The necessity of artistic counterrevolution

My friend Nikos Salingaros, together with Mark Signorelli, develops and adds to some thoughts he and I kicked around in an interview and a short essay we did together last year: The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism. The basic argument is that artistic modernism is antihuman, tyrannical, and nihilistic in its essence, and must be overthrown. No compromise is possible.

26 thoughts on “The necessity of artistic counterrevolution”

    • Signorelli’s a poet himself
      Artists sometimes have reactions to other artists that aren’t what you’d expect on general principles. I don’t know enough about either of them to comment though.

      • Hill is well worth reading,
        Hill is well worth reading, but he can be obscure to a lot of readers, mostly because uses a lot of archaic or unusual words and makes a lot of specific references to English localities and English history. Google makes him much easier to understand.

        Some of his poetry can be found around the web. “Funeral Music” is a good example:
        The last stanza is particularly powerful:

        Not as we are but as we must appear,
        Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
        Desire life but as they would have us live,
        Set apart in timeless colloquy.
        So it is required; so we bear witness,
        Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
        Each distant sphere of harmony forever
        Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
        Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
        If it is not, all echoes are the same
        In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
        How that should comfort us—or anyone
        Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
        Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.

        I can’t find his poem “Genesis” online, but it is well worth seeking out in particular.

  1. It is kind of bizarre to
    It is kind of bizarre to accuse Hart Crane of lacking beauty. Here is that passage in context, addressing the Brooklyn Bridge:

    O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
    (How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!
    Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
    Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,

    Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
    Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
    Beading thy path—condense eternity:
    And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

    Under thy shadow by the piers I waited
    Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
    The City’s fiery parcel all undone,
    Already snow submerges an iron year …

    Sleepless as the river under thee,
    Vaulting the sea, the riles’ dreaming sod,
    Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
    And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

    • Truth, beauty, and discursive thought
      But they don’t accuse Hart Crane of lacking beauty. They accuse him of “jarring disjunctions of meaning and sense” that “constitute an assault on the normal conventions of linguistic usage and discursive thought.” From that standpoint the better the poetry is in itself the more it points the wrong way.

      You raise an interesting point though, whether the discussions of poetry and architecture can be put together so simply. It’s hard to make language as inhuman as a physical object or space. No matter what it’s still human language, and a particular human language at that.

      Also, architecture creates an overall environment that people are forced to live and work in, so tyranny’s a bigger problem. And Salingaros says in response to comments that architectural modernism is largely a meretricious ideology that justifies cheap construction for the sake of profits. Modern poetry can no doubt be careerist but there’s no Donald Trump of poetry. So the two situations are different in basic ways.

      Why don’t you make your points at NER and see if Signorelli replies?

    • “And behind it all is nothing
      “And behind it all is nothing but despair, betrayed by the total absence of beauty, which signifies these artists’ complete inability to imagine any reality transcending the calamitous ugliness of the modern world.”

      Rereading the whole paragraph it is a bit unclear whether this refers just to the visual artists immediately preceding or to everyone discussed in the paragraph, poets and architects included. I suppose we should give the authors the benefit of the doubt and say the former.

      • I’m now going to rescind my
        I’m now going to rescind my charity towards Mr. Signorelli, who is a nasty piece of work. His throw everything including the kitchen sink style of argument is well on evidence here:

        One example:

        “Dennis Dutton tells us that a large vocabulary is a key element of a man’s attractiveness to women, which insight of course helps to explain why the boys in Model U.N. were always snagging the pretty girls away from the schlubs on the basketball team.”

        Uh, the smooth talker will beat the athlete with the girls, if not every time, then the vast majority of times, though the athlete probably won’t do too badly either.


        “This is all that Dutton wanted to do; this is all that any of the aesthetic Darwinians want to do – promote the dogma.”

        This is demonstrably untrue. Much of Darwinian aesthetics is _explicitly_ motivated by the desire to overturn deconstructionists and other modernist and post-modernist art theorists like Arthur Danto and return to traditional aesthetic standards. Pretty much the same goal as Alexander and Salingaros. Correct me if I’m wrong, the attempt to root aesthetics in human nature and biology seems to me very close to Alexander’s project.

