Thursday, September 6, 2007

What is "high art" in our Brave New World?


"But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead." -- Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"


The question hit me when I was reading a transcript of Hugh Hewitt's show where he had Christopher Hitchens and David Allen White debating the impact of Christianity on Western Civilization.

During the debate David Allen White expressed the opinion that great art needs a "higher vision," whatever that means (I think it's just code for great art should be religious/Christian). Hitchens sort of agreed thereby falling into a bit of a trap that made him sound like a bogus Mustapha Mond talking to John the Savage in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Hitch talked about it in terms of the transcendent and the supernatural, with the supernatural being a kind of faux transcendent in Hitchens' mind… I think. I don't know because Hitchens got vague and as examples of infinite and majestic art he talked about the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope and Stephen Hawking writing about black holes. Hitch said there was more in them than in the contemplation of religious art. The natural world is wonderful enough. White countered by saying there's been a diminution of the "inner life." And Hitch, having pointed to raw science instead of real art and literature, couldn't counter successfully. The "inner life" just isn't there in Hubble photos.

I disagree with Hitchens. Art does not need to be transcendent to be great. And no, science does not replace art, Hitch, and one day you're going to get hoist on your own science petard when you meet a religionist who has actually read Stephen Hawking's equation dense papers and not just the no-math pop-sci books like "A Brief History of Time" or "The Universe in a Nutshell." One of these days they're going to show you some pictures from the Hubble and ask you if you know what you're looking at.

Mr. White claims he's not against science, but that doesn't mean he cares about science. In fact, he gives away his disinterest in science saying that in the Middle Ages, there was the notion of the five wits: common sense, fancy imagination, estimation, sometimes called judgment or memory and then complaining that his students don't know about them. Egad! Pre-Freudian psychology is his guide to the inner life? He might as well have talked about the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Or he might as well have talked phrenology. Modern psychology can do better than that. We even have drugs that can alter your "inner life" now, just like in that old preachy-teachy god-blathering novel that White and Hitchens would probably consider great art; "Brave New World."

Yes, there is an inner life, things going on inside us, and that's what art is meant to touch on. Yes, religious art touches on the human element in way Hitchen's science examples don't. Yes, the inner life is worthy of exploring in art but that doesn't mean science can not also tell us a lot about that too.

Scientific imagery and scientific writing isn't really "art," even if there is an art to scientific writing and imagery. If you showed Galileo a lot of the pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope most of the time he wouldn't have known what he was looking at. He'd probably see strange and bright colored smoke and gas with no real sense of scale. Even in the sixties people would have thought it was just cool psychedelic art. You'd have to explain what they were seeing.

Art should generally have a human element. It should be about people, not nebulae and black holes. It should touch on our inner life. But great art does not need to be transcendent or supernatural. Sometime the transcendent is just vague and escapist.

Is "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov transcendent or supernatural? Is it not great art? Does it not say something about the inner life? Is "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding transcendent or supernatural? Wouldn't those stories be more descendent than transcendent yet still showing us the inner life?

Mr. White doubted if science could inspire art, or would do so 600 years in the future. Pointing to non-art doesn't help your case Hitch. White then pointed out that after leaving our planet for the first time to set foot on another world, on the moon, an extraordinary human achievement, an engineering feat, there were only two works of art that were inspired by that event; Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon and a minor poem by W. H. Auden.

What?!

Only a book by Norman Mailer and a poem by W. H. Auden?

Hitchens doesn't challenge this. Why doesn't Tom Wolfe's book, "The Right Stuff" count? The Mercury program was part of getting to the Moon. And Tom Hanks produced a great HBO miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon" back in 1998.

I get the feeling that both Hitchens and White would never consider any TV miniseries great art. They seemed too snobbish and old-farty to credit TV with anything.

Science does inspire art, it's just not the kind of art that David Allen White, and probably Hitchens, would give the label great to. The moon had inspired dreams of exploration and literature long before John F. Kennedy proposed going there. There was H. G. Wells' "The First Men in the Moon" and Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" way back in 1865 with a projectile launched from Florida and lands in the Pacific Ocean, not unlike the Apollo Program. Isaac Asimov wrote "Trends" in 1939, a short story in which religious fanatics oppose a fictional first flight to the Moon in the 1970s. "Prelude to Space" was a 1951 novel by Arthur C. Clarke which is about a fictional first flight to the Moon. There were many more such stories in the pulp science fiction magazines. There were movies too, from "Destination Moon" to cheesy stuff like "Cat-women on the Moon."

The science fiction writers had already been to the moon. Actually getting there killed all the stories about going there for the first time. But you'll still find stories about lunar colonies in science fiction magazines like Analog.

