April 3, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Ars et Arma: Art in the Occident, Part IV
THERE EXIST two conflicting explanations for the state of the arts today—indeed, for the entire decadence of the Occident. We have suggested these explanations without at all explicating them, but the time has come to bring them to the fore. We may call them the philosophist explanation and the physiological explanation, and in considering their respective merits we will fall afoul of a deep philosophical dispute.
The philosophist explanation tends to consider philosophical and artistic developments in a people or a time to be causes, rather than effects. The theories or the teachings or the artistic productions of the great put their mark on the future, changing the order of societies and the fortunes of men, even as suns redirect the course of planets, asteroids, and the detritus of galaxies. This is the meta-aristocratic view of human history, which holds that behind the movements and revolutions of society, there are ever preeminent, if yet disputable and fallible, helmsmen. This view looks for the explanation of today’s social conditions, not in economic or societal or anthropological data, but rather in the work of the great Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern thinkers—aye, even farther back than that, in Christendom, in Rome, in Greece. It seeks the seeds of today in the human thought and creation of yesterday, and is a hundred times less likely to look to usury or credit or demographics or statistics to explain history, than to Machiavelli or Hobbes, Smith or Shakespeare, Plato or Homer. Indeed, it will locate the failure of the “soft sciences” precisely in their inability to quantify human nature, which exceeds and encompasses them rather than the other way around. A determinist is liable, like Tolstoy, to claim that an inscrutable fate guides the lives of us blind human beings; a philosophist will respond that the force of such a theory owes itself to the fact that a genius like Tolstoy had ideated it and inspired it with a living voice in this world. As is befitting to an aristocratic view, this position is but scornful of any external destiny and accords to the human soul the powers of prime movement. By this view, we owe our present artistic crisis to the the work of men who altered the theoretical framework of society, so as to produce, intentionally or no, a world inimical to the arts.
The physiological explanation, on the other hand, holds instead that, as true as the above view might be, it is yet superficial and does not get to the root of things. At the deeper layer one encounters the inevitable and unalterable substratum of power, energy, vitality of a time; and because the artist is dependent profoundly on that substratum—more profoundly than any other human being—his being, his essence, his achievements, will rise or fall on the basis of its rise or fall. The physiological explanation holds that the best ideas in the world will not avail, if they are adopted by sickly and enfeebled souls; it holds that every human epoch, every human day, is characterized by a determinate and determining vital level, which is indisputable and fatal.
To the degree to which one of these is true, the other is false. We here adopt the latter explanation, not because we are convinced of its truth, but rather because if it is true, then it forms as it were the limiting condition on the arts today. If it is true, then there will be a barrier, an unsurpassable barrier, laid on this life of man, and more specifically on the arts and the artists. Even as a good general will consider also the worst outcomes of battle, in order to be prepared to face even the harshest difficulties which might befall him, so we hypothesize the physiological explanation in order to investigate what might be the harshest reality of our day. Following this idea, we may then ask, nay we must ask—what is the vital level of the time in which we live?
Nietzsche claimed that the bow had been drawn in modernity as never before; Ortega y Gasset echoed this when he suggested that the revolt of the masses had brought the vital level higher than in any historical period precedent. Both of them, however, wrote before the Second World War, in which all the energies of Europe were consumed in a blaze such as had never been known, and all Europe’s faith in herself was shaken to the core by the most daunting spectacle of how such energies might burn, and what fuel they might take to feed. And since the World War and especially since the passing of that generation which waged it and won it for better or worse, the Occident has entered into this desolate and desertic contemporary period, in which it is easy to conclude that we Westerners are doomed to swallow our last feeble breaths, until some haler Southern or readier Eastern people comes to supplant us once and for all. By the physiological estimation, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the Occident has been spent, finally and most terminally.
A word on that. Certainly, the evidence to its favor is that we moderns do nothing of cultural worth and make nothing of durable value, but expend our evidently feeble vitality on a most sordid assortment of perversities and utterly frivolous pastimes. But the absence of cultural sign of vitality is not necessarily proof of the absence of vitality itself. We must remember that vitality can be sidetracked, vitality can be squandered, vitality can be driven through subterranean byways to express itself in the most unexpected of fashions. The volcano that slumbers is not the volcano that has died. There is reason to suspect that the élan vital, the hot and glowing ember of our cherished Occident, has but concealed itself beneath so much ash—that it wears a dun and darkened mask for this time being, because it has been shamed into such garb as that.
This much is certain: the social conditions surrounding us today are the subtlest enemies of art that have ever been. Never before has any Occidental society been so capably structured to distract Occidental man from any higher calling, or to sever his will to such ventures. Never before have their been such pressures and incentives and even expectations set upon man, to persuade him to exert his life’s energies in vapid and hedonistic works, to shame him away from his persona, from the full cultural expression of what he is or could be. Never before has any civilization in all the world stood so perfectly counterpoised against its own high culture.