        Much of Signorelli’s other charges are on a similar level. I could go on, but I trust anyone looking at the essay can see that I’m not cherry picking. None of this to say that one can’t make criticisms of Darwininan aesthetics. One can. But they shouldn’t be on this kind of infantile level. Similarly, the more I think about it, equating Hart Crane and Geoffrey Hill, flawed as they may be, with the inhuman monstrosities of current architecture and urban planning is just shameful. Doing so does no service to the cause of good architecture. I truly hope Mr. Salingaros is more careful in his choice of future collaborators. A disgrace.

        End of rant.

        • I agree that intemperate
          I agree that intemperate remarks get in the way of substance.

          On the substance, my knowledge of Darwinian aesthetics is limited to its name, “Michael Blowhard’s” comments at 2blowhards, and a few quotes. My impression is that Alexander and company tend to think of form as cause and goal while Darwinians think of it as blind consequence. If so, that would be an important distinction. It would be close to the distinction between essentialists and anti-essentialists.

          My own inclination is to think that the Darwinian relation between man and the Good, Beautiful, and True would be rather like that between the electric eel and electricity. It’s possible that electricity helps eels thrive, and that helps explain why electric eels in fact exist, but that kind of explanation doesn’t tell us very much about electricity.

          • There are good ways to
            There are good ways to criticize Darwinian aesthetics. One particularly problematic assertion is that art is beautiful because it displays skill. Art is indeed a skill display, but the skill being displayed is the ability to create something beautiful. Beauty seems to be a standard outside of art and can’t be reduced to it.

            Another is related to form and content. While what is particularly interesting to us (the content, the theme) may be conditioned by our evolutionary history, art is not completely reducible to that content. That we are interested in, say, stories about particular human concerns, like raising children, doesn’t reduce to those concerns. Some hypothetical rational species that had less concern for children might have different content to their art. We see this even now with the fact that certain art seems to resonate more deeply with women more than men and vice versa. More formal aspects of aesthetics however seem to transcend those particulars and seem to be valid even across species. (Flowers evolved to attract insects, not humans.) They seem woven into the very fabric of the universe, and hence beyond the reach of evolutionary explanation. (But then I learned a lot of this from the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.)

            One could also note that the particular experience of beauty cannot be reduced to Darwinian explanations. It can’t touch qualia. But then just about every theorist of Darwinian aesthetics explicitly says that.

          • From the standpoint of
            From the standpoint of content, here are the most wonderful pictures possible for Americans and Danes, based on actual surveys. I especially like the bellowing hippopotamus in the American picture. The Danes don’t have anything similar, I suppose because Scandinavians are so depressive.

          • I’d now like to make a few
            I’d now like to make a few more remarks about poetry, something I do know a lot about.

            1. Some of modernism was an attempt, not unique to modernism, to stimulate creativity through formal and stylistic innovation. And innovation of that kind does indeed seem to have that kind of effect. As Charles Murray has noted, subsequent artists tend to find the attempt to write Beethoven’s 10th uninspiring. The problem though is that a. form and style have been broken so many times there is nothing left to break anymore and so modernist forms are now just another convention, and b. some forms and styles really are capable of more powerful and more beautiful effects than others. So, now we are kind of stuck in an age of craftsmanship. This creates its own problems. The art and poetry of China and Japan are often great, but there is a certain sameness to it, caused by the more rigid aesthetic standards in their cultures. Sticking a bit too rigidly to certain traditional forms can be a bit stifling. But, of course, the constant need for innovation seems to eventually lead to a lot of dead ends too.

            2. Free verse ironically seems to arise out of Biblical traditions. While Hebrew poetry does have its own principle, mainly parallelism, it doesn’t have rhyme or regular meter, so scholars of the Hebrew Bible often debate whether some particular passage is verse or just heightened prose. Free verse arose independantly among the great Medieval Hebrew poets and arose in Bible soaked 19th century America with Walt Whitman and then spread to Europe largely under his influence.

