EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is reprinted here with gracious permission of the Asia Times, where it first appeared.
There are aesthetes who appreciate the cross-eyed cartoons of Pablo Picasso, the random dribbles of Jackson Pollock, and even the pickled pigs of Damien Hirst. Some of my best friends are modern artists. You, however, hate and detest the 20th century’s entire output in the plastic arts, as do I. “I don’t know much about art,” you aver, “but I know what I like.” Actually you don’t. You have been browbeaten into feigning interest in so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl, and you are afraid to admit it for fear of seeming dull. This has gone on for so long that you have forgotten your own mind. Do not fear: in a few minutes I can break the spell and liberate you from this unseemly condition.
First of all, understand that you are not alone. Museums are bulging with visitors who come to view works they secretly abhor, and prices paid for modern art keep rising. One of Jackson Pollock’s (1912–1956) drip paintings sold recently for $140 million, a striking result for a drunk who never learned to draw and who splattered paint at random on the canvas. Somewhat more modest are the prices paid for the work of the grandfather of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), whose top sale price was above $40 million. An undistinguished early Kandinsky such as Weilheim-Marienplatz (43 by 33 centimeters) will sell for $4 million or so by Sotheby’s estimate. Kandinsky is a benchmark for your unrehearsed response to abstract art for two reasons. First, he helped invent it, and second, he understood that non-figurative art was one facet of an aesthetic movement that also included atonal music.
Kandinsky was the friend and collaborator of the grandfather of abstract music, the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), who also painted. Schoenberg, like Kandinsky, is universally recognized as one of the founders of modernism. Kandinsky attended a performance of Schoenberg’s music in 1911, and afterward wrote to him:
Please excuse me for simply writing to you without having the pleasure of knowing you personally. I have just heard your concert here and it has given me real pleasure. You do not know me, of course – that is, my works – since I do not exhibit much in general, and have exhibited in Vienna only briefly once and that was years ago (at the Secession). However, what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common that I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy. In your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music.
The critical consensus supports Kandinsky’s judgment. An enormous literature now exists on the relationship between abstract painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence can be found on the Internet. Clement Greenberg, the critic who made Jackson Pollock’s reputation in the Partisan Review, noted a parallel between abstract painting and Schoenberg’s atonality: “The resemblance in aesthetic method between this new category of easel painting and Schoenberg’s principles of composition is striking…. Just as Schoenberg makes every element, every voice and note in the composition of equal importance – different but equivalent (Mondrian’s term) – so these painters render every part of the canvas equivalent.” That is correct as far as it goes, although it might be added that things of no particular importance have no importance at all. The hierarchy of importance is the source of meaning. The tonic, or the starting point of the scale and chord of the home key, is the most important note in a musical composition, for all tonal music undertakes a journey towards the tonic. Just as home is the most important location on a traveler’s map, the home key is the reference point for other keys, just as the central figure in a traditional painting subordinates the rest of the composition.
Recent research by neuroscientists confirms what impresarios have known for more than a century: Audiences hate atonal music. In his book The Music Instinct (2010), Philip Ball draws on recent research to conclude
The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear. The music of Bach, for example, embodies a lot of the pattern forming process. Some of the things that were done by those composers such as Schoenberg undermined this cognitive aid for making music easier to understand and follow. Schoenberg’s music became fragmented which makes it harder for the brain to find structure.
The most striking difference between Schoenberg and Kandinsky, the two founding fathers of modernism is pecuniary: The price of Kandinsky’s smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg’s music. Out of a sense of obligation, musicians perform Schoenberg from time to time, but always in the middle and never at either end of a program, for audiences would come late or leave early. Schoenberg died a poor man in 1951 – and his widow and three children barely survived on the copyright royalties from his music. His family remains poor, while the heirs of famous artists have become fabulously wealthy.
Modern art is ideological, as its proponents are the first to admit. It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists, the most famous example being Clement Greenberg’s sponsorship of Pollock. It is deliberately not supposed to “please” the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider. Why is it that the audience for modern art is quite happy to take in the ideological message of modernism while strolling through an art gallery, but loath to hear the same message in the concert hall? It is rather like communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were happy to admire communism from a distance, but very few chose to live under communism. When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia entry on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. But when you listen to atonal music, you are stuck in your seat for as long as the composer wishes to keep you. It feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair from which you cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow rather than admiring it at a safe distance.
That is why at least some modern artists come into very serious money, but not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music. Non-abstract composers, to be sure, can become quite wealthy – for example, Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber and a number of film composers. The American Aaron Copland (1900–90), who wrote mainly cheerful works filled with local color (e.g., the ballets Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring), earned enough to endow scholarships for music students. The Viennese atonal composer Alban Berg (1885–1935) had a European hit in his 1925 opera Wozzeck, something of a compromise between Schoenberg’s abstract style and conventional Romanticism. His biographers report that the opera gave him a “comfortable living.”
