I ask myself a simple question a lot nowadays: What do we get out of art?
That’s a tough question. Everyone seems to have a different answer but the general consensus when you ask people is “I just want good stories”. It’s a relatable sentiment but even the most basic epistemological questioning of the premise forces us to ask the question of “what is good?”
Sadly, the answer I keep coming to is “nothing of substance”. Art seems to have degenerated a form of opiod. It’s become nothing but a salve to reaffirm our biases and smooth the pain of existing in a complicated world.
Of course, I’m not the first person ever to complain that the greater populace doesn’t engage comfortably with high art. Oscar Wilde famously said “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” People have always lamented that the populace isn’t littered with amateur philosophers and I’m not about to add to THAT tirefire.
My problem is with popular art in general at the moment. Maybe I’m overly nostalgic for an era of storytelling that never fully existed but classical entertainment that has survived into the modern day does reflect a very different culture than our own. The 1950s culture of the Hays Code, three-piece suites and the American Dream is far a field from our current post-modern, moral relativist dystopia.
It says something that our culture can’t make films as moralistic and literate as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Ben Hur without indulging in narcissism or modern prejudices. Such a project would be nitpicked to death by corporate board meetings and “anti-problematic” special interest groups before it left the editing bay…
Maybe I’m just the kind of special snowflake that actively enjoys reading older high literature and poetry but part of that attraction comes from the way older works of art actually do manage to craft great meaning.
I once said the difference between books and literature is that a book is something you read while literature is something that reads you. Literature is something that takes you on a ride and drags you were it wants to go against your will. At the end of the experience though, you always find you’re better off for it and your understanding of the world is expanded in some way.
Yet that kind of interaction seems to be rare. The majority of people don’t engaging with films and books the way we were taught to analyze literature in high school.
The problem with popular “modern art” is that it doesn’t share this humanistic trait. Its not edifying. It doesn’t raise the conscious. When it does try to develop a social consciousness, all it does is inflame tribal tensions and rip open society’s most painful wounds.
At its best, modern pop art just seems to exist as a puzzle for us to work out. It’s a mental exercise meant to pass through our logical circuit breakers unencumbered and ease the tensions of daily life. We treat entertainment the same way we treat a sudoku puzzle.
Our action movies and superhero stories value the lore and hidden details of stories more than the implicit meaning of the text.
At its worst though, it’s a collective revenge fantasy designed to allow us to take joy in the utter decimation of some hated societal “other” that we all agree ought to be eviscerated (IE: the church massacre in Kingsmen).
Whether it’s the minority killing in vigilante films like Dirty Harry or Death Wish, the misanthropy of a film like Joker or the social justice infused revolutionary vengeance of a film of a film like Promising Young Woman, all people on all sides of the political spectrum encourage morally binary storytelling where THEIR grievances fuel fantasies of vengeance and retribution that lead to massive body counts..
There’s a reason after all that the most popular characters among young progressives are toxic misanthropes like Kylo Ren and Killmonger…
When you realize that, there’s only one word you can properly use to describe modern pop art: pornography.
Modern art is a marital aid for society designed to activate our animal instincts long enough to satisfy the excess energies.
I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense. There’s no council of globalist planners or racial minorities intentionally trying to dull the populace with bread and circuses. This is a human nature problem. We no longer live in a virtuous society that teaches people what proper living and morals ought to be. As such, we’re in the early stages of degenerating back into our Hunter-gatherer mindsets.
This is why revenge stories are such an easy sell to us. They appeal to the part of our brains that want to be satisfied by violent retribution against outsiders for the crimes made against our families and communities.
It doesn’t help that the moral guardians of our society have deeply abdicated their roles. Film critics, who’s entire JOB is to help people understand their reactions to art and facilitate good discourse, entirely default to their tribal moral justifications.
The normal “End of the Year” lists on every major film website are always filled with lists of obscure works, art films and international films that 99% of the populace is unaware of. Many of these films are quite excellent! For the film critics though, I find it hard to believe that the majority of them were truly challenged by these films.
Just look at the intense popularity of Jordan Peele’s Get Out? That film was specifically written to excoriate the blind prejudice of upper class liberal white people who pander to black people while abusing their culture and disregarding the actual lives of black people.
Liberal Film critics LOVED IT. They ate it up! They almost took sexual pleasure in being told how terrible they were. FilmCritHulk declared it the “movie of the decade”.
But who was ACTUALLY challenged by that film?
Black audiences who already believe that white supremacy is oppressing them weren’t challenged. White guilt ridden liberals weren’t challenged. Conservatives who don’t share the modern intersectional left’s understanding of racism weren’t challenged. Genuine white supremacists probably laughed at the film.
What is art that challenges nobody? What is art that fulfills our ever pleasure and indulges our prejudices?
The very class of intellectuals who ought to be teaching the public about the importance of intellectual, the depths of human wisdom and the value of literature ultimately end up serving none of those functions because they see themselves as about the fray. Like Milton’s Lucifer, They think they’ve evolved beyond the need for absolute goodness and think they can create their own corner of heaven on Earth.
As Thomas Sowell writes in Intellectuals and Society, public intellectuals regardless abdicate their moral virtue because they believe their immense knowledge is a substitute for moral wisdom. As a result, they push ideas that they don’t have to suffer the consequences of.
“The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice, and groupthink—and for those with one percent of the knowledge in a society to be guiding or controlling those with the other 99 percent is as perilous as it is absurd.”
The result is that the virtues and wisdom that hold society together are now totally forfeit. The populace considers high art to be elitist and impenetrable while the elites consider the works to the past to be bourgeois works of dead white colonialist men.
The left cancels Homer and Shakespeare while the right doesn’t bother to read them…
I say again, most art today whether popular or elitist is pornography. We’ve become a generation of consumers and pornographers. All of us.
A society that creates no myths, edifies no values and antagonizes huge swaths of the population and its history isn’t a healthy one. It speaks to the decadence of our times that knowledge and wisdom are merely options to be considered and disregarded as aging artifacts of a dead past.
Societies need virtuous storytellers, historians and intellectuals to survive. As our own Anastasia Cosmo recently said, we have no Virgil or Livy to help explain to use the virtue of our past. When our stories lack the most basic social virtues, it reflects a society that isn’t developing them.
When our stories degrade us, dehumanize us, break down our identities or merely suck, then we all start to suck.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t enjoy any of the mentioned stories. I love Star Wars and Marvel as much as the next guy. Death Wish III is one of my favorite movies ever and I’ve defended Joker several times. If I would offer any advice to the reader who agrees, it’s just to challenge yourself with challenging material. Keep indulgent art within its proper place. Build a taste and tolerance for challenging art.
Variety is the spice of life and good art is soothing to the soul.