To be a man means to seek a truth that satisfies the mind, a virtue that sates the conscience, and a beauty that breaks the heart. Deprive a man of any of these things, and he will find neither happiness nor rest.
The most precious, profound and important of the great ideas which the Left has raped from us is beauty. I need spend no time on the proposition that life without beauty is a nightmare: those who have seen true beauty – sublime beauty, if even for a moment – have nothing to which they can liken it except the ecstasies of mystics and the transports of saints. Beauty consoles the sorrowing; beauty brings joy and deepens understanding; beauty is like food and wine, and men who live surrounded by ugliness become shriveled and starved in their souls.
Why, if beauty is so important, is there no discussion of it? The victory of the Left in this area has been so sudden, so remarkable, and so complete, that the discussion of beauty has lapsed into an utter and a desolate silence. Have you, dear reader, read anything discussing beauty, putting forth a coherent theory of beauty, or even extolling beauty’s central importance of the human soul in a year? In 10 years? Ever? This may be the only essay you will read on the topic this decade, and yet the topic is one of paramount importance. It is a matter of life and death not for the body but for the spirit.
There is no discussion of it because by convincing the public that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Left has placed it beyond the realm of discussion. According to the Left, beauty is a matter of taste, and arbitrary taste at that. There is no discussion of taste because to give reasons to prefer tasteful to tasteless things is elitist, nasty, uncouth and inappropriate. To have taste implies that some cultures produce more works of art and better than others, and this raises the uncomfortable possibility that love of beauty is Eurocentric, or even racist. To admire beauty has become a hate crime.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then there is no difference between fine art as opposed to mere decoration, no difference between Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and wallpaper. Obviously there is a difference: we decorate an otherwise useful tool to make it more pleasing to look at or handle, like painting details on a car or putting embroidered images on fabric. Popular art is meant for entertainment; it is meant to please the eye and wile away the time. But an episode of I Love Lucy is not made for the same purpose as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Art is not meant to be useful. When you hold a baby in your arms and look at him, merely look at the wonder and miracle of new life, you don’t do that because the baby is useful.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then there is no such thing as training the taste. One can sit down and watch well done popular entertainment – for example, a Mickey Mouse cartoon – with pleasure and enjoyment, and no study is needed to prepare you to appreciate and understand it. But to sit down and read Milton’s Paradise Lost for pleasure, one needs a passing familiarity with classical and Biblical figures to which he alludes, and one’s pleasure is increased if one is familiar with the epic models, the Virgil and Homer, on whose themes Milton plays out so creative and striking a variation.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then anything, anything at all, can be declared to be beautiful merely by the artist. Like God creating light from nothing by the power of His word, the artist creates beauty not by any genius nor craftsmanship, but by his naked fiat. It is beautiful not because he actually created anything, but only because he says so.
By this logic, a urinal is beautiful, a light going off and on, a decapitated cow’s head covered in blood, flies and maggots, a glass of water on a shelf, a crucifix dunked in urine, a can of excrement, or an unmade bed. The argument given by the Left is that your inability to see the beauty in these things is due to your limitations, your untrained soul, your dullness. The argument merely ignores the fact that training the tastes to be dull, philistine and coarse is the opposite of training the tastes to be sensitive to beauty.
The reader may at this point be wondering who or what on the Left has ever made such absurd assertions. Not every Leftist is concerned with art, it is true, and not everyone who leans Left on other issues adopts the mainstream Leftwing view on art. Those that do, say exactly what I say they say. If you have never heard such nonsense on stilts, I can but reply that you have not been paying attention to the art world – which, come to think of it, is very much to your credit.
You think I am kidding. I am not kidding. Each of the examples I mention is real.
Source: Creative Commons License – Wikipedia
Marcel Duchamp Fountain (1917) is a urinal; Martin Creed Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off (2000, Turner Prize Winner) is a light going off and on; Damien Hirst A Thousand Years (1990) is a maggoty cow head; Michael Craig-Martin An Oak Tree (1973) is a glass of water on a shelf; Andres Serrano Piss Christ (1987) is a crucifix dunked in urine; Piero Manzoni Artist’s Shit (1961) is a can of excrement; Tracey Emin My Bed (1998) is an unmade bed.
Ours is the first generation in the history of Christendom to have no fine arts at all. The public has turned away from the neurotic wallowing in self-disgust that dominates the fine arts and seeks to slake its craving for beauty in the popular arts: if portraits evoke disgust, one can always look at movie posters, calendars and magazine covers, I suppose. John Williams’ theme music of Star Wars will do in lieu of Elgar, Wagner or Holst. But all these popular entertainments serve to entertain, not to ravish.
