenders of mainstream, nakedly or covertly oligarchic conventions. If Timberg is right and most Western artists are in dire financial straits, this signifies that the mainstream forces currently have the upper hand or at least that few people appreciate subversive messages enough to pay much for them. Alternatively, the significance might be that the masses crave an alternative to their cultural status quo, but that Western art isn’t sufficiently subversive to meet that demand. Again, though, I think there’s so much art out there now that any artistic taste can be satisfied. But taste requires an appetite, a sign of inner life that’s rarer than you might think.