The Platonist strongly believes that art should be beautiful.
In taking this stance, we are aligning ourselves with nearly all wesetern artists who wrote, painted, sculped, built, danced, composed, and sang between the fourteenth and the early twentieth centuries.
Artists in the middle ages, and in other cultures, have instinctually felt this call to beauty, except in some cultures where the desire to be fierce has overridden the cause of beauty.
It is a sad, bitter, and terrible irony that we now live in a culture which believes that all art is relative, to the point where there are no standards of Truth, Beauty, or the Good.
Professional artists in the west now operate under the assumption that art should be anything but beautiful.
Architects since the advent of Bauhaus and De Stijl have intentionally built ugly buildings – intentionally alienating, intentionally following none of the traditional laws of proportionality and humanity. Their buildings are intentionally anti-humanist. No wonder we find them instinctually repellant. Why do they do this?
Painters and sculptors since the 1910s have intentionally painted things which are ‘shocking’ –again, the rule is, anything but beauty.
Why? In short, because they believed that, when a combination of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein finally did away with most traditional interpretations of “God” shortgly after 1900, that this proved that god did not exist. In the west, the platonist values of Truth, Beauty, the Good, etc. had since the renaissance always been seen as being anchored by an absolute faith in the existence of god–even if he was just a distant Deist’s ‘divine watchmaker.’
When, according to Nietzsche, “god died,” artists couldn’t handle it, and they thought that this meant that there was in fact no Truth, no Justice, no Beauty, no Good. If there were no absolutes in the created universe, then there could be no absolutes in art. So, starting with Dadaism during the horrors of World War I, artists started to rebel against all of these traditional ideals, and began to work intentionally contrary to these values, in order to ‘prove’ to us that god was dead, and that truth, beauty, etc., did not exist.
These intellectuals were mostly at that time under the sway of Marxism – which at its heart is based on a noble idea — that all poeple should have equal access to property, so that all people can be dignified and truly human. Marxism is thus squarely in the western tradition of humanism. (The problem is, Marx advocated violence to get there, and this just ended up creating the opposite of the society he wanted to create). But in the meantime, before we knew where Marxism would lead, the intellectuals were swept up in the desire to prove that ‘bourgeois values,’ i.e., those illusory notions of God, Truth, Beauty, the Good, etc., were all entirely false–they were in fact the opiate of the masses, and that the new humanism in art should show these values for what they are — illusions.
Ironically, then, artists in the early c20th believed that by making anti-beautiful, anti-humanist art, they were showing people the way towards a Truer Humanism. I.e., the dadists, the bauhaus people, etc., are all still following in the Platonic quest to become ‘truly human,’ i.e., to become closer to ‘gods,’ and thus to come closer to what they believed was ‘true beauty,’ etc., –all of this was to be done through art that was opposed to the Platonic ideals.
So the irony is, that western artists started making ugly art, in order to bring us closer to beauty. They still ostensibly do this today: since the ideals have been thrown out, almost every artistic installation has to be grounded in some ‘social awareness’ issue–i.e., a progressive political issue, in order to justify itself. So art is still attempting to move us along the path towards what we might call Platonic enlightenment– a more ideal society, a more just world, a better world (these are all platonic virtues), only now, we have firmly entrenched ourselves in this ironic mode, where in order to create a more just world, you show pictures of people being horribly murdered or whatever.
My argument is simply this: while it is good to have irony available, this should not be the dominant mode. In fact, the irony, after 100 years, has largely backfired. Instead, we have alienated the public from all ‘high art’ forms, and artists’ work remains the province of a few self-congatulatory wealthy people–rather like the scholasticism of the middle ages. What we have done by abandoning beauty entirely, is not only to alienate the public, but to in fact, brutalize the public, as well as the artistic community: everyone is now completely inured to all of the most base, vile, and violent images. In fact, while art still aims ostensibly to humanize people, what we have done with our horrible alienating architecture, by driving people away from classical music (by giving them ridiculous compositions by Philip Glass, etc), is to make them all the more base, all the more anti-humanist.