Popular art serves the appetites and passions. Even if some serve noble appetites and passion, popular works are not meant to do what a true work of art does, which involves forgetting the appetites and passions. It is for this reason that a classical statue of a nude is not like a Playboy centerfold. One is selfish, as lust is selfish, and uses the other as an instrument; the other is selfless, as love is selfless.
At any point before World War One, if you asked any philosopher or intellectual what was the point of art, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, all of them of each generation all the way back to Socrates would have said the purpose of art is to seek beauty. Socrates himself would have said that by beauty, by the strong love and longing created in the human breast at the sight of something sublime, we are drawn out of ourselves, and are carried step by step away from the mundane to the divine.
The strongest argument against the atheism so beloved of the Left is not an argument that can be put in words, for it is the argument of beauty. If you see a sunset clothed in scarlet like a king descending to his empurpled pyre, or wonder at the gleaming thunder of a waterfall, if you find yourself fascinated by the soft intricacy of a crimson rose or behold the cold virgin majesty of the morning star, much less see and enter a cathedral or a walled garden, or you hear Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven or see the David of Michelangelo, or become immersed into the song and splendor and Northern sorrow of Wagner’s “Ring” or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, if indeed you see real beauty and for a moment you forget yourself, then you are drawn out of yourself into something larger.
In that timeless moment of sublime rapture, the heart knows even if the head cannot put it into words that the dull and quotidian world of betrayal, pain, disappointment and sorrow is not the only world there is. Beauty points to a world beyond this world, a higher realm, a country of joy where there is no death. Beauty points to the divine.
The Left hates this argument, because – since it is not put into words – it cannot be refuted in words. It can only be refuted in images: a urinal, a several cow head, a can of shit, a messy bed. These images are ugly, aggressively ugly, meant to be demeaning, meant to be absurd, harsh, jarring, repugnant and gross. If the vision of a the morning star points to a world beyond this world, fair and filled with the music of the spheres, then visions of shit and blinking lights and severed heads and unmade beds point to a world of roaring despair, a desecrated graveyard, a dungheap.
The Left hates this argument, because if beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, then beauty tells us what is a truth, a real truth, a truth from a world beyond the world of petty propaganda, a beauty beyond the world of pornography. The Left hates this argument, because if beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, then beauty is meant to be served, not used for your selfish pleasures. Beauty humbles the proud, for it shows them something beyond themselves and their appetites. And the left hates that.
Do you think I am exaggerating? Do you think what we are dealing with is merely distaste or polite disagreement, and not hatred? Go into a modern art museum: look at the urinal, the severed cow head, the can of shit, the soiled bed. These are not the expressions of one or two aberrant individuals with psychological problems: this is the condition of our culture for nearly a century, an industry involving endless amounts of money public and private. This is the leadership of the artistic vision controlling our civilization, and the thing future archeologists will point to as the defining spiritual images of our times.
Why do they adore such imagery? That answer is not difficult: the desolation of ugliness aids the Leftist cause in a very real and very subtle way.
Imagine two men: one stands in a bright house, tall with marble columns adorned with lavish art, splendid with shining glass images of saints and heroes, mementos of great sorrow and great victories both past and promised. A polyphonic choir raises their voices in golden song, singing an ode to joy. The other stands in a slum with peeling wallpaper, or a roofless ruin infested with rats, hemmed by feces-splashed gray concrete walls lurid with jagged graffiti, chalked with swearwords and flickering neon signs advertising strip joints. Rap music thuds nearby, ear-splitting, yowling obscenities. A bureaucrat approaches each man and orders him to do some routine and routinely humiliating task, such as pee in a cup to be drug tested, or be fingerprinted, or suffer an anal cavity search, or surrender his weapons, or his money, or his name. Which of the two men is more likely to take a stand on principle not to submit?
Which one will automatically and unconsciously assume that human life is sacred, human rights are sacrosanct, and that Man is made in the image and likeness of God? The man surrounded by godlike images? Or the man surrounded by mocking filth?
Which one, in other words, is more likely to fall prey to the worldview of a dark world cosmos without meaning, without truth, without virtue?
The point of nearly a century of aggressive ugliness in the fine arts is to produce disgust. It does not matter whether you become a fan of the jarring ghastliness and horror of modern art, or if you turn away in cynical disgust and seek for beauty only in popular entertainment. Both fans of ugliness and cynics repelled by it have lost their innocence. Neither one will hear the argument of beauty; neither will hear the music of the spheres.
Read last week’s column: The Left’s Twisted Perspective of Virtue.
John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.