the great museum

As someone who admires tradition I was naturally saddened by the Notre Dame fire. What really saddened me most though was that it was like seeing a museum burn. A museum full of beautiful things, but beautiful dead things. Notre Dame is a symbol of a dead civilisation.

Had Notre Dame been destroyed during the Middle Ages it would not have been a disaster. A new cathedral would have been built to replace it. The faith that inspired men to build something that would take almost two centuries to complete still existed. Not just the religious faith, but the faith in the future, the faith in their own civilisation. Had it been destroyed in the 14th century it might well have been replaced by something even more impressive. The faith was there, and the skills and the aesthetic sensibility were there, to create masterpieces of religious art and architecture. All of that is gone now. We can create replicas of masterpieces. We can no longer create anything original of value.

It’s like looking at the Venus de Milo. It’s beautiful but it’s a product of a dead civilisation. We could, and we do, make copies of such statues. But no-one today could create such a statue. We just don’t look at the world the way the classical Greeks did. We cannot truly get inside their heads. Just as we cannot truly get inside the heads of those medieval Frenchmen who built Notre Dame. The Venus de Milo is a museum piece.

It’s not just a symbol of what the French have lost, it’s a symbol of the West. Western civilisation has been living on its reputation for a very long time. The West created some marvellous things, things of surpassing beauty and sublime intelligence and subtlety. But that was long ago.

The great achievements of European civilisation lie in the past. Perhaps it’s just not possible for a materialistic society to create anything of real value. Europe is a gigantic museum. Modern Europeans are ambivalent about their cultural treasures. They’re an uncomfortable reminder of the extent of our modern decadence. Treasures of religious art make modern Europeans particularly uncomfortable. Is it possible that there was a time when people cared about more than shopping and sex?

Of course one would like to see Notre Dame restored, but it can only be restored as a museum exhibit. In some ways that would be even sadder than leaving it as a ruin.

moral and immoral art

Oscar Wilde famously said that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” He was of course wrong. Wilde said many clever things but the fact that a statement is clever does not make it true. And of course Wilde was a degenerate so he had an axe to grind.

Books take a moral stance. That may be an explicitly moral or immoral stance, or they may pretend to be neutral. But if you’re neutral on the subject of morality then you’re taking a stance on the issue – you’re coming down on the side of scepticism on the issue of morality.

It’s the same with movies and television, and even the visual arts. Even landscape painting is not immune – pure landscape painting became popular with the rise of the Romantic movement and it was implicitly nature-worship and implicitly pagan.

Everyone has a position on moral issues. If you claim to be indifferent to morality then you’re taking the stance that morality doesn’t matter so effectively you’re casting your vote for amorality at the very least.

Of course there’s a world of difference between an artist or writer (or film-maker or musician) who tolerates or ignores immorality and one who actively promotes. The former can be accused of cynicism or even cowardice, but the latter is actively evil.

It also has to be remembered that today more than ever art and literature are seen as political acts. It’s very hard to be neutral. Art and literature are energetically used to undermine what is left of traditional morality. The question of the morality of art and literature matters very much.

Can a work of art or a book be great and still be immoral? Wilde was certainly partially correct – books are either well written, or badly written. An immoral book can be superbly well written. Perhaps it can even achieve greatness. But it’s still an immoral book. It’s still evil.

Can we afford to tolerate great art and literature that is actively evil? My view is that the history of the past century is pretty strong evidence that we cannot.

socialist realism reconsidered

Alexander Deineka, The Expanse, 1944

Socialist realism was the officially approved painting style in the Soviet Union from around the time that Stalin came to power. It was very much a reaction what was seen (quite correctly) as the decadent and degenerate modernist art of the West.

It was a direct challenge to the orthodoxy of the western art establishment. Socialist realism was optimistic and wholesome when everybody in the western art establishment knew that art was supposed to be pessimistic and was supposed to celebrate ugliness, squalor and depravity. So socialist realism was the subject of anger and ridicule among western art critics.