            3. A lot of the problems with poetry (and other arts) seem to have to do with the declining use of certain kinds of figurative language, particularly personification. Studies have shown that the use of that particular figure has been in clear decline since the Enlightenment. It also seems connected to our religious sense and its decline seems to be linked with the decline of religion. This has little to do with the use or disuse of traditional form. A good particular example is to compare the poetry of Thomas Hardy with Philip Larkin. They both use traditional forms and are roughly equivalent in metrical skill, but Hardy uses a lot of personification while it is nearly absent from Larkin. Larkin suffers for it. Therefore the problems go deeper than the disuse of rhyme and meter. If that were all, we might well look to hip hop for our cultural salvation.

            (I have noted before that the lack of metrical and rhyming skill really doesn’t seem to be the main problem with contemporary poetry. In fact, there are a lot of highly skilled versifiers out there publishing with the most prestigious publishers. The plethora of stylistic and formal skill out there has made this a great age of translation. In some ways, we are in another Augustan age, also renowned for its embrace of Englightenment philosophy and science, its technical skill in versification, its superb translations, and its lack of genuine creativity.)

            4. As people like Roger Scruton (and you) have noted, it’s really the peculiar combination of modern style with a focus on supposed utility that has undone architecture and urban planning. It’s that extra push from money conscious people and institutions that tends to make contemporary architecture so peculiarly awful.

          • The attempts at constant
            The attempts at constant innovation have been a big problem in the visual arts. If you go to MoMA in NYC and look at the permanent collections it looks like a sequence of studies or experiments for the art of the future. None of it went anywhere though because the next guy had to come up with some other way of doing it.

          • Even in evolutionary
            Even in evolutionary aesthetics, form is constrained by the structure of the universe. What is successful in Darwinian terms is limited by how the universe _is_. So while the particular form that something takes may be contingent, it can’t just be anything.

  2. Darwinian problems with definitions
    Another problem with Darwinian approaches to aesthetics is that it tends to focus too much on the function of art and thus tends to have problems say exactly what art _is_. You get Ellen Dissanayake saying that what makes some thing a piece of art is setting it off as something special. Now people often do set works of art off as special, but if all you have to do to make something a piece of art is to set it off in that way, are you really saying anything different than Arthur Danto, who tells us that art is whatever we call art. We can do better. Here is my definition: art is the organization of sensual experience. This covers all the art forms: literature, drama, music, painting, sculpture, photography, film, architecture and gardening. This also has the virtue of covering things like fashion and product and household design, which combine practicality and aesthetics much in the same way as architecture. The one possible exception is storytelling, which as C.S. Lewis noted, does not necessarily have to be done in any particular one of the art forms and can tolerate a comparative neglect of sensual qualities in how it gets told. But a story still needs to be embodied in at least one of the above art forms, and if the sensual qualities of its telling are too much neglected the audience is likely to get annoyed or bored or both, no matter how well turned the plot. So, I’m not really sure storytelling actually is an exception.

    This definition does not mean there cannot be non-sensual aspects to a work of art. Literature, for example, often deals with comparatively abstract ideas that cannot be directly represented. Paintings and other kinds of work too may refer to ideas outside of what is immediately depicted. Arguably, plot also is non-sensual. But the definition does require that there always be at least _some_ sensual aspect for something to qualify as art. Thus conceptual art, where viewing of the actual object doesn’t seem to add anything to a verbal description of the concept, would not really qualify as a work of art, or at least not as _visual_ art.

    Furthermore, the amount of organization can vary as well. All art forms use found materials to some degree. This is particularly evident in something like gardening, particularly in the English style, where you pretty much take natural forms as you find them. After all, there is only so much you can control about how a plant is going to grow. Photography too demonstrates particularly well this “take it as you find it” aspect of art. But the same is true, in less obvious ways, in all other art forms too, like painting, where the painter most certainly doesn’t create the colours he uses, and poetry, where the poet usually does not invent the words he is using. But, again, there must always be at least _some_ deliberate organization for the object to be considered a work of art. And the less something has been so organized it would seem the less it can be considered art. Thus, putting a urinal on a pedestal at best barely qualifies for that distinction, if at all.

