Nietzsche v. the Amish
Since I have agreed with Tolstoy that expression is the central concept in the definition of art, I feel that I now must explain how beauty fits into that definition. I don’t think the two concepts, beauty and expression, are that difficult to reconcile; but it is probably best to be as explicit as possible, especially since we are dealing with a definition that has continued to mystify and elude large parts of the critical and artistic population—at least since Modernism began. In other papers I have said that beauty exists, that it is a property of the object, and that it is very important in art and life. Now I must elaborate on those assertions, tying beauty to expression and thereby to art.
In several places Tolstoy appears to lean toward the Kantian/Christian belief that beauty is the mistress of the devil. That is, he implies that he accepts Kant’s assertion that pleasure and duty are opposites—that the morality of an act is determined by its unpleasantness. It has historically been difficult to unravel exactly what Kant intended, but he certainly creates some sort of dichotomy between pleasure and virtue. A pleasant act cannot be virtuous and a virtuous act cannot be pleasant. There are variant interpretations of Kant, and I am not here to settle the question one way or the other. It is enough in this context to point out that an important line of thought in the history of morality has argued in this way, and that this line includes many Christians and Kantians (as well as Jews, Muslims and Buddhists). So when Tolstoy denies that beauty is the central concept of art, it is important to look at his intentions. Is he, like me, simply subordinating the concept of beauty to the concept of expression? Or is he arguing against beauty along the Christian/Kantian lines, calling pleasure a temptation to immorality?
It is not easy to tell by reading What is Art? Tolstoy never addresses the question directly. The best indication of his intentions is contained in his various comments about nudity, sexuality, and eating. In discussing the various natural appetites, his examples are all negative examples. He points out that you cannot judge the quality of food by asking how pleasant it is to the appetite, and he gives the example of sweets and alcohol. He neglects to point out that people also have very natural appetites for bananas, apples, pears, potatoes, rice, bread, cheese, water, fish, meats, and many other things that are good for them. He also neglects to mention that sweets and other similar things, eaten in moderation, are not really debilitating at all, and that alcohol is an acquired taste. Children don’t like alcohol or coffee or tea, unless it is milked and/or sugared, in which case it can be argued that what they like is the milk or sugar. Later they may get rid of some or all of the milk and sugar, but then it can be argued that they are seeking not taste but effect. They seek a pleasant high, not a pleasant taste, though they may mistake one for the other. In this way we habituate children to the various vices, which would tend to damn our customs, not our appetites.
An analogous argument can be made about the sexual appetite. Tolstoy implies that people’s natural inclinations are for immorality: we desire bad sex as we desire bad food. But I could argue that Hollywood and pornography are the sugar-coating of something that people don’t have much of a natural appetite for in the first place. Like alcohol, adultery and weird sex are not initially that appetizing. Most young teens are not interested in orgies and wild experimentation. But when these acts are glorified and glamorized they take on a false sugar-coated appeal. Those pretty people on TV and on the computer look to be experiencing something very pleasant, in one way or another, and we are duped into pursuing it. Some get hooked; some no doubt really enjoy it. But for many it becomes like a drug. The surest proof of this is that high levels of drugs usually accompany it. The common answer to this is that drugs lower inhibitions. But a better answer is that the pleasure is no longer in the touch, it is in the effect. Sex like this is not about the intimacy or the touch, it is about the high. Natural sex is like a good healthy meal. It pleases the senses directly and is salubrious in all ways. Pornographic sex is like straight whiskey or cocaine. It tastes horrible. It does not actually appeal directly or naturally to any of the five senses, but it achieves the high regardless, by a sort of assault on the brain.
Some may see my comments as being just as anti-sensual as Tolstoy’s. I may seem at first glance to be in just as great a backlash against sensual or sexual freedom as the Victorians. But there is a very great difference. My explanation lays blame on customs, not on appetites. I have never found my appetites to be as unserviceable to me as the Victorians, the Kantians, the Christians, the Muslims, or the Buddhists found theirs to be. When I found it necessary to resist “temptation”, it was not mainly the temptation of my wandering appetites, it was the temptation of customs. I have never had any appetite for drugs, alcohol, or sex with strangers, and so the customs have rarely affected me. This puts me in a position to contradict those such as Tolstoy when they begin preaching against the perverted appetites of man.
