Right turn for the next renaissance – Part I: conservatism and kitsch

In this season of bitter political squabbling you would think that art and culture could provide a refuge from the name calling and finger pointing that seems to have taken the place of legitimate debate. Think again, because whether it’s Hungarian plans to ceremonially rebury the fascist writer Jozsef Nyiro or Dmitri Medvedev adding to Russia’s impressive humanitarian track record in Syria by honoring a writer who was overjoyed by 9/11 among other fine personal qualities, it’s as difficult as ever to pull culture out of grasping political hands.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, American conservatives have sharpened their pencils and taken to the pages of The New Criterion to outline their views on American culture and its future or lack of. The most interesting article in the magazine’s Future Tense series is by author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, who examines what he considers the foundations of great cultural and artistic achievements throughout history. His conclusions come from a database he has created to scientifically determine the characteristics of great cultural accomplishments.

Regardless of what I think of Murray’s position, the question of why cultural renaissances take place is an interesting one, and even though I don’t think the issues involved can be entered into a database, that is no reason to avoid examining them.

The sincerest form of flattery

Some of the conditions Murray lists as enabling cultural achievement, such as the existence of cities and national wealth, are fairly uncontroversial (though it is ironic that a conservative would cite the importance of funding for the arts and sciences considering the cuts in funding conservatives have carried out in the US, not to mention the far superior arts funding found in Europe.)

Murray’s first step on shaky ground is when he maintains the prime importance of emulation from one generation to the next. “The best single predictor of a stream of accomplishment in the current generation is the presence of great models in the previous generation,” is the conclusion drawn from his book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950.

In the spirit of scientific objectivity this is a conclusion that can be tested to a certain degree. The variables needed to test this notion though are curiously lacking in this essay. Murray underlines his position first by reference to Ancient Rome, a culture that was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic in emulating Greek culture. He then fortifies this “truth” by writing that in modern times this “insight has been confirmed in rigorous quantitative studies.”

Yet if you remain unconvinced by these “rigorous quantitative studies” he offers an example only 500 plus years old: “If children who have the potential for creating great art are watching a Leonardo da Vinci set the standard, they are more likely to create art like Michelangelo, Dürer, or Raphael did.”

The first objection to this point is to ask where the emulation formula went wrong. Presumably the generation of artists after Michelangelo, Dürer, and Raphael were bolstered by studying these masters, and so on down the line. Murray never considers the question of when this artistic emulation lost its force. In fact, were Murray to use examples more recent than the 15th century he might have had to compare the 19th century academic artists’ continued emulation of the Renaissance masters with the artistic movements from Impressionism on whose initial force was precisely in breaking away from the lifeless emulation of the Old Masters.

Even the Renaissance itself doesn’t fit the “best single predictor” model Murray puts forth. At whatever point in time you date the start of the Italian Renaissance the influence of the previous generation was counterbalanced and often exceeded by the influence of Greek and Roman antiquity, with artists putting an emphasis on classical form and subject matter that the religious right of the time was not entirely on board with. Not to mention that the reason a movement is called a renaissance at all is that before its “rebirth” it was presumably dead.

Murray finishes off the emulation issue with a sweeping statement that “we [Americans] do not have any great models in the current generation who will produce greatness in the next generation.” What is difficult to judge from this article is how far back we would have to go to find a model Murray considers great. He mentions Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Expressionism, but does so in such a vague way that it’s impossible to tell whether he likes their work or not (my guess is not).

The second renaissance

Murray does bring up some valid issues, like the saturation of conventional art forms making it difficult to create art that isn’t inherently derivative. But he compromises any benefit of bringing up these points by far-fetched conclusions. He admits that a second renaissance might be possible (second? That seems to answer the question of whether he likes modernists such as Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky or even Romantic-era poets like Shelley and Keats) but then makes a profound and unsupported leap to the conditions for this renaissance: “a renewed passion for the things that can be conveyed by the ‘window on the world’ of realistic art, tonal harmony harnessed to grand themes, and fictional narratives stuffed full of life.

In other words – kitsch. This is hardly the first time someone has tried to turn the clock back on modernism. Hitler and Stalin both advocated and enforced very similar criteria. Without an army of thugs and informers at his disposal, Murray falls back on science, more specifically on neuroscience and the contention that humans are hard-wired to like tonal music, landscape painting and the kind of realistic novel that we are apparently so hard-wired to like that it only took a few thousand years of human history to develop it. And then how to explain the enduring force of literature that doesn’t adhere to “window on the world” realism such as Homer, Dante and Cervantes, to name just the most blatant examples.

Besides, while I understand that realism, tonal music and the like would more easily appeal to Murray’s middle-American power base I can’t think of any reason why contemporary artists should be constrained by popular taste any more than the great geniuses of the past were. That doesn’t mean they have to look at the point reached by a Schoenberg or Thomas Pynchon and then slavishly move on from there. As problematic as artistic originality might be in the 21st century, there is no excuse for tossing out simplistic solutions that have been tried before with predictable results.

To be fair Murray mentions that humans are adaptable to a certain degree, though he writes about Stravinsky becoming part of the repertoire as begrudgingly as if he were talking about traffic jams being part of modern city life. His statement on literary innovation – “Innovations in novelistic narrative using stream of consciousness have gained acceptance” – is so quaint and old-fashioned sounding that he might as well have written that the sight of women in public wearing dresses that expose their ankles and collarbones has gained acceptance too.

If this Wikipediaesque generalization is all he could think of saying about literary innovation over the past 100 plus years then it’s no surprise he can’t find any great models – to do that would require reading that he clearly hasn’t done.

The one art form he rightly designates as having more untested creative potential is film (which he refers to as motion pictures so that the 90 to 115 age group will know what he’s talking about). But again his valid point leads to contradictions he is unable resolve: “A plausible case can be made that the film industry is still making products that rank somewhere among the all-time best, and there is reason to hope that even better are yet to come.”

So, not directors, not filmmakers, but “the film industry.” If Murray was inclined to probe this area even an inch below the surface he would be faced with the comparison of Hollywood (the film industry) and its superhero blockbuster 3D extravaganzas that epitomize the effect of the free market on an art form with the state support of cinema more common in European filmmaking.

Photos: 1) Youth and Time by John William Godward 2) Goebbels viewing the Degenerate Art exhibition, 1937, Bundesarchiv 3) George Washington by Horatio Greenough

Coming next: Part II – In nihilism we trust

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Categories: Literary Controversy


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  1. Right turn for the next renaissance – Part II: In nihilism we trust | literalab - 14/06/2012

    […] turn for the next renaissance – Part II: In nihilism we trust Part I: where American conservative Charles Murray’s scientific assessment of periods of cultural […]

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