    • It’s not just any kind of
      It’s not just any kind of organization though. You have to end up with significant or aesthetic form. An everyday stack of folded laundry isn’t art, although it would count as such for Danto if presented as such by someone who counts as an artist. So maybe art should be defined as significant form made perceptible by the senses? I suppose that’s a more Platonic definition than yours.

      The case of storytelling is interesting. A story is about experience, so maybe telling the story should still count as organizing experience. It’s organizing the experience indicated by the words. There’s some overlap with e.g. representational visual art, since what’s presented and organized there is not pure sensory experience but also the experience the shapes and colors indicate.

      • Isn’t significant form what
        Isn’t significant form what you get when you have good art? Can’t art can be bad art and still be art? Clearly there has to be an intent to give form (organization) to sensual experience, but does that necessarily have to result in _good_ form?

        Stacking laundry certainly is a type of organizing and laundry has sensual qualities, but are you really organizing a sensual experience by stacking the laundry? My guess is you are trying to make certain objects more usable and any aesthetic experience it creates is a complete by-product. In this respect it would be like athletics, another human endeavour which happens to produce grace and beauty, quite a bit actually, but which has no real intention to do so, and hence is not art. I guess there might be borderline cases like when you make your bed and arrange your pillows so they look nice. Interior decoration is a kind of art, so perhaps arranging your pillows qualifies too, if only in a very limited sense, at least if you are trying to make them look a certain way.

        My definition would exclude the ready-mades and other kinds of conceptual “art” and would prevent people from calling just anything art. But it would not necessarily exclude bad art or limited forms of art. The later work of Jackson Pollock, for example, clearly is art of some kind. Whether its any good, however, is another question. Similarly, arranging your dinner table (or building an ordinary but nice looking house) may be a genuine form of art, and even in some sense good art, but that does not necessarily mean it is something worth preserving in a museum or otherwise calling much attention to. We need to distinguish between art and not-art certainly, but also between good art, bad art, and great art.

        • Interesting issues
          I’m not inclined to call neatness—e.g., sweeping a floor so it doesn’t look littered—art, even though it’s an aesthetic concern. Maybe because it’s too minimal an act and doesn’t create form. Or maybe because (as you might suggest) it comes too close to the utilitarian, since neatness makes it easier to read our environment, find things in it that we need, work without stuff getting in the way, etc.

          I agree that arranging pillows so they look nice is at least minimally art. It can show us an engaging pattern. I’m dubious about later Jackson Pollack. That seems like a transition to Danto-style art—a gesture by an artist intended to count as art within the artworld. Ditto for Duchamp’s urinal. To some extent he was just calling attention to the aesthetic qualities of an object that was after all designed with those qualities in mind. More basically though it was a kind of a joke. A joke isn’t art since it draws attention to incongruities rather than patterns. It seems very much like conceptual art, which I suppose draws attention to patterns or incongruities rather than creating them.

          Dunno where bad art fits into all this. Maybe it’s like a bad coin, a thing that imitates something of value but is not that thing? That’s the obvious way to maintain my “significant form” theory. On that line of thought good art would be true art, and great art would be true art that creates or manifests a profoundly significant pattern.

          • A few more thoughts.
            A few more thoughts.

            1. A lot of traditional definitions of art, which attempt to include some sort of value judgement in the definition itself, suffer from this problem of not being able to deal with bad art. I think this is a sign that the definition is probably wrong.

            2. I agree that to a certain extent conceptual art is often intended to draw attention to aesthetic qualities in common objects. As such it continues a long trend whereby the circle of aesthetically worthy things has been expanded. To a certain extent this is a good thing. It used to be that only things associated with gods, kings and aristocrats were considered worthy objects of contemplation. But if the point is to make us appreciate ordinary things, why do we need all this fancy institutional apparatus? Why not just read Wordsworth or Chesterton or Ruskin and go for a walk?