In attacking the pleasures and appetites, Tolstoy is most orthodox. His belief in man’s predisposition to do everything wrong goes back to the concept of original sin. Both he and Kant take it as a starting point. But this concept contradicts my own personal experience, and none but the most indoctrinated can ultimately accept that which contradicts personal experience. In short, I have found that appetites—though not infallible as guides in the modern world—are nonetheless more to be trusted to lead us where we need to go than anyone or anything else. Certainly the trustworthiness of natural appetites is greater than the trustworthiness of customs, which are irrational and contradictory in the highest degree.
Man, like all the other beasts, has an instinct for self-preservation. Even more, he has an instinct for health. The appetites are initially tied to this instinct. The appetites may become corrupted, but they are not originally corrupted. Meaning that, in the life of each person, they are not corrupted at birth. The weakness of a person therefore consists not in an initial corruption, but in a basic inability to resist corruption. This corruption presents itself in the form of cultural customs. A desire for alcohol doesn’t just naturally kick in at puberty, for instance. We are first offered alcohol at or near that time in our lives, and most of us accept the offer. It is that simple. I daresay most of us hated our first sips. Some of us still have to milk or sugar our alcohol to get it down. Look around you at what people are drinking.
A desire for sex does kick in at puberty, of course, but with most people a desire for intimacy is joined to it. Many will take one or the other if they can’t get both, but most will agree that the ultimate search is for both. If this is true, it is hard to see how anyone can blame the appetites. Even those who choose to have sex without intimacy are not following bad appetites, they are just making the best of a bad situation. They are not offered a full glass so they take half a glass. The logical thing to do would be to create customs that make good situations more prevalent. This is not what our customs do, though. Just the opposite. Our customs outlaw or make impossible good situations and then punish those who try ease their pain.
Let me give an example to clarify my meaning. We all know that teens will never be encouraged to have sex. But the one thing that they are warned against even more strongly now is sex with intimacy. Casual sex can be dealt with by parents much more easily than real love. Love gets in the way of schoolwork and may cause havoc with college plans. Condoms solve many of the problems of casual teen sex; teens falling in love cannot be solved so easily. High, almost invisible walls are therefore built against it. There is no centralized program, no class, no religious movement, nothing that can be pointed to directly. But the societal pressure against teen love is as strong as any other pressure. It permeates everything. It is omnipresent, a basic assumption—it does not even need to be put in writing.
This is the custom that seeds the sin. Casual sex is young people making the best of a bad situation. Preaching against beauty or pleasure or immorality is therefore completely beside the point. The appetites are not to blame. If teens, as naturally sexual creatures, had the “moral” choice (sex with love and responsibility) on their short list of choices, then we might blame them for not choosing it. But they don’t. That is the one choice they do not have. They are not allowed to get married or to live together. Careers are now more important than families or even soulmates, and so we have culturally subordinated sex and love and families to college and jobs. This subordination starts as soon as the teen hits puberty.
Here are the choices for a teen as they stand now: 1) marriage or cohabitation: unthinkable. 2) casual sex: frowned upon, though much less than in the past (as long as it is with another teen). 3) no sex: encouraged, but very sad. Is it any wonder that people are so messed up sexually? It is easy to see that 2 and 3 are both debilitating. Number 2 is debilitating for two reasons. It is debilitating because it is frowned upon and therefore more or less sordid; and it is debilitating because it is sex without love, which numbs the heart. Number 3 is debilitating because it is a sort of sexual anorexia. It is a starving of the body for five or six years. How can young people be expected to have a natural or healthy attitude about something they have been repressing for almost half their lives? It is insane.
And yet we are told that number 1 is the most debilitating of the three. Why? It threatens college and career by creating ties that are hard to break. The kids won’t go to the best colleges possible if they are tied to eachother by real feelings. They will want to compromise, and one will have to follow the other. It is also assumed that number 1 will lead to more teen pregnancy, although this is debatable. It is sex that makes babies, not love or cohabitation. Yet parents wink at casual teen sex and go ballistic at teen love.
Ignore the second part of that last paragraph for a moment, though, and look hard at the first part again. We don’t want kids compromising and following eachother to college, or making decisions based on love. Could anything be more sad or more telling than that? We bring our children up to have cold hearts and then have the nerve to be shocked by the divorce rate.
