This is an extract from the transcript of The Chinese Revolution – Good Thing, Bad Thing? (1949 – Present). Do. The. Reading. and subscribe to Flappr’s YouTube channel!
“Tradition is like a chain that both constrains us and guides us. Of course, we may, especially in our younger years, strain and struggle against this chain. We may perceive faults or flaws, and believe ourselves or our generation to be uniquely perspicacious enough to radically improve upon what our ancestors have made – perhaps even to break the chain entirely and start afresh.
Yet every link in our chain of tradition was once a radical idea too. Everything that today’s conservatives vigorously defend was once argued passionately by reformers of past ages. What is tradition anyway if not a compilation of the best and most proven radical ideas of the past? The unexpectedly beneficial precipitate or residue retrieved after thousands upon thousands of mostly useless and wasteful progressive experimentation.
To be a conservative, therefore, to stick to tradition, is to be almost always right about everything almost all the time – but not quite all the time, and that is the tricky part. How can we improve society, how can we devise better governments, better customs, better habits, better beliefs without breaking the good we have inherited? How can we identify and replace the weaker links in our chain of tradition without totally severing our connection to the past?
I believe we must begin from a place of gratitude. We must hold in our minds a recognition that life can be, and has been, far worse. We must realize there are hard limits to the world, as revealed by science, and unchangeable aspects of human nature, as revealed by history, religion, philosophy, and literature. And these two facts in combination create permanent unsolvable problems for mankind, which we can only evade or mitigate through those traditions we once found so constraining.
To paraphrase the great G.K. Chesterton: “Before you tear down a fence, understand why it was put up in the first place.” I cannot fault a single person for wishing to make a better world for themselves and their children, but I can admonish some persons for being so ungrateful and ignorant, they mistake tradition itself as the cause of every evil under the sun. Small wonder then that their hairbrained alternatives routinely overlook those aspects of society without which it cannot function or perpetuate itself into the future.
And there are other things tied up in tradition besides moral guidance or the management of collective affairs. Tradition also involves how we delve into the mysteries of the universe; how we elevate the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing into artforms unto themselves; how we represent truth and beauty and locate ourselves within the vast swirling cosmos beyond our all too brief and narrow experience.
It is miraculous that we have come as far as we have. And at any given time, we can throw that all away, through profound ingratitude and foolish innovations. A healthy respect for tradition opens the door to true wisdom. A lack of respect leads only to novelty worship and malign sophistry.
Now, not every tradition is equal, and not everything in a given tradition is worth preserving, but like the Chinese who show such great deference to the wisdom of their ancestors, I wish more in the West would admire or even learn about their own.
Like the Chinese, we are the legatees of a glorious tradition – a tradition that encompasses the poetry of Homer, the curiosity of Eratosthenes, the integrity of Cato, the courage of Saint Boniface, the vision of Michelangelo, the mirth of Mozart, the insights of Descartes, Hume, and Kant, the wit of Voltaire, the ingenuity of Watt, the moral urgency of Lincoln and Douglas.
These and many more are responsible for the unique tradition into which we have been born. And it is this tradition, and no other, which has produced those foundational ideas we all too often take for granted, or assume are the defaults around the world. I am speaking here of the freedom of expression, of inquiry, of conscience. I am speaking of the rule of law, and equality under the law. I am speaking of inalienable rights, of trial by jury, of respect for women, of constitutional order and democratic procedure. I am speaking of evidence based reasoning and religious tolerance.
Now those are all things I wouldn’t give up for all the tea in China. You can have Karl Marx. We’ll give you him. But these are ours. They are the precious gems of our magnificent Western tradition, and if we do nothing else worthwhile in our lives, we can at least safeguard these things from contamination, or annihilation, by those who would thoughtlessly squander their inheritance.”
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By Jake Scott — 1 year ago
‘The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
We are all Blairites now. It is a horrible thought, especially to those of us who despise the Blairite constitutional project: from gutting the Lords to the creation of the devolved assemblies, and the paradoxical tension between the move towards localism and the edictal erasure of British ways of life. The sad reality is that we live in Blairite Britain, more than we live in Thatcherite Britain.
Such a thought, as uncomfortable as it is, must be the starting point of all conservative discussions, whether they are concerned with strategy, identity, or even over what we aim to ‘conserve’, because we can only begin to know where to go by knowing where we are. David Foster Wallace once gave a talk to a graduating class in which he told the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “morning boys, how’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “what the hell is water?”
The story is intended to remind us of a simple truth: that the most obvious realities are the hardest to talk about, because they are so essential and taken for granted in our daily lives. Blairism is the cultural water we swim in, and the current that drives us inexorably towards the next crisis we cannot resolve, because Blairism holds the conflictual beliefs that government should be in every part of our lives, but that it should be so completely and utterly impotent. Think about how difficult it is to do anything in modern Britain, but that you absolutely must do it whilst holding the hand of the government.
