Rock, Beauty, Scissors


These are old Steven Meisel photos. Found on Crayon Beats.

Rod Dreher:

Man in Arizona stabs his family to death, singing a line from the Cole Porter of our time as he carried out his homicidal act. Excerpt:

Miller told detectives he was possessed and he visualized his wife, Adreana Miller, as a demon. Just before stabbing her at 4 a.m., he told police he started screaming lyrics from an Eminem song, saying, “Here comes Satan, I’m the anti-Christ, I’m going to kill you.”It’s wrong, of course, to blame Eminem or his music for these murders. Stipulated, free and clear. Still, I hope Eminem is horrified by this, and feels in some sense guilty, because he — and his record company — are at some level morally implicated in this gruesome killing.

I do not believe for a second that artists should stay away from dark material; to do so would be to be untrue to life. What matters is how they use that dark material. When you work with violence, anger, spitefulness, or any manifestation of evil in your art, you are dealing with forces, psychological and otherwise, that are more powerful than you may understand. They should be handled with utmost care. If you don’t have the moral maturity to understand that, you shouldn’t deal with this stuff.

Dreher again:

It seems clear now that the report that the Arizona killer quoted Eminem lyrics as he killed members of his family was not true. The lyrics are not from an Eminem song, even though the psycho told cops they were. In light of this new information, I’m backing off — somewhat — the force of yesterday’s post.

That false lead caused me to look up Eminem lyrics, which are among the most repulsive, violent, misogynistic, pornographic things I’ve ever read. Typical of that musical genre. I think it is difficult at best to draw a direct causal line between an work of art and an anti-social or violent act carried out by someone who was moved by it. Still, I will say again that I think it is disingenuous to claim that there is no connection whatsover between these acts and art consumed by people who do them.

Dreher Part 3:

In the most recent Eminem thread, Nick the Greek said he doesn’t want to live in a society in which artists are compelled to create only art that’s safe for children if they are to be thought of as morally responsible. Well, neither do I. But that’s a false choice, isn’t it? No serious person believes that art should be devoid of sex and violence, because sex and violence are part of life. It all comes down to how an artist handles those things, and the context in which the art is created. We live now in a culture in which artists and those who promote them refuse any moral responsibility for their work, and tell themselves that they are operating from a position of ethical superiority.

JL Wall:

So there are beautiful things in the world that probably ought not to have been made – though that does not affect the fact that they are, especially once they are granted enough distance from the moment of their creation, beautiful nevertheless. Morality and craft cannot be separated. “Deed is belief.” (I associate the thought with Will Herberg, though I can’t find it, and I doubt he said it so succinctly.) I’m hardly trying to imply that the Beatles are responsible for the Manson Family murders, but Rod has a point: art (and “art”) exists in the world, and its creators have the obligation to recognize that it will have consequences, for good or for ill – and that they will not be able to foresee all of those consequences. The artist who would cut himself off from the morality of his work is the artist who would cut himself off wholly from the world, from being. But that’s something which we simply can’t do. By being, we are in the world — a world in which morality, if one is to acknowledge its existence, permeates life, which consists of deeds that can therefore not escape the question of morality — and because we are in the world, to shirk the matter of morality is to shirk responsibility.

Changing topics, via Dreher, Roger Scruton in City Journal:

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch—something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue. In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.


It’s useful to ponder the novelist Milan Kundera’s ideas about kitsch. As I recall, in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” he discussed the role of kitsch in totalitarian culture. Kitsch is the only permitted artistic mode in a totalitarian society, says Kundera, because it is “the absolute denial of sh*t.” Meaning it will not allow recognition of any fallenness, tragedy, irony, ambiguity or imperfection into the world it creates. There can be Christian kitsch, communist kitsch, patriotic kitsch, atheist kitsch, and so forth. It’s artificial. It’s artistic junk food. It may satisfy a real craving, but only superficially. In my experience, many partisans of modernism and post-modernism believe any longing for traditional beauty is kitsch. This is a mistake.

