In the first part of my examination of this subject, I listed what I think are the necessary elements for a society to foster great art. I further stated that, in my opinion, there have not been any truly great creative artists in recent modernity. Instead of talking directly about great art itself in this segment, I will now explain further why I think there may be no creative artists aspiring to greatness and encourage my fellow millennials to overcome these obstacles in order to prepare themselves to revitalize the arts.
Firstly, I believe ours is a culture that values comfort and safety above all—and a society like that inherently sees no problem with and even encourages mediocrity. There is no better instance of this than the current Wuhan virus crisis. When people, even intelligent and virtuous people, decide that liberty is safety and that the government has a right to suspend life as we know it on the off-chance that some of us may get a new strain of influenza (and no, that does not mean that I do not grieve sincerely for those who have died from it), we are looking at a culture that believes death is the greatest evil and material comfort and safety the greatest good. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Charlemagne did not conquer empires by putting safety first. Dante, Shakespeare, and GK Chesterton did not think that death was the greatest evil. To be great, you have to have the proper attitude toward life and death—to a greater or lesser extent, you have to think that one shining goal is so good and so noble, so worthy of attainment, that you are willing to risk your life and everything you cherish most to seize that goal.
The riots are another expression of this lack of greatness in our culture, but for a different reason. When, whatever color your skin is, whatever group you belong to, whatever your background, you are incapable of seeing beyond the group to the individual, you will never be anything but a member of a herd. And when you blame all your problems on other people (particularly the system), you will never fix your problems. “In any country, regardless of what its laws say, wherever people act upon the idea that the disadvantage of one man is the good of another, there slavery exists,” warned Booker T. Washington. Perhaps your life has been greatly and negatively affected by others—but you can’t change the whole world, especially not immediately. As Jordon Peterson likes to say, right now, you can change only yourself. So, instead of going crazy and wreaking anarchy as a reaction your victimhood, start thinking of what you can do today to make your life better with rational, constructive action. The men—and women—who become great are those who refuse to allow their circumstances and disadvantages to define them and prevent them from achieving greatness. Nothing is stopping you from achieving personal greatness but yourself.
I believe that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Excelsior” is a perfect illustration of the mindset I am advocating. Warned by one person after another, including a lovely girl, that he should not risk climbing the mountain because it is dark and stormy, the young fellow is not deterred. With sad eyes, he looks back at the comfortable village, with a tear he bids farewell to the maiden, but he will not be stayed. And when a St. Bernard dog of the mountain’s monastery finds the dead body of the lad on the very height of the mountain the next morning, the young man looks serene; “Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay.” In his outstretched “hand of ice/ That banner with the strange device” is still fluttering, on which is written the one word which was his simple reply to one and all; “Excelsior!” Ever higher!
Most may say, “What a pointless effort, what a pointless death. That young man could have stayed in the village, wooed and wed the girl, and lived comfortably and long.” The whole point is that he was not made for comfort. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with planning carefully for the future, with marrying and settling down—far from it. But this poem is a metaphor, a fable, of what each person should aim for in life. Each of us will find himself, at some point in his life, at the foot of a mountain. Perhaps we may lose a great deal, perhaps even a rare few of us risk literal death, to climb it. If we try to climb, we may fail or we may die. But if we do not climb the mountain, we will not have fulfilled our greatest potential, we will not have done a deed which will make our lives more complete and which may make the world a better place. That youth died a great man. The villagers lived on in mediocrity. And nothing and no one was stopping that young man but his own decision. That is what the metaphor, the fable, means. “The world offers you comfort,” Pope Benedict XVI told young people some years ago, “but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
Besides this necessary aspiration to greatness, and the recognition that greatness is (to a large extent) a personal responsibility, I believe that we must all be very careful, very intentional, with the art and entertainment we consume. Watching fun comedies or action movies or romances with friends or for personal relaxation is a healthful activity in its proper place. To know the same songs and shows and celebrities as your contemporaries or those of different generations can bring a culture together, can form that link of commonality which may be so gnawed at by the rats of politics or personal disagreements or other sources of civil and social disquiet. But it is also true that we should be careful about consuming too much of art that isn’t great, and we should analyze whether the art has any objective value at all. Some genres (movies, books, music) may be inherently harmful while others can be harmful unless consumed in limited quantities (which, I must admit, can vary based on the individual).
Let me give you some examples. Why is it that young people aren’t getting married anymore? Perhaps it’s because, as of 2018, porn sites were getting more traffic every month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. A 2017 study found that young people who listened to heavy metal/hard rock had significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression than their peers. Many studies have found that children who spend more than two hours a day on average watching television or playing video games have noticeably shorter attention spans and problems functioning in the classroom.
On the other hand, reading regularly, particularly poetry and high-level prose, has, according to science, many beneficial effects, including better memory, better verbal skills, and the slowing of mental aging. Classical music has been shown by researchers to reduce stress, improve memory, and lead to higher emotional intelligence. My point with this is not to pontificate about exactly which movies, books, or songs you should enjoy, or to tell you to swear off popular entertainment altogether (although, as noted above, certain genres, such as porn, definitely do not have any benefits). The ancient Greeks knew the value of moderation in such matters. But I am encouraging my peers to be more conscious of the effects of their entertainment and art consumption, to be more intentional about what and how much of each thing they consume. What makes you better, morally, physically, psychologically, spiritually, socially? You should enjoy the art you consume, but pleasure ought not therefore to be the only standard, or even the most important standard, by which you measure art and entertainment. Art’s purpose is to express the true and the good. Its main purpose is not to entertain. Cicero’s and St. Augustine’s three-part standard might be well applied here: “to teach, to delight, to move.”
If you are aspiring to be a great creative artist (though this advice can and should apply to anyone), consume great art. I have met a number of young people with real talent in drawing or painting or writing or musical composition who do not really develop their gifts or try to produce a truly laudable work of art because they consumed great art either too infrequently or not at all. It is fun to watch Star Trek or The Office, to read Harry Potter, to listen to the newest album from your favorite pop star. But reading Sophocles, Horace, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, or Tolkien is, I would argue, almost necessary to becoming a great writer yourself (and JK Rowling, at least, as a Classicist who wove references to countless literary figures into her work, would likely agree with me). In the same way, listen to Palestrina, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Elgar if you want to compose music; study the works of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Bellini, Monet, and Rubens if you aspire to draw, paint, or sculpt. Art has always been part of a tradition. Beethoven, Vergil, and Shakespeare were radically innovative, but they were also solidly grounded in tradition, expatiating on an immemorial theme.
How can you learn how to be great if you have never been taught? How can you produce great art if you don’t even know what great art looks like? That is the challenge for which I have set myself and in which I hope my fellow millennials will join me: to rediscover the tradition, to become steeped in the great art of the past, to aspire to produce the great art of the future, to risk the dangers of the mountain with the “clarion voice” crying “Excelsior!” Ever higher!