Results tagged “aesthetics” from Reformation21 Blog

The Aesthetics of Tolerance


A number of years ago, I had occasion to fly to Korea via San Francisco. Flying across the US on a clear day is one of those rare pleasures which really allows you to get the geographical measure of the place: how flat much of the country is; how the snow-capped Rockies push the land upwards towards the sky in a sudden and dramatic fashion; and just how vast the continent is. Coming from a land which can be traversed end to end in a car in just about twelve hours, I find the distance from Atlantic to Pacific almost as incomprehensible as the electability of American politicians.

There is something even more astounding about flight, that is that so many travelers pull down the blinds when in the air; indeed, they are often requested to do so, lest the sunlight interfere with the enjoyment of the in-flight entertainment: do they not realize they are getting as part of the flight a vision of the US, indeed, of the world in general, which could only be dreamed of by human beings up until the last century? Neither Alexander the Great, Charlemagne nor Napoleon, for all of their might, wealth and power, had the privilege of such a view; and yet my fellow passengers sat there and squandered it, watching movies or reading US Weekly, oblivious to the near-miraculous aesthetic beauty which flight provides for us.

Yet the sight that most struck me was that which appeared as I left San Francisco: the disused island prison of Alcatraz. Situated in the middle of the bay, this prison was famously impervious to escape, strong tides guaranteeing a Pacific grave for anyone foolhardy enough to try to get out. I confess, it did give rise to some sinful thoughts about where Derek Thomas's Ref 21 office could be usefully relocated; certainly, it struck me as just as aesthetically impressive as pictures I have seen of Bayreuth; and I'm sure we could arrange an internet connection and reasonable visiting hours.

But there is more to Alcatraz than the fact it is America's most famous former prison. It has also over the years provided the setting for a number of good movies: for example, Burt Lancaster (possibly my favourite actor) played Robert Stroud in The Birdman of Alcatraz, a somewhat rose-tinted story of a convicted murderer's redemption through caring for birds; and, in a different vein, Clint Eastwood's action-filled thought somewhat unimaginatively entitled, Escape from Alcatraz. Yet the film which I most associate with the island penitentiary is (for me) the ultimate 60s flick, Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, Keenan Wynn, and the beautiful Angie Dickinson (who, pop-culture vultures like Derek Thomas will no doubt tell you, was once Mrs Burt `Do you know the way to San Jose?' Bacharach).

Point Blank is not a nice film. Far, far from it. It begins and ends on Alcatraz (already abandoned by the film's start), where Walker (played by Marvin) is double-crossed relative to a big money heist. The movie then follows Walker as he hunts down and kills the men who have betrayed him, his constant refrain being `I just want my money!' From hurling one man over a penthouse balcony to interrogating another while smashing a car to pieces between concrete pillars, the film is choreographed violence from start to finish. The granite-faced Marvin, a World War II veteran who had as a soldier killed in real life, is utterly convincing as Walker - not a man one would wish to doublecross. Yet what is even more striking is the complete amorality of the plot: Walker lives in a world where life really has no value and no meaning, and violence is as much part of the daily ritual as eating or sleeping. At least, one might say that the plot is amoral in the usual sense of the word.

Of course, not all will agree. For example, I can imagine a Marxist rather prosaically arguing that the movie does reflect, in an extreme the form, the morality of money. Walker `just wants his money;' and, with that as a given, the violence is entirely justified. Money is the ultimate fetish and, when it is set up as the only norm, it dehumanizes men and women and makes all moral judgments negotiable. This may have been the intention of the director, I don't know; but I would argue that the effect of the movie, especially when set in the wider cultural context, is not to preach Marxism but to make the move from the morality of law to the morality of aesthetics. It is not Marx but Nietzsche who offers a better explanation for Point Blank. Walker is beyond good and evil; and his values merely a matter of taste.