After decades of philanthropic support for abstract (that is, atonal) music, symphony orchestras have to a great extent given up inflicting it on reluctant audiences and instead are commissioning works from composers who write in a more accessible style. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, the shift back to tonal music “comes as large orchestras face declining attendance and an elderly base of subscribers. Nationwide symphony attendance fell 13% to 27.7 million in the 2003–04 season from 1999–2000,” according to the American Symphony Orchestra League. The ideological message is the same, yet the galleries are full, while the concert halls are empty. That is because you can keep it at a safe distance when it hangs on the wall, but you can’t escape it when it crawls into your ears. In other words, your spontaneous, visceral hatred of atonal music reflects your true, healthy, normal reaction to abstract art. It is simply the case that you are able to suppress this reaction at the picture gallery.
There are, of course, people who truly appreciate abstract art. You aren’t one of them; you are a decent, sensible sort of person without a chip on your shoulder against the world. The famous collector Charles Saatchi, the proprietor of an advertising firm, is an example of the few genuine admirers of this movement. When Damien Hirst arranged his first student exhibition at the London Docklands, reports Wikipedia, “Saatchi arrived at the second show in a green Rolls-Royce and stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of (and then bought) Hirst’s first major ‘animal’ installation, A Thousand Years, consisting of a large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow’s head.”
The Lord of the Flies is an appropriate benchmark for the movement. Thomas Mann in his novel Doktor Faustus tells the story of a composer, based mainly on Arnold Schoenberg, whom resentment drives to make a pact with the Devil. Mann’s protagonist cannot create anything new, so out of rancor sets out to “take back” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by writing an atonal cantata (“The Lament of Dr. Faustus”). The point of the lampoon is to destroy the listener’s ability to hear the original. The critical consensus considers Picasso’s painting originally named Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (“The Bordello at Avignon”) to be the single most influential statement in modern art. Picasso lampooned El Greco’s great work The Vision of St John, which portrays the opening of the Fifth Seal in the Book of Revelation, the resurrection of the martyrs. El Greco’s naked, resurrected martyrs become a gaggle of whores, and the arms upraised in ecstasy in the earlier painting become a blend of seduction and threat. Picasso is trying to “take back” El Greco by corrupting our capacity to see the original. By inflicting sufficient ugliness on us, the modern artists believe they will wear down our capacity to see beauty. That, I think, is the point of putting dead animals into glass cases or tanks of formaldehyde. But I am open-minded; there might be some value to this artistic technique after all. If Damien Hirst were to undertake a self-portrait in formaldehyde, I would be the first to subscribe to a commission.
Yet, especially among the educated elites there are many who will go to their graves proclaiming their love for modern art, and I owe them an explanation of sorts. At the risk of alienating most of my few remaining friends, I will provide it. You pretend to like modern art because you want to be creative. At least, you want to reserve the possibility of being creative, or of knowing someone who is creative. The trouble is that you are not creative, not in the least. In all of human history we know of only a few hundred truly creative men and women. It saddens me to break the news, but you aren’t one of them. By insisting that you are not creative, you think I am saying that you are not important. I do not mean that, but we will have to return to that topic later.
You have your heart set on being creative because you want to worship yourself, your children, or some pretentious impostor rather than the god of the Bible. Absence of faith has not made you more rational. On the contrary, it has made you ridiculous in your adoration of clownish little deities, of whom the silliest is yourself. You have stopped believing in God, and as a result you do not believe nothing, but you will believe in anything (to paraphrase Chesterton). For quite some time, conservative critics have attacked the conceit that every nursery-school child should be expected to be creative. Allan Bloom observed more than twenty years ago in The Closing of the American Mind that creativity until quite recently referred to an attribute of God, not of humans. To demand the attribute of creativity for every human being is the same as saying that everyone should be a little god.
But what should we mean by creativity? In science and mathematics, it should refer to discoveries that truly are singular, which could not possibly be derived from any preceding knowledge. We might ask: In the whole history of the arts and sciences, how many contributors truly are indispensable, such that history could not have been the same without their contribution? There is room for argument, but it is hard to come up with more than a few dozen names. Europe had not progressed much beyond Archimedes of Syracuse in mathematics until Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus. Throw in Euler and the Bernoulli family and we have the eighteenth century covered; Gauss, Riemann, Weierstrass, Frege, Cantor, and Klein give us most of the nineteenth. Until Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, Europe relied on the first-century work of Ptolemy for cosmology. After Kepler only Newton, and after Newton only Albert Einstein fundamentally changed our views on planetary motion. Scholars still argue over whether someone else would have discovered special relativity if Einstein had not, but they seem to agree that general relativity had no clear precedent. How many composers, for that matter, created Western classical music? If only twenty names are known to future generations, they still will know what is fundamental to this art form.
