Rat's Nest
Bloggage, rants, and occasional notes of despair

Late modern art

I’ve asserted previously that the quasi-Spenglerian model of metahistory is the one to follow, and that it indicates that we are in (or are about to enter) the death-throes of Western culture. That shouldn’t be taken as a prediction that the world is in (or is about to enter into) a new barbarism. In the Spenglerian model, a High Culture is succeeded by a civilization; Classical culture died at about the same time as Caesar (although not because of Caesar’s death), and was succeeded by the Classical civilization of the Roman Empire. In the same way, the Hyksos were succeeded by the New Kingdom, the Chou and the contending feudal states by the Ch’in and Han, and the atabegs and despots by the Osmanlis. In every case, the stability and illusion of strength lasted (with notable exceptions that make interesting reading but were horrible for the people trying to live through them) for centuries; in cases where nobody could be bothered to knock over the skeletal remains (post-imperial Egypt or Japan after the beginning of the Heian period), they could survive indefinitely.

I’d originally intended this series of posts as a polemic against modern "art". When I gathered my sources, however, I was surprised to find that there was so little to rave about. This not because, like Wagner’s music, modern art is better than it sounds; it’s because there’s no "there" there. Modern art, particularly late modern art, is like one of those beads formed by dropping molten glass into cold water; it looks to be a stable, cohesive structure, but break off its "tail", even scratch it, and its disintegrates into dust.

Casually, this is because of the cultural exhaustion that I mentioned previously. With fewer and fewer meaningful questions to be answered, art becomes increasingly self-referential, creating a jargon without meaning, used not to communicate anything other than "I speak the same jargon, so I must be an artist" (this is by no means limited to art, incidentally).

Spengler considered that a civilization is essentially synthetic and curatorial, as distinct from the analytic, creative culture that proceeded it. The curatorial function in art appears to extend (in America, which is certainly part of Western culture) back to the end of the nineteenth century; its manifestation in Western culture is the non-profit corporation. Prior to that time, "serious" art and popular spectacle, contemporary composition and pre-modern literature and music, tended to be run together on the same bill; in a single evening and without moving from one’s seat, one could see and hear scenes from Shakespeare, trained dogs, and contemporary poetry. People absorbed it all, bearing up under the hardship of their betters not being able to tell them what was to be drooled over, and what was too vulgar for words.

About 1900, beginning in Boston, the better people (i.e., WASPs) decided that true culture needed to be protected and preserved from the low-class rabble (i.e., non-WASPs) that was overrunning their fair city. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, however; the museums and orchestras that they provided for the people weren’t attended by the people. Actual people wanted to hear early-modern works of the sort that the sophisticated arty types, characterized a generation later as "Bright Young Things", sneered at as old-fashioned and repressive.

A century later, very much the same thing can be said. The Western modern musical canon runs from Mozart to Mahler. There is plenty of avant-garde music being produced by radical spirits, subsidized by academia, government, and the foundations, but no one wants to listen to it. (Rock music is not only ephemeral, its upholders insist that it must be ephemeral; listen to a devotee of "alternative" or "indie" rock bitch about the persistence of "classic" rock in masscult.)

Genuine postmodernism – civilization, rather than culture – tends to find late modernism so embarrassing that it tries its best to forget about it; if necessary, murdering any number of "artists" and destroying any number of "works of art" to do so. I note that the Hyksos Period – late modernity in Egyptian culture – is generally dismissed as a completely sterile time; whilst we might argue that absence of evidence should be taken as evidence of absence in this case, we might justly wonder if New Kingdom artistic styles were truly ab initio.

Western civilization, when it finally arises – and it should be remembered that I’m using "civilization" in a technical sense, as opposed to culture – will likely deny that the 20th century ever existed.

John "Akatsukami" Braue Friday, January 23, 2004