Backwards and Forwards
by Circle or Line
In the modern era, all ideas aside from making money or achieving utopia are sandblasted and erased from the human brain. This has certain consequences. One such consequence is that everything becomes debased to this sewage-level of thought process. There’s nothing wrong with a sewer system – indeed what would we do without them? Along with the man who invented the root canal I suppose we can thank the man who invented the sewer. Both are “improvements”. But in any case you wouldn’t want to hang out there.
Another consequence, no less real, but I think not so much discussed, is that everything becomes confused. I don’t mean by that, that everything becomes stupid. There are some quite stupid people out there. I have come to have a greater faith in people than I once did. Plus, it’s very hard, once the monkey says that “man is a rational animal” to un-evolve that monkey. The genie is out of the bottle so to speak.
The confusion I’m referring to is the same thing that happens to someone when a flood of new data rushes in – there may be literally no way for the organism to categorize or process that data. Thus words, which have meant certain things, begin to mean new things.
Take, for example, the words “kitsch” and “sentimental”. These days, since the only thing our prefrontal lobes are programmed to do is worship at the altars of Mammon or Marx, those two words tend to become identified, or at least the difference between them becomes unimportant.
But they are vastly different.
Is kitsch. Why? Well let’s leave that aside for the moment. Whereas this:
Now sentiment, as far as I’m aware, is a comprehensive thing. It is a mirror, in other words, that reflects not just one person or society or perspective, but all of mankind. There is something, in other words, in that painting that anyone, everywhere will understand. Cannot in fact fail to understand, whether that person is an American or Iraqi, Israeli or Palestinian. The theme, in other words, is universal.
Now just because a theme is universal doesn’t mean its expression is necessarily simple. Consider this one:
The “theme” or “sentiment” of this image is, well, we might say “tyranny”, or “paganism”, etc. But to think we have therefore exhausted the image by explaining it is precisely the mistake made by the modernists. And to say that it is childish and thus no longer politically correct is also to miss the point. The image is too exciting for our modern minds because it is childish and it is childish because it contains in it something from the very depths.
Human beings are simple – but “simplicity” is another one of those words we no longer appreciate. Because the things that are simple are also at the same time the deepest things of all. These things are not opposites. Our modern confusions tend to polarize our thoughts into binaries – black or white, pain or pleasure, etc. As a matter of fact the opposite of pain is not pleasure at all, it is – boredom.
Which is not to say that we must give in to the other modern confusion – which is to confuse the words “depth” and “pain”. There is nothing – nothing – easier and happier than nihilism. Nihilism is the ultimate evil because it is the ultimate apathy and banality. It requires absolutely nothing – nothing that is, other than a visceral reaction, a response from the basal ganglia. If it shocks the monkey, it must be good, or rather – and let us not forget this other sinister word – useful.
Human nature is indeed dark, but not dark alone. It is the admixture of that which affirms, the light, with that which intrigues, the dark.
So art likewise exists between the kitsch and the visceral. It is sentiment.
Now would it be confusing to say that this “sentiment” which I am referring to is precisely the same thing as the “reason” which Aristotle mentioned? “Reason” and “sentiment” of course have gone through a messy divorce since Descartes and after that all the specializations went off to their own rooms and had a big sulk.
Something happened, you see, to us. Something happened that shattered our minds – we now deal with the daily businesses of picking up the pieces. This thing that happened – what was it? What happened to us that made it impossible for us to accept that reason was the friend of sentiment, that they in fact were the same child? Aristotle speaks in his ethics of kalon, excellence, and this is not so far from Christ’s “life in abundance”. If this kalon can be pegged to “reason” then pagan “virtu” becomes much, much closer to Christian “sentiment” on all fronts. And it is this single thing, this single pagan-Christian “virtu” that the modern age has utterly eviscerated. Or has tried.
What was the thing that happened? Well that is a deeper story than you think. We can say the great haunting words: “Great War” or “Hiroshima” or “Auschwitz” or “Gulag” or “Great Leap Forward”. Yes, all those moments are the moment. For the conservative, someone who believes that something has been lost since that moment, something that must be recovered, those moments are the great tragedy, or the culmination of it. What that moment means is that the ball has been dropped, a dead end was reached, we must turn back.
But I have come to believe this is the wrong perspective. Which bring us back to kitsch. Observing again the painting by Jon McNaughton we can say that it also has a “theme”. Indeed, it leaves us in no doubt of what it is. We can even summarize it: “He that is not with me, is against me: and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth.” Whereas sentiment affirms the human spirit even in the depths of its agony, kitsch tries to dogmatize the confused mind out of its fear. And the mind is only ever confused when it’s afraid. The reason this painting is kitsch is the same reason people died for Hitler – people want desperately to believe they are safe and secure. The painting “One Nation Under God” is a scrambled serving of “Left Behind” mixed in with “Buddy Christ” . It is in some sense the apotheosis of the entire modernist artistic movement. It has completely divorced art from the humanity that creates it. It is no longer even art as icon, it is art as a new form of religious propaganda.
