Monday, 28 December 2015

What are the social ill-effects of the genius famine in the arts? (What are 'the arts' for, anyway?)

The lack of genius in some of the arts such as fine art and classical music may be accepted as true, but what is its effect? What are we missing?

The questions is ultimately one about the proper function of art - what is art supposed to do? Why does art exist at all?

Only if we know the function of art could we understand why art's supreme practitioners might have value, and then understand what the lack of living representatives if such practitioners might do.

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This question has not proved at all easy to answer over the past couple of hundred - even for the most dedicated and enthusiastic advocates of 'the arts'. Indeed, the most extreme advocates, 'aesthetes - who tried to build their lives around the appreciation and practise of art and to make life itself an art - were reduced to incoherent babble about 'art for art's sake'.

And the reason for this difficulty is simple enough: it is that secular culture, culture which denies the reality of religion, cannot answer any 'why' questions.

The only possible answer to 'why' questions is some kind of story, purpose or teleology of life. Only if we know where life-in-general is supposed to go and our own role in it, can we explain the role of any-thing in particular - such as art.

From the perspective of my Christianity, the function of art is seen in terms of a long, interrupted progression, potentially towards divinity; a vision of life in which love is the primary value, and other values including creativity rank very high indeed.

The transcendent Good, within which such progression occurs, has been traditionally and usefully separated into Truth, Beauty and Virtue. So, in a metaphysical sense, the Good - including Beauty - are part of the backdrop or frame within-which the prime drama of the human story happens - the value of Beauty is built-into the fabric of reality. Beauty is therefore extremely important!

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Yet, we immediately notice that our recognition and appreciation of Beauty is 'also' subjective, and relative - there is a lot of disagreement about the specifics.

However, there is also the feeling that disagreement about the specifics of art - disputes over who are the greatest geniuses - or an inability to appreciate Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven - or disagreements over whether Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner was the greatest - and so on... such inconsistencies do not really matter, so long as the basic aims and purposes are correct.

The basic assumption that makes art valuable runs along the lines that:

Art is about Beauty, and Beauty is part of The Good. 

The artistic genius and art itself is therefore a kind of human-bridge between ourselves and the transcendental value of beauty. Art is, must be, about Beauty - and forms a kind of framework or explanation, an education and training, about Beauty.

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Therefore art is not neutral, neither is it optional, and it is highly consequential. A specific culture's art and appreciation of art is indeed a fundamental aspect of its nature - and this is related via Beauty to the most fundamental distinction of Good and evil.

The lack of living geniuses is therefore rather like a lack of living prophets. A lack of living prophets means that there is nobody authoritative to interpret and explain uncertainties and ambiguities of religious scripture and doctrine - the prophet is a mediator.

A lack of living geniuses is similar although in a way that is more like showing than explaining - the work of an artistic genius is itself a kind of model of how to relate to reality in terms of beauty - it is an experience of how to identify and respond to beauty.

If we having no living genius to do this for our time and circumstances, and in face of new and specific problems and deliberate obfuscations, then we must make do with past geniuses - and we come a much less-direct, a 'silver', antiquarian or museum culture.

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Of course, there are many types of art, seldom living geniuses in all of them all of the time, and there is another possibility of using the achievements of genius domain and applying it to others.. Thus some cultures (in an particular time and place) are dominated by painting, others by poetry, others by music.

In the modern West, it seems to me that the highest levels of achievement are probably in fiction, novels - especially 'genre' novels such as fantasy. By contrast, poetry and drama are in a bad way.

In that sense, we are living in a literary prose culture - and our primary genius is in that domain.

Since the best modern fiction is more 'niche' than the novel used to be, the scale of genius is probably less than in the past - but the possibility exists for benefiting from such living interpreters and intermediaries as the basis for a relationship to Life and an answer to fundamental problems; including an interpretation which spills over into other domains such as music and art.

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This happens by reading books, novels of genius; imaginatively entering into the worlds made by genius, and actually experiencing the way that we as individuals may experience Beauty 'inside' the experience of those worlds.

The example is now historical, but the reason why reading The Lord of the Ring's by JRR Tolkien was so important in my life was that the experience educated me into an experience of fictive life (life inside the fiction) that solved (more or less) the problem of relating to beauty which I experienced in modern everyday life. Tolkien's genius was to create a proper relation to Beauty inside his world, and I was able to learn from this.

It is the lack of this possibility which causes deep problems when genius is absent, and when art is corrupted - especially when art claims to be nothing to do with Beauty, or advocates the destruction of Beauty as a deeper Beauty, or the shock value of ugliness as a kind of Beauty, or subordinates Beauty to politics.

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In sum, we live in an era when the problem is not so much lack of genius, nor of low quality of art - but one where anti-Art (based on an ideal of anti-Beauty, which is therefore anti-Good) is officially propagated as mainstream.

This is... confusing. It is easy to know what the arts are for in a sane society; but in our society of deliberate insanity, where 'arts' may legitimately be themselves ugly, promote ugliness, subvert and destroy Beauty, and deconstruct the meaning of 'art'... well, the (officially approved) arts merely contribute to the state of delusion and despair.

But in a 'normal' (rather than an inverted) society, the role and function of art and the artist including The Genius is much easier to discern. Art in such a society is an extremely important part of The Good Life and an obvious source of understanding, motivation and enhancement.