JL Wall:

I’ve had conversations that touch on this with a friend who was, in fact, the very first reader of Walker Percy I ever met and who remains fascinated and influenced by his work.  The question that’s been raised several times (and left unanswered) is whether it was good or bad that (in his take) as Percy’s career progressed his views on mankind and the (post)modern world were articulated more and more clearly — but at the expense of the prose and the quality of the works as novels.  Anyone who has read The Thanatos Syndrom should be able to agree that its primary purpose is not to serve as art per se.  (Indeed, if you arm yourself with a copy of Love in the Ruins and the fourth chapter of Lawler’s Postmodernism Rightly Understood, the only two aesthetic reasons to read TS are the “Confession” toward the middle and the fact that Tom More may very well never have changed out of the dirty seersucker he’s first seen wearing by the of the novel.)

Shorter me: the artist must take things other than beauty into consideration.  But a “good” or “proper” or “true” work without beauty is not art.

David Layman at First Things:

Upon reading my first posting, a friend forwarded two essays in City Journal on the current state of art and opera. In one, Roger Scruton describes “Beauty and Desecration”. The transcendental value of art, beauty, has been replaced by “artistic self-expression.” According to Scruton, the self as defined by the contemporary artist is the one who is “outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it,” and who expresses his opposition by “disturb[ing], subvert[ing], or transgress[ing against] moral certainties.”

The first problem with such an program should be obvious: if the artist subverts received moral certainties, and produces his art out of his perceived “self,” then what vision, what value is being produced? “By their fruit you shall know them,” the Gospels tell us Jesus said. Moral wholeness is in the doing. One is just, if one acts the way an ideal just man would act, according to Aristotle. And what fruit is being produced? “Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it,” Scruton says.

[…] I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief. He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic, he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain why one should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

JL Wall on the Layman post:

Layman is correct in one thing, at least: “Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.” That is, art is human; perhaps better phrased, the art that does not exalt to the sacred reminds us of that “dark soil” of our own humanity. But by reminding us of it, art ensures that we remain aware of it, and only aware of it can we overcome it.

Art — even from its origins in the often-disturbing realm of Greek myth — serves to remind us of our own humanity. When self-expression is raised above all else, this is lost; the self itself is too exalted; and there artist and audience begin to run the risk of (self) idolatry Layman raised earlier. This, however, was not the purpose of those earliest bloomings of Western art and culture.

Should art be feared? Provided we’re talking about art, and not the cults of artist or self or “kitsch”, the answer is no. Even if all that art does, rather than exalt to the sacred, is remind us of our own humanity.

And because all things go back to Michael Jackson, via Dreher again, we go to Liz Kelly in WaPo:

But is it possible to honor one while continuing to back away from the other? To reconcile the very real disdain for the man while at the same time recognizing his music as every bit worthy of praise?

And by admitting that we appreciate the art of someone we find morally objectionable, are we selling out our own ethics?

Michael Jackson isn’t the first person to inspire these questions. Commenting about classical musicians who were openly anti-Semitic or aligned themselves with Germany’s Nazi regime, retired music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky wrote:

“Unfortunately, there are so many ‘unsavory characters’ in the world of art, science, literature and general culture that if you boycotted their given genius, there would be precious little art left to enjoy.”

And therein lies the rub. If one looks closely enough, uncomfortable realities can be found for many of pop culture’s venerated artists, big and small: Mel Gibson, who is slowly working his way back into Hollywood’s mainstream despite his 2006 anti-Semitic, sexist rant. Woody Allen, who continues to attract A-list talent, critical praise and audiences for his films despite being roundly criticized for romancing and marrying his stepdaughter. Amy Winehouse, who despite an inability to pull herself from the clutches of addiction, still has an undeniably beautiful and original voice.

Dreher again on Jackson


Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Go Meta, Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s