March 29, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Ars et Arma: Art in the Occident, Part III
ADMIRABLE AND PROFOUND is that statement of the artistic conscience of the Occident which occurs in that novel which, more perhaps than any other, captures the full ambiguity of art in the Occident. I speak of Doctor Faustus, one of the last great masterpieces of our day; I speak of what Adrian’s devil has to say of art in it:
Every better composer bears within him a canon of what is forbidden, of what forbids itself.
What is forbidden, what forbids itself. Note this well! We hear too often a trite evaluation uttered regarding the historical close of this or that artistic period: “It had nothing more to say, it was exhausted, therefore it was replaced.” Indeed, speaking of music—speaking of Adrian—is it not said again and again in defense of the innovations of Schönberg, that he had to break new ground, because the old ground had been cultivated one too many times, and was grown stale and arid? And yet, how deeply inadequate! The very period of classicism in music had not “said all that was sayable.” Does one really believe that Mozart, had he not been riven from this world as a young man, would not have found quantities to say? Does one really suppose he would have been forced to anticipate the tunes of Beethoven, that he would have composed, perhaps, some Mozartian prelude to the Third or the Ninth Symphonies? But—absurdity! The truth is sadder yet: we literally cannot dream what we have lost in Mozart—not in Mozart, nor in any of the great artists who have perished before their time.
No, it was not that all the music possible to classicism had already been composed: it was that one had grown bored of the tried and true, one wanted something unprecedented, startling, tantalizing, new. And not even this is yet adequate: the driving truth is rather another again. It was that Beethoven could not bear to be Mozart; it was that in the Western tradition, the pupil must ever slay his master. Not that nothing more can be said, but that one recognizes that there are certain things one shall not say, because they are not one’s own things, they are not one’s own self: that is the soul of it. And why? Artistic conscience—the artistic conscience of the Occident. But—what is this conscience? Love of truth? Certainly not, if what we have said regarding the artists and the philosophers is at all valid. Then—arrogance? Amour propre? Pride overweening? Some kind of obsessive and inexplicable fetish for novelty? Or rather—returning, as we always must, to the Greeks—is it not hubris that speaks out here, and the desire to become preeminent, even if such heady heights might vie with the gods? Such that—and here, the true origin of the element of novelty—when one cannot be preeminent in what has come before, then one forges a new way?
This artistic conscience—what enormities it conceals! Where may we look to shed a little light on these wide vistas opened before us?
Let us begin with what is nearest to us: let us begin with modernity alone. One of the most fascinating confessions of art in this or any day is that theoretical series of essays penned by none other than Arnold Schönberg to explain his revolution in the premises of musical composition. And what is it that Arnold Schönberg tells us in this work? Much, to be sure, about his supposed motivations, much talk of the theoretical underpinnings to them, the intellectual necessity to them, the historical precedents for them—all so carefully argued and justified, that one almost forgets it is the most visceral art imaginable of which he is writing. But lay his arguments aside; they are apologetics, and do not concern us. Infinitely more to the point, Schönberg reveals to us his true motivations, in the very term he used to describe the history of music: he calls it the emancipation of dissonance.
Emancipation! To be emancipated! Now we are coming to it: Schönberg could not spin out compositions of late romanticism à la Verklärte Nacht his entire life, without feeling himself shackled, bound, servile. It was freedom he craved. Schönberg had to invent dodecaphony, not because it was in him, but because it was the one way of breaking the shackles of the past. He would not have thought up such a curiosity had he lived a hundred years before. It was not his personality he was expressing at all, it was his “individuality,” or what we have come today to call his “identity.” This is the true meaning of his famous remark, “I believe art is born of ‘I must,’ not ‘I can’”—he was constrained to his course by what already been done, by the impositions laid upon him by such inconvenient facts as tradition, history, nature. He wanted out—
This claim is belied somewhat by the fact that Schönberg’s new system followed his “atonal” period, thus evidently replacing anarchy with a new order. Schönberg revealed himself quite clearly, however, when he noted that the problem with structureless atonal music was its tendency to seek a key, to resolve to one of the old musical tonalities; atonal music was problematic, not because it was too free, but because it was not free enough. There was yet tension in it, and tension demanded resolution, and resolution demanded—tonality. Vicious cycle, to one who would emancipate himself! The twelve-tone system was his method of liberating music completely from traditional tonalities. Freedom was what Schönberg craved from first to last; this alone is the key to his famed two-year-long silence, to his incredible single-handed imposition of the modern style, to his own tenuous relation to the very child of his theory.
