Is there any great art in modern culture—and what does modern art consist of? How is it produced? This subject which I propose to examine is so huge, complex, and controversial that even splitting it into two or three articles of necessity requires a degree of simplification and bald statements that I would not choose to use in an extended, in-person discussion. Many of the things I will say are likely to arouse the ire of large numbers of my peers and others may point out legitimate weaknesses in my argument merely because of its over-simplification. It is true that I am only one young college student, propounding a personal theory (though based on the thought of former great men and women). That said, I am attacking this elephant in the room because I really think it is one of the most important issues of our time or any time—what art is, what it means, how it is affecting the culture, and where it is going. In this first part, I want to examine what great art is generally speaking, what are the necessary societal characteristics for the fostering of great art, and whether or not modernity (mainly in the last 60 years or so) has produced any great creative artists.
Andrew Breitbart is quoted as saying that politics are downstream from culture. If this is true, and I firmly believe it is, this very statement should give us pause. Our politics, even here in America (to say nothing of Europe or China or Iran or anywhere else), are extremely corrupt. An almost immeasurably massive, unelected bureaucracy controls nearly every aspect of our lives (Mark Steyn recently said on the Rush Limbaugh show that 1 in 3 jobs requires a government certification/permit), the media and the Democrat party get away with murder (sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally) all the time, and even those who truly are working for and achieving much good for America and her people, like Donald Trump, don’t necessarily follow the Constitution or the Founding vision of small government and nature-based freedoms to any marked degree.
How did we get to the point in our history where Hilary Clinton almost won the presidency and where a doctor in Washington, D.C. with a bad prediction record can tell you when your church or hair salon can open in Dallas, Texas or Tulsa, Oklahoma? How did we get to the point where 70% of American millennials say that they would vote for a socialist? I have an answer: our culture. So what are the necessary ingredients in a culture to make it good, to make it capable of fostering great artists and producing great art?
Firstly, a society must have an objective standard of goodness and greatness. As Dennis Prager once noted, it is almost impossible to have goodness without God. I would elaborate this by saying that, whatever you may say of certain individuals, it is almost impossible for a whole society to have goodness without God—and without a religion that believes in the objective moral truths in our world. Rome was only great as long as its paganism was more based on natural law than on anything else. Islamic civilization, even though it has at times been politically or militarily or philosophically or artistically great, has mainly been a force for evil in the world because, with the Asharites, it decisively rejected objective rationality and objective moral standards in the spiritual realm. Almost every civilization that has valued individuals and individual moral responsibility, and thus objective goodness, has been built by Judeo-Christian values. At the very least such civilizations have been built on the universal moral truths known in Christianity as “natural law.”
Modernity rejected religion. It rejected “nature and nature’s God.” The endless conflicts of the last century, the trenches of the Somme, the concentration camps of the Nazis, the gulags of the Soviets, the historically unparalleled slaughter by Communists in China, everything was showing us a world without God. Yet even religious leaders now seem to care more for material needs than spiritual needs. Our solution to a world without God was ever more anti-religion and reliance on our own ability to fix all the real or imaginary problems in the world. “Human passions unbridled by morality or religion. . .would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net,” John Adams warned. This rejection of religion and objective morality was the first ingredient in the modern loss of great civilization—and thus great art.
I am now going to make what is perhaps the most provocative statement of this article: modernity (by which here I mean primarily the 1960s on) has produced not a single great creative artist or work of art. This is practically the only age since the Stone Age in history where that could be said. The world has never seen such scientific advancements and such artistic dearth simultaneously. There have been great interpretive artists (Lang Lang, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Andrea Bocelli, and Alan Rickman, for instance) and very good (even excellent) creative artists (John Williams and John William Godward, for instance). There have been “great movies” and really clever, enjoyable plays, musicals, books, and songs. I love the songs of John Denver, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer. I do not personally like rock, nor do I think it a genre that naturally lends itself to greatness, but I recognize that there have been talented writers, musicians, and performers in that genre. Popular music and entertainment art can be very good and they have their necessary place in society, but they should not completely satisfy us. Yet, in modernity, there has been no great creative artist and no great creative art.
