The View From 1776

Art and Degeneration

Art historically expressed the highest aspirations of society.  In the 20th century art reversed field.

I had the pleasure today of viewing an exhibition of three-dimensional photo collages by Renee Kahn, who has an unerring eye for the artistic aspects of reality.  Her subject was “Urban Dreamscapes: Stamford as a Work of Art.” 

The occasion was a discussion panel (an artist, an art critic, a film historian-columnist) limning the 20th century setting of art and film as background for Renee’s work.

I was forcibly struck by recurrent themes in their presentations, some intended, some paradoxical. 

A dominant theme was art, including movies, as recorder of the degeneration of life quality in the great cities.

What came across, however, was the presenters’ disdain for the source of order that historically had prevented that degeneration before the 20th century. 

In today’s presentations there was more than a whiff of liberal-Progressive-socialist theory, which asserts that crime and other forms of aggression are caused by the existence of private property and by disparities between top and bottom rung incomes.  Free-market capitalism, in the artists’ view, is apparently the villain in degeneration of the great cities.

All of the speakers alluded to New York’s former Mayor Giuliani as having diminished the quality of life in the city.  Did they truly mean that stopping graffiti is repressive denial of liberty?

One of the presenters, photos of whose work were warmly received by the audience, has made his career by illegally plastering graffiti “art” on public buildings and private property in New York City.  One has to wonder what such artists’ conception of a good society is.

We learned under Mayor Koch and Mayor Giuliani that little things count: stopping the windshield washers who demanded money for smearing your windshield with dirty rags when you halted for a traffic light; stopping trash dumping on the streets; stopping the graffiti artists who defaced public property.  What was wrong about curbing crime so that law-abiding citizens could walk the streets without continual fear of being mugged?  What was so terrible about no longer having to avoid tripping over homeless drug addicts and stepping into their excrement on stairways in Grand Central when boarding or leaving trains?

Another theme was the alienation of the individual in industrial and post-industrial society, as seen in the film noire of the 1930s and in the 1950s and 1960s.  Film noire movies generally had a negative perspective of life, emphasizing despair, loneliness, and danger.  Individuals were alone in a Darwinian world without design or reason, a world of chance and survival of the fittest.

Alienation was a fundamental element in Karl Marx’s damnation of capitalism and his apotheosis of socialism’s atheistic materialism.  The gist of Marxian alienation is that division of labor and machine production dehumanized work and reduced the worker to a commodity called labor.  The worker was at the mercy of a hostile world, alienated from his fellows.

Yet it was Marx and his fellow liberal-Progressive-socialists, to the present day, who did the most to destroy the one social institution that mitigated the hardships of life for the less fortunate, an institution that created local communities of devotees who supported each other and offered hope for redemption.

That institution was Christianity, which since the fall of the Western Roman Empire had been the common ground for whatever sense of decency and human kindness that existed. 

Another theme was dwindling public funding for the arts.  Ironically, while the speakers applauded the movie made of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about nailing President Nixon, it was Mr. Nixon who opened the spigot wider than any other president for public funding of the arts.

In classical Greece and in the Roman Empire, public buildings were both civic monuments and temples to the gods that represented virtues of home and public life that rulers wished the people to emulate.  After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, art, funded by the Church and wealthy patrons, focused upon glorifying God.  In addition to incomparable painting and sculpture, we have the magnificent, awe inspiring cathedrals.

That tradition of wealthy families and churches funding art endured into the 1930s.  Everything began to change with the New Deal and its favorable disposition toward the sort of socialist art then admired in the Soviet Union.  The Federal Theatre Project in New York channeled enough Federal money to support much of the Broadway theatre scene, where large numbers of playwrights, actors, and theatre craftsmen, if not members of the Communist Party USA, were sympathetic to the party line.  Activities of the Federal Theatre Project in New York were dominated by V. J. Jerome, the cultural commissar of the Communist Party USA.

The Wikipedia says of it:

The [Federal Theatre Project] was the most controversial and short-lived of the WPA’s arts projects. Hallie Flanagan, former head of Vassar College’s Experimental Theater, served as director and shaped the FTP into a forum for experimental theater committed to creating public awareness of contemporary issues.

“Creating public awareness of contemporary issues” meant propagandizing for socialism, which many people in the 1930s, but especially in the arts, viewed as the only approvable form of government.  That perception remains today as the credo of large numbers of artists, playwrights, screenwriters, and actors (see Tim Robbins Two).

A final theme was expressed by one speaker, who made much of contemporary art in Stamford, in which she saw a reversion to the art and religion of the Sumerian period.  To the extent such elements are present in the art she displayed, however, it is at a very superficial level.

Ironically, it was from Ur, one of the principal cities of ancient Sumer, that God called Abram (Abraham) to journey westward to the land of Canaan, to begin the progression from godlike rulers to individual morality in a society under a ruler who is subject to a higher law of morality and has no prerogative to usurp God-given, inalienable individual rights.

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.  (Genesis 11:31)

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

The Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the progressively deepening understanding of God’s presence in the world and of His Will for a just society, based upon moral and loving relations of people for each other as children of God. 

Kingdoms like the Sumerian city states and the successor empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, were ones in which their subjects had no direct relationship with God.  Rulers were thought to be gods or to be the people’s only nexus to divine blessing and social order.  Rules of social conduct were whatever the ruler declared them to be.

Israel under God, however, was a society in which every individual was held accountable for living in accordance with God’s Word.  Later the prophets rebuked kings face to face for their failing to deal charitably and justly with the poor, widows, orphans, and disabled. 

None of that would have been thinkable in a society like the city states of ancient Sumer, where representational art glorified the deified ruler.  Yet it is that sort of society to which some artists, we were told, are reverting for artistic and spiritual inspiration.

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