Regardless of Blairism’s inherent contradictions, we must not ignore the tide, even if only to swim against it. How do we do this? In Modern Culture, Sir Roger Scruton wrote that we cannot
return to a pre-Enlightenment world because the Enlightenment is so inherent to how we think about society, Man, government, culture and so on. Even those of us who are believers in faith must accept that the draperies were torn down; but only by realising they were torn down can you put them back up. So, rather than deny the legacies of the Enlightenment, Sir Roger says, we must accept that they are with us, and instead ‘live as if it matters eternally what we do: to obey the rites, the ceremonies and the customs that lend dignity to our actions and which lift them above the natural sphere’.
The philosophical movement that took this lesson to heart the most, in my opinion, was the Romantics. They did not pretend that the legacies of the Enlightenment were so easily eradicable nor so easily deniable; instead, they accepted that they lived in a changed world, but sought to use that change to re-suture man’s relationship with himself, to correct the deficiencies of the Enlightenment and the empty rationalism that it loved so irrationally.
The Romantic movement, by virtue of its own logic, was not universalist. The Enlightenment sought to be universal, to find laws and rules that governed Man in every circumstance and every place; but Romanticism, in reaction, favoured particularism, rootedness, and the cultural significance of place and people. In fact, so many of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century owed more to the Romantics than they did to the Enlightenment (but again, only in the sense that the Enlightenment showed us that all humans are deserving of dignity and respect, they just choose to express that dignity in varied ways).
One such example of Romanticism that has always fascinated me emerged in Russia in the 1830s, more than anything because I believe that Russia then holds a multitude of lessons for Britain now. Early-nineteenth century Russia experienced what could only be described as an existential crisis: the Napoleonic Wars had damaged Russia’s understanding of herself as the great military power of Eastern Europe, and brought many ideas of universal brotherhood into contact with a society that did not even have the intellectual framework to accommodate such thoughts. But the crisis went deeper: as much as one hundred and fifty years before, Russian society was shaken by external ideas, more than any invasion could have hoped for, under the Reforms of Tsar Peter the Great. The Petrine Era of Russia saw cultural changes from the top – governmental reforms, military reforms, and technological innovation, much of which modernised Russia and made her into a Great Power; but these changes did not go unquestioned. In fact, many of the influential groups in Russia rebelled, sometimes violently, as in the Moscow Rising of the Streltsy in 1698.
The legacy of Peter’s reforms, however, were not felt until much later. Of course, all major cultural and social changes take time to really be felt at all, but the ‘short eighteenth century’ was a time of such rapid and dislocating change – across all of Europe, but especially in Russia – that many generations found themselves intellectually and culturally cut adrift from those who came immediately before them. Peter, pursuing a programme of Westernisation insisted, for instance, that the Russian court speak French, a language thought of as ‘intellectual’ (with good reason); dress like the Prussian court; rationalised the military along the Western European lines; built an entirely new town on a North Italian design (St. Petersburg – of course); and, in one of my favourite little quirks of history, outlawed beards in that city’s borders.
Cultural issues grow like pearls grow – a single grain of sand works its way into a mollusk, and irritates the mollusk in such a way that bacteria and calcium grows around it. Cultural changes irritate the social fabric of the community it works into; but we don’t have bacteria to grow around it, we only have each other. Yet we can understand cultural issues in the same way as a pearl – an irritant works its way in, and we grow that irritant into a recognisable tangible entity, by coalescing around it and growing it in such a way that it becomes instantly recognisable.
This is what led to the Slavophiles. Petrine Russia thought it was undefeatable – and from the Great Northern War onwards, it very much was – until Napoleon came roaring in. But the Napeolonic Wars did two things for Russia, both with the same outcome; the first was importing many ideas into Russia that challenged the existing understanding of Russian political and social structures; the second was, in the same way Soviet soldiers pushed Nazi Germany back into Europe, Petrine soldiers followed Napoleon back into Europe. In both instances, educated Russian men saw the way Europeans lived, and realised that their society was not the improved form that their reforming leaders dreamt of.
And just as with a grain of sand in a pearl, the cultural dislocation of Peter’s reforms that had long irritated the reactionary elements of eighteenth-century Russia, was seized on by many of the early-nineteenth century intelligentsia as a means of explaining the situation in which they had found themselves. This fermented a series of backlashes, intellectual and cultural, that led to an explosion of political movements, such as the terrorists, the socialists, the populists (narodniki), and – most importantly – the Slavophiles. The Slavophiles looked at the state of Russia in the 1830s and considered the Petrine reforms to be an unmitigated failure: they had not kept Russia at pace with the rest of Europe; they had dislocated the cultural and social elites from the people over whom they ruled; and worst of all, they had severed the Russian people from their own past. Peter the Great had made the mistake of proto-enlightenment liberalism, that there were universal standards of humanity against which peoples’ behaviours, cultures and laws could be judged, and in doing so, he had not attempted to “reform” Russia’s venerable history, but deny its very existence, and begin from scratch.