When we think of socialist realism we think of the propaganda paintings and posters. We think of heroic portraits of Stalin, inspiring scenes in tractor factories, brave Red Army soldiers fighting evil fascists. There was this side of it, no question of it. But there was a bit more to it than that. Socialist realism was also intended to be art for ordinary people. Art that ordinary people would understand, and like.

The very idea of art that ordinary people would understand and enjoy was of course anathema to western artistic elites. And here we get down to the nitty-gritty. Socialist realism was consciously anti-elite art.

Yuri Pimenov (1903–1977),  Wedding in Tomorrow Street, 1962

Western elites consider that art belongs to them. The notion that the average person has the right to hold an opinion on the subject of art is deeply offensive to western elites.

Being art for ordinary people socialist realism can tend towards sentimentality. But then if you look at the tastes of ordinary people everywhere you’ll find that they do tend towards sentimentality.

Socialist realism upsets western intellectual and artistic elites for other reasons. It challenges assumptions about the purpose of art. For more than a hundred years it has been an article of faith that art is and must be political. That of course means that art must reflect the political views of the elites.

In the west the intellectual/artistic elites identify as left-wing (and back in the 1930s and 40s they really were left-wing). You might think they would therefore admire the art of a country that actually had a socialist government that promoted an avowedly left-wing style of art (socialist realism) but in fact they hated socialist realism because it was the wrong kind of left-wing art.

Western art critics and theorists wanted revolutionary art that would undermine the culture and destroy society. The Soviet Union on the other hand had already had its revolution. What the Soviets wanted was art that would promote stability and social cohesion. In fact what the Soviets wanted looked to left-wing western arty types like reactionary art, or even (horror of horrors) fascist art. So, amusingly, the western left violently disliked the art of the communist world that they so admired in every other way.

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Nikolay Bondarenko (1914-2000), Sport bold and beautiful, 1963

This all raises interesting questions about the purpose of art. Should art be political? Is political art automatically good art (as the western art establishment believes) or is political art automatically bad art (as many traditionalists believe)? Should art make people angry, disturbed and miserable (as the western art establishment believes), or should art make people joyful and optimistic (a belief shared by traditionalists and the Soviets)? Should art celebrate ugliness and degeneracy (as the western art establishment believes) or should it celebrate beauty and health (a belief also shared by traditionalists and the Soviets)?

Of course one could ask whether art even has a purpose. In the late 19th century art started to become a substitute for religion. I’m not sure that this was a good idea. There had always been religious art but that was art that served religion rather than seeking to supplant it.

In any case I don’t think Soviet art was all that bad. In fact there’s quite a lot of socialist realist art that I rather like. I wouldn’t describe it as one of my favourite art movements but it was certainly preferable to most western modernist and postmodernist art.

Although I know a bit about 19th century Russian art I must confess to my complete ignorance of the artists of the Soviet period. The paintings included in this post just happened to be paintings I found on the web that appeal to me. I have no idea if all these artists identified as socialist realists, or whether they were generally regarded as belonging to that school.

The Romantics and the uncoolness of western civilisation

In retrospect the rise of the Romantic Movement was an early sign that western civilisation was not entirely healthy.

There is much to dislike about the Romantics but perhaps the single worst thing about them is that they created a new type of hero. The Byronic hero. In fact, they created the anti-hero.

For the first time in human history being spoilt, petulant, emotionally incontinent, immature, miserable and self-pitying was seen as cool and sexy. We’re now so accustomed to this diseased thinking that we forget just how bizarre it was for people to start wanting to emulate unpleasant losers like Byron and Shelley.

Being a rebel had never been considered to be something deserving of admiration, unless you actually won. And if you won then you were, by definition, no longer a rebel. But to the Romantics being a rebel and a perpetual loser was the height of desirability. Byronic heroes were not sexy and cool in spite of being losers – they were sexy and cool because they were losers.

To the Romantics the height of uncoolness was to be a successful, well-adjusted member of society with a normal family life.

The Romantics have exerted an extraordinary influence on our culture for two centuries, an influence that shows no sign of abating. The modern cult of victimhood has its roots in the Romantic Movement.

