Dipping My Toe into the Lagoon
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
The lagoon, in this case, refers to ideologically conceived art. I really do not like it. I really do not think it belongs anywhere near sincere exploration of human truths in the varying realms of aesthetics. Narrative, verbal creations are most apt to make manifest the silly call for artists to, “Say something!” (only silly because of the implication: that which you should say should be a lesson to the world in how to make political decisions. And, by the way, you should only say it if WE agree with the message). I am pretty rough on the history of the artist as head of the political van guard and I won’t venture to give a lesson on which I know little to nothing. Perhaps the temptation for an artist to preach their sociopolitical message has always been and will always be lurking in the mind of creators; I would venture to guess, however, that the present time seems to erroneously require and encourage this of artists more than other eras might have. I use the word “erroneously” not wishing to shut the door on circumstances where the kitchen sink might be needed to pull down an evil rule of law.
Before I wade further into the weeds, let me make clear that I understand there have been pieces that have, perhaps, bolstered the collective in combating murderous political regimes. 1984 and Brave New World stand out to me in this way. I don’t want to diminish their positive impact—insomuch as there has been one—but I want to add that these books, and works like them, lack an artistic value that, for me, would elevate them to masterpieces that have made soul-altering impacts (that is to say an impact at the level of how one goes about interacting and developing relationships with individuals). Of course, there is genius in Orwell and Huxley’s labors. I propose it has to do with their understanding of how and why totalitarian and authoritarian regimes come about in the collective and individual psyche. I am more familiar with 1984, having read it 3 times, whereas I’ve read Brave New World once. In 1984, Orwell did very well to illustrate the tragedy of political groupthink and how easily it can capture the portion of society we actually rely on to steer the ship away from hell on earth. He recognized there is very little hope for the “proles” to correct a system error that has blown a fuse in the intelligentsia. And he did very, very well to examine the fate of the individual who finds the error and acts out against it: they get exterminated.
I’ll remind everyone, and this I do know with total certainty and I would encourage all parties to research this for yourselves, Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning to leftists/liberals/socialists/communists in wake of the ascent of Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and eventually Stalin. This was not his crying out against Hitler and the Nazis (and it is a travesty that, at least at my high school, this was not made expressly clear. Based on how the book is referenced today, I assume this is a problem across the board). And another thing: when modern politicians and political movements call for “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” and kangaroo court-like organizations to determine the fate of and/or hold accountable “Trump enablers” (as if we are now coming out of a murderous social program akin to early 20th Century regimes and must conduct Nuremberg 2.0), we have placed at least one appendage into the realm of Oceania. I would very much like to withdraw said limb. And if this proves to be impossible, amputation or full immersion seem to be the only two routes, both of which produce an end result that should chill you to the bone.
*I’m throwing the following in upon edit.* Consider the malignant manipulation of language on the side of the present-day leftists. You remember the nonsensical “Ignorance is Bliss”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “War is Peace” from the Big Brother Party, forcing its subjects to accept illogical positions upon pain of death and torture? Tell me how Silence is Violence is any different.
Make no mistake: contemporary ideological art is hardly as courageous or essential as that which Orwell produced. In writing 1984 and The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell was going against the grain of the artistic circle—or so I understand. To produce work today that pronounces white men as bad, females as the future, black women as Holy Saints and Survivors of the White Man’s Oppression, gays and lesbians as murderously maligned by the narrow-sighted heteronormative standards of the patriarchy: this is hardly an act of courage counter-intuitive to the stream of thought running out of the artistic crowd; rather, it is more or less an act of signaling one’s belonging within said crowd by expressing shared values. Is work sprung from the aforementioned seeds art?