Instead, the Slavophiles urged a return to pre-Petrine, Muscovite-style Russianism, an embracing of folk styles, food, clothing, language, and so on – not to petrify them into a living museum of nostalgia, but to rectify the mistakes of the previous century, and offer an alternative direction into the future. This precipitated many of the following century’s movements: for instance, the emphasis on the folk of Russia encouraged the nascent populism into radicalism; the embracing of the Russian commune form of land management gave Russian socialism a concrete model from which to work; and the idea of Russia taking an entirely unique path of development to Europe created the intellectual condition for Lenin and the communists to believe Russia could “leapfrog” past the bourgeois liberalism of the continent and move straight to socialism. This is not to say the Slavophiles were socialists – to even say so is to misunderstand the subtle relativism that denies such universalist theories in itself. Indeed, many Slavophiles were ardent absolute monarchists, with the famous Memorandum to the Tsar by Alexei Aksakov in 1831 claiming that Russia’s unique place in history stems from its Orthodox Christianity, the invitation by the Kievan Rus to the Varangians to rule them, and the steppes shaping the Russian mindset to one of boundless opportunism (something that Berdayev later used as a comparison to the American prairies and Manifest Destiny).
The consequences of the Slavophile movement might not be palatable, but their inspiration is something that Anglo conservatives need to pay attention to. Their movement began by an important moment of clarity: the political reforming project of the previous age had failed. It is no secret that the emerging conservatism in Britain despises the Blairite consensus, and in many ways that means we are already doing as the Slavophiles did: only by recognising that we are in Blairite Britain can we undo its disastrous effects. But we need to go further; we cannot simply throw our hands up and accept Blairism as the present condition of Britain, but we need to see it for what it truly is. It is a complete and utter separation of Britain from our past, a denial of that past’s validity, and an attempt to create a new political identity on entirely alien lines.
Moving into the future requires acceptance of the present circumstance; one of the silliest phrases is that the clock cannot be wound back, when the truth is, if the clock is showing the wrong time, it is imperative that you wind it back. And just as taking the wrong turn and continuing down the wrong path will only get you further from where you want to go, so too must you turn back. We are all Blairites now; and just as alcoholics have to admit they’ll never recover from their alcoholism, we have to admit we will likely never recover from Blairism, but will always “be” recovering.
But I do not want to be defeatist; the first step of recovery is acceptance. We need to accept that we live in Blairite Britain, and only then can we begin tearing it apart. We need to start ripping out its core parts: the communications act (2003); the equality act (2010); the Supreme Court; the devolved assemblies; the abolition of the hereditary aristocracy; the fox hunting ban; the smoking ban; in short, all of the components of a foreign way of life that have been foisted upon the British people by our own misguided maniacal reformers. It is time to go to war; but you can only do that if you accept the war is already going on.
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By Philip Diaz-Lewis — 6 months ago
“… but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a world of secondhand, childish banalities.” – Sir Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance.
The opening quote comes from a part of Alec Guinness’ 1999 autobiography which greatly amuses me. The actor of Obi Wan Kenobi is confronted by a twelve-year-old boy in San Francisco, who tells him of his obsessive love for Star Wars. Guinness asks if he could do the favour of “promising to never see Star Wars again?”. The lad cries, and his indignant mother drags him away. Guinness ends with the above thought. He hopes the boy is weaned from Star Wars before adulthood, lest he become a pitiful specimen.
Here enters the figure of the twenty-first century man-child, alias the “kidult”. He’s been on the radar for a while. Social critic Neil Postman prophesies the coming of “adult-children” in The Disappearance of Childhood from 1982. American journalist Joseph Epstein calls this same creature “The Perpetual Adolescent” in a 2004 article of the same name. But the best summary of this character I’ve yet found is by the writer Jacopo Bernardini, from 2014, to which I can add but little.
The kidult is one who lives his life as an eternal present. As the name suggests, his life is a sort of permanent adolescence. He is sceptical of traditional definitions of adulthood, so has deliberately shunned milestones like marriage and childbearing, in favour of an unattached lifestyle which lasts indefinitely. His relations with other people remain short and shallow; based entirely on fun and mutual use (close friendships or passionate love-affairs are not for him).
Most importantly, the kidult doesn’t change his tastes or buying habits with age. The thresholds of adolescence and maturity have no bearing on the things he likes and purchases, nor how he relates to these things. Not only does he like the same toys and cartoons at thirty as he did at ten, but he continues to obsess over them and impulsively buy them like when he was ten. Enjoying childhood fare isn’t a playful interlude, but a way of life which never ends. He consumes through instant gratification, paying no thought to any long-term pattern or goal.
Although it must not strike the reader as obvious, I think there exists a link between Guinness’ “secondhand, childish banalities” and a kind of latter-day slavery. To see the link needs some prep work, but once laid, I think the reader will see my point.