But we are still circling around the wagons here – why was it painted? It was painted because someone, somewhere, thought that they had the first clue what “He that is not with me, is against me: and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth” means and why it was said in the context in which it was said. And they thought they needed to have that clue because? They were afraid. The entire image oozes with it. It reeks of fear. I have never seen a more inhuman, anti-human image than Jon McNaughton’s “One Nation Under God”. There is a reason why great art has never had any serious flirtation with apocalypse. And that is because apocalypse is the domain of angels – who have the answers we don’t. Any attempt by us to scan into that darkness with our flashlights will result only in the kind of hilarious abortions like this one. To unify the Constitution of the United States of America to the figure of Jesus Christ is an attempt not to paint but to paint over an area of human knowledge and experience that is so scant and so limited and so perilous so as to amount almost to – um, artistic – blasphemy. This is a domain, shall we say, where even the most painterly of angels may fear to tread. It is the equivalent of painting a figure of God over Michelangelo’s entire Sistene Chapel with a balloon coming out of His mouth, saying “My name is God, and I approve this message”. The image could not have been conceived of before the age of advertising.
I am no iconoclast. But Mr. McNaughton’s image is anti-iconoclasm on steroids, on drugs, standing up on the backseat of a convertible with its top down, shouting at the top of its lungs doing 80 down the highway, batshit crazy loco. It is the Tea Party equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson hallucinating his brains out at the start of Fear and Loathing, wondering when the bats are going to get him. It is a piece of propaganda beyond the most demented imaginings of Bill Hicks or George Carlin. Come to think of it, seen in this light, his painting is brilliant. If taken as satire, it is perhaps the greatest painting in the history of art.
It goes way, way beyond even this:
It would be as if, in Ingres’ image, Jesus Christ made a cameo to shake Napoleon’s hand.
Here, then, is the real story. The way it is used today, “modern” refers only to the most recent hundred years or so of the history of a species named “homo”, which is, approximately, 2.3 million years of age. We could, without disturbing our equanimity, instead use the word “modern” to refer to the period beginning in roughly 8,000 B.C., when this species, “homo”, which is, again, approximately 2.3 million years old, began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Civilization, in other words, is the tiny, almost infinitesimally small moment which we may call “modern”.
Now … described thusly, we can perhaps reframe our “what happened” question a little. “What happened” is not some recent babble of political events which may or may not concern us, or even some tectonic shifting of the poles which happen every once in a while. “What happened” is that the Greek mantra “man is the reasoning animal” repeated through the centuries, suddenly, abruptly, hit the brick wall of consciousness. Or, in other words, to put it more plainly, one day, an animal realized that it woke up. And the “modern” age is merely the latest fluttering of its eyelids in that precise moment.
This mere fact that an animal is now “awake”, if properly understood, would produce shockwaves throughout the species of such magnitude that it would destroy itself. It simply would not know how to deal with this plain and simple fact. And this is why: habit. Species have survived for countless millions of years based on their habits. They are programmed to eat, sleep, reproduce, nurture their young, defend their tribes from predators – all from habit. Millions upon millions of years of habits, programmed again and again and again into the tiny brains of the genus homo. And then, suddenly, between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago – the brain of Homo Sapiens simply explodes in size. And 10,000 years ago this species begins to grow crops and farm animals.
In other words, what has happened is this: a life-form has suddenly accelerated very quickly towards what might be described as an omega point. The essence, nature and energy of this omega point is the very issue of religion and “spirituality”, another word that the vampires have phlebotomized. It is not that the ball has been dropped. There is never any question about the ball being dropped. Evolution never drops the ball. The question is: can we possibly realize what it is to be, to be awake, to relate, and to live as conscious life-forms instead of habitual life-forms?
Some time in the last hundred years the great Eye fluttered awake. And when it sees things, the Eye becomes powerful. That is the whole point of consciousness, the whole point of a child growing up into an adult. In the blinding atomic flash the crowd froze for an instant. Neighbors glanced at each other, unable to believe their eyes. When these shifts happen – look out. Because although the gold falls from the heavens for all men, the greediest and quickest can rush into the gap.
And that is exactly what happened in our “modern” age. The Victorians were the greatest empire in the world. And suddenly, into the midst of this empire, came a new consciousness, a new power. And within decades that empire was dead, the indescribably massive bathtub of blood that was the twentieth century had sloshed over the species. Mammon and Marx ran in to lick up the leftovers. Why? Because the habits of the animal had once again been perturbed.
Which brings us back to art. What I’ve been calling “kitsch” is the botched attempt to enact rules and regulations upon the deep animal ocean that exists inside. And “visceral” art is the attempt to worship something that neither knows nor cares about its acolytes. It writhes and coils, endlessly dark, endlessly dim. I have swum in her depths. Its habits are eternal. Its currents are as deep as the abyss. Its origins are long ago, within the infinity of Big Bangs and the matter of multiverses.
But “sentiment” is something new in the species. It is the same thing as “reason” and “consciousness” and “life in abundance”. It dips its cup into this ocean and looks at it in the light of day. The water is still dark. But now we can see it. It is the home we know we belong to, and is therefore our own awake, animal, human nature. Gagdad Bob, summarizing Sri Aurobindo: it is chronologically later than, but ontologically prior to, matter.
Therefore it’s familiar to us. And that is why all real art has that same familiarity. When we look at it, we are really experiencing deja vu.