That racism exists, that women experience mistreatment from the opposite sex, that we pollute the earth, etc. etc. are, separate discussions. I am suggesting these observations—of the low-hanging fruit variety—and the procurement for their ills is not the genesis for masterpiece. It isn’t that social commentary is not to be allowed in the creative process. I recently listened to Anna Khachiyan describe literature whose heart is social commentary as the most elite form of writing. And I can see why she reaches this conclusion given the inclusion of social critique in nearly all the literary giants of the past few centuries. My favorites—Nabokov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Bulgakov, Fitzgerald—certainly imbued their novels with intricate, nuanced attacks on what they viewed as the plagued ideology of their time (I’ll add that they often were attacking the social constructionists). I seriously question, however, whether or not the ability to do this and to emerge prophetically as history unfolds reveals and distinguishes their work as masterpieces (though it might indicate yet another layer of their genius). No, I much prefer the idea that a plunge into the darkest, deepest, most self-reflective human truths through the weaving of character, plot, and poetry is the center of elite writing (not to be confused, I am an Anna Khachiyan enthusiast).
That Bulgakov, for example, spends a significant portion of The Master and Margarita crucifying the Bolshevik/Stalinist regime, is secondary to the story of redemptive love, which was the seed of his inspiration.
"'Listen to the stillness,' Margarita said to the master, and the sand rustled under her bare feet, 'listen and enjoy what you were not given in life--peace. Look, there ahead is your eternal home, which you have been given as a reward. I can already see the Venetian window and the twisting vine, it climbs right up to the roof. Here is your home, our eternal home. I know that in the evenings you will be visited by those you love, those who interest you and who will never trouble you. They will play for you, they will sing for you, you will see what light is in the room when the candles are burning. You will fall asleep, having put on your greasy and eternal nightcap, you will fall asleep with a smile on your lips. Sleep will strengthen you, you will reason wisely. And you will no longer be able to drive me away. I will watch over your sleep.'
Thus spoke Margarita, walking with the master towards their eternal home, and it seemed to the master that Margarita's words flowed in the same way as the stream they had left behind flowed and whispered, and the master's memory, the master's anxious, needled memory began to fade. Someone was setting the master free, as he himself had just set free the hero he had created. This hero had gone into the abyss, gone irrevocably, the son of the astrologer-king, forgiven on the eve of Sunday, the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.”
Margarita’s love, the master’s relief, Pilate’s redemption—these are the things that make-up Bulgakov’s novel much more than the shots fired at the Soviet Union. And think of it! Even under extreme circumstances of censorship and human rights violations—even then!—that which marks The Master and Margarita as genius is the profundity and truth of his revelations in regard to the human spirit and its need for transcendence. The book doesn’t continue into posterity because of its criticisms of the Soviet Union, in other words, but because of its examination of the soul and the mysteries of our instructive stories and how we might rethink them, we might love one another with some understanding of the divinity that comes from extending such a feeling, we might be redeemed and at peace if we can as individuals and as communities understand one another with a tenderness. And! That even a meek soul (the master) has the power to suggest to the great leaders and models of truth and goodness (Jesus Christ) to remember the importance of understanding and forgiveness, even to the guilty.
Another quick example: Tolstoy prattles interminably about historicity, value judgment, Napoleon as a flawed human being, etc. But the core of War and Peace is the poetic throughway that carries Natasha, Pierre, Prince Andrei, Sonya, Nikolai, Marya, and all the rest. The book is about them, what we learn about the spirit has to do with them, what enchants us is in them! The historical analysis and the hard won discussions about fate and a tendency towards over-endowing historical figures is nice and we may emerge changed from said discussions. But if art does affect us, then its wand is not waved for fact checking, counterfactuals, or social theorizing; instead, for casting forth the magic of love, humanity, and our own psyches in the context of the author’s voice pouring out their mysterious spells.