To explain: the choreographing of the violence combines with the laconic ambience of Walker's character to create a film where moral judgments are really suspended through an aesthetic of ruthless and violent cool. A similar thing is discernible in the fate of the Western during the sixties. In the fifties, classics such as The Naked Spur, Shane and The Searchers certainly contained their violence; but it was violence which always served the larger cause of redemption, whether of the community (as in Shane) or the individual, as in the figure of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Indeed, the great Gaelic poet (and, if I can name-drop, cousin of my wife) Iain Crichton Smith captured this when he wrote his wonderful elegy to Shane:

He stands by the fence
Undazzled yet alert, expecting evil
As natural as sunlight. Yet with what grief he goes
To find his guns again, to relearn his quickness.

The reluctant acknowledgment of the need for violence to defeat inevitable evil, the `man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' mentality, is what drives the great Westerns of the fifties; and it necessarily, even assumes a basic moral code, even while it presents flawed heroes, which transcends the events of the movie itself. Indeed, the violence of such Westerns can only be redemptive in such circumstances because it is more than a mere aesthetic.

When one moves to the mid-sixties, however, the great Westerns, whether those of Peckinpah or Leone, generally reduce the Western to the realm of iconic violence, of extremely cool but dangerous characters who create their own morality and who frequently triumph because they play the game in a dirtier, nastier way than their enemies. Yet such characters have become iconic; indeed, I have a still of Eastwood as Manco in For a Few Dollars More on my own office door (incidentally, only a Spaghetti-Western lightweight ever believed that Eastwood had no name in the Leone trilogy). Why do I have it there? Not because Manco represents my lifestyle; after all, I am not (despite rumours to the contrary) a ruthless and cold-hearted killer; rather it is a sad and pathetic attempt to look cool, to participate, albeit vicariously, in the aesthetic of the Spaghetti Western.

This leads to my central point: postmodernism is constantly heralded as, among other things, a `linguistic turn.' Certainly, many streams of this disparate collection of philosophies have made language into a virtual fetish, investing it with an omnipotent grip upon humanity such that it is both the substance and the limits of reality. A cage, I think, was how Wittgenstein described it. Yet I find myself attracted by Terry Eagleton's argument that what is often called postmodernism is not, ultimately, a linguistic turn but rather an aesthetic turn; it represents not so much the retreat to a linguistic cage as the triumph and absolutisation of the aesthetics of modernity. To put it less pretentiously, it's all about style, rather than substance; indeed, style is now the only substance that matters.

Point Blank represents this move superbly: the cool of Walker is beyond good and evil. Hard-bitten psychopath that he is, he is yet the sympathetic hero of the movie, the one the audience hopes will finally `get his money.' It is the same with Manco in For a Few Dollars More and Pike in The Wild Bunch - violent men, removed from any traditional moral framework, whose austere cool persona provides the only criterion for judging whether they are heroes or villains.

In movies, of course, it is harmless. But the aesthetic turn has impacted wider society as well. In a 1984 essay, `Jerry Lee Lewis: the Killer', respected rock critic Mikal Gilmore pointed to the wreckage of Lewis's personal life (including the mysterious death of Lewis' fifth wife) and asked whether the romanticizing of rock's violent side created a situation where `a roughhouse aesthetic and mean eyed stance seem to take on matchless and inevitable value.' In Lewis's case (and even more famously in that of Sid Vicious), this meant that his reputation survived - maybe was even enhanced by - the most depraved of actions. The public ended up not only excusing but even perversely admiring the darker side of their popular idols. After all, only a liar would deny that violence can be fun; many rock stars, films such as Point Blank and the many purveyors of violent cool since have all capitalized on precisely that fact and generally made a lot more money than I ever will; and the aesthetic turn which so much of modern culture represents has supplanted the moral frameworks by which such can be critiqued.