            3. Another problem is the overintellectualization of the arts. Art can include a certain amount of intellectual concerns, but mostly it isn’t about ideas. Even literature, which is most amenable to an intellectual approach, cannot be reduced to just the ideas it discusses. Intellectualized art is easier to teach though, or to talk about in general, so it tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention from intellectuals and rationalized institutions like universities and the media. Discrete ideas are more available to everyone too. You don’t need to have any sort of unique talent for seeing to grasp them. And in a world where you need to be able to explain what something is about explicitly, intellectualized art tends to become increasingly valued. But since intellectual concerns aren’t really what art is about in general, an intellectual approach tends to slight the best work.

            4. A different issue is the inclusion of more and more ugliness and dissonance into modern art. And, it should be said that you really do need those things to make great art, to contrast with light and beauty and give them depth. It may seem strange to us, but Mozart’s music was considered incredibly dissonant for his age. And then, again, a lot of the greater use of ugliness and dissonance is the attempt to jump start creativity by doing something different. So you get people like Wagner and Stravinsky and Matisse and Picasso including more and more of these things in their art. But there are two points: first, beyond a certain point, you start to get diminishing returns to ugliness and dissonance. Picasso may be great, but he’s a few steps below the Romantics and even some of the Impressionists, let alone the Renaissance masters Second, though you can increase ugliness and dissonance to a large degree and still make good or even great art, you can’t make even good art _just_ out of ugliness and dissonance. Hence most of Schoenberg and the latter Jackson Pollack, to cite only a couple examples.

            5. A lot of art is acclaimed as a representative of a particular style. Jasper Johns is mostly pretty pleasant to look at. He does some interesting things with colour and texture. But as an objective matter, he’s rather inferior to a lot of pretty “minor” Renaissance painters, who have the misfortune to have the same basic style as a lot more impressive painters. So, artists tend to face an incentive system whereby you need to create a new style, not just to help get the work started, but to attract attention in a world increasingly oversupplied with masterpieces.

          • Other thoughts
            1. What’s wrong with bad art = fake art? A bad joke is a joke that fails as a joke and isn’t funny. A bad argument is a string of words that seems like an argument but doesn’t make the conclusion more probable, so it’s really not an argument at all. If evaluation of success at something worth doing goes into the definition of joke and argument, why not art?

            2. Certainly the resolution of dissonance is an old story in music. Ditto for the element of shock and whatnot in storytelling. What we have now is different though. It’s not the resolution or subordination of evil and ugliness in a higher unity, it’s more the reverse. A nihilistic age can’t accept that the good or beautiful are real, they’re frauds and diversions, so more and more we get the true as the depiction of the evil and ugly, or maybe the pointless (e.g., Beckett). Anything else seems sugarcoated and fake and unimportant. After a while the true disappears as well and we just have the commercial or careerist or willful or self-destructive or whatever. The whole tendency’s obviously anti-art if art has to do with significant form, since significant form is a sort of higher unity.

            3. Dunno about the intellectualization/expansion of the definition of art. In descriptions of gifts and natural settings in old stories it’s evident people were aware of the beauty of everyday things. Maybe if there’s a movement to intellectualize aesthetic matters there’s an initial tendency to focus on a few emblematic objects and situations, which then provokes a counter tendency to broaden the scope of appreciation.

            4. Presumably most people would rather live with a minor Renaissance painting than a Jasper Johns on the wall.

          • 1. It goes against common
            1. It goes against common usage. Fake art implies something isn’t art at all, but people aren’t really in any doubt that a bad painting is still a painting or that a bad poem is still a poem. Furthermore, by saying that not-art and bad art are the same, it can’t really distinguish between Duchamp’s urinal and Thomas Kinkade. They’re now both not-art, which can’t be right. As for your examples, even a bad joke will have something minimally funny about it; if it doesn’t you don’t even recognize it as a joke. Similarly, a bad argument still uses certain recognizable persuasive techniques, even if they don’t really work. Even if you don’t accept that, one can have bad cars or a bad refrigerators and they are still a cars or refrigerators, not fake cars or refrigerators, and this would seem to be the way we actually do talk about bad art.