First to define servility. I believe the conservative writer Hilaire Belloc gave the best definition, and I shall freely paraphrase him. The great mass of people can be restricted yet not servile. Both monopolistic capitalism and socialism reduce workers to dependency, but neither makes them entirely slaves. Under capitalism, society retains an ideal of freedom, enshrined in law. Even as monopolists manipulate the law with their money, the ideal remains. Under socialism, state ownership is supposed to give all citizens leisure to do what they want (even as the state strangles them). In either case then, freedom is present as an ideal in theory even as it ceases to exist in practice. Monopolistic and socialist states don’t think of themselves as unfree.
Slavery is different. A slave society has relinquished even the pretence of freedom for a large mass of the working people. Servility exists when a great multitude are forced to work while having no productive property, and no economic independence. That is, a servile person owns nothing (or effectively nothing) and has no choice whatsoever over how much he works or for whom he works. Most ancient civilisations, like Egypt, Greece, and Rome were servile, with servility existing as a defined legal category. That some men were owned by others was as enshrined by law as the ownership of land or cattle.
Let’s put a little Aristotle into the mix. There are two kinds of obedience: from a free subject to a ruler, and from an unfree slave to his master. These are often confused but distinct. For while the former is reasonable, the latter involves no reason and is truly blind.
True authority is neither persuasion nor force. If an officer argues to a soldier why he should obey, then the two are equals, and there’s no chain of command. But if the officer must hold a gun to the man’s head and threaten to execute him lest he do his duty, this isn’t authority either. The soldier obeys because he’s terrified, but not because he respects his superior as a superior. True authority lies in the trust which a subordinate has for the wisdom and expertise of a superior. This only comes if he’s rational enough to understand the nature of what he’s a part of, what it does, and that some people with knowhow must organise it to work properly. A sailor understands he’s on a ship. He understands that a ship has so many complex functions that no one man could know or do them all. He understands that his captain is a wiser and more experienced fellow than he. So, he trusts the captain’s authority and obeys his orders.
I sketch this Aristotelian view of authority because it lets us criticise servility without assuming a liberal social contract idea. What defines slavery isn’t that the slave hasn’t chosen his master. Nor that the slave doesn’t get to argue about his orders. A slave’s duty just is the arbitrary will of his master. He doesn’t have to trust his master’s wisdom, because he doesn’t have to understand anything to be a slave. That is, while a soldier must rationally grasp what the army is, and a citizen must rationally grasp what society is, a slave is mentally passive.
Now, to Belloc’s prophecy concerning the fate of the west. The struggle between ownership and labour, between monopoly capitalism and socialism, which existed in his day, he thought would result in the re-institution of slavery. This would happen through convergence of interests. The state will take an ever-larger role in protecting workers through a safety net, that they don’t starve when unemployed. It will nationalise key industries, it will tax the rich and redistribute the wealth through welfare. But monopolies will still dominate the private sector.
Effectively, this is slavery. For the worker is protected when unemployed but has entirely lost the ability to choose his employer, or even control his own life. To give an illustration of what this looks like in practice: there are post-industrial towns in Britain where the entire population is either on welfare or employed by a handful of giant corporations (small business having ceased to exist). To borrow from Theodore Dalrymple, the state controls everything about these people, from the house they inhabit to the school they attend. It gives them pocket-money to spend into the private sector dominated by monopolies, and if they want to work, they can only work for monopolists. They fear neither starvation nor a cold night, but they have entirely lost their freedom.
This long preamble has been to show how freedom is swapped for safety in economic terms. But I think there’s more to it. First, the safety may not be economic but emotional. Second, the person willing to enter this swindle must be of a peculiar mindset. He must not know even a glimmer of true independence, lest he fight for it. A dispossessed farmer, for example, who remembers his crops and livestock will fight to regain them. But a man born into a slum, and knowing only wage labour, will crave mere safety from unemployment. Those who don’t know autonomy don’t long for it.
There now exist a troop of companies that market childish goods for adult consumption. They typically do this in one of two ways. First, offering childish products to adults under the guise of nostalgia. The adult is encouraged to buy things reminding him of his childhood, with the promise that he will relive it. Childish media and products are given an adult spin, and remarketed. Toys are rebranded as collectibles. Children’s films get unnecessary, adult-oriented, sequels or remakes (what Bernardini calls “kidult movies”). Originally child-friendly festivals or theme parks are increasingly marketed to childless adults.
The second way is by infantilising adult products. Adverts, for example, have gradually replaced stereotypical busy office workers and exhausted housewives with frolicking kidults. No matter how trivial, every product that is not related to Christmas, is now surrounded by giddy, family-free people engaged in play. The message we’re meant to get is that the vacuum cleaner or stapler will free us to act like children. By buying these things, we can create time for the true business of life: bouncing and smiling with one’s mouth open.
I believe infantilism to be a kind of mental slavery. In both the above examples, three elements combine: ignorance and mass media channel anxiety into childishness. This childishness then binds the victim in servitude to masters who take away his freedom while robbing him in the literal sense.
An artificial ignorance created by modern education is the first parent of the man-child. Absent a proper and classical education, the kidult’s mind is an empty page. Lack of general knowledge separates him from the great achievements of civilisation. He cannot seek refuge in Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Dante, for he has never heard of these. He cannot draw strength from philosophy and religion for the same reason. Neither can he learn lessons from history, for the world begins only with his own birth. Here is a type of mental dispossession parallel to an economic one. Someone utterly ignorant of the answers great people have given to life’s questions will seek only safety, not wisdom.