“What can we do?” say the fatalists. “Es muss sein. It must be.” And yet in the time of our grandparents it was not like this. It is in the memory of living people that the world was set up along different lines, lines that took into account the sexuality of young people and the necessary priority of union. Sexual unions and families were not subordinated to colleges and careers. It is not an insoluble problem or an eternal religious or moral conundrum. It is a new problem, one manufactured to suit the GNP and the corporations and the growth economy.
That brings us back, albeit in a long digression, to Tolstoy and Kant and the whole Judeo/Christian/Muslim/Buddhist view of the senses, the appetites, pleasure, and beauty. First of all, notice how Modern art falls into the argument against pleasure and beauty. Most would expect Tolstoy and Modernism to be on opposite sides. As I showed in my paper on What is Art?, they are indeed foes in regard to many things, most importantly the issue of decadence. Modernism finds decadence both interesting and informative. It also finds decadence to be ultimately progressive. Tolstoy finds intentional decadence to be boring and regressive, and ultimately immoral. But Tolstoy and Modernism agree in very basic ways on the question of beauty and pleasure: they are against it. Tolstoy’s orthodoxy is not hard to understand, since it is part of his fundamental Christianity. Modernism’s orthodoxy on this issue may be slightly more surprising. Modernism has put into question a great many things, but it has accepted the first aesthetic premise of Judeo-Christianity: the suspect nature of pleasure, beauty, and appetite.
This is where I part company with both Tolstoy and Modernism, and it is where Tolstoy and Nietzsche are impossible to reconcile. Nietzsche was in basic agreement with Tolstoy on the subject of decadence. But Nietzsche’s view of pleasure and beauty came to him from the Greeks, and Nietzsche had no quarrel with the appetites of healthy people.
Nietzsche’s comments on sexuality are a mixed bag. Some of his commentary on women and sex is purposely sensational, but his overall view of aesthetics—and the way it tied to beauty and pleasure—was as un-Modern as it is possible to be. He was further from Modernism than even Tolstoy, since an Amish sort of iconoclasm had no appeal for him. Or, to put it another way, Tolstoy and Modernism are Apollonian; Nietzsche is Dionysian. Nietzsche, like the Greeks, was a sensualist. Moderns are not sensualists. In art, Modernism has managed the strange feat of decadence without sensualism. Modernism has promoted cultural deconstruction while avoiding pleasure almost entirely. This is because beauty was one of the things deconstructed first, and most fully.
Nietzsche differed from Tolstoy in another important way as well. He would have found the glorification of the peasant mentality to be decadent in itself, a cry for self-stultification—a pose to hide the weariness of age and defeat.
In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche agreed with the Buddhists that health was a primary goal of both life and of society. Power might be the ultimate goal, but power was an outcome and adjunct of health. He believed that healthy people were natural leaders, and that they had very little need of society’s laws. A person with healthy inner laws could and should disregard society’s laws, which laws were at worst limiting and at best inefficient. The only rational use of customs and laws would be to make the less healthy people more like the most healthy. This would be done by 1) not corrupting them, 2) helping them, through education, to resist corruption. Nietzsche didn’t spend much time promoting specific ways to do this (in this book or any other) since he was not primarily interested in protecting unhealthy people. He was primarily interested in protecting healthy people from unhealthy customs and laws. The bulk of his argument was spent pointing out ways that customs and laws had been perverted, so that they helped no one. In fact, customs and laws had the opposite effect: they did everything possible to negate the potential of healthy people, and to make it impossible to differentiate the weak from the strong. One of the most successful ways to achieve this perversion, beyond actual law making, was through the re-defining of words and concepts. Nietzsche catalogued hundreds of ways that words and concepts had been re-defined since antiquity in order to camouflage the natural, healthy ideas that had originally existed. We all know that he attacked Christianity most violently for this. The easiest example is the Biblical phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth.” The ancient Greeks would have found this phrase to be nonsense or sacrilege. Who wanted the meek to inherit the earth? To the Greeks, this would have meant, “The losers shall win,” which was itself like saying, “Darkness shall swallow the sun.”