            2. This is partly true; there is something new, but the situation we are in is not just the result of a change in how we view the world, but the result of a long history of artists responding to specifically artistic problems of how to get the work going and distinguish themselves. Stravinsky and Schoenberg weren’t necessarily trying subvert Western tradition.

            3a. Quite a bit of art and literature these days isn’t obviously bad or offensive. It’s just too abstract or too intellectualized or intended to illustrate some theory. A lot of what Michael Blowhard calls Lit Fic falls in this category, so do a lot of art films and abstract paintings.

            3b. To some degree people always appreciated common things, but you don’t get a lot of stories or pictures about middle class or peasant or working class people and the clothes and things they used as subject’s themselves until later in the tradition. Van Gogh painted chairs for themselves. Can you imagine that going over well in most earlier eras? Similarly with landscapes, which were only backgrounds until the 19th century. People doubtless appreciated them before to some degree, but not in the same way.

            4. Well, if you had to choose just one. But it can get boring to look at too many things in the same style, so people will turn to work in new styles, even if it is inferior overall. Human beings like variety for its own sake. It’s a lot like the old story of the married man who has a drop dead gorgeous wife, but then goes off and has an affair with some merely cute girl on the side. She’s not as good objectively, but she’s different. And since in art there’s no moral obligation to pick just one, many people will often prefer the new over the good, without there being any particularly sinister implications.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot
    I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between Romanticism and modernist thought. The moderns tend to say that the only things we can know are real are material reality and individual subjective experience. But you can focus more on one than on the other. The Enlightenment view tends to focus on the former, atoms and the void and such, while the Romantic view tends to focus on the latter. The most important reality is your own intuitions and feeling. Now the Romantic movement was a partial corrective to the Enlightenment, but while it exalted intuitive knowledge, things you know directly, over reason, the intuition it exalted was a completely individual intuition, divorced from any dialogue with tradition and community.

    So, you start to get the cult of the creative artist and the highly eccentric personal mythologies of people like William Blake, who said some wise things, but, lets face it, was also something of a crank and could have used some more engagement with an audience, preferably one steeped in its own myths and stories.

    Now to some extent it has always been true that poets and artists have been mythmakers, not simply receivers of tradition. Great artists have always put their own personal stamp on their material. I have no doubt that Greek stories Homer drew on were not exactly what we have in the Iliad and Odyssey. But the Romantics exalted their own mythmaking powers far beyond what anyone had ever done before. One cannot _entirely_ fault them for this. To some extent they didn’t have much of a choice, for, after the demythologizing temper of the Enlightenment, there really wasn’t much of any common mythology out there that they could draw on. Probably the last poet who could really count on that was Milton.

    The Romantics also championed the idea that so great is the power of the artist that they can turn anything into art. Romanticism, in the words of Walter Pater, would add strangeness to beauty. Again, to some extent this has always been true. For example, if a story or poetic image isn’t at least a little surprising, a little bit counterintuitive, it won’t be memorable. But the romantics took this to extremes, where you get insistences that the choice of subject doesn’t matter or conversely that craftsmanship doesn’t matter, so long as you have the magical creativity of the artist, all of which fed into later stunts and idiocies.

    In the political realm, this exaltation of great men had some even more unfortunate consequences. The emphasis on the near divine status of great men led to the idea that all anyone else could do was follow them blindly. Thus you get philosophies like those of Carlyle and Nietzsche, which, however bastardized, led to Naziism and Communist Revolutionism. The will of great men, unshackled from tradition and community, is one of the most frightening things on earth. Even on a lower level you can get people who almost literally worship themselves, who focus on the development of their own consciousness to the exclusion of all else, which of course leads to a lot of almost pure selfishness. (I happen to think that even this form of religiosity is on the wane, and that the typical modern person is almost totally immersed in a purely materialist reality, but it exists out there in New Age thinking and has historically been a significant part of the modernist project.)