We can argue about the origin of scientific or artistic genius, but we must agree that it is extremely rare. Of the hundreds of composers employed as court or ecclesiastical musicians during Johann Sebastian Bach’s lifetime, we hear the work of only a handful today. Eighteenth-century musicians strove not for genius but for solid craftsmanship; how it came to be that a Bach would emerge from this milieu has no consensus explanation. As for the rest, we can say with certainty that, if a Georg Phillip Telemann (a more successful contemporary of Bach) had not lived, someone else could have done his job without great loss to the art form. If we use the term creative to mean more or less the same thing as irreplaceable, then the number of truly creative individuals appears very small indeed. It is very unlikely that you are one of them. If you work hard at your discipline, you are very fortunate to be able to follow what the best people in the field are doing. And if you are extremely good, you might have the privilege of elaborating on points made by greater minds. Beneficial as such efforts might be, it is very unlikely that, if you did not do this, no one else would have done it. On the contrary, if you are on the cutting edge of research in any field, you take every possible measure to publish your work as soon as possible, so that you may get credit for it before someone else comes up with precisely the same thing. Even the very best minds in a field live in terror that they will be made dispensable by others who circulate their conclusions first. Many are the stories of simultaneous discovery for this very reason, as the famous one about Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filing with the patent office the very same day to register inventions that would become the telephone.
Bach inscribed each of his works with the motto “Glory belongs only to God” and insisted (wrongly) that anyone who worked as hard as he did could have achieved results just as good. He was content to be a diligent craftsman in the service of God and did not seek to be a genius; he simply was one. That is the starting point of the man of faith. One does not set out to be a genius but rather to be of service; extraordinary gifts are responsibility to be borne with humility. The search for genius began when the service of God no longer interested the artists and scientists. Mozart was one of the first artists to be publicly hailed a genius. A little after this time, Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God and the arrival of the artist as hero, taking as his model Richard Wagner, about whose artistic merits we can argue on a different occasion. Whether Wagner was a genius is debatable, but it is beyond doubt that the devotees of Nietzsche were no Wagners, let alone Bachs. To be free of convention was to create one’s own artistic world, in Nietzsche’s vision, but very few artists are capable of creating their own artistic world. That puts everyone else in an unpleasant position.
To accommodate the ambitions of the artists, the twentieth century turned the invention of artistic worlds into a mass-manufacturing business. In the place of the humble craftsmanship of Bach’s world, the artistic world split into movements. To be taken seriously during the twentieth century, artists had to invent their own style and their own language. Critics heaped contempt on artists who simply reproduced the sort of products that had characterized the past, and they praised the founders of schools: Impressionism, Cubism, Primitivism, Abstract Expressionism, and so forth.
Without drawing on the patronage of the wealthy, modern art could not have succeeded. Very rich people like to flatter themselves that they are geniuses and that their skill or luck at marketing music or computer code qualifies them as arbiters of taste. So, each day we read of new record prices for twentieth-century paintings – for example, the estimated $140 million paid to the media mogul David Geffen for a Jackson Pollock. Successful businesspeople typically are extremely clever, but they tend to be idiot savants, with sharp insight into some detail of industry that produces great wealth, but lacking any concept whatever of issues outside their immediate field of expertise. As George Gilder once wrote, an entrepreneur is the sort of person who stays up all night studying garbage routes. Entrepreneurs, Gilder explained, immersed themselves in the annoying details of implementation that well-adjusted people rightly ignore. There is limited overlap between the sort of thought process that makes one rich and the kind of thinking that produces fine art. Because the world conspires to flatter the wealthy, rich people are more prone to think of themselves as universal geniuses than are ordinary people, and far more susceptible to the cult of creativity in art. In Doktor Faustus, Mann portrayed this as the work of the devil. The new Faust makes a pact with Satan: He sells his soul in return for a system of composing music. A new class of critics served as midwives at the birth of these monsters. I marveled over the fact that museumgoers gush over Pollock’s random dribbles but never would willingly listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions at a concert hall. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously said that people don’t like music; they only like the way it sounds. In the case of Pollock, people like neither his work nor the way it looks; what they like is the idea that the artist in his arrogance can redefine the world on his own terms. To be an important person in this perverse scheme means to shake one’s fist at God and define one’s own little world, however dull, tawdry, and pathetic it might be. To lack creativity is to despair. Hence the attraction of the myriad ideological movements in art that gives the despairing artists the illusion of creativity.
If God is the Creator, then imitation of God is emulation of creation. But that is not quite true, for the Judeo-Christian god is more than a creator; God is a creator who loves his creatures. In the world of faith there is quite a different way to be indispensable, and that is through acts of kindness and service. A mother is indispensable to her child, as husbands and wives and friends are to each other. If one dispenses with the ambition to remake the world according to one’s whim and accepts rather that the world is God’s creation, then imitatio Dei consists of acts of kindness. In their urge toward self-worship, the artists of the twentieth century descended to extreme levels of artlessness to persuade themselves that they were in fact creative. In their compulsion to worship themselves in the absence of God, they produced ideas far more ridiculous, and certainly a great deal uglier, than revealed religion in all its weaknesses ever contrived. The modern cult of individual self-expression is a poor substitute for the religion it strove to replace, and the delusion of personal creativity is an even worse substitute for redemption.