There were thousands of Apollo/moon paintings and images all over the pop culture landscape. I've seen everything reflected in the mirror-like surface of an Apollo space-helmet, earth, DNA molecules, Newton, M. C. Escher's hand, but in space glove, with that reflective globe reflecting back the space-helmet reflecting the globe to infinity... Alan Bean, one of the astronauts who went to the moon became an artist and he's still painting.

David Allen White seems to be unaware of all that art and literature that is already out there if he can think of only two examples. There's more than any of us can view and read. And he would dismiss it all because his guardians of literary taste would dismiss it as pop trash. His choice of Norman Mailer's book is suspicious. I think it reveals his real opinion about science and the Apollo moon landings.

Norman Mailer's other books are better. So, why? Because America became bored with space travel and Mailer saw it coming. That's why. Mailer wrote of the banality of the astronauts and the fearsomely conformist culture of NASA and predicted a been-there-done-that attitude toward space travel by the public.

Mailer was partly right. Public interest waned, missions started getting cut off and Neil Armstrong did a few car commercials before disappearing from public consciousness. Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn were the only two astronauts who stayed in the broader public eye. Do you think David Allen White even knew we had a space station before a crazy female astronaut in diapers put NASA back on the front pages?

Mr. White's doubt that "great" art can be inspired by science depends on his subjective validation of "great." Sure he can point to arty-farty experts like T.S. Eliot calling Dante’s Paradiso the greatest poetry that can be written and thus back up his judgments, but T.S. Eliot only matters if you give a damn about T.S. Eliot's judgments. That religion has inspired all "great" artists isn't surprising if you have defined great art as religious art and all your experts agree with that.

Mr. White says that St. Francis is still inspiring artists. I wouldn't know. I never read any. Perhaps some reader of my blog can tell me if I'm right to guess that the St. Francis of art, literature and drama bears about as much relation to the real St. Francis as H. G. Wells' "The First Men in The Moon" bears relationship to the real Apollo 11 moon landing? Imagine what "great" art believing Catholics will be making out of the saintly Mother Teresa legend? Think it will bear much resemblance to Hitchen's book about her?

Finally Mr. White bemoans how the ability of religious faith to inspire great painting, music, literature and architecture has diminished. He's right too. That inner life he talks about is changing: Welcome to our Brave New World.

I don't know what kind moldy old-farty material Mr. White had in mind, but it wasn't that long ago when religious novels and Hollywood sword and sandal films like "Ben-Hur," "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments" and the like were hot literary and box-office properties. "The Ten Commandments" was one of the more expensive epics of its time. Lew Wallace’s "Ben-Hur" was once one of the most important, widely-read American novels of the last half of the 19th century. There are both silent and talky versions of the movie. And it continued to be widely read until the 1960s, when our Brave New World began to take shape. That's a long life for a book. But today "Ben-Hur" has receded into near oblivion. Does anyone read it now? When is the last time there has been a new printing of it?

For awhile it may have seemed like Mel Gibson might have been bringing back the sword and sandal genre with some new violent and psychotic twists. In 2006 USA Today announced "Hollywood turns to divine inspiration" and religious movies were coming back.

Instead the more recent movies aimed at the "faith-based market" have failed to bring in the bucks. "Evan Almighty" earned $99 million domestically, but the film reportedly cost about twice that much to make. "The Nativity Story" barely recouped its $35 million budget. Films that were just "family-friendly" and only nominally Christian got tagged with the "Christian" label, and distributed by Fox Faith, seem to have suffered as a result of that Christian marketing. In the meantime, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," based on Anne Rice's novel, seems to have gotten canned. And Mel Gibson's star has faded; a victim of shooting off his drunken mouth.

When is the last time you saw a character in a film pray or go to church? I don't go around choosing to watch only films that make no reference to religion, but almost every time I see a film it's like I'm entering an entirely secular world. No one prays or goes to church in most movies I watch, it's like religion doesn't exist. Of course, a lot of the films I see are pretty mindless action/adventure and comedy. I'm not looking for "higher vision" or the transcendent when I see films and it appears neither is most of the rest of the film going audience.

Can the Spiderman films be called transcendent? Spidey has transcended some of the human condition. Are comic-book superheroes the new transcendent icons of our transhumanist desires? Or are they just fairly mindless forms of entertainment? No matter, the Gammas and Deltas love it. They don't think about such things.

Is all that magic in the Harry Potter books transcendent? Now there's a set of films and books where the absence of religious notes is rather glaring. What happens after you die is a religious question and people die and come back to life in Harry Potter. Yet there isn’t any religion in the Harry Potter books. No one prays or goes to church or talks about God. It's conspicuously absent to the point where you know that the author intentionally left it out. It reads like one of those censored government documents from the X-Files, as if a CIA officer had gone through and removed the remotest hint of religion with a heavy black marker.

The science behind the comic-book heros is so silly it might as well be the supernatural. Sometimes it is. We've taken all the tropes and symbols of the transcendent and the supernatural, all the symbolic codes established by the ancients from even before religion became a part of the political power structure, and we've turned them into the most mindless forms of entertainment we can imagine, thus trivializing the transcendent.