Most contemporary Christians accept the Biblical phrase because they imagine that “meek” simply means “humble”. No one likes a braggart. But “meek” did not and does not mean simply “humble”, as in “non-boastful”. After all, a winner can be humble, if he wins without undue pride. In fact, humility implies someone who wins occasionally, since a perennial loser would have no occasion for humility. It is hard to refrain from boasting when you never have an occasion to boast. No, meek also implies “deficient in spirit and courage” and “not strong”. See any dictionary. Do we want those who are deficient in spirit and courage to inherit the earth?
If so, then we are on the way to achieving paradise. Go to any contemporary museum and you will see that the meek have inherited art history. Those with little or no artistic ability have found a way to redefine the field in their own favor. It is debatable whether the museum was the first institution to fall or the last. But whether you believe cultural history collapsed a hundred years ago, or whether you believe its final collapse is still in the near future, it is certain that Nietzsche was prescient.
All this ties into Nietzsche’s aesthetics, and to the argument at hand, since it is clear that Modernism, like Christianity, has continued the decadent re-defining of words and concepts. The Moderns have often tried to claim Nietzsche as a precursor, but this claim is even more preposterous than their claim of Cezanne or Van Gogh. Nietzsche is completely anti-Modern in that he would not see anything at all clever or poignant in embracing decadence like Duchamp and Warhol and all the rest have done. He also would not see anything progressive in re-defining words as their opposites. Replacing art with anti-art, replacing depth with shallowness, replacing earnestness with phoniness, replacing subtlety with brutality, and so on.
As an example, I saw in the New York Times today an article by the art critic Holland Cotter, where he claimed that Rubens and Warhol were “two peas in a pod”—“Everything Rubens did, Warhol did, and more”. This sort of standing the truth on its head would not amuse Nietzsche in the least. Cotter begins the article by saying, “Let us be devils and call Andy Warhol the Rubens of American art. Why not?” Well, how about this: because it is not true. Nietzsche may have been the anti-Christ, but this sort of tongue-in-cheek, swishy devilry would have been for him beneath contempt. Telling oily lies in order to make a master out of a slave is not delicious, it is despicable.
And finally, Nietzsche is anti-Modern in that he despised egalite, especially an enforced egalite—a fascistic, centralized propagandizing of false ideals. He was already distressed about the fall from Mozart to Wagner, the loss of lightness and subtlety and grace and melody. What would he think of John Cage? He would have already been distressed about the diminishment in spirit from Titian to Gerome. What would he think of Tracey Emin? For Nietzsche, Tracey Emin and the other Saatchi and Turner Prize people would all be examples of the victory of the slave mentality, nothing less. The victory of vulgarity and resentment over beauty.
My favorite quote of Nietzsche is this one: “It is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful.” Think of Pollock or Sol LeWitt or Chuck Close. But one must remember that it is also easier to be tiny than to be beautiful (Twombly or Johns). It is easier to be vulgar than to be beautiful (Emin or Currin). It is easier to be banal than to be beautiful (Rothko or Newman or Richter). It is easier to be annoying than to be beautiful (Nauman or Warhol or Duchamp). It is easier to be shocking than to be beautiful (Hirst or Bacon). It is easier to be ugly than to be beautiful (Jenny Saville or Lucian Freud).
And this brings us back to beauty. I have used pleasure and beauty almost interchangeably in the argument above, since I began with Kant’s definition of beauty as that which gives us pleasure [in my previous paper]. Tolstoy had accepted that definition, and, within limits, so will I. Visual beauty gives us visual pleasure, and this is the beauty and pleasure that are primary in aesthetics. Music we may also accept as aesthetically beautiful, since the sort of pleasure we receive is one that is easily tied to the commonsense definition of art. We call music art, and the kind of pleasure we receive from music is similar to the pleasure we receive from looking at a beautiful picture or a beautiful scene or a beautiful person. A poem may be both visual and musical, as well as literary. Literature is an art because it generates a complex feeling, usually many complex feelings. Dance is an art that mixes visual and musical beauties.
