Sunday, September 27, 2009

On being a creative artist in a recession

All civilisation, as well as all religion, ultimately rests on the truth that we do not "need" beautiful things to be good. Beautiful things belong precisely to that category of reality which is, as the Greeks first taught, beyond necessity. They are precisely "unnecessary". This is their glory.

Thus man is, in fact, that being in the universe who can build unnecessary things and make them beautiful. And conversely, the ultimate sign of barbarism is to burn down something that is truly lovely - and to burn it down in the name of man himself, as if this act would somehow ennoble him further. Indeed, even more, the final mark of incivility is never to build a beautiful thing in the first place. This is why in the end, all barbarism, even all heresy, comes to attack beauty in the name of bread. In other words, the most radical contempt for the poor is to proclaim that they need bread more than beauty, that they literally do, in fact, live by bread alone.
James V. Schall, S.J., The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches', 24.

Very little remains to be said. The sort of facile Puritanism attacked here recurs in every age, but it seems to be endemic to our own era in particular, and to take root especially among the young. To my mind, this attitude is uniquely infuriating, demanding as it does that the universal human need for beauty be put on hold until some social ill is solved - as though our world will ever be completely free of poverty, corruption, crime, disease, or any other manifestation of human frailty. Meanwhile, in an age of such affluence that even the modest stipend of a graduate student or a welfare recipient is sufficient to purchase a host of luxury products beyond the imagination of Louis XIV, fewer and fewer resources are available for the creation and dissemination of beauty.

Schall's essay was spurred by a reflection on the great cathedrals of Europe, and of their builders - all hopelessly impoverished by today's standards - who thought it worth their time to produce a lasting monument to the craftsmanship, artistic vision, and religious faith of their community. I can think of few projects conceived today that bring art into the public square as decisively as a Gothic cathedral. Certainly, we spend millions of dollars on "the arts," and much more on "entertainment," some of which has significant artistic value - but the mechanisms of the marketplace are such that our enjoyment of art is always somehow circumscribed. At best, our artistic appreciation might be shared with a select group of other ticketholders; more usually, it takes place in the privacy of our own home. Yet, as we go about our everyday lives, the spirit of the medieval cathedral builders sometimes slips through the cracks - a Donne sonnet on a subway poster, a bust of some long-forgotten civic figure outside a government building, or a neo-Gothic church that has not yet been torn down to make way for condominiums.


Andrew W. said...

Osbert, this is very nice. As someone who is both a musician and pursuing work in the humanities, the push to justify one's labour is constant.

One wonders at what exact moment aesthetics became completely divorced from production, where beauty (as opposed to luxury) became a premium instead of a necessity - 1940-something, perhaps?

Does this make sense? This idea that beauty is useless, and therefore must cost the system more to produce? Isn't that completely backwards?

Osbert Parsley said...

It's an interesting question, and one I don't know the answer to. I suspect the retreat of beauty from the public square began much earlier than the 1940s, though, and I think there's a connection here to secularization. Both the aesthetic impulse and the religious impulse have been pushed into the private sphere ("Seek the transcendent on your own time"), and we are now encouraged to consider both artistic taste and religious faith in a wholly subjective, pluralistic framework. Listening to Bach or attending High Mass are fine if done in private by "consenting adults," but we don't want to hear about either activity in your dinner table conversation, and we will be most offended if you hint that your practices might be better than ours. This may prevent arguments, but the culture that results tends to be bland and beige.