How on earth did such bizarre attitudes come to be generally accepted? The cult of nature promoted by the Romantics is perhaps understandable as a reaction to the rise of the cult of science over the preceding couple of centuries. It could also be explained as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, except that that doesn’t explain how the Romantic Movement gained such a foothold in Germany at a time when the Industrial Revolution was still in its infancy.

It’s more likely that Romanticism was one of the fruits of the Reformation, a result of the rising tide of scepticism. In fact it may have been the first significant attempt to manufacture a substitute secular religion to take the place of Christianity (which by the end of the 18th century was clearly dying in western Europe). Romanticism had all the emotional appeal of a religion without the rigour and discipline.

The Romantic Movement was an ominous sign that our civilisation was developing suicidal tendencies.

From Bauhaus to Our House

Tom Wolfe’s delightfully savage 1981 account of the rise of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, remains as relevant today as ever. Most of all it provides a fascinating insight into the bizarre and disturbing ways in which cultural elites work.

The roots of the horror that is modernist architecture go back to the early years of the 20th century, a time when the worlds of art, literature and music were all beginning to embrace the cult of modernism. In architecture things really got going when Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus. 
Of course no-one actually wanted the bleak, depressing and ugly architecture promoted by the Bauhaus. The only clients these architects got were socialist governments wanting to build housing for the workers. The workers, naturally, were not asked how they felt about having to live in these architectural horrors.
Modernist architecture got its big break when suddenly these European architects, people like Gropius and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, arrived in the United States as refugees in the 30s. As Wolfe puts out, they were welcomed like great white gods who had consented to come down to earth and dwell among mortals. American architectural schools were falling over themselves to employ these godlike beings and young American architects eagerly abandoned any thought of trying to create distinctively American architecture in favour of a slavish colonial devotion to whatever the Europeans told them was the latest thing.
The result of all this was the abomination that became known as the International Style. Boxes. Boxes of glass, steel and concrete. 
The Bauhaus had been a kind of arty compound, cut off from the real world. The emphasis, as with modernist painting, was on theory. It was not necessary for the Bauhaus architects to have the buildings they designed actually built. Buildings that only ever existed on paper were just as good as real buildings. This emphasis on theory was something they brought to America with them. Getting academic posts was what counted. Once the modernists dominated the schools they could ensure that the International Style became the only approved style. It was the new orthodoxy and it was to be enforced.
An exclusive focus on theory was of course the hallmark of modernism in every field.
The horrors of modernism are of course mostly avoidable but architecture is kind of hard to avoid. People could not be forced to enjoy modernist paintings or modernist music but they could be forced to live and work in the soul-destroying boxes of modernist architecture.
Having done a brilliantly effective hatchet job on the modernists Wolfe then turns his attention to the post-modernists and proceeds to savage them as well, and rightly so.
In politics there is no weapon quite so devastating as ridicule and Wolfe is the master when it comes to wielding that particular sword. He’s in top form here. From Bauhaus to Our House is a very very funny book. Not just amusing but laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not just funny, it offers extremely perceptive and important insights into the ways in which political and cultural elites operate. Wolfe understood right from the start just how vital cultural and artistic battles are.

Ways of Seeing, wrongly

John Berger

Art critic John Berger is dead, at the age of 90. When I was a young leftist Berger was one of my heroes. Looking back now I can see that Berger was not only wrong about everything, he was dangerously wrong. Unfortunately Berger was immensely influential and his books are still used as university textbooks.

Berger was best-known for his 1972 BBC TV series (and its accompanying book) Ways of Seeing. A few years earlier Lord Kenneth Clark had presented a magisterial overview of western culture from the 12th century to the modern age in his muh-lauded Civilisation TV series. Ways of Seeing was intended as a counter to Clark’s program, undermining Clark’s  positive view of our culture. Where Clark celebrated western culture Berger was determined to deconstruct and destroy that same culture.
Modernist art is of course nothing more than a sustained attack on western civilisation. The problem for modernists is that anyone who isn’t blind or stupid (or sufficiently indoctrinated) can see that modernist art, when compared to the great works of the western tradition, is infantile rubbish. The only way to get modernist art accepted was to discredit the western artistic tradition. This was Berger’s project.
Berger was a marxist and his approach to art was marxist. Of course trying to apply marxist class analysis to the study of anything pre-19th century is futile. Classes, as understood in marxism, simply did not exist in a pre-industrial world. Berger wasn’t going to let that stop him.