Taste, touch and smell are not commonly given to art, and I agree with this distinction. It may be because these senses are more primitive. Their impressions reside in deeper, older parts of the brain. It may be because the causes of these impressions are not as complex, not as skillfully manufactured, not as permanent, or for other reasons. Preparing fine food, giving a skillful massage, or inventing a perfume may be artistic to some degree, but no semi-permanent artifact is created. More importantly, no specific emotion is revealed. No complex feeling, beyond “Ahhh!” is generated. Fine wine and food does not cause the imagination to turn on and begin functioning in specific ways. Art does. Art creates emotions and feelings through the brain, not just through the nerve endings. Even a piece without words or images, like a sonata, functions at a much higher level of complexity than a meal or a massage. In fact, brain imaging reveals this. Art lights up multiple areas, not just a pleasure center. Art massages the entire neo-cortex as well as large parts of the inner brain. Food and perfumes and backrubs don’t do this.
Of course this is no argument against food, nice smells, backrubs, or sex, none of which I consider artistic, but all of which I consider both pleasant and very important. Sex calls up complex feelings and emotions, but it does it directly, without the creation of an artifact or a signifier of any kind. It is the human body that is the signifier, and we may not take credit for the creation of that signifier. Sex may be partly artistic, in that I may take some credit for what I do with my body in bed. No doubt there are sexual geniuses just as there are musical and literary geniuses. But I find it more useful to limit definitions in commonsense ways, rather than spread them thin across all possible actions. Calling sex art does not benefit anyone, sexual geniuses least of all (who need no favors from critics or etymologists).
I have covered a lot of ground here, but I still haven’t tied beauty to art. In the previous paper I said that art was not required to be beautiful, so there is no necessary tie at all. But if beauty is not a necessary ingredient, it is an important ingredient. The artist uses beauty just like nature uses beauty: as a propellant. Sensual pleasure is an irresistible draw. Beautiful colors, lines, melodies and the rest attract us precisely like flowers attract bees. Beauty is therefore a tool. Like any other tool, it can be used for good or for ill, although it is neither in itself. Venus flycatchers draw insects to their doom with patterns and odors, just as Hollywood draws an audience to its intellectual doom with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
This does not mean that beauty and pleasure are Sirens, however. Our appetite for all kinds of beauty is not a leading into temptation. Beauty is a force of nature like gravity, and no one would think to call gravity a temptation or a Siren. Gravity causes life to adhere to the earth—and also causes planes to crash. Beauty attracts us to eachother, causes unions, causes children, causes smiles, causes health and satisfaction. It can also be a lure to propaganda, dishonesty, heartache, pain, financial ruin, and empty or malicious art.
If a criminal used a giant magnet to steal precious metals or to down airplanes, we would not blame magnetism. Blaming beauty, pleasure and appetite for human corruption is no more logical than giving magnetism criminal intent. Magnetism has only criminal potential. But everything has criminal potential. A criminal could use real messages from heaven to dupe people into various corruptions, and it is possible that some criminal has done just that. Criminals have certainly used fake messages from heaven to that purpose.
None of the fault lies with beauty, pleasure or appetite. Fault lies with its use as a tool, and ultimately with the user of the tool. Corrupted appetites have always been a big business, from the beginning of history. Alcohol, drugs, bad food, pornography, prostitution, advertising, propaganda, and fake art are all related. They are all forms of human bonsai: the forcing of natural healthy appetites into weird and unnatural shapes.
Beauty does not deserve any of the abuse she has taken in the 20th century. Likewise, the appetites do not deserve the historical abuse they have suffered from all the major religions. What is needed is not less appetite, but less corrupting influence and more strength to resist corruption. In societies with little corrupting influence (tribal cultures, and also the Mennonites and Amish) the appetites do not cause nearly as many problems.
Notice that I am now praising the Amish, whereas above I have been attacking them. The Amish and Mennonites are an instructive example in more ways than one. They have successfully limited corrupting influence on the appetites, and they have limited art as one of these corrupting influences. In limiting corrupting influences, they are absolutely correct. In limiting art by category, I think they are mistaken. Their taboo on images and decoration comes primarily from the Old Testament ban on graven images and other such rules. But this Biblical ban had little to do with beauty or pleasure. It concerned a jealous God who did not want to compete with golden calves and other pagan refuse. Of course Judeo-Christianity has always been wary of pleasures, sexual and otherwise, and the iconoclasts have, from the beginning, interpreted the ban on graven images as another warning against the snake in the garden, whether it was intended that way or not.