Am I speaking like an imbecile with an IDW fan club membership? Maybe—I offer this in defense of myself—maybe it is because that thing or those things which really comprise art are at once too easy and too difficult for export to linguistic description. Mysticism, transcendence, spirituality—already abstract/meta experiences—are difficult to shuttle into the abstraction of language. Discussing masterworks in earnest requires criticism either longer than the work itself or a boiling down of its truths into clichés and aphorisms. Neither of these strategies is able to capture the intellectual and sensory experience that is the creation or consumption of great art. Art is an individual’s reflection of subjective experience and their subsequent regurgitation of this reflection through the prisms of language, melody and harmony, color, architecture, etc. And even then not all of what has been reflected can be expressed:
I will add that in any ingenious or new human thought, or even simply in any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people, though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever; you will die with it, not having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps most important in your idea. -The Idiot, Dostoevsky
We are riddled with the potential for misstating that which we wanted, misinterpreting that which has been produced, and, so, we boil down the enormity of a complex piece into its most simplistic value statements. And have dialogue about art through the lens it is most easily understood: the Berenstain Bears lens. And eventually that lens becomes so fixed to our nose that we forget we’re looking through pretty weak glasses. And eventually our creative types produce work having not removed the constraining spectacles. And sometimes the spectacles collect dust and grime. And then we get the Marvel movie franchise, which exists somewhere in the electromagnetic field lying between cultural demand for moralistic narratives and communal craving for artistic experience. And when a clear-eyed artist strikes out against such creations, the blind collectively swing their walking sticks at him, as much to strike him down as to find out where he is.
It would be a mistake to paint the unseeing population in one shade. There are those who are capable of plumbing the depths of meaning but are met with the boot of ideology on the way: where the river of interpretation and reception should flow into the spiritual ocean there is a blockade that sends it downstream into the flooded reservoir of the logical/argumentative. What makes up that blockade, my betters discuss in great detail. My understanding is that it clustered here under the false pretense that because organized religion was no longer allowed, nothing of the spiritual could gain access. This must explain the Mefistofele critic who wondered aloud how a Bacchanal piece could receive such reception from a 21st century crowd—surely opera enthusiasts were more sophisticated! How completely unsensible that modern beings should be moved in this way. And by a story, no less, fundamentally religious in nature! How rank!
I’ll happily condescend to tell you the difference between the artist/art critic who knows what it’s really about and the ones who have no earthly conception.
Two atheists enter a Cathedral on Easter Sunday. They sit apart from each other—don’t know each other even. They are seated in order to be able to observe the rituals, the congregation at large. The priest is particularly affecting: his delivery sincere; his voice powerful; his stature large; his disposition warm, forgiving, communal. He recounts much of the redemptive power of Christ and is, of course, aided by the holy images, rituals, and divine music of the organ and choir. The emotion within the congregation cannot be contained: the women are driven to tears, the men also but in a more subtle way, the children cling to the arms of their mothers not quite sure about the meaning of it all but sensing the power. One of the atheists snickers at these fools: just a bunch of brainwashed idiots, victims to psychological manipulation of the environment and a lifetime of being fed nursery rhymes their weak minds could never distill from truth. Self-pride this atheist feels that he was able to conquer the terrible narrative, the untruths, the blind loyalty to these immense stories, buildings, traditions, rituals! Hate is the word at the forefront of his mind when he casts his gaze at the emotional crowd. He wonders to himself if the world would be better if they could be destroyed.
The other atheist quietly absorbs that which is happening around him: a whole community of people, moved by the love, forgiveness, power of their moral compass. He senses the priest’s thoughtful shepherding, the binding of the people into a stronger force than they were before, the potential for all of this to elevate the souls of the congregation. He grins at his own elevation, in spite of his rejection of the central narrative as true in the way the congregation feels it is true. The music clearly inspired by a state of transcendence, the singers perform it with a passion indicating their own higher state. He breathes in the totality of what he’s bearing witness to, perhaps more so than anyone in the room. But his confidence in this is checked when a young woman falls to her knees audibly begging forgiveness from the Divine Mother, yearning for the redemption of her own soul. He is humbled by the power of the communal and individual scene. He wonders how the playing out of these rituals and the transcendence experienced by some in the room manifests itself outside of these walls. Is the world, on the whole, better for it? He does not feel what the believers feel—and never will, for the fiction he would have to accept goes a step too far even if it does reveal valuable meta truths. For him, transcendent experience and a recognition of the world of the soul and the elevated states of consciousness are within reach without the organized, communal spirituality. And even within the cathedral walls, even without believing, he can feel what it all means, he can go there.
