James Matthew Wilson, an editor at Front Porch Republic, has posted the first four sections of an essay called “Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic,” and the fifth and final section is on its way. Though he’s posted excerpts for discussion at FPR, the full text is at First Principles (parts one, two, three, and four). If you’re interested in the fine arts and even a bit favorably disposed to the kind of conservatism that advocates “local and limited government founded on enduring cultural traditions, stable and self-sustaining communities, and, above all, the Christian intellectual legacy which informs all things by means of faith and reason,” it’s worth printing it all out and finding a quiet place to spend some time with the essay. By way of contrast, if you find that kind of conservatism to be a cover for all manner of nefarious schemes, you might want to do something else with your time. I suppose it’s enough to say that Wilson calls for conservatives to attend to the fine arts and also argues against theories of art that conceive of aestheticism without beauty. For the latter purpose, he draws on Jacques Maritain and, perhaps more surprisingly, Theodor Adorno. (The section on Maritain will be the final one, it will be published sometime in the next month.)
Though I’m very much an amateur when it comes to appreciation of any of the fine arts, I’ve spent some time dabbling in theological aesthetics and my Platonist side loves any project that aims for the unity of the transcendentals. I imagine a healthy artistic culture as one where the popular arts draw one’s gaze upwards, so to speak. Or, from the other direction, a healthy culture would have paths by which amateurs could approach high art: sort of an idealized version of Christendom. Our culture, I’m pretty sure, is not such a culture. Sometimes when I’m in a reflective mood I get rather stunned by the amount of repetition I’m willing to stomach in pop music: the same chord progressions, the same rhythms, the same song structures repeated again and again and again. And the same goes for the, well, artlessness of the motion pictures and television programs I so often watch. I don’t say it’s a bad thing that entertainment exists which is easy to absorb passively. What I lament is that the kinds of passive entertainments to which we expose ourselves so rarely even gesture at what is more sophisticated. Immersion in our culture’s popular entertainment rarely provides tools for understanding or approaching high art.
I want to say it doesn’t have to be this way, but I sometimes fear we’ve passed over a threshold, and the technology we structure our lives around has destroyed the conditions under which fine art and popular entertainment can be bonded together. Even as technology has empowered the amateur artist, it’s also done a great deal to render her irrelevant. For example, before the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s, if you wanted to hear music, you had to either get someone to perform it for you or learn to play it yourself. To put it simply, people must have needed more musicians, both amateur and professional, but cheap dissemination of recordings reduced this need, and thereby took away an incentive for becoming musically literate. These days, you can be a devoted music fan and still know nothing at all about how music works.
So I suppose what I’m getting at is that I’m all for a regenerated appreciation of the high arts, but it seems pretty clear to me that there’s no simple return to music or poetry or painting as it was in the past, since the forms that used to be popular arose from conditions which no longer exist.
This is something I’d like to explore in more detail, but I’m not exactly sure where to start. Further, I have no doubt that there are multiple texts I should read before opining any further, including some of what Wilson talks about in his essays. Any suggestions from the readers for books or articles on technology and the decline of art music?
(Apologies for the title. The best bloggers think of snappy quips, puns, or quotations for their post titles, but I couldn’t come up with anything like that. The choice was between weird and boring, so I chose weird. Feel free to suggest alternate titles in the comments.)