According to my argument above, the Amish and other iconoclasts have needlessly given up natural pleasures. What was always most needful was not avoiding pleasures or appetites, but avoiding corruption of those appetites. Beauty and pleasure in service of the good is good; beauty and pleasure in service of the bad is bad. A culture or community needs to avoid only the latter. In some ways this is understood, I think, for the Amish have never forbidden themselves enjoyment of good sex and food. As regards art, they are not as enlightened. They have not forbidden all sex and food, since this would be absurd. And yet they think they must forbid all art. How can art be more dangerous than food or sex?
Plato apparently thought that art was more dangerous than food or sex. Tolstoy also flirts with this possibility. It is a flattering idea to an artist, but I cannot accept it. It is much easier to explain it this way, I think: people cannot live without food or sex. They can live without art. In a cultural pinch, they can make do with natural beauty—the mountains and trees and flowers around them, as well as their own physical beauty. The most creative among them no doubt feel cramped, but what is that feeling compared to the health of the community?
In this way the Amish and Platonic ban on art is a signal to us of something more profound. The Amish and the Platonists ban art because it can be banned. If sex could be banned, no doubt it would be. The easiest way to prevent corruption is to prevent all action. If you cannot act, you cannot sin. An entire area of existence can be addressed with one law. Very efficient. But this method of making laws and customs is nihilism.
And we are back to Nietzsche (I am creating some weird, accidental hermeneutic circles here—now this is jouissance!). By nihilist Nietzsche did not mean someone who is a non-believer, someone who is an atheist or agnostic. Nor did he mean an anarchist, a malcontent, a political revolutionary, a terrorist, a materialist, an idealist, or anything else like this. A nihilist was for him not a denier of the Christian God, the state, the party, or the president. A nihilist was a denier of life. Plato, Tolstoy, and the Amish would all be exhibiting nihilism, since they were denying the natural exercise of appetite. Nihilism is present wherever, in order to combat decadence, corruption, badness, or evil, a rule is fashioned that outlaws both good and evil. It is the outlawing of a set of actions by category, without regard to moral outcome. If all art is outlawed, then even art that makes people more moral is lost. This is nihilistic, since it forbids action for no good reason.
Life is action. The appetites are all in place to promote action, movement, change, continuous creation. Any restriction on this creation must be suspect. Some restriction may be acceptable, if good arguments can be made for it. But blanket restrictions, restrictions by category, preclude this possibility. A people who trusted and adored their gods or nature would feel compelled to give a full explanation of any restriction of appetites given them by those gods or by nature. Restriction without full account would, for such a people, be the ultimate sacrilege. The sacrilege of nihilism. Stopping life to suit easy or lazy legislation. Refusing to take life on a case-by-case basis because it is wearisome to do so.
This sort of nihilism is closely related to hubris, since only a self-satisfied person or people would imagine themselves within their rights to restrict life or nature without a full account to her. All laws that do not take into account individual circumstance are nihilistic and hubristic, since they restrict action as a category and do so mainly as a means of legislative efficiency. The most nihilistic cultures and religions are those that most restrict by category without a full account. This is why Nietzsche attacked Christianity with such vehemence. On a whole host of issues, Christianity has recommended inaction or abstinence. To fight evil, all the world religions have restricted both good and evil. This is why Nietzsche called Buddhism nihilistic as well. To combat spiritual pain, it restricted all action. This calmness was certainly salutary: it worked. But for Nietzsche it was ultimately sacrilegious, for the cost of this philosophy was life itself. To diminish pain, both pain and pleasure were restricted. To diminish sin, both good action and bad action were restricted. But no specific sin is as harmful to the individual or the community as the primary sin of categorical inaction.
To put it another way, a law or custom that prevents good people from doing good things cannot be justified because it also prevents bad people from doing bad things. It is more important to do good than not to do bad. We are here to do things, not to refrain from doing things. We are here to live, not to refrain from living. This should be the first principle of any legislation, and therefore action should always trump inaction. To put it one more way, it is better to have both good and evil than to have neither.