I’m quite sure the second atheist is the artist. I confess to the autobiographical nature of this scene: the first atheist described is me circa age 16. The second atheist is me beginning about age 23 or 24. The second atheist is a distinctly better person. The second atheist is better at art. The first behaved very much out of disdain, resent, an air of elitism, a desire to rise above the rabble and pull down the elite. And I see that person—still in my own soul, by the way—all over the world of art and among self-described liberal folks (whether they truly have open, liberal hearts is worth some debate as their behavior suggests adherence to very specific ideology) and the cynicism, the grenades launched at sincerity, the desire to pull fresh flying hot air balloons down to their craggy reality is overwhelming.
I can sum it up: the first atheist described is the kind of person who labels Tchaikovsky as too melodic; cheesy; for the masses. Ah! You know what they are? They are the kind of people who drown themselves in Chardonnay and expensive cheese and wear really cool outfits and sneeze at the political leanings of the fly-over states: so provincial, they say; “Have you been to Nico Muhly’s new opera?” they ask—in the vein of competitive art collection more than anything else. Pah! Take your wine, cheese, and Coates. I’ll get grubby with Waititi, Boito, and Dostoevsky. Have your Get Out, your holier-than-thou Broadway play, your Steinem biographies. Leave me alone and let my heroes do their work! But you can’t, can you? You show up to Hollywood press events and ask Quentin Tarantino why Margot Robbie didn’t have a bigger role. You protest outside of the Met when it plays The Death of Klinghoffer and cheer voraciously when it puts on The Exterminating Angel. You call Beyoncé Queen and Mozart a member of the patriarchy.
Speaking of Mozart and music, if the height of artistic genius is trendy social commentary, explain music. What is it about Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 that has the power to whisk me away to that much yearned for state of elevation near on every time I give it a full listen? When you go to the civic center and an orchestra and soloist perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, are you having any kind of sensory/psychological experience above your baseline level? I imagine it would be very difficult for you given that there are no words or images for you to bend to the will of your ideology. Or maybe you don’t really care for music, do ya?
Or maybe you know the truth: somewhere deep down, you do have that lofty experience, but its full, mysterious landscape is denied to you because you can't caption it with "THIS" or "Important." If your soul is better for it; if you have a better understanding and relationship with beauty; if you crave more of that kind of thing in your life and the lives of your loved ones; if it fills minutes of the day that might otherwise be directed towards destructive resent for ideas and people you may not have fully tried to understand: what isn’t important about that?
A Few Notes
-Remember how I said I didn’t know anyone outside of Kirstie Alley defending creative endeavors? Two great things to report: Jordan Peterson is back and Anna Khachiyan EXISTS and is thriving and is perhaps the heir to Paglia. Also, Eric Weinstein does extremely good work offering his immense capacity in the realm of art.
-There were so many revisions, edits, add-ins…I know this isn’t flowing smoothly but a) I want to post it and b) I’ll be sorting out these ideas going forward, anyway. If this comes off as a bit of a smorgasbord I do not mind so long as the ideas presented are true to what I want to say. In other words! I accept any critiques in the area of disorganization and fluidity. If you can parse out my errors in that respect, I believe you’ll be left with some of the fundamentals I was trying to get after.
-I wrote on this subject because my sister chose it from a list of ideas I had (not all would have been as fractious). Hope ya like it, Alexa!
-I may have to do once every 2 weeks from now on but I’ll retry my original goal for once a week!
-The cathedral scene described is inspired by Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (thank you, Curtis Serafin)
A Conversation Ya'll Might Like (which greatly inspired me!):
Eric Weinstein and Anna Khachiyan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs8NGrWs3mc
-For more artistic discussion https://zeitgeistweekly.wordpress.com/