It wasn’t enough to make people dislike the great works of western art. They had to be taught to see them as evil and patriarchal and oppressive. Berger saw all art as expressing a political ideology, because that was the only way he could understand art. Needless to say the western artistic tradition turns out to have been evil capitalist propaganda. Berger was also influenced by feminism so of course the great works of western art turned out to have been evil patriarchal propaganda. Berger had a considerable influence on feminist art criticism, one of the great blights of the modern age.

As is the case with so many art critics in the modern world I never got any sense that Berger actually liked art. He liked politics and he liked political art but he liked political art because it was political, not because it was art. Art as such was irrelevant. It was the political message that mattered.
Berger’s knowledge of art history was unimpressive but he knew how to cherry-pick works of art that he could use to advance his misguided theories.
The trouble is that we can’t just dismiss Berger as a wrong-headed misguided leftist loon (although that’s an accurate description of him) – Berger is solidly in the mainstream of modern art criticism. Our universities and art schools are infested with such people. The work of destruction, to which Berger was an enthusiastic contributor, goes on.

Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word

Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is one of the finest hatchet jobs ever done on modernist art. Modernist art is of course a fairly easy target but Wolfe’s little book, published in 1975, goes beyond the usual aesthetic criticisms and penetrates to the very core of the great 20th century art scam.
Wolfe’s starting point is that the weird and wonderful theories which have been such an endemic feature of the modern art world are not there merely to enhance our experience of the art. They are actually there to replace our experience of the art. The art itself is nothing without the theories. In fact the actual pictures are not even necessary. All that matters is the theory. This is rather ironic. The modern movement in art started as a revolt against “literary” art – art was supposed to be experienced and judged purely on its aesthetic qualities without any regard to meaning. What actually happened was that art became almost entirely literary – the pictures became unimportant while the text that explained the theories behind them took centre stage. 
One result of this was movements like Abstract Expressionism. The Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock became celebrated as the greatest artists of their day even though absolutely no-one actually wanted to buy their paintings.
The reason for this, as Wolfe explains, is that the art world was a very very tiny world. In consisted of perhaps no more than 10,000 people in about eight cities in Europe and North America – these were the artists, the theorists, the patrons, the dealers, the collectors and assorted hangers-on. The public was not part of this world and was entirely excluded from it. Out of the 10,000 members of the art world perhaps a few hundred were collectors and only a small minority of those collectors bought contemporary work. The market for art was very very small. While artists like Pollock could be lionised as geniuses within that world that didn’t mean there was an actual market for their paintings.
That didn’t really matter because artists like Pollock didn’t count. The people who counted were the theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. 
Wolfe also points out that by the late 19th century the main purpose of art was to shock the bourgeoisie. The problem with that was that the art world became a tiny enclosed little club existing purely to upset the bourgeoisie. The end result was that for all the efforts of the artists to shock, the people who were supposed to be shocked mostly didn’t notice. 
Once these things are understood the whole sorry sordid tale of the degeneration of art in the 20th century becomes clear. The fact that art became increasingly ugly and irrelevant didn’t matter as long as theorists continued to come up with elegant theories to explain each new batch of aesthetic horrors. There was of course fierce competition between the theorists who had to keep coming up with new theories, each new theory spawning even more dreary and worthless pictures.
While Wolfe is concerned with art this book also tells us a good deal about the way in which our civilisation has collapsed into decadence.
It could have been a very depressing tale but Wolfe’s sparkling rapier wit makes the book immensely entertaining. It’s a joy to see such a target receiving the skewering it so richly deserves. If you want to find one book that explains the entire history of 20th century art then The Painted Word is that book. Highly entertaining. 