In other words, if we want to make a more just, more beautiful, better society, all that we have to do, is re-embrace the ideals of truth, beauty, and the good in our art. If the artists lead the way, by giving positive rather than negative examples, artists themselves will become reinspired with the ideals that all of us, as humans, want to feel, want to live up to. Who doesn’t want a better, more just society? Basically, only people who are warped and twisted would say that they do not. If we want that, then why have we gotten stuck in this anti-humanist mode?
What about god? If he can’t anchor absolutes, then aren’t they just illusion? The point is: most artists didn’t really believe in god anyway, or if they did, it didn’t really matter to them that he existed. The point is: he’s always been an idea. There has never been proof. So, as humans, we have a duty to act as though he did exist, even if we doubt this sincerely. Even if we doubt the existence of an absolute good, truth, etc, it is still in our best interests, by far, to create a beautiful society, surrounded by beautiful buildings, beautiful music, and beautiful art. There will always be room for irony. But it should never be the dominant mode, or else we will all become less, rather than more, human.
What I would like to do on this site, eventually, is to begin adding a series of movie and album, poetry and literature reviews, which are all done from the aesthetical viewpoint of the Platonist – which means that they will favour ideals, which means more practically that they will tend to favour the epic, sometimes the extravagantly joyous, the beautiful, the good. The epic is a favoured mode of the Platonist, because it creates a clash of good vs. evil, or, as in the earlier homeric tradition, it at least makes things larger than life: it magnifies them, so that men become gods and their smallest actions can take on a cosmic significance. Much of Platonism is this idea of living life to the fullest: James Dean is the pop stereotype of this, perhaps – but generally we mean in a less obviously self-destructive way – a way that takes the glory of being alive for the present, and magnifies it, and attempts to make the very most – it will emphasize emotions – and the greatest ones of all, such as love – which probably does bring us closest to a sense of the one – the ideal – which is the idea that the christians borrowed from certain late antique thinkers, namely, neo-platonists.
As for the first recommendations, I was listening to Ian Bostridge’s “Great Handel” again today, and Ian is basically my favourite tenor. He was a philosophy PhD at Oxford, before his singing career took off, and he realized that he could make far more money that way. He has never lost his philosophical roots, however, and he often chooses pieces which have very soulful, spiritual, and/or deep – i.e., ideal, lyrics. More on him when we have a dedicated post. And the #2 recommendation du jour is Graindelavoix – joye and pouissance d’amour I think it’s spelled – a belgian group, which does medieval music in a hardcore way, which is revolutionary, and makes it sound like I really wish that so many pop bands would do – really get at that gothic, spiritual, ideal feel that Dead Can Dance and Loreena McKennitt seem to be able to do in a class almost by themselves.
And here’s a quote from Cary Tennis; my favorite advice columnist, and generally one of the wiser voices that I’ve encountered on the web. This gem was in the midst of a lot of other stuff, but it very much describes how I feel that I’m often taken these days by my friends and acquaintences. This is some attempt, perhaps, to describe where I’m coming from when I write?
A friend once told me that all my letters to him were written as though for posterity. I was writing as I imagined a writer writes letters to friends. It was a show, a demonstration. It is true in a sense: I behave as I imagine myself to be; I present to the world my imagined version of myself. Now, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. To some degree, this imagined self is the true self; it is the higher self we would project if we were not afraid; it may be a formal, high-minded self easily ridiculed in our casual, pop-culture world; it may be a perfectionistic, striving self that asks much of others and seems faintly elitist and undemocratic. We may be trying to make this true and ideal self visible by using elevated language; if we are not careful, this elevated language may sound stagy and artificial even though what is behind it is an attempt to show our true self.
At any rate, I’m glad to know that someone else feels similarly to how I feel when writing… even when I post on facebook, it seems…. this is more like what I come across like. It’s part of being high minded in a pop culture world. But, what choice do I have, except to face the odd looks, the misunderstandings, and the negative ridicule (i.e., mostly done behind my back)?
And here’s a painting; yes it’s a madonna and child, but it’s one of the more moving ones, and more brilliantly composed, and whose palate is more subtle and lovely than almost any I had seen, by this not-so-well-known french artist of the same period as the pre-raphaelites, William Bouguereau. Apparently his name was almost stamped out of art history, when the impressionists took over the French academy. But he’s being rediscovered by a few. He also helped to open the main french academies to women artists. Just thought I’d share.