I met a friend for a chat this evening and we walked down Piedmont avenue having the aristocrat vs commoner argument. I am not sure I fully understood his position, but it seemed to be that something was lost as the European landed aristocracy was supplanted by democracy. Sophisticated statescraft honed across centuries was cast aside and replaced with what? (cough – there used to be two new wars a year there, for 600 years) Democrats are nothing but unwashed merchants and tradesmen with no sense of decorum. I have had a similar argument at the Less Wrong party before the Singularity Summit. One fellow there was arguing that democracies have led to a spiritual decay. I get confused when these hard rationalists start throwing the word “spiritual” around so I asked for clarification. Another participant supplied this example: Spirituality is the idea that Wagner is in some way superior to Britney Spears.
Ah, these reactionaries, they do strike a chord don’t they? This recollection recalls to mind the great Moldbug-Hanson debate of Foresight 2010. Moldbug said bring back the monarchs (Steve Jobs for Dictator!) and Hanson said let the markets rule us. I guess I have to side with Hanson’s markets though my heart more truly lies with the democrats throughout history who have distributed the decision making power beyond the elites. But I digress from my digression.
As we walked down Piedmont avenue this evening, the topic turned to Culture. “Surely no artist today could match the majesty of the Sistine Chapel?” my friend asked. So we have lost something. Well I guess that’s true, but the sponsors of this wondrous propaganda piece also gave us the charming Inquisition:
for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit
Good stuff. Besides, I haven’t seen it in person, but that Sistine Chapel art doesn’t really speak to me. I don’t much go for that tacky Italian stuff with panel mushed upon panel and every nook and cranny bursting with cherubs and whatnot. And I have some reservations about this God fellow that plays a prominent role. What about us humans down here? I can’t get into classical music much either, certainly not that overblown Wagner stuff. I might literally prefer Britney. I can handle a nice mellow Brahms sonata here and there, but since we can still access classical culture, what have we really lost?
Art should give expression to those things we are feeling but cannot express. “Are we so stunted emotionally?” asked my friend? Yes! Those of us who cannot paint or dance or write literature or play music are all stunted. We cannot express ourselves in these media, so the artist that shows us something we can relate to in film or music or art has given a new voice to our yearning and suffering and joy. This is a gift of illumination. Damn, it makes me want to go look at art or something.
That’s when a bunch of Mills College students butted into the conversation. Some lamented this loss of culture, others saw a paternalistic threat in this yearning (justified or not.) One young woman (who I will call the Liberal) brought up the good point that great art is certainly being made now, but we can’t see which of it is timeless until it’s been tested by time. She did mention Coltrane as a likely candidate. Certainly some scribblers worthy of note have emerged in this uncouth age.
The Liberal’s sparring partner (the Conservative) countered that we are isolated from one another and distracted by trivialities like “Jersey Shore.” So we can’t talk to one another and our attention spans have decayed to 140 characters. The Liberal defended the great pluralism of the USA and pointed out that she saw the Conservative take part in the community of a music show. I agree with this. At one time no peasant could travel more than 20 miles from their place of birth. They had no choice but to accept the religion and culture of their village. But today we have the freedom to go and find our own intentional communities or just Futurist meetups as the case may be. Sure the old culture offered comfort, and freedom is hard but the old cultures mostly sucked actually.
Take genital mutilation. That’s cultural. I place it right along side of the Sistine Chapel as an example of culture. Most of the Mills Students agreed that we need to take the good and leave the bad behind in regard to the old cultures. But I wonder how divisible cultural artifacts truly are. Is the Sistine Chapel integrally linked to oppression and Inquisition? Can the beauty really be expunged of the horrors that funded it and the message it inheres? Some things were lost with the passing of Culture. Some horrible things along with the great.
No, things are not perfect now. I am not thrilled that half the world still lives on less than $1,225 a year. Call me a Whig, but I am with Pinker on the whole progress thing. Sure Jersey Shore plays on our primate need to determine the status of others, but it’s a hell of a lot better than burning cats for entertainment.