aesthetics, morality, fascists and style

Albert Speer’s Zeppelintribune, Nuremberg
I came across this old James Delingpole article, Liking the cut of Rommel’s uniform doesn’t make you a Nazi. It does raise some interesting questions.
I was particularly taken by his point about the firestorm that erupted over Bryan Ferry’s admiration for the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the architecture of Albert Speer. The fact is that all Ferry was saying was that the Nazis understood style, and he was quite right. 
The real question is, should we judge a work of art based on our dislike (or admiration) for the moral and political ideas that we believe it was inspired by? Should we automatically dismiss art, architecture and literature because we disagree with its message? Should we force ourselves to pretend to like works of art just because we think they were inspired by beliefs that we consider to be worthy?
Or should we agree with Oscar Wilde that “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well-written or badly-written. That is all.”
It’s an important question because a great deal of very important art was created by artists who weren’t especially nice people, or who held some pretty strange and sometimes repellant beliefs. I’m a fan of crime fiction and Dashiell Hammett is one of the key figures in the history of the genre. Hammett was also a Stalinist. Should I therefore refuse to read The Maltese Falcon?

The annoying fact is that the great artists who held loopy or repellant beliefs tend to outnumber the ones who held sensible beliefs. Belief systems based on decency, moderation, kindness, generosity and happiness don’t always seem to inspire great art. Anger, bitterness, cruelty and envy do often inspire very great art. 

Back in the second millennium BC the Assyrians probably were not the people you’d choose to have as neighbours. Assyrian art does however have a certain power and grandeur. Is it wrong to admire Assyrian art?

I regard the Soviet Union as a monstrous and evil empire but I have to admit that some Soviet Realist art is really rather good. 
I personally dislike most modernist art because to me it’s not just ugly but it’s deliberately and it’s ugly for an ideological purpose. It’s intended to demoralise the viewer, the idea being that this will help to hasten the collapse of western civilisation and thus serve to usher in a golden age of socialist heaven on earth. My loathing for modernist art is thus fueled equally by aesthetic repugnance and by my horror of its political agenda. But what about art that is beautiful for an ideological purpose? Is that better or worse?

Getting back to Leni Riefenstahl, there are several problems raised by her work. The first is the question as to the extent to which she really believed in that ideology. Was she really an ardent National Socialist or was she (like so many intellectuals in the 30s) merely seduced by its apparent surface appeal? No-one can be entirely sure since it’s not the sort of thing she liked to talk about much in later life, for obvious reasons. The big problem with her films though is that whatever you think of the ideologies behind them she was an actual genius. She showed enormous promise in early films like the strange and beautiful The Blue Light. Her visual sense was exquisite. When she turned to making documentary films her talent blossomed still further. Olympia, the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, may well be the greatest documentary film ever made. In the case of Olympia it is just possible to view the film simply as an aesthetic exercise. That’s slightly more difficult in the case of her film on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will

And getting back to Rommel, there’s no question that German uniforms of the Nazi period had more style than any other 20th century military uniforms. They look cool because they were designed to look cool, and designed to do so by illustrious fashion designers such as Hugo Boss. It’s a look that we may today find somewhat creepy but the sense of style is undeniable. This sense of style was certainly part of the appeal of National Socialism but can we ignore its aesthetic quality simply because it makes us uncomfortable? 

I love Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon but that doesn’t make make me a Stalinist. I like Nicholas Roerich’s paintings but I have no sympathy with his crazy Theosophical beliefs. I can admire the beauty of a Japanese Buddhist temple without being a Buddhist. But can I say that Hugo Boss’s SS uniforms are very snazzy and that some of Albert Speer’s buildings are remarkably impressive?

If the answer to that question is no, then where do we draw the line? Must we only admire art and literature that doesn’t take us out of our comfort zone? Should I have added trigger warnings to the Hugo Boss illustrations? Or to the Assyrian frieze? Should a photograph of a Catholic cathedral come with a trigger warning in case it upsets non-Catholics? 

Will there be any works of art or literature left that don’t come with trigger warnings? Should we confront history, or run away from it?

did the baby boomers wreck western civilisation?