Here is the law, as simply as it may be stated, governing the artistic attainment of human greatness: greatness will arise only if it must. Or why do you think that all ages of great art have been ages of hazard, violence, disruption or disaster? One needs a forcing bed for art. Our time is a bed of a very different kind.
He who has no war to fight may still invent one. He who lives in the wide and easy may make the path of his own life narrow and strait. We are tasked in this day with a heavier duty than has been lain on any shoulders before ours: we are lovers of culture who perceive the absence of all right conditions for culture: then we must fashion and artifice them. Prior times had to produce the creations of culture, and that was a mighty calling: but we must produce culture itself. Because our way is harder, fewer of us will emerge from the insidious dangers which assail us. But that need itself, that hard and desperate need, may push us yet to heights we do not dream. If we are keen and certain of our intent, we may yet profit of that paradox, whereby the absence of all trials can be made into the most masterful trial of any. But if we are to accomplish this, we must understand ourselves as fully as we are able.
There is hidden in all that we have so far said a fundamental difficulty which renders the very idea of a simply Western tradition tenuous and slippery, both for the recovery and for the preservation. The Western Tradition contains within it the idea of, nay, the need for surpassing, exceeding, transforming, of past achievements and past materials. Though this is in certain respects deceptive we may say that the Occident, as opposed to other traditions of the world, is more devoted to “becoming” than to “being,” insofar as one considers the tradition as a whole and not its principle members. We have defined the artistic traditions of the world as hieratic, for they seek to conserve and express ever more immanently some transcendental or holy image, generation after generation; but the Western tradition seeks always and ever to break the images of the past and to substitute them with new ones; the Western tradition is iconoclastic.
Now an iconoclastic tradition would seem to be a self-defeating proposition, one which tends ever toward chaos and dissolution. It would seem to be built on the very principle of destruction, so that, once it arrives at that rubble which is its inevitable final destination, it is unclear how it is ever to be recovered, or at what point one might hope to resurrect it. It would seem to be bound to death more than to life. And, as we have quite evidently reached an advanced stage of disintegration of art, and as we can see about us now only a field of rubbled pieces of shattered images and the ash of what has been burned in our hottest fires, there is reason to suppose that the Western tradition in art has come to its irreversible moribundity, and stands on the brink of final demise.
Yet let us take pause before these cold and dark conclusions. This same tradition, dedicated ostensibly to destruction, has yet proved itself the most creative tradition by far in all the world. The destructive element was neither exclusive, nor was it primary. The originating principle—which is to say, the eternally recoverable principle—in the Western Tradition, was not the desire to destroy past forms, but was rather the love of past excellence and the conjoined lust to outdo them. The artist in the West until very lately aimed always at the best—a best, to be sure, imposed and formulated by his own soul, and thus a rich and fertile “best,” a best unregulated by the necessary strictures of this or that peculiar tradition, but which rather pressed against all traditions more or less. Indeed, we may coin a term here, to better describe the nature of the greater Tradition to which we are heirs: not indeed iconoclastic, but iconoplastic—ready ever to mold and remold its own images, ready ever to work upon its own spirit. This implies overcoming, this implies self-conquering, self-mastery. We have already said—though we have not so much as begun to comprehend the meaning of this formulation—that the artistic tradition in the West was precisely the paramount realization of the will to victory that the classic philosophers explicitly rejected for the philosophical will to truth. It is time we confronted this claim, by facing its root meaning: the artistic tradition is the spiritualization and the consummation of the martial-political tradition.
Much can be comprehended about our history in art when looked at through this lens, which is otherwise difficult to fully explain. The sense of honor in the arts, as demonstrated in the passage already cited from Doctor Faustus; the rivalry between artists, which would be impossible or at least exceedingly rare if art were merely “self-expression”; the authenticity and the honesty which artists strive ever to embody in their works; the love of “movements” amongst artists, the common if not universal desire of artists to marshal the cultural forces of society; the unfortunate tendency in certain artists to abase themselves in politics and to become but mouth-pieces and propagandists; the equally common but much more desirable tension between the artistic class and the political class; the will of the artist to shine forth and to be justly recognized for his worth; the sometime ambition of the artist to meddle in affairs of society or state, his sometime will even to attempt to alter the social order as such; the ambiguous relation of the arts to piety, by which the arts now and again appear to be but manifestation of piety, and now and again seem to struggle against it in their deepest urges—all of this, though it is certainly more complicated than just this, quite probably has to do with the fact that the artists are kin to soldiers, warriors, generals, statesmen, are indeed but their spiritual heirs and analogues. The same genealogy which finds a priest or a shaman as the first ancestor of the sage, will find, as the first ancestor of the artist, the hero.
Then to get to the bottom of the Western Tradition in Art, we must clearly perceive the defining characteristic of that politico-warrior class which gave them birth.
Return to Ars et Arma, Part III
Continue to Ars et Arma, Part V