Then well may we ask: is freedom the key as well to the riddle of Occidental art as such, as Schönberg himself suggested with his theory of music? Is art in the Occident nothing but the continual “emancipation of dissonance”? But hardly! And not even in music! What did Bach have to do with freedom? Or Handel, in whose heart was ever the rule of musical law? Or even Wagner, who played with tonality to a much greater extent? Here the Tristan chord will be brought against me, the famed Tristan chord that Schönberg wanted to claim as evidence for his theory. But really, if the Tristan chord was what Schönberg thought it was—namely, a great advancement toward the emancipation of dissonance—then why the devil would Wagner not have done it again and again? Why limit himself to a single chord, in a single opera? And not even one of his last? Was Wagner so timid that he could not bear the scorn the public might turn upon him, if he played too roughly with their ears? Are we to judge the man’s entire oeuvre—and what an oeuvre!—on the basis of four notes? And what about everything in Wagner that, far from “emancipating dissonance,” embraced tonality, celebrated tonality, pressed tonality to its pitch and essence, so much so that in the same opera as contains the famous chord, he could avoid a resolution to the tonic for almost the entire four-hour-long piece, in order to augment the tension of tonality to an intolerable extent? And this, the same tension—that Schönberg wanted to eliminate altogether!
Nor do the other arts much bear out the notion of “freedom,” or the hunger for “freedom,” as essential to art: Michelangelo, Van Eyck, Dürer—what would these men have done with “emancipation”? Where is freedom in the work of Goethe, in Racine, in Leopardi—I do not mean in the concepts of the work, but in the work itself, where is this freedom? These men lived by a divine law, a higher, clarion, crystalline, celestial necessity in which the strictures of fate, destiny, and need are bound up in an insoluble and unfrayable bond. This bond they called their liberty, because it permitted them to dance over the face of all existence with the exuberance and the flight of a deity. They did not seek such liberty; they enjoyed it merely. Freedom, that repellent modern concatenation—who in all the world wants freedom, except him who fears he does not already have it? “Art as freedom”—that is a philosophy for slaves, for the poor in spirit, for—modernity.
We owe this idea of “freedom in the arts” to the Romantics, and their sometimes sublime, sometimes excessive and tasteless rebellion against the hyper-rationality of the seventeenth century. Freedom for them meant something clear and something definite: it meant, escaping from unnatural bounds; it meant, emancipating the nature and the irrational passions of the human being, without which this life is not complete; it meant, bringing wholeness back to human experience, back to art itself, and attempting to reclaim that part of humanity which had been denaturalized in the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. The best of the Romantics wanted, in a decadent and enfeebled way, to get back to the Renaissance, to finish the work that had been begun in the Renaissance, which had been interrupted by a recrudescence of Catholicism at precisely the wrong moment. That was a noble enough desire, but it was taken as being something else altogether: it was taken as rebellion for the sake of rebellion.
Thence the revolutionary cycle in the arts was inaugurated—a new cycle, a bad echo and imitation of the original Occidental way: each new generation, each new artist, was charged with bringing something unheard of into the world, something never before seen. The “new” was enshrined as a governing principle of art. The new and unheard of could only prove itself as new and unheard of, insofar as it pandered to that basest of all elements within its public: the sense of shock. One had to amaze, to offend, to scandalize; one had to disrupt or better yet shatter the whole balance, or else one was not good for much of anything. One began to think of art as an attempt at liberation from mores, from customs, from society; one began to think of the artist, the lone and eccentric “genius,” as a craftsman of liberation, who sought greater freedom for himself, for “humanity.” Art was reinterpreted as the expression, in short, of modernity and the preoccupations of modernity. And thus, by one of those great ironies which govern the follies of men, art became the slave, no longer of order, but of anarchy.
From those heights to these lows, there is a straight and unsubtle line: we are the heirs of this decay, and the consequences of the consecration of “freedom in the arts” are all about us today.
Let us look at the arts today—supposing one can bear the sight of them—and let us speak for once truthfully and with manly sincerity of what we really see. Aye, let us look with our eyes for once, rather than our vanities. The vast majority of “high art,” and even that part of it which is most celebrated, is trash, emboldened by the theft of a noble name. In many cases we are not even speaking metaphorically when we call it such: much of it really is trash, in the literal sense of the term: one of Damien Hirst’s “installments” was taken out by the cleaners, and his is not even the first such case to prove that the janitor understands the quality of modern art better than its practitioners. Beyond this rubbish, a large part of what remains of modern art is puerility and prurience and the childish will to shock. Some vanishingly small percent is serious and of quality—but that is almost without exception relegated to the forgotten periphery, where it is left to languish in silence, ignored by the mainstream and scorned by the “elite.”