The second parent is anxiety. Humans have always been terrified of the inevitable decay of their own bodies, followed by death. The wish for immortality is ancient. Yet the modern world, with its scepticism, creates a heightened anxiousness. When all authority and tradition has been deconstructed, there is no ideal for how people ought to live. Without this ideal, humans have no certainty about the future. Medieval people knew that whatever happened, knights fought, villeins worked, and churchmen prayed. Modern man’s world is literally whatever people make of it. It may be utterly transformed in a very short time. And this is anxiety-inducing to all but the most sheltered of philosophers.
Add to this the rise of a selfish culture. As Christopher Lasch tells us, the nineteenth century still carried (in a bastardised way) the ideal of self-sufficiency and virtue of the ancient man. Working and trading was still tied to one’s flourishing in society. Since 1960, as family and community have disintegrated, the industrialised world has degenerated into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”. A world of loneliness without parents and siblings; lacking true friends and lovers. When adulthood has become toxic and means to swim in a sea of disfunction, vulgarity, substance abuse and pornographic sexuality; it’s no surprise some may snap and long for a regression to childhood.
Mass media is the third condition. It floods the void where education and community used to be. The space where general knowledge isn’t, now gets stamped by fiction, corporate advertising, and state propaganda. These peddle in a mass of cliches, stereotypes, and recycled tropes.
My critique of kidults isn’t founded on “good old days” nostalgia, itself a product of media cliches. Fashions, customs, and culture change; and the citizen of today doesn’t have to be a joyless salaryman or housewife to count as an adult. Rather, the man-child phenomenon is a massive transfer of power away from the small and towards the large. The kidult is like an addict, hooked on feelings of cosy fun and nostalgia which are only provided by corporations. These feelings aren’t directed to the good of the kidult but the organisation acting as a dealer. The dealer controls the strength and frequency of the dose to get the wanted behaviour from the addict.
Now we see how kidults can be slaves. First, they’ve traded freedom for safety (false as it is) like Belloc’s proletarians made servile. Unlike the security of a traditional slave, this is an emotional illusion. The man-child believes that there’s safety in the stream of childish images offered to him. He believes that by consuming these the pain of life will cease. Yet man-children get no material or mental benefit from their infantilism. Indeed, they’re fast parted from their money, while getting no skills or virtues in return. The security is merely psychological: a Freudian age regression, but artificially created.
Second, while authority in Aristotle’s sense means to swap another’s judgement for your own, for the sake of a common good you understand; here you submit to another’s judgement for the sake of their private good, which you don’t understand. Organisations seeking only profit or power impose their ideas on the kidult, for their benefit. An immature adult pursues only pleasure, lives only for the present, and thinks only in frivolous stereotypes and cliches implanted during childhood. He’s thus in no position to understand the inner workings of companies and governments. He follows his passions like a sentient puppet obeying an invisible thread, leading always to a hand just out of sight.
In the poem London, William Blake talks about “mind-forg’d manacles”. These are the beliefs people have which constrain their lives in an invisible prison of sorts. For what we think possible or impossible guides our acting. Once mind-forg’d manacles are common to enough people, they form a culture (what’s a culture if not collective ideas on how one should act?). Secondhand childish banalities are such mind-forg’d manacles if we let them determine us wholly. Their “secondhand” nature means the forging has been done for us, and this makes them more insidious than ideas of our own creation. For if what I’ve said above is true, they threaten to make us servile. If enough people become dependent on secondhand childish banalities, as the boy who met Alec Guinness, then the whole culture becomes servile. Growing up may be painful, but it’s a duty to ourselves, that we remain free.
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By Daniel Evans — 1 year ago
You’re probably already baulking at the idea that there could be anything to learn from modern art. You’re not wrong that art and architecture today are often hideous, lazy, cheap, unconsidered, and, well, artless. It won’t help that I myself am still not completely concluded on what there is to learn. Alinskyite tactics of making the enemy live up to their own rules? Did Duchamp just encourage the wrong kind of person and end up making things worse? More on this later.
But there is something in modern art worth considering, it’s not a total waste, you must take wisdom wherever you can find it. There is so little wisdom going. You can’t afford to waste any. Your opponents in the progressives are powerful, rich, and vicious, in all senses of that word. Many, many, many are also group-thinking chasers of convention, out of touch, fearful, vain, and insecure. They don’t believe in the truth, something eternal, irrespective of them, they believe in their truth, as if it emanates from themselves. A pretentious way of saying they want to express their feelings? Perhaps. But truth for them is decided by consensus and fitting in. Yup, that’s
the art sceneprogressives for you.