West and East alike, the world over, can point to no Leonardo da Vinci, no Beethoven, no Vergil, no Chaucer. We have no poet like Horace or Longfellow, no novelist like Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, no playwright like Seneca, Sophocles, or Shakespeare, no sculptor like Michelangelo, no painter like Raphael or Rembrandt, no musical composer like Hildegard von Bingen, Palestrina, Bach, or Vivaldi. What is even worse, we don’t seem to have any artists even aspiring to greatness. Artists are so busy either trying to be more shocking, more popular, or more politically correct that they have forgotten what the purpose of art is. The purpose of art is to express objective truth, goodness, and beauty. Art is meant to elevate and inspire the human soul, to spur man to action for the good. Try finding any of that in Picasso’s paintings or Tony Kushner’s scripts (as for 21st-century offerings, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry).
Art is the most powerful tool a man can ever use. That is why temples, churches, public ceremonies, and liturgies have always been adorned with the height of each respective age’s art. That is why, dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years after the authors’ civilizations’ deaths, university students of the last century were still reading the works of Homer, Augustine of Hippo, the Pearl poet, and John Keats. That is why the musical works of Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakav, Dvorak, and Handel can still draw packed houses (though, as someone who regularly attends classical concerts and sometimes opera, I admit that the average age of audience goers is nowadays generally around 70). That is why people still file past the paintings and sculptures of Donatello, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Jan Steen in crowds. There is something almost indescribable in these works of art. Something permanent, something objectively beautiful and good, something deeply moving, something requiring a sort of genius to produce, something timeless. Something that is lacking in modern “art.”
I will end by saying something briefly about the sort of society that I think tends to produce great art. Obviously art is created by individuals, but individuals grow up in and are formed by a certain culture. Why is it that the art of ancient Egypt, Persia, Japan, and China (among others) is so carefully hoarded in fragments in museums? Why is it that the statuary of ancient Greece was so enthrallingly beautiful? Why is it that Roman poetry was, for hundreds of years, the standard of greatness for all Western literature? Why is it that the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were so magnificent? Why is it that the very names of Renaissance artists inspire awe? Why is it that one of the most wildly popular movie series of all time was based on a fantasy novel by an old philology professor who specialized in dead languages (Lord of the Rings)?
My answer is that the philosophy and theology of a culture (and make no mistake—these are always interrelated) absolutely shape everything else in a culture or civilization. This is why Plato said that the poets’ corrupted theology was a threat to virtue in ancient Greece. This is why the medieval Inquisition was founded to investigate (it never had the authority to execute and it never did so) heretics. This is why the Founding Fathers were so adamant that Judeo-Christian religion was necessary to maintain the political system of America. If you have a bad philosophy or a bad theology as a culture/civilization—and only a few people need to read, write, or teach the philosophy to make it society-wide—everything will be corrupted. Politics, morals, science—and art. And if art really is the most powerful tool man can use, as I posit, then we should very afraid of getting our philosophy and theology, and thus our art, wrong. Not everyone is going to read philosophy and theology, nor should anyone expect it. But everyone is going to be touched by art. It is up to millennials to go back to the good philosophy of the past and renew and remake it in the modern era. It is up to millennials to rediscover the religions that built the Western world, acknowledge the existence of God, and begin practicing those religions. It is up to millennials to revitalize art. In the age of technology, with more tools and resources than ever before in history, it is up to us to decide where society is headed and what art will become. Will we start returning art to the standard of truth, goodness, and beauty? Or will we continue the death spiral of mediocrity or downright corruption that art is in right now? We can become the great creative artists of tomorrow—or we can be just like the non-great artists of yesterday. It is our choice.