Friday, May 30, 2008

More on Ideas Have Consequences: Egotism in Work and Art

I've had a great deal of difficulty summarizing this chapter on egotism and the arts. Though I've read it several times, mused over it, and taken notes, every time I put pen to paper something was missing.

When I wrote about mathematical patterns in my recent post, I suddenly realized a connection and the ideas that Weaver had expressed in this chapter began to congeal. It was one of those "Eureka!" moments for me, though it will probably not sound nearly so dramatic here!

Because he was created in the image of God, man has an inborn drive to create. History records a succession of artistic endeavors in which man sought to emulate the patterns of life, the orderly ways of the Creator. As time marched on, man's creative fruits became increasingly realistic as his understanding of truth unfolded. Up through the eighteenth century, art and music mirrored the strength of an ordered, hierarchical society: traditional, balanced, and rendering a faithful portrayal of nature.

As an example, think of DaVinci ~ a man who understood fully the correlation between mathematical patterns and art. His notebooks are full of his studies of proportion, symmetry, and pattern. He was even known to study cadavers in his pursuit to accurately portray the human body. His work ( and the works of other masters of his ilk) are universally apprehended because nature is the enduring reality. Great art will accurately embody great themes understood by people of all times.

Music and Literature also reflected themes with transcendent appeal. Think Mozart: highly structured, ordered, and complex. Or Milton, poetically painting universal themes such as sin and redemption.

As I mentioned in my article on mathematics, humans seem to be programmed to perceive beauty within concrete parameters. As long as the artist created works that adhered to the elegant structure and rhythms within those boundaries, he was working in harmony with the Creator and to the benefit of society.

I was interested to come across a quote by a current songwriter who seems to embrace this very truth:

"Music it true. An octave is a mathematical reality. So is a 5th. So is a major 7th chord. And I have the feeling that these have emotional meanings to us, not only because we're taught that a major 7th is warm and fuzzy and a diminished is rather threatening and dark, but also because they actually do have these meanings. It's almost like it's a language that is not a matter of our choosing. It's a truth. The laws of physics apply to music, and music follows that. So it really lifts us out of this subjective, opinionated human position and draws us into the cosmic picture just like that."
~recording artist James Taylor, in the May 2002 Performing Songwriter

So there are men of every generation who grasp the elegant structure of beauty, but in the general flow of history, man seems bent on being independent; not satisfied with God's truth he seeks to create his own truth outside the natural and established patterns. "Let us tear their fetters apart, and cast away their cords from us!" Having reached an apex artistically, he began to unravel all that he had achieved. According to Weaver, this started happening at about the time of the French Revolution, when romanticism began to flourish. Instead of looking upward for virtue and truth, man began to explore the "inner landscape." The old foundational themes such as original sin became passe, and art became much more subjective. Weaver boldly names this"egotism" as the culprit in the ravaging of aesthetic expression.

Weaver speaks of the "sanctioning of impulse" and the "uncovering of the senses". Foundational templates were replaced by splashes of pizazz or gimmicks. Exploration turned away from universal themes and turned inward, to the individual consciousness. Artists began to tap into an inner well of "appalling ....melancholy and unhappiness," leading to aesthetic bankruptcy.

Jazz is an example that Weaver spends considerable time evaluating. Here is his pronouncement:

"Jazz, by formally repudiating restraint by intellect, and by expressing contempt and hostility toward our traditional society and mores, has destroyed this equilibrium. That destruction is a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness. Jazz often sounds as if in a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement."

Note that Weaver is NOT saying that art "outside the box," cannot have interest or that those who produce it lack skill. He is not criticizing the workmanship so much as he is pointing out how modern art reflects the ideas of the times.

This makes me think of a recent news article about the arts. In it, the author suggested that by providing melancholy people with anti-depressants we may be hindering their ability to produce great art. Apparently, this news writer felt that great art could not be produced by "happy" people; that people with a dark pathos were the ones who capitalize on their sadness to produce great art.

If we are talking about this degraded sort of art of which Weaver speaks, the author of that article has a point. But if we are talking about structured, realistic, truthful art that depicts the great themes of humanity~~it's nonsense.

This chapter in Ideas Have Consequences closes with some very profound thoughts:

"When masses of men reach a point at which egotism reigns so blandly, can their political damnation be far distant: They have rejected their only guaranty against external control, which is self-discipline, taught and practiced. If they no longer respect community and direct their efforts according to a common understanding, they fall out......An ancient axiom of politics teaches that a spoiled people invite despotic control."

What to you think? Do you detect egotism in modern art? Are we a "spoiled people" ?

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