I want to talk to people who have been shaken out of themselves by art, who have heard a piece of Mozart’s Magic Flute reach out and grab them by the heart, who have seen the grave look on Flora’s face as she steps out of Botticelli’s Primavera the way the gods always do, lit by a light too powerful to be quite shown, to those who have heard a line of Shakespeare so that it rang again and again in their ears—”Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.”
All great art leads beyond anything we have ever known, and this is as true now as it has ever been. It is culture communing with itself and generating a new spring, just like the flowers of Botticelli’s painting pouring out of the mouth of April; it’s the prophetic soul of the wide world. It’s like great religious rituals, or like the awful majesty of the state, but in a playful, conditional, subjunctive mood; it’s not authoritarian but infinitely vulnerable; all you have to do is to stop listening or watching or reading and it goes away, not like the authorities of the church or the state, who will come and clamp your head and stick matchsticks between your eyelids to make sure you are properly reeducated.
The heroic modernists—Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky—all knew this; but their successors today—and alas, those who oppose them, too—have forgotten. I want to talk about the two sides in the art wars and propose a third side, which isn’t a side at all but the real opening to the future. Real art cannot be politically correct, whether the correction comes from the right or the left. Art is the continuing revelation of the divine plan, but it is a divine plan that is making it up as it goes along, the divine plan of a live, not a dead, god; and it is a revelation that dribbles out in the uncertain fits and starts of human inspiration.
The disgusting Whitney show recently in New York is disgusting not because it is obscene but because it is boring; it is immoral not because it shows things normally hidden—everybody already knows what genitals look like—but because it is an expression of a ruthless linear authority as cruel, stupid, and repressive as any totalitarian government censor. Botticelli painted naked ladies and gents, and Shakespeare has his Cornwall gouge out the eyes of Gloucester on stage and step on them, and Sophocles makes a tragic hero of a man who goes to bed with his mother; these scenes are not obscene, because they are held within a greater conception of the meaning of human life. Modernism has lost its noble and idealistic vision of that meaning; and postmodernism makes a virtue of not having such a conception at all, which is very convenient for the tribe of venal and unintellectual mediocrities who now infest the arts and for whom a really artistic view of the world would be so cognitively dissonant, so tragic, and so full of feeling that it would destroy their world. In other words, I attack the postmodern arts scene not for its excess of intellectuality, but for its wretched failure of intellect; I blame it not for being shocking, but for not being shocking enough.
We see now a postmodernist artistic establishment that is really at heart a village atheist’s tract. It is a naive rejection of morality as authoritarian that fails to reckon with the brutal authority of all the human addictions, to power, to sex, to our various civilized drugs, to the seductions of victimhood and self-excuse. to the violence and automatism and bestial appetite of the human body that go along with its divine sensitivity and power and capacity for joy. It is a credulous and unthinking commitment to the theory of the social construction of reality, that is, that human beings, and the world itself, are simply artifacts of the texts that include them, texts written by dead white European males—and that the solution to the problem is simply to replace those texts with texts written by alive colored Third World females or gays—both types of texts being underwritten by the coercive power of the state. It is an ignorant rejection of scientific truth and of the objective pursuit of knowledge through inquiry and experiment. It is a throwing aside of all the ancient human crafts and genres of art, those marvelous techniques of melody and drawing and meter and storytelling that are the same all over the world from one culture to another, on the given grounds that they are Western or patriarchal impositions—when really it is because the new so-called artists are too lazy and untalented and incurious and justifiably insecure to learn them. It is the expression of a social theory—that of Stalin, to be precise—that has been as thoroughly discredited by historical atrocity as the ideas of Hitler and that the rest of the world has rejected against great odds. It is the expression of a physical theory of the universe as linear, deterministic, running down into greater and greater disorder, in which value cannot be created but only appropriated from others and at best shared out by the enlightened brahmins of bureaucratic government.
But we must pay attention to how we got to this place. The ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein, which have been recycled endlessly by their epigones Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan and then by still less original artistic followers of the followers, were originally grand and bold intellectual achievements. Even if they were wrong in their answers, they asked marvelous questions. What is the relationship between economic value and other kinds of value, like truth, beauty, goodness? How should one choose between different coherent moral systems, and is there a warrant for living a moral life without being bribed to do so by God? Is a human being only his or her waking consciousness? How can we repair the leaky boat of language when we are already embarked on it? My chief intellectual objection to contemporary modernists and postmodernists is not that they ask the questions but that they do not have the guts to face up to the new answers that are emerging from research and experience, answers very different from the ones originally given.
It is precisely the importance of these questions that leads me to reject the understandable reaction of many on the political right, who in their insulted outrage want to suppress the artists and go back to a pretty, safe, comfortable official art that never really existed. The rightwing attack on gays, for instance, is a tragic mistake, as the delightful Camille Paglia points out. There is a much better critique of contemporary art than the one that such guardians of morality can offer: and that critique, and especially the new and exciting answers to the great questions, are what I call the third side.
If we look at contemporary science we see that the universe is not a linear, deterministic system running down into disorder, but a nonlinear, creative, unpredictable process of evolution into more and more subtle, self-reflective, and beautiful forms of order. If we look at contemporary politics we see that entirely noneconomic forces—human values —drive much of history, whether those values are creative, like Vaclav Havel’s notion of democratic civil society, or destructive, like Slobodan Miloshevitch’s notion of ethnic separatism. When we look at the human sciences we find that we are not machines but marvelous, free animals, cultural in our very nature and neurobiologically designed to work best in a noble and demanding moral system, in an inspiring aesthetic system, and in a context that believes truth can be meaningfully sought if never perfectly attained. We do have a human nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical, when we get it right; and classical culture is not a set of dead norms but an enormously creative and revelatory source of new realities, growing out of the old realities and grafted onto them. We find that art is not the arbitrary expression of a particular ethnic, social, and political conditioning but a flowering out of deep human roots that are common to all cultures; that there is a human classicism of art that is indeed not confined to European cultures, but of which Europe is a glorious example; and that true art is precisely the opposite of coercive politics. The new environmental science has shown us that nature does indeed exist and is not the invention of the rich and powerful—we cannot damage or destroy something that is not there, with its own real laws and tendencies, in the first place; a large part of the art of the future will be a kind of healing and gardening of the living planet. And language turns out to be not an arbitrary imposition on an unknowable reality but the next turn of accelerating reflectiveness in the evolutionary process.
There is already a growing number of artists in various fields who have begun to embrace the new paradigm and who will one day be seen as the pioneers of the next major historical phase in the arts—as Dante, Petrarch, Giotto, and Piero were for the Italian Renaissance, as Blake and Wordsworth were for English Romanticism. The contemporary establishment finds them threatening, but they are preparing their Armory Show, their Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, their Defense of Poetry.