Saturday, 22 March 2014

The (failed) partial animism of aestheticism

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Re-reading the mythologist Joseph Campbell (specifically A Joseph Campbell Companion 1991 - edited by Diane K Osbon - which was my favourite JC book, back in the day) it struck me that his main hope and recommendation in the post-Christian world was for all of us (not just professionals) to live The Life of the Artist - as this was understood in the High Modernist era of the early 1920s.

The particular exemplary life was James Joyce - with Finnegans Wake regarded as the pinnacle of his achievement.

(By contrast, I regard Joyce's life as sordid and uninspiring, and FW as perhaps the most aggressively boring and trivial work of art of all time - and I am someone who has read Ulysses slowly and carefully at least four times.)

In other words, aesthetics is to be regarded as real, objective, suitable to build life around - while morality is to be regarded as unreal, socially-imposed, manipulative and the rest of it.

All that aside, it is now clear that the vast, indeed total, hopes that were pinned on the idea of a world in which everyman was a creative artist, and thereby fulfilled, have utterly gone.  High modernism has fizzled into state subsidized professionalism - tenured radicalism, politically correct bureaucracy: glass bead games which are excruciatingly dull even for those who play them.

The religion of art did not survive the rise of political correctness - but it is fascinating to perceive it right up to that point - for example among the rebels of the Beats and 1950s Bohemians - they hoped, they intended, they tried to live for art and inside art.

Well, at any rate we now know for sure it is insufficient, a blind alley, road-tested to destruction - and can cross-off that 'philosophy of life' from our list.

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8 comments:

  1. "Pure" aestheticism is a strange notion. Either art is just another thing confined within the circles of this world, in which case it is no more meaningful than any other thing (like a cat hunting a ping-pong ball), or art has to be acknowledged as the breaking-through of some higher reality, in which case the real problem is how art and religion can coexist without either destroying the other.

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  2. Nicholas Fulford22 March 2014 at 14:23

    I am not so sure about striking that philosophy off the list.

    Hermann Hesse to whom you alluded with your reference of "glass bead games", was a great example of a man who invites the reader into the process of creating Meaning through passionate, intelligent, creative engagement. Whether through Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, or The Glass Bead Game, he draws the reader into engagement with moral aestheticism.

    The aesthetic draws the creative mind into places where numinosity scintillates and plays upon the strings of our thoughts and emotions to create vital fugues and rifts on archetypical themes.

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  3. @Ara - " the real problem is how art and religion can coexist without either destroying the other."

    Or, the real problem is how art and religion can coexist independently.

    @NF - Well, that is the only place it *does* work - in fiction... but hardly even there. Hesse's GBG and Narziss and Goldmund are partly about the unsatisfactoriness of the life of the mind compared with the socially-engaged life.

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  4. @BGC-"Or, the real problem is how art and religion can coexist independently"

    Or could the highest art be an expression, in other terms, of the message of religion. This seems to me to apply to Christian development.
    Art untethered from the constraint of Truth, the Good, Beauty, and Virtue degenerates, never so markedly so as in the west, over, perhaps, the last 150 years, with notable exceptions, of course!
    It is interesting to compare artistic developments in different religious traditions, and their attendant cultures. One monotheistic branch is particularly "interesting".

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  5. @J - My thesis (in Thought Prison) is broadly that the *first* generation to abandon the Christianity (or Judaism) of their upbringing and put all their energies into a specialism such as Art or Science - was extremely successful, was kept 'on the rails' of honesty, beauty and virtue by their upbringing, and contained many geniuses - but that the following generations (who lack the upbringing) become careerist and lack zeal - and from then things just get worse until we get the inversion of all values as now.

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  6. Thank you, Bruce, far that brief explanation.
    It would seem that the burst of capitalist growth and wealth creation attendant with the industrial revolution, and fossil fuel consumption allowed the over-qualified to be replaced by a cohort of over-promoted, in your excellent phraseology, and the generation of "artificial", empty demand, to meet the needs of over production.
    It looks as though that may be hitting a wall.

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  7. (By contrast, I regard Joyce's life as sordid and uninspiring, and FW as perhaps the most aggressively boring and trivial work of art of all time - and I am someone who has read Ulysses slowly and carefully at least four times.)

    I know. Why on earth did I read that the third time? And why did I move my eyes over so much of Finnegans Wake? And why was I in my 30s before I even read the gospels?

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  8. @BGC -- well, yes or no -- depending on what you mean by 'independent'.

    Inevitably, the greatest art is not only religiously informed, but it works in the other direction, presenting a commentary or challenge to the current understanding of religion.

    So, the notion that these can be two separately existing spheres that do not affect one another is illusory -- in that sense 'independence' is not possible. (Much like 'separation' of Church and State does not work, because in practice the state's policy has to be informed by some worldview, which inevitably has religious content.)

    But 'independence' is crucial in that neither should art be totally enslaved to religious goals, nor should art be turned towards the goal of destroying and deconstructing religious worldviews.

    (This discussion seems to be treading ground already covered on this blog, about the difficulties of having 'creative' people in a Church.)

    I've noticed in particular that recent explicit attempts to produce storytelling that is useful to religion seem to backfire spectacularly, more often than not, with the result that the result is not only artistically flat and empty, but indeed less Christian in spirit than many works written with no particular goal in mind by ostensible apostates. This indicates that there's something fundamentally dishonest about such projects. There is no shortage of Muses out there who follow Christ, but they will clearly not be ordered around for utilitarian goals, no matter how high-minded.

    (The example I have in mind: some concerned citizen in Russia did not like Harry Potter -- so he wrote his own counter-novels ('Children vs. Wizards') which supposedly deliver an adventure story supposedly checking all of the boxes of modern Orthodox morality. The result is ungodly awful.)

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