Okay, that's film. It's for a mass audience of Deltas and Gammas. Epsilons still prefer re-runs of "The Three Stooges" and "Gilligan's Island," and their favorite pop-music group is, of course, "Simple Minds."

However, the same is true of most of the novels and short stories Betas read. It's either science fiction or realistic. Just one example of realistic, "High Fidelity," by Nick Hornby, a funny novel about the romantic struggles of Rob Fleming who, after his girlfriend leaves him for another man and because of the pain of the breakup, starts rethinking the monogamy his cynical nature had him thinking was a sign of insecurity. I'm not going to say it's great art, but it touched my inner life in ways no literary work called "transcendent," great or classic ever did.

So, either all Mr. White's experts are wrong, or I've been living in Huxley's Brave New World most of my life. Remember, Orwell feared the banning of books, but in our Brave New World there's no reason to ban any books because nobody wants to read them. Orwell feared we'd be deprived of information, but we have the internet and far more information than we can deal with. Orwell feared that the truth, whatever that is, would be hidden. In reality it has been drowned in the sea of irrelevance and people are preoccupied with comic-book movies, their sexual/romantic relationships and the orgy porgy of celebrity news about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and crazy astronauts in diapers. Okay, we may not be cloned and grown in bottles yet, but our pop-culture is mass produced and we get a lot of our identity and quite a bit of "inner life" from pop-culture.

So, what is great art in our Brave New World? Is it the transcendent comic-book superheroes and boy wizards, or is it the more realistic "High Fidelity," or is it still the moldy oldies that liberal arts University professors torture their fewer and fewer students with? Is the greater art Spiderman and Harry Potter, or is it "Lord of the Flies" and "Lolita," or is it John Donne's and Dante Alighieri's poetry?
Or, is it Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."

It probably depends on if your an Alpha, a Beta, a Gamma or a Delta, but I invite all my readers, no matter what caste you are, to make a case for your choice in my comments section.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What's all this about Alphas, Beta, Gammasand Deltas? What are they? Why should I want to be one?

normdoering said...

Anonymous asked:
"What's all this about Alphas, Beta, Gammas and Deltas?"

They're castes in the novel "Brave New World." But don't worry about it, it's nothing a Delta even needs to know about.

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie Brave New World. It didn't have much "God-blathering" in it.

Is the book different?

normdoering said...

Anonymous asked:
"Is the book different?"

Yes, it's different.

The book, "Brave New World" is online. If you want to see the God-blathering then read chapter 17.

humbert dinglepencker said...

Art is art, regardless of religious persuasion or non-persuasion. "Great" art is a matter of personal taste or the imprimatur of history (some of what is considered great art, I personally find to be junk, hence personal taste). Certainly one does not need to be religious to create art, great or otherwise, 'Art' be it painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, music, etc. is a personal response to the world/universe/surroundings - and a way of expressing that response, hopefully, to others. The trick of 'art' is to elicit a response in someone else that comes close to your own as the creator. Perhaps it's the act of creating that leads people to the misconception that one must be religious to create art, as in being godlike. Indeed, much beautiful art has been created by religious people - but that doesn't preclude a non-religious person from creating an artisitic response.

Onkel Bob said...

Is talent necessary? What of inspiration? As an Art Historian I'm fond of saying nothing of consequence was produced after 1106 CE, the year Wiligemo completed his work in Modena. (BTW - The Porto Principe was opened for Pavarotti's funeral, a very rare event.)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is the goal of art to convey beauty or is it intended to send message? When I write an article, is it beautiful because the argument is well crafted and succinct, or do those qualities only apply to persuasion and influence?
I find the art of the renaissance to be so much repetition, the same subject over and over. I find modern art to be so much mental masturbation. (I'm thinking of Barney and Viola here) What is great art to me, is old dusty ideas to others, what is junk to me is inspiration and talent to others.
Here's what I do/tell students on the first day of class: (Image of Lascaux on the screen) When you think of "primitive," what comes to mind? Uneducated, lacking talent, and uninspired? (They usually nod, but some who are astute recognize the trap) Then I ask what do we call that person who is able to take an abstract idea, something that exists only in the synapses of our mind, and convert it into a tangible concrete image? I think that word is "genius." When you see art, you will see images and ideas that were once only within the realm of the mind, that existed not as pigments and stone, but as electrical signals coursing through someone's head. If the art you see speaks to you, and you can innately understand and extract a higher meaning from it, it is the work of genius. If you find beauty in genius, so be it. Nevertheless, be sure to give credit where credit is due.

Kent Kauffman said...

I would have to say high art is in movies and television. Reading helps get me thinking a little bit about about things, but a good movie or television show just makes the vague inner notions in my head come together, coalescing into a powerful image.