This aesthetic turn is, I think, a more adequate way of understanding modern society than all the huff and puff about linguistics. This concept allows us to do justice to the increasing importance of the visual in our culture, as driven by movies, TV and internet. It explains the propensity of many in the self-proclaimed cultural vanguard to stick the shibbolethic epithet `post-' in front of everything, signaling their trendiness not by argument but by preening and pretentious verbal packaging which hides the vacuous nature of their tragicomic inanity like some piece of gaudy wrapping paper around an empty shoebox. It also allows us to make some sense of the obsession with pampered and pointless celebrities who live lives of gross over-indulgence and yet whose lives are an obsessive focus of public interest and whose views on everything from interior decorating to the World Bank are sought even by those who should know better. Who cares if such-and-such star is a drug-dependent whacko; he's a good-looking star and must have something to say of relevance on any given topic.

Yet it cuts close to home as well, even or perhaps especially among those who pride themselves for their love of peace and tolerance. After all, the aesthetic turn does not necessarily involve violence, only the controlling role of style over substance. In a Yin-Yang balance, it can also manifest itself in terms of an uncritical tolerance. `Never mind the arguments, watch the tone' is a virtual mantra in all areas of Western society. It is, of course, a devious argument: most would agree that we need to be careful about how we say what we say; but when the only arguments put forward relate to tone, then we witness the aesthetic turn once again transforming the moral framework and evacuating discussion and debate of any real content.

This is where the final irony of all the talk about `tone' lies: whether we are dealing with violence or with tolerance, the downgrading of any moral framework within which these aesthetic concepts can operate creates a kind of substantial nihilism and serves not so much to set the tone of any ensuing discussion as to rule substantive intellectual engagement out of bounds from the very start. In Point Blank, Walker was at least honest: he wanted his money and did not care how he got it; I suspect the modern apostles of tolerance have somewhat less integrity. By playing the aesthetic `tone and tolerance' card they are, ironically, the most duplicitously intellectually violent of all.

*This post was first published as an article at Reformation21 in May of 2006.

Truth in Minor Keys


At the risk of being labeled a musical snob, I venture a comment or two on one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year--Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975). He is to music what Alexander Solzhenitsyn is to Soviet literature. Finding early success with an internationally received symphony (No. 1) at 19, his career fell foul of accepted standards ten years later when Pravda severely criticized his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Thereby began twenty years of artistry aimed ostensibly at pacifying the communist regime and Stalin in particular, but now understood as filled with subtlety and irony. The War Symphonies"--Symphonies Four through Nine (he wrote fifteen in all) delve into the harrowing subject of Stalin's bloody purge on Russia and Shostakovich's musical counterattack. The fourth had to wait twenty-five years for it to be played fearing that its form would bring further criticism.

These symphonies, written between 1936 and 1945, are the composer's weapons against Stalin's rampant bloodletting. Shostakovich called them, his "tombstones." Of these six symphonies, the Fifth is the best known and the most easily accessible. I heard a live performance of it when I was a teenager. My physics teacher, who introduced me to the twentieth century music of Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich, gave me tickets to hear the Halle orchestra play in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth, Wales. The breathtaking ending of the symphony, a sustained pulsing energy rising to a climactic finish is guaranteed to excite even the near-comatose!

The Year 1905

The seventh is epic in proportion describing the siege of Leningrad. It is the eighth that is the most harrowing--the most graphic musical depiction of war that I know. Nothing can be compared to the metallic sound Shostakovich creates. My favorite Shostakovich symphony is the eleventh, describing another memorable year in Soviet history, "The Year 1905." It begins quietly and hauntingly mesmeric and ends in a blaze of mechanical intensity. In between come some of the most vividly brutal passages of music I know, music that evokes the horrors of war and death, of political regimes that bully artists into an arbitrary mold.

What makes great art is difficult to define at the best of times.

We might be forgiven after a quick reading of the New Testament to conclude that Paul was culturally grey! Paul's concern for unity and equality in Christ--the Galatians 3:28 point-of-view of there being neither Jew nor Greek...for we are all one in Christ--seems to be a cultural bulldozer, leveling all considerations of ethnic, civilizing distinctiveness so beloved by novelