36. Mass Culture and the Crisis of European Civilization
by Culture and Anti Culture
(For context see Post 1)
A Day at the Vatican Museum – A Day in Hell
The museum is, in part, a sort of huge sausage factory. Already somewhat stale meat (tired, harassed human beings) enter at one end and, relieved of a significant sum of euros, are processed en masse through a vast labyrinth of halls, corridors, and stairways.
For an honest person, the resemblance to industrialized cattle herding is irresistible. The attractions are the innumerable aesthetic objects displayed, culminating in the Sistine Chapel, where densely-packed, noisy, milling hordes are harangued by guards shouting, “NO FLASH” at frequent intervals.
It is obviously not the case that no good can come from visiting the Vatican Museum, but the display of artifacts – whose purpose was to depict and inspire the higher creative life of mankind – in this unutterably vulgar fashion, is terribly destructive. It might be called hyper-Philistine: art as mass spectacle and trophy, as souvenir trinket. Throughout Europe and the world, as at the Vatican, one sees the industrialization of the cultural life.
We can think of all true and great art as essentially devotional objects, whether they are religious or not – as aids for inspiration to higher states of mind. The purpose of the higher life of humanity is to transcend and transform our instinctive, unfree, animal nature, and give expression to the free human individuality. As such, great art can have a higher ethical influence on the way people live together. Throughout history, artistic representation has affected the moral and ethical development of society. A great painting, for example, is a new creation out of nothing, out of the inner being of the individual artist. The experience of aesthetic forces, the ideas embodied by the artist, are then ideally re-experienced by the beholder. As we have argued before, there is a fundamental relationship between aesthetic and moral forces. Thus great art contributes to the picture people have of what the world is or may be, of what it is to be a human being.
The era of Classical Greece, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Movement played a vital role in the progress of Europe towards social democracy. Contrary to the tendency to associate Europe with evils like slavery and colonialism, it has also been the carrier of ideals of individual human rights and the free human being (a peasant having as much intrinsic value as a moneyed aristocrat). Europe, primarily Western and Middle, came to believe in a common humanity based on the primacy of the human individual.
Both in Renaissance Florence and Classical Athens, the central political ideal was that of the free creative citizen. Not solely a warrior, tradesman, or farmer, a citizen had a higher vocation as a human being: in Greece it was to aspire to arete – to grace, excellence and virtue of body and intellect. How much their art was a reflection of this ideal or a stimulus is hard to say, but art, poetry, and literature are potent forces in the formation of a person’s character. These artifacts endowed people with a sense of their own urbanity and a certain kind of dignity.
You could say that public painting, sculpture, and architecture in the ancient world were there for mass consumption, but the population was much smaller and people lived in the daily presence of that art. In Athens, for example, it was not just part of the interior of their houses, but of their entire milieu – Athens itself was a work of art. Private spaces were small and unassuming, but the finest artistic expression was sought out for public spaces.
Temple of Athena-Delphi
The art that was part of this evolution of culture, instead of being made available to people in a form more suitable to contemplation, is now imprisoned and exhibited for crude mass consumption. To the sensitive eye, there is a hostile and destructive relationship between the all-permeating technical culture, driven by greed, and the human individuality. This mass anti-culture has preempted and suppressed the guiding, inspiring effects of great art in the contemporary world.
European social democracy emerged from the cultural ideals of the past, but is no longer sufficiently inspired by them to defend itself from concentrated financial power. Europe, unlike the U.S., has resisted the dominating effects of money to the extent of having social health, justice, and solidarity hold their ground, until recently.
The Europeans are being Americanized, that is, organized rationally, spiritlessly and soullessly. The great artistic repositories of the past are being run by public relations types, that is, Philistines; and already there is, in the case of Greece, talk of privatizing cultural sites in return for so-called bailouts. However inevitable this post-modern predicament, social reform will not go far unless the impulses which lead to great art are liberated, and can lend their forces to social renewal.
Are great social movements possible without the accompanying forces of the arts?