I repeat—this is what one sees, like it or not. Only a vast and ultra-rich imagination on the one hand, or a true penury of soul and disgrace of being on the other, could claim otherwise: and it will come as no surprise that I am not optimistic about which of these alternatives better applies itself to the modern soul. Art today, put most simply, is not art, and to say elsewise is like to calling superstition and groundless intuitions, science; it is like to proclaiming that babbling is oratory, that venom is medicine, and that rot is food. That such misjudgements are permitted today to the very critics and the very regulators of public taste shows the shocking degree of our decline. That these persons can stand, genuinely stand, before a canvass marked up as though with the crayons of a kindergartener, and speak of the meaning in it, the artistic intent, the innovation—aye, even the profundity, even the beauty!—what is one to make of that? What does sanity make of that? And all of this, not even to speak of “popular” art today!
But really, nothing stings so much as hearing the best souls of the nineteenth century refer to their time as the vulgarest and most decadent in history. What did they know of vulgarity or decadence, the poor ingenuous souls! They should perish of disgust or of derision, were they to pass only a single day with us.
This is salt on open wounds for those of us who still have nerves. But it leads us to a fundamental point, in which we might be justified for tormenting ourselves so. We have said that the difference between philosophers and artists is that the latter refuse to die to themselves. This may seem a curious point, or even one of little import, but, as with all philosophical principiae, it is in fact a kingdom hidden in a phrase. We take stock now only of the social side of the question, which is rich indeed for our investigation: for the philosophers and the artists, on the basis of their disagreement with each other, must dispute as well about the relative worth of the possible social orders of human beings. They must love, they must seek, they must strive for, radically different regimes.
The philosophers have a long tradition of speaking ill of democracy—but only as they are living beneath it. They speak of ill of democracy to temper democracy. But they are aware of the degree to which democracy is favorable to philosophy—more favorable indeed than any other regime or government, save the mixed regime which takes democracy, whether it will or no, as its principle ingredient. For the philosopher must in any case die to history; he must die to his society, his government, his race, his people; he is not influenced by democracy, nor must feel the burn of its sins against human life. At the same time, he is safer in democracy than in almost any other social order, and certainly safer than in any common and likely human society. Socrates, to be sure, was sentenced to death by a democracy—but in a very ambiguous circumstance, and only after he had spent some fifty years playing the gadfly to his people. What other society would have abode him even half as long? The most seminal periods of philosophy have moreover always been in democratic times, and the most remarkable public pronouncements of the philosophers have found the same birth. Suffice it to observe that Nietzsche was not so much as fined for what he wrote: let that be the measure of how amenable democracy is to philosophy!
The artist is different. Why is he different? Because his love is not for the truth, but for life: because he embraces precisely that which perishes in the philosopher’s soul; because he is the embodiment of his time, his society, his race, his people. He wishes to become what he is—not what he is eternally and inhumanly, but what he is as a specific and distinct historical being. Personality is lost in the philosopher; in the artist it is raised to apotheosis.
Now, personality in times of democracy is molded fundamentally by the dogma of equality. Personality in eras of hierarchy and aristocracy is understood as pertaining or pertaining most fully to a few human beings who are able in themselves to reach the airy heights reserved to exceptional human beings. This went so far in the Middle Ages, for instance, that the people of the lower classes in certain periods did not even possess names, but were called generically by their professions. Naming and personality are indeed inherently connected; in the origins of language, one finds naming as the bringing forth of the essence of a thing, which was implicated ever and always with magic and even with the dark arts. It is the ruler who granted names originally to objects, places, men, and the ruler originally was viewed as a kind of god. Even in our day this practice remains, in some wan echo, in the custom by which parents grant names to their children, rather than, say, chance, or statistics, or the child itself. But it survives better intact in another and altogether profounder place: the artist is the great inheritor of the essence of this august heritage. The artist is he who most fully embodies his peculiar nature, he who most totally owns his peculiar vital powers, he who best uses these things in the highest way possible, and because these things are his, he is granted also the supreme reward of his wholeness: the artist is the bestower of names. His power here depends decisively on the nature of his person, his persona—his mask, which is to say, the soul as manifested to the world, the outside and acting shell of his character.
But in democracy, every human being is conceived as the equal of every other. Every human being is thought to be endowed with “personality,” every human being is thought to possess a peculiar and unique nature worthy of expression. The principle of individuality, most corrosive principle of any social principle ever invented, replaces that of personality in times of democracy, identity replaces the old idea of character; and in direct consequence, each human being is thought to be artistic, to possess artistic capabilities. The “artistic production” of each human being is thought to be fundamentally valuable, in some way fundamentally equal to that of every other. Here we find the reason that the use of words like “creativity” in our day is so demeaned and so widespread that it almost does not mean anything any longer. This is also the basic reason why, if you enter a museum of modern art today, you will perceive endless quantities of canvases, sculptures, “installments,” which could have been produced by a four-year-old or a retarded person: we no longer discriminate between ranks of human beings, and that refusal on our part must be reflected in the most historically hierarchical part of our society, with the most fervor and zeal.