Many people on the sees the 1960s and 1970s as being the time when western civilisation started to fall apart. It is therefore often assumed that the baby boomers, a spoilt pampered generation, were the ones responsible for all the subsequent disasters. 
But is this really true?
There’s no question that the 60s and 70s were catastrophic. And the masses of dirty stinking hippies were certainly no friends to civilisation. It could however be argued that the student radicals of the late 60s were simply a symptom of a disease that was already far advanced, rather than the cause.
It’s worth pointing out that the governments that did so much to wreck western civilisation, the Labor government of Harold Wilson in the UK and the Administration of Lyndon Johnson in the US, were not elected by baby boomers. They were elected by the previous generation, the so-called Greatest Generation. 
And much of the damage had been done long before the 60s. The transformation of European societies into bloated socialist welfare states was well underway by the 50s. implemented by governments (like the Attlee Labor Government in Britain) that had been elected before the baby boomers were even born. The rot had started even earlier in the US with the election of the socialist Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In fact you could plausibly date the beginnings of the rot in the US to the rise of Progressivism decades earlier.
Whatever madness afflicted the western world it clearly was well and truly established long before the baby boomers were out of the nursery.
Where did the madness first start?
I’ve always been inclined to think that democracy played a key role. Choosing governments on the basis of a popularity contest among the mob seems a very dubious idea indeed. Democracy however does not provide the complete explanation. However much damage the mob has done it’s clear that the ruling classes played a major role in undermining our civilisation.
The Romantic Movement seems like a good candidate as the beginning of the process of disintegration. The essence of Romanticism was the privileging of feelings over reason and common sense. You have only to read the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Byron to be disturbingly aware that you are dealing with the products of very unhealthy minds. There’s the same wallowing in emotionalism that has become such a feature of what passes for civilisation today. The ideas of the Romantic Movement infected the minds of the ruling classes, turning their brains into soggy mush.
The Romantic Movement produced some great poetry and some great painting but it cannot be denied that it represents a fundamentally warped and diseased view of the world. It represents the first step in the establishment of the cult of feelings. Through its offshoots, such as the Aesthetic Movement, it would poison the minds of successive generations of the ruling class. It would also, ironically, prepare the ground for the rise of the avowedly anti-rational cult of Modernism.
The baby boomers certainly contributed their share to the destruction of our civilisation but their forefathers had already undermined the foundations. 

keeping one’s sanity as a conservative

Being a conservative in today’s world can be at times a very stressful and draining, not to say depressing, experience. The greatest danger is burn-out. One has to find ways to stay sane without compromising one’s beliefs.

I find that the best way to do this is to have other, essentially non-political, interests.

In my case there are three main interests that help to keep me sane and help  to keep me going. They are my interests in old movies, in the genre literature of the past, and the art of the 19th century.

The one thing that all these interests have in common is that they are focused on the past. Deliberately so. I consciously avoid having anything to do with either the pop culture or the high culture of today. That’s another of my strategies for staying sane. Modern culture is so deeply permeated with political correctness that it’s simply not worth bothering with. And since there are so many wonderful movies from the past, so many terrific books from the past, and so much great art from the past that I need never worry that I’m missing out.

My interest in old movies is more or less self-explanatory. My interest in the fiction of the past focuses mainly on genre fiction, everything from detective stories to spy stories, science fiction and horror. I have an especial enthusiasm for pulp fiction from the 1920s and 1930s and for novels and stories of adventure and of the supernatural from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as art is concerned I confine myself to pre-modernist art. I’m particularly find of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist art, and the much despised academic art of the 19th century. It’s despised by the politically motivated drones of the modern art establishment although it’s slowly but surely gaining more and more of a  following among people who believe that art can concern itself with truth and beauty. In other words it’s popular with people who actually love art rather than those who see art as political propaganda.

I blog about all these things. If I confined myself to political blogging then there’s a danger that blogging would become something of an ordeal, that it would be something that was always emotionally draining. Blogging about other things means that blogging remains fun.

On my non-political blogs I mostly avoid overt political content although I do slip in political points from time to time.

For those who might be interested my old movies blog is Classic Movie Ramblings, my book blog is Vintage Pop Fictions and my art blog is Strange Tears.