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Have late modern values and technology made great art impossible?: Part Two

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 13, 2009

Following to a certain extent the arguments made by Anthony Gancarski, it is possible to argue that Eighties' alternative, New Wave, technopop, and some ballad-type music, such as that represented by groups and artists like The Smiths, Bryan Ferry, Joy Division/New Order, David Bowie, The Police (and Sting in his solo career), ABC, The Cure, Sade, Christopher Cross, and so forth, can be seen as having Romantic, aesthetic, and quote-unquote "Eurocentric" aspects. Such music often seems to have an "orchestral" or "symphonic" feel to it. Today called "Eighties' retro," "retro-alternative," or simply "retro," it can be favorably contrasted with such currently popular music subgenres as rap, hip-hop, and grunge.

It could be argued that the artist who seeks to create great art today should try to enter into a spirit of thought and reflection about the nature of late modern society. Insofar as it aims for greatness, outstanding art today must to some degree move towards a rejection of the current-day atmosphere of political correctness, designated minorities, and relativist aesthetics. While great art must be careful of not falling into kitsch, it should at the same time aspire to some fragment of "the true, the good, and the beautiful" -- often including elements of history, religion, and the heroic. In some cases, of course, the portrayal of evil, ugliness, and perversity can be artistically brilliant -- but it must be deftly handled. And let it be openly said that some kind of salutary, positive "counter-ethic" is emphatically needed in today's society, as we are at almost every point overwhelmed by the relentless portrayal and evocation of evil, ugliness, and perversity -- as well as by the mind-numbing strictures of political-correctness. In current-day society, a piece of carefully-crafted, representational art by a European artist, patriotically celebrating some part of his or her nation's heroic history -- may be the most truly radical work of art possible. Mel Gibson's reverential film on the Passion of Christ -- whose potential power to move hearts and minds is attested to by the smear-campaign against it -- is also likely to stand as very great art. Another recent outstanding film is Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo Vadis? (based on the Nobel-winning, Christians in Ancient Rome historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz).

On a more mundane level, one can enjoy the still-practised popular artforms of historical and battlefield painting (which often focusses on the American Civil War) as well as much of the art associated with fantasy and science fiction subgenres -- such as that of Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta. Much of the fantasy subgenre today continues in the directions set by J.R.R. Tolkien's monumental The Lord of the Rings (recently magnificently rendered in film by Peter Jackson, and probably having its two current, best-known illustrators in John Howe and Ted Nasmith). Certain elements of science fiction such as those represented in Frank Herbert's Dune and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers , have distinctly neo-traditionalist elements, as does George Lucas' Star Wars , albeit to a limited extent. The highly "progressive" Star Trek future gives a possible place to semi-traditionalist impulses only through "dissident" identifications such as those with the alien Klingon, Romulan, or Bajoran cultures. Given the producers' biases, these portrayals of "traditionalism" can be seen, to a large extent, as manifest parodies. Dystopian science fiction movies such as Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ) can certainly be interpreted in a traditionalist way. And Aldous Huxley's Brave New World , if carefully looked at, is indeed a very sharp critique of many trends and directions of our current-day society. Although it may have escaped the attention of most professional critics, the posited abolition of God, history, and family in Huxley's dystopian society points to the book as a conservative classic. At the same time, while Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four appears prima facie as a critique of coercive, violent totalitarianism (of the Soviet or Nazi type), it also draws brilliant attention to the critical role of language and manipulation of language and thought in maintaining tyranny -- or, as Orwell puts it: "Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak."

It could be argued that the unrelenting advance of technology in Western societies -- resulting in the creation of a mass, lowest-common-denominator society driven by advertising, consumption, notions of designated victimhood, and political-correctness -- has attenuated the possibilities of the creation and reception of great art -- which depends on the valorization of "the high." The late modern society is indeed an extraordinarily harsh climate for the nourishing of the what the Ancient Greeks called the megapsychlos -- "the great-souled man." In the sprawling and multifarious social and cultural landscape of late modern society, which is at places entirely barren, and in others, choked with luxuriant weeds, there are only a few niches where more elevated art and culture can exist.

It would be the task of a rooted social and cultural criticism to try to accurately portray the near-dystopic configurations of late modern society, to try to identify the few remaining foci of resistance, and to endeavor to coalesce these (to the extent it is possible) into a broader social, cultural, and spiritual resistance movement.

Pointing to the thinness, even barrenness, of late modernity brings into high relief how much has been lost of authentic human experience, despite the enormous gains in physical wealth by which North America is characterized -- a wealth which, although unevenly distributed, far exceeds that available to any premodern society.

It is indeed a materially very wealthy society, but one of extreme social, cultural, spiritual, religious, moral, psychological -- and, hence, artistic -- impoverishment. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.





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