That’s good, that’s a massive weakness. How do you exploit it? How do you handle these people? It’s risky, but people who stand out, do not follow the crowd, have the self-confidence to go their own way, and the actual knowledge and mastery to do it competently, are cool. A big part of what
the art sceneprogressives want to do is fit in and be cool. The risk is that what’s cool, or even just true, for them is decided by consensus, not reality.
Art, religion, politics, Rob Henderson’s luxury beliefs. What’s the overlap and what can you learn from one to the other? Dismiss all of modern art, if you like, but at least keep one artist. So much which comes after him is basically derivative and misses the point. Let’s follow a master, see what he did and why, and draw out the lessons. You too will make progressives clutch their pearls and faint, or pop their monocles, and exclaim “harumph, why, that is most unorthodox!”
Marcel Duchamp. He is exactly the right kind of figure to look at. Where to start exactly?
Marcel Duchamp is a tricky sort. You could say he was a total troll and he would often go out of his way to obfuscate history by making things up when asked about his work. He was a bit of a prankster, and he liked tinkering with all the new mediums of his day. He was unpredictable.
And modern art. Where to start exactly with that? Not all contemporary art is synonymous with modern art. If that’s not quite difficult enough, it’s not fair to describe all modern art as crap. At least you might concede it’s not all crap in precisely the same way. It’s a low standard, but a place for you to start.
It’s kind of like memes. They’re often highly context dependent, assume some level of preceding knowledge, are trying to say something to the person who sees them, and some memes are better than others.
Similarly, Duchamp is a man of his time. He was clearly interested in technology, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s around at the time of the wireless, new elements and other discoveries coming out of Marie Curie’s laboratory, the invention of cinema, and x-rays. New materials, new mediums, new ways of getting a different insight into the world around you. New ways of thinking. In physics and mathematics Einstein displaces Newton, non-Euclidean geometry bursts forward, the first thoughts about different dimensions. And it’s all happening around WWI, the ends of empires, the international rise of America, and the replacement of Europe’s monarchies.
What is analogous to any of this today? The internet, AI, social media, NFTs, space? New possibilities, new technology, new materials, new politics, it forces people to question things.
Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2
Duchamp’s first important piece: Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, an example of cubism, with caveats, because it upset some people.
Some context. Let’s quickly look at the Italian futurists in the 1910s, which started with Marinetti.
The futurists were pretty hard core right wingers (Marinetti co-wrote Il manifesto dei fasci italiani di combattimento), who were obsessed with technology and machinery. They wanted to scrap museums, libraries, forget the past, in favour of a world dedicated to speed, and strength, and the future. Is this what made the trains run on time? Anyway, artistically, they were interested in capturing energy and motion in two dimensions. And it was looking to have something to say. What a lot of people don’t fully appreciate about modern art (you were warned this would get pretentious), is that it involves audience participation. If you’re saying “WTF am I looking at here?”, you are saying a response to the piece.
Before modern art, you have realistic art. Actually, realism, which is what it sounds like. Technology by the 1910s keeps getting more and more advanced, and you have more cameras, and photos, and films, at the time artists were beginning to question the point of a realistic painting. Modern artists were rising to that challenge.
Whether it’s futurists, or dadaists, or surrealists, which all emerge around this time, they’re trying to deal with the paradigm shifts of their day. What are the artists of today up to? How many of them are energised and engaged with the paradigm shifts of our day?
The point is, a lot of art, especially modern art, is contextual, just like a lot of culture, whether it’s stories or music, movies, etc. to fully appreciate its impact you really have to be there and part of it. This goes beyond art, well into politics. How do you explain the world pre and post 9/11 to those who weren’t there? The New Atheism movement made more sense in the face of religious extremism, whether that was muslims like bin Laden or evangelicals like Bush.
Modern art emerges amid two world wars, and the blossoming of progressive democracy and its three fruits; communism, facism, and liberalism.
The futurists believed that war is the world’s only moral hygiene, a chance to start anew, that art gets shifted into the new world it brings forth. And then rather a lot of them died in WWI and that was more or less that.
Now, here comes a particularly important thing. A bunch of these art movements would come with manifestos. That is, instructions for how art is and isn’t supposed to be. Rules for what you could and couldn’t express and in what way. The simultaneous scrapping of the past, obsession with what’s new, a certain reverence for violence and domination, and replacement with a new hierarchy. No rules, and also rules, and lots of angry people. Does that sound familiar to you at all, duckies? Have progressives been the same for a hundred years, maybe more?
Well, when art comes with rules, and particularly about what it is supposed to say to people, that is almost certainly propaganda. Oscar Wilde might have had something to say against this (The Picture of Dorian Gray), or Kim Il Sung in favour, as Juche art is supposed to carry a moral, political element to it.
Can we forgive the futurists? They were working before the full, crushing horror of the progressive 20th Century.
Anyway, Duchamp’s Nude changes the art movement of his time, challenges it, mocks it. The full saga of the Nude takes place over a couple of years. He presents it at the pretentiously named (the progressives are all very self-congratulatory aren’t they?) Salon des Indépendants where the cubists reject it. Remember that art is supposed to be full of rules? Cubism is supposed to be about multiple dimensions portrayed simultaneously. Futurism is supposed to be about motion. The Nude is both. Oh no, what a disaster! Most unorthodox!