Of course, it is not practicable to hold that all “art” produced by all human beings is strictly identical in value; it would lead to an impossible flooding of our museums and galleries, and would make the idea of “art” literally meaningless. But of course, it is anti-egalitarian and quite contrary the spirit of the times to pass anything like judgement on the works of “art” produced by Sally or Sam. Surely you will find some critic who will do as much, and such judgement is, moreover, always implied in all criticism. Yet this is consistently regarded generally as “snobbishness” and arrogance. Therefore, one generally leaves the tangles of this question to the market, to the mysterious workings of capitalism—which is nothing but economic democracy. Through the prism of the democratic market, art is separated out into popular art, defined by shameless pandering to emotion, on the one hand, and “elite” art, defined by arbitrary and degenerate taste, on the other. And this is poisonous to art in its highest sense.
The practical aspect of the dispute between philosophy and art therefore lies then in this, that the philosopher opposes democracy only to the extent that it might prove injurious to his independent truth-seeking, while democracy opposes the artist as such. Philosophy tends to favor and be favored by democratic epochs; but art is the preserve of aristocracies, and flourishes only in those periods which worship human excellence and suppose great distances between human beings.
“What—and all the artists today who support democracy, and are clearly made possible by it and it alone? Are you simply going to discount them all, just as arrogantly as that?”
But really, good reader, a moment’s seriousness! First of all, I beg to know—are these really artists of whom you speak? Or are you not engaging in that favorite pastime of bored democrats—namely, finding new and surprising ways of abusing the language, or watering it down? In the majority of the cases to which you allude, I submit that “artist” is as little valid a description of these persons, as “saint” is for the local priest, or “scientist” for the local scholar. To be sure, I have no doubt that here and there one will find a true artist who favors the democratic order. The examples are before us: consider even Thomas Mann, the same Mann whose “artistic conscience” has brought us this far! But in all honesty, I perceive that even many of these artists are pressed to their philodemocracy by extreme circumstances—by the lack, so to speak, of any better alternative, or even by a failure of honest self-knowledge. It might be indelicate to inquire too deeply, for instance, into what personal or familial questions led to Mann’s evident change of heart between 1918 and 1940; and it would be hasty to assume it was merely a question of the artist’s maturing over the course of those decades.
Then today, what is the artist to do? I mean the true artist, not your bookshop idol or your jazz room debonair. Not he who posts tomato cans upon a canvas, nor who sinks a shark in formaldehyde—but rather the artist who is still capable of throwing new constellations upon this sky, the artist in whose soul such constellations still gyre and turn. Where is the true artist to place his hope, in this filthy bog called a culture, this writhing mass of small souls that grope and caress each other and set “art” to be nothing but a staircase to their vanity? The philosopher may take all this philosophically and with his usual inhuman aloofness—but the artist? Freedom plus equality—that equals vanity. There is an alchemical equation for you, and one liable to make the artist’s stomach turn, and his heart grow cold. He is living in times hostile to him—he must come to terms with this fact.
Well might one ask, what is it to him? Why does he not merely go his own way and do as he pleases, and devil take the “milieu” to which he was born?
Here is the trouble, the basic, vital trouble. The artist is as a plant. He grows and thrives only given very definite conditions, amongst which are: the soil of a rich culture; the water of patronage and enthusiastic reception or clamorous rejection of his works; the need to grow, as imposed on him by the rigorous competition about him; and the sunlight of his independent vision, unblocked by tyrannical towers or demagogic heaps, and sometimes even focused and concentrated by a little rigid censorship. None of these conditions is so much as promised in a democracy.
It must be admitted that true philosophers are a hardier breed. There is no question of it; they make their way indifferent to all these questions, and with an independence which verges truly on the divine. They burn of a slow inner fire, while the artist is out starving amidst the ashes of our paltry day. True artists, for the reasons already adumbrated, are tied, blood and soul, to the destiny of their times, and cannot arise just so, from out of the morass. It would seem then that in lack of right culture, the artist is bound to wither, perhaps even to perish, perhaps even to disintegrate in his own furious burning.
What then shall save them? Only this: that the artist is the one living being in all the cosmos, whose flames may spring from his own ash.
Return to Ars et Arma, Part II
Continue to Ars et Arma, Part IV