My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Wed, 22 Jun, 2005

Losing the Cultural War

What is it like to lose the cultural war? Every time I go back to my old milieu in the Boston area, I remember. I grew up in one of the last strongholds of Euro-British-American elite culture. Classical music, classical museum art, classical literature, all were preserved and reproduced reverently in the ivy towers of Eastern universities. After all, up until I was in my mid-twenties I assumed, as did everyone around me, that I would become a professor of classical studies (Greek and Latin) in one of those ivy-ivory towered places, where even the architecture (at least, that which was built before the 1960s) referred back to the old countries overseas, rather than anything American. America was crass, commercial, forever lowbrow. It was to be held at bay, or even ignored, even though one had to live in it.

But now it is almost impossible to live any more in those towers, since the media are omnipresent, blasting that hated American culture into every corner and cranny of life, including, of course, the Internet through which you are reading this. In order to keep the classical life, one has to become a cloistered recluse, as the preservers of classical Greek and Roman culture did in the early medieval dark ages of barbarian Europe. And there are indeed cultural recluses out there. I know many of them, and not all of them are elderly, though most of them are. They know, no matter how much of the old culture still fills their lives, that they have lost the cultural war.

What is it like to lose the cultural war? It is tuning up and down the entire FM radio dial and not finding a single station that plays the kind of (classical) music one likes, when in decades past, there had been at least two or three. It is watching your kind, the intellectuals and professors and thinkers, being ridiculed and trivialized in films and TV programs, not to mention in the larger social world. If you are religious, you have seen your religion's ancient intellectual and philosophical tradition replaced by emotional, irrational, anti-intellectual appeals to "the heart" rather than the mind, or even worse, with politicized fanaticism. And for you, TV is as it was from its beginning, a "vast wasteland" where you visit only for escapism, simple-minded giggles or titillation.

As an intellectual from the old world, an alien immigrant or someone bred by immigrants fleeing the horrors of the twentieth century into this ever-foreign land, one has experienced, and possibly even produced, cultural works that fit the ideal: complexity, depth, subtlety, and restraint. Quietness and elegance, brevity and compactness, clarity and mathematical structure: this is the Renaissance perspective that has now been driven from the world. It can be seen only in relics preserved in museums or on the yellowed pages of out-of-print books, or in old recordings now faded and scratchy, untouched by digital adulteration, or the occasional concert performance attended by no one younger than age 60.

Nowhere, nowhere does one see anything in the world like the ideal. In fact, every cultural product now available does everything to violate that ideal, with its cacophonous noise, violence, assaultingly fast pace, primitive drumbeats, howling voices, crowds of leaping bodies, obsessive and fetishistic sexuality, snarling incivility, celebrity-worship, filthy language, inedible food, garish colors and unreadable graphics, tattoos and piercings and other imitations of savages, screaming into the world with no let-up, no consciousness of anything beyond the desire for more, more, MORE in an age where the extreme has become normal.

In the embattled cloister, the intellectual's job, as it has always been, is to remind the world of the Ideal, and to pass judgement on what is done. That judgement has been, throughout the ages, almost exclusively negative. Nothing is as good as the ideal. Nothing ever was as good as the Ideal that was realized in the golden past, whether it is said by Hesiod lamenting the bygone Golden Age in the early days of Greek literature or by a modern Nobel-prize winner. But now, here in America and the Americanized world that hates America, no one is listening.

So one's vocabulary, looking out the electronic windows of the cloister, is filled with the overheated language of judgement and condemnation, that none of the perpetrators of the cultural atrocities will ever hear: horrible!… idiotic! … terrible! … hideous! … ghastly! … vile! … pathetic! … insane! … crazy! … monstrous! …an unbelievable catastrophe!! it stinks! it's crap! and above all, it's stupid, irretrievably, incorrigibly, perpetually stupid, stupid, and ever more stupid.

It's all over but the shouting. The classical world has lost, and is being burned away in America like the library of Alexandria, over and over and over again, with every rock music album, reality TV show, music video, trashy fashion show, blockbuster fantasy movie, celebrity gossip magazine, and graffiti exhibit. No, no use doing any new art or writing or music that attempts to fit the Ideal—why try? why toil for months or years on something which will never see the light of day, or even if published or shown will never be noticed in the mindless madness of American culture? Why bother to grow delicate cultural flowers in a desert full of predators and ugly thorns? One's quiet efforts can never survive the competition of a million amplified shrieks, a world of endless mediocrity and incessant, exhausting vulgarity pumped and pumped by crass commercialism. The job of the intellectual is not to convey false hope, but true despair.

I'm back from Boston now. It has been a rather rough transition from the cloister to the workplace. While in the Boston area I confirmed with an arts director that I will be showing new work in a coffee-house gallery in my old Massachusetts home town, this November and December. It will be my first "gallery" art show rather than convention or private show. I visited the coffee house and saw the walls where, if all goes well, my art will hang in the late autumn, seen by people enjoying themselves with a coffee and a muffin in a pleasant space. The howling cacophony of the hideous world seems rather far away there.

A Postscript to the Cultural War

I listen to Internet radio. I am subscribed, for a modest fee, to, a vast compendium of Internet "broadcasting stations," maintained mostly by individuals or groups who love their music, whatever it is. There are, at my last inspection, over 100 classical music "stations" on Live365. There are other such compendia of Internet radio broadcasts which require no fee and take the listener to hundreds of classical stations, such as Classical Live Online Radio. All these places require is a modestly up-to-date computer and a cable modem (broadband) connection. As for visual arts, there seems to be an almost infinite variety of artwork, some of it approaching the Ideal, available for viewing on the Internet. The same is true for literature and poetry, where with enough searching ability one can access anything from the most exquisite Japanese haiku (very Ideal) to the poetry of nineteenth-century English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (very out of style.) Try Tennyson's long poem "The Palace of Art," available on The Tennyson Page (scroll down the list of poems to find it) for a highly elaborate and allegorical expression of the embattled cultural idealist falling into despair. It seems that the cultural Ideals that I grew up with have lost in "real" space, but they are alive and well in Cyberspace.

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