So, in 1912 some exhibits were supposed to happen at the Salon des Indépendants. The futurists came first, that was all lovely, and the cubists were supposed to come after. Some of the smaller cubists came together to do their own thing and have an “art movement”. Duchamp was having none of it.
The first thing the cubists had a problem with was the title, but Duchamp puts the title right in the painting, so it can’t be hidden, removed, changed, disguised. Total troll. He’s also trying to play with language. It was originally titled “Nu descendant l’escalier” in the literature, and “Nu” is ambiguously male. Worse still, nudes are supposed to be painted lying down, like one of your French girls. Nudes aren’t supposed to be descending stairs. What’s more, the only place naked women were likely to be descending stairs in Paris was at brothels or Mallard Chairman Jake Scott’s mum’s house.
All round, the hanging committee (not as ominous as it sounds) for the exhibit were totally scandalised. Have a look at the painting again. Yup. Duchamp was told to change it, the title was wrong, the painting was too futurist, too Italian, just no good, so he left and removed himself from the show. Something similar then gets repeated in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York.
So much for artists being open-minded or intellectual. Then again, are you surprised that there’s a lot of snobby arseholes in the art world who get bitchy?
Still, Duchamp had the last laugh. Who else out of the cubists exhibited at the Salon is remembered as well today? In Duchamp’s own time, at the Armory, the next year, he was peer level with Picasso as a cubist, and other artists such as Matisse, Delauney, Kandinsky, Rodin, Renoir, and others.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
Alright, so where can Duchamp go from here? His next piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, is an even further descent into top notch trolling.
Duchamp really wanted to get into the idea of the fourth dimension with Bride, in the geometric, not temporal sense.
In three dimensions, you can imagine a point within a three dimensional cube and create a coordinate for it along width, height, and depth. A fourth dimensional point would sit in relation to all three of those – it might be like if you could see all sides of the cube and its inside at the same time. And if this four dimensional shape could cast a shadow, it would be a three dimensional shadow, just like a three dimensional object casts a two dimensional shadow on a wall, for example.
The idea was that if you could put three dimensional reality into two dimensions in a painting, what is a three dimensional piece a step down from? You can’t seem to make it real, exactly, so you have to sort of imagine it instead. Can you imagine a tesseract, the fourth dimensional equivalent of a cube? Here’s a representation of the concept.
For a two dimensional painting, it should come very naturally to you to understand what three dimensional object or scene it represents. For any of you duckies who have spent time thinking about non-Euclidean geometry, perhaps Bride might come a bit easier to you.
Or not. But it’s a commendable attempt at trying something new from Duchamp.
So, yes, you will definitely look at it and think WTF is this, but this is very much by design. Though he started the piece in 1915, and it would go on exhibit 12 years later in 1927, he would later publish notes in 1934 as an accompaniment. He did not want a purely visual response.
How did this take him so long to complete, you ask? His patrons said they’d pay his rent until he finished.
Now, at this point you’re probably asking a very justified question. How much is Duchamp really just a bullshit artist? Well, that’s a kind of art too. He’s at least a little funny, a little clever, and a little daring. Can the same be said for progressives?
Duchamp at this point is experimenting. He’s playing with chance. Art is usually done very deliberately, but is it possible to create something through other methods? Are you limited in your materials? Is it possible to use abstract concepts themselves to make something? Is it sometimes more interesting to achieve something that you didn’t exactly set out to do?
There are a few replicas of Bride. The original in Philadelphia is broken, it broke on its way to the original exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The ones in Sweden and Tokyo are not broken, and are a different experience. They’re also all getting a bit worse for wear. Duchamp didn’t necessarily make things to last. That wasn’t important. His personality itself is perhaps more the figure, more the legacy, than any of his works.
Disposability and personality? He would have been perfect in today’s world of memes, social media, and reality TV. Self-belief, showmanship, fake it til you make it, bullshit artistry. Politicians are memed into success these days. This kind of chaos, flexibility, fun, unpredictability, is not open to the progressives. They have a hegemony to conserve. You have a hegemony to subvert.
You could do worse than to learn from Duchamp.
Oh boy. Duckies, if I haven’t lost you already, this one might do it.
Duchamp is in America at this point. America, unlike Europe, has no real history at this time. Plus ça change. (French. You were warned this would get pretentious). Are there lessons to learn here about the internet and the internet generations? Not sure, perhaps you can think about that one.
Anyway, a lot of artists go to America because of the war and Duchamp is asked to run a show. The New York art scene wants to replicate the show Duchamp’s Nude was kicked out of. The Americans want to have a go at their own Independence. How derivative. So, two of the conditions for the show was that there was to be no jury and no prize. It’s like the Oscars. There are no winners. “And the award goes to…”. You can’t have winners. That would imply some people are better than others. No, jury, no prize, nothing is better than anyone else, but it’s still a selective hoighty toighty art show. All the artists who kicked Duchamp out of the 1912 exhibit will be there. Duchamp detects an opportunity.