A person who disagrees with this last sentence is a nihilist, by Nietzsche’s definition, and mine. Plato and Tolstoy and the Amish all exhibit nihilism when they ban, or threaten to ban, art by category. The major world religions all exhibit nihilism when they promote abstinence or chastity or any other categorical suppression of the natural appetites. All the governments of history have exhibited nihilism when they have passed laws that restricted action by category, without regard for individual circumstance. Since all governments have done this, and since almost all laws exclude exceptions, all laws and governments have been nihilistic. Logical laws would address not categories of actions, but specific actions, since only specific actions are corrupted, evil, sinful, illicit, or harmful. Failure to address specific actions is a religious failure, since it concerns our relationship to life itself. That is, no matter what your religious affiliation, you have some relationship to life. Even atheists have some philosophy of life, some general stance toward existence. Therefore this legal, logical, and aesthetic failure concerns everyone equally, not just artists, or legislators, or overtly religious people. To the extent that we fail to resist nihilism, we are complicit in it.
I must hit one final topic before I close. Tolstoy used his book What is Art? to encourage the highest sort of artistic expression. In a different way, I have done so here too. That is all fine and good, but it leaves open the question of the status of “pretty pictures.” It is easy for Tolstoy and me to attack art that we find really objectionable and to praise art is that we find great. But where does that leave “decorative” art? Where does that leave harmless paintings of flowers and cows and donkeys and lakes and mountains and so on? Some will think that we have set the bar so high that no one can reach it. If Tolstoy complained of Michelangelo and Beethoven, how is there any hope for us mortals? If Tolstoy wants inspiring, expressive, emotional art, then it is not clear that anyone really achieves that. What do we make of Sargent or Bouguereau? They weren’t corrupting, but were they expressive? What does this “expressive” entail, anyway? Must there be some uplifting moral story implied? Does one have to imagine the brotherhood of man with a tear in his eye every time one looks at art?
As I have said before, I think Tolstoy’s exhortations were mostly well-meaning and to the point. However, I think it might be easy to finish his extended sermon with a bit too jaded an outlook. The same could be said of my extended sermons, I suppose. One may get the feeling that nothing short of new Sistine Chapels will impress us. At least in my case, this is not true. I don’t feel guilty about my own portfolio after reading Tolstoy, and if I don’t I could hardly use Tolstoy to critique Sargent or Bouguereau or anyone else. I personally find loads of expression in both Sargent and Bouguereau, although others who go in looking for specific kinds of expression will not find it there. I think straightforward portraits can be among the most expressive things. A head by Van Dyck has buckets of emotion in it, although it is not emotion that is easy to put into words. It is not Modern emotion, it is not literary emotion, it is not religious fervor, it does not generate ideas, it is not political emotion. But those who have eyes know what I mean. It is the nameless emotion of reading another person’s character from his or her face and expression. More than this, it is the sympathy of the artist draped over this character like a second soul. The portrait is a tripartite communion, with the viewer completing the number. Possibly there is no stronger feeling in art or in life. When you look in the eye of your lover during the act, this is what you feel. Only in art or sex are you allowed that stare.
To a lesser extent, you obtain that emotion from all successful objective art. It seems strange to suggest that you look at a cow or a cloud or mountain like a lover, but there it is. The stare of a lover is allowed, it is encouraged. Beauty is no longer forbidden, no longer suspect. You can stare and think whatever you like: the critics will not know the difference. You can tell them what they want to hear and make your exit.
I am not saying that every painting of a cow is great art, or deserves my defense. But a great painting of a cow is an artistic possibility. Van Gogh looked at the night sky, at his own shoes, at sunflowers, like a lover. This attitude made it art, not the subject. Subject matter is important, but only because you must genuinely find your obsessions. Van Gogh did not manufacture a love of the night sky, he actually felt it. He knew his lovers, and he knew how to love them.
So yes, in a sense one does imagine the brotherhood of man with a tear in his eye everytime one looks at art. My explanation has not ended up as far away from Tolstoy as I had thought it would. But the brotherhood must be extended to all objects, including cows, shoes, stars, and rocks.
This is why no subject should be forbidden by
category. There is no category of kitsch,
no subject that is impossible to paint.
To the artist all is allowed.
Those who would forbid or denigrate artistic subjects by category are
also nihilists. Notice that I have
completed one last circle, and now I will quit.
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.