    Even the Romantic project of reenchantment of the world is problematic. Mostly submitting to the Enlightenment emptying of spirit and personality from the world, they seemed to waffle between a vague sort of pantheistic vision of the world as being inhabited by some sort of unspecified universal spirit, and a vision whereby their own near divine creative powers, through the sacred medium of art, could somehow reenchant the cold material world they had inherited from the Enlightenment. Of course, to do the latter you have to have absurd levels of confidence in your own creative power and in the power of art generally, which is why the greatest artists of this era, people like Wordsworth and Victor Hugo, seem to be such monsters of egotism. But even among such robust fellows as this, the belief that your own mind can by itself overcome “a universe of death” or build a New Jerusalem here on earth is difficult to sustain, particularly once you leave youth, so an artist like Wordsworth will often burn out or collapse in their later years.

    In fact, a general sort of bloated egotism seems to be the main result of the Romantic movement. Though receptive to intuitive knowledge and attempting to repopulate the world with spirit and personality, it never got beyond the fundamental individualism of the Enlightenment. Still it contained an important critique of aspects of the Englightenment and kept alive certain anti-modern currents which are of genuine value. Which is why I tend to think that the critique of Romanticism in people like Babbitt and Eliot is quite misguided. What we need is not a return to reason and classical restraint, which would really only get us back to the Enlightenment, but to an appreciation of intuitive knowledge working through tradition and community.

    Here is a nice essay on the Romanticism of Burke vs. Rousseau:

    • Reason old and new
      Obviously the modern tendency since Descartes is toward extremes of objectivity and subjectivity. Enlightenment neoclassicism and romanticism are one version of the polarity.

      The basic problem it seems is the modern understanding of reason, which excludes qualitative matters and ignores the necessity of community and tradition for coherent thought that engages productively with the world. So I’d say that we do need reason, we need an orderly public way to come to solid conclusions about important matters, but the reason we need is a lot more inclusive than what now goes under that heading. I think Eliot at least was aware of that.

      • I’m not sure how aware Eliot
        I’m not sure how aware Eliot was. Both the poetry and the literary criticism are highly problematic. And the first part of his statement that he was a classicist in literature, monarchist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion illustrates this, particularly in light of his view that the major line of English poetry went from Donne to Dryden to Pope to Byron and then skipped down to himself and Pound, slighting not only the major Romantics, but even works like Hamlet and Paradise Lost. Clearly there was something quite defective in his vision of things. A critic like C.S. Lewis had a much better grasp on both the virtues and limitations of Romanticism. I tend to find Eliot’s social criticism the most valuable part of his work.

  4. On a somewhat related
    On a somewhat related question, what is up with the rise of kitsch in popular religious art? I happen to think its a real problem, not just a slur to be thrown at traditional artists by the artistic establishment. If, as Jon Haidt suggests, lots of religious people seem to have an aversion to darkness, disgust, and dissonance, and if, as Milan Kundera opined, kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, then is there something in the religious temperament, at least in the modern context, that tends to draw people to praise songs, Thomas Kinkade paintings, and those god-awful plaster Madonnas you seem to see in every ethnic shop? Religious people really do seem to respond to both beauty and the sublime on a deeper level than quasi-autistic secular moderns, but somehow this seems to come out all wrong in a modern context, in a complete denial of those darker aspects of art which lend it depth. Modern art sadly seems to have bifurcated into religious kitsch and modern decadence, to the complete detriment of both. I also have to say that I grow quite uneasy with supposed defenders of beauty who would foist on on us the likes of Adolphe Bougereau or, heaven help us, Frank Frazetta (IIRC, subject of a retrospective post at 2Blowhards). Or, even worse, who don’t seem to recognize how truly abominable, say, Tolkien’s prose style in The Lord of the Rings is. Not that any of those artists are completely without merit, but with defenders of beauty like this, who needs enemies?


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