He takes a urinal, signs it R Mutt and, sure enough, it is kicked out of the show. But it gets photographed.
Duchamp is making another mockery, running another test here. Why can’t a nude descend a staircase? Who made these rules? Who makes art rules? A lot of the audience had never even seen a urinal before, which makes it even funnier.
Duchamp is working with context. Everyone sees a toilet every day. Even prissy art snobs. You can’t look at one in an art exhibit? Why exactly? It’s extreme, sure, and you wouldn’t be impressed with it, duckies, but you’re not pretending to be progressive and egalitarian and open and free or whatever. Duchamp puts a toilet right in the middle of a fancy shmancy art show for all the people who are up themselves for reasons they don’t understand and they lose their minds.
And to this day, people are still debating whether it’s art. In today’s digital economy, when so much is abstracted – social interaction, work from home, shopping, entertainment, etc, – this debate is as relevant as ever.
Really this is about the governing classes, who today are the progressives. If you don’t understand three things by now, you really ought to. First, the ruling class don’t care about the rules in the same way many of the governed do, because they make them, know why they’re there, and what they’re trying to do with them, for power. Second, a lot of the governed really don’t know why their rules are there, but follow them anyway, for many reasons, and only care about the rules at the surface level. Third, a big chunk of the middle class gets up itself precisely because they’re not in the ruling class, are close enough to sniff it, can see it, want it, but aren’t truly in it, and don’t fully understand it.
The most important thing about Fountain is that Duchamp has a sense of humour. It’s even funnier that there was only one photo at the time, the Fountain now is just a replica, and nobody has even seen the original for 50 years. We don’t actually know if Duchamp was making everything up.
Duchamp used to make stuff up in TV interviews. Performance artist? Certainly an early iteration of it. It’s not just enough to subvert the progressives in your work.
You must live it.
Well, one in particular. L.H.O.O.Q., which is basically a meme.
The readymades were more or less mass manufactured products which Duchamp sort of took, made a few alterations to, and declared pieces. Yup, that’s a meme. Fair use!
L.H.O.O.Q. is a picture of the Mona Lisa with a moustache and goatee drawn on. Factory produced graffiti? This is 40 years before Warhol, and how long before Banksy? L.H.O.O.Q. was only possible because of advances in technology.
The readymades are a tension between art and not art (pretentiousness continued) – you can go to a museum, look at an exhibit with a urinal set with a sign saying “do not touch” then go into the bathroom and do rather a lot more than touch. The question for you is why is one thing there and not the other? The Mona Lisa (the real one) is there because it obviously should be there?
The answer is “yes”, btw.
Duchamp here is mocking style, taste, and aesthetics, he’s asking questions about reverence, perhaps even worship, but Duckies, don’t rankle. Duchamp is forcing the protection of what’s valuable, of what’s genuinely accomplished and beautiful. There is something to defend in the rules set around beauty conventions. Just not the progressive ones where the rule is that there are no rules, but there are rules, and they’re the ones who control them. If there’s one thing you should recognise about progressives it’s that they don’t exactly care what they’re telling you to do as much as they care that they are the ones telling you to do it.
Duckies, don’t rankle at Duchamp attacking hierarchies in art. This is good when the hierarchy is intolerably corrupt. Duckies, you are against the status quo.
Duchamp basically agrees with the audience that trash is not really art.
If the 20th Century was about the great democratisation of technology, and all the chaos and opportunity that it brought (Twitter?), perhaps the 21st Century can be about the great ordering of technology with stable command. (Twitter + Elon?).
The last piece Duchamp does is Étant donnés. It’s a great big installation piece now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You could be forgiven for missing the most important part. It’s only visible through two peepholes in a door. And what you see looks like this. A nude, reclined against a landscape backdrop, what you might call a “real painting”, a real life piece, not readymade crap.
Duchamp kept this a secret between two girlfriends and his wife, only revealing the work after his death, and 25 years after he had apparently retired from art to play competitive chess.
Is this what Duchamp believed about art all along?
Duckies, relax, keep yourself in check, and stay cool. Let people enjoy themselves. There’s no real need to get snobby about other people’s tastes.
But also know your own. Do your thing. Let the progressives get on with theirs. They have all sorts of rules and ideas and it’s all built on sand. #Walkway? Disengage, do your own thing. They can do their thing. You’re going to do something cool that doesn’t care about their rules. In turn, your thing will show up theirs, passively. Show, don’t tell. Let them be ridiculous by comparison. Let it come naturally and not because you’ve driven them there.
Or maybe it’s all a load of rubbish? Duchamp used elements of luck as his materials in creating Bride. Jackson Pollock still came along as if he was doing something new with his drip period 20 years after. Andy Warhol still came along 40 years later with his prints as if the readymades hadn’t basically done the same thing before. And contemporary art keeps going.
Duchamp didn’t make anyone realise how ridiculous they were.
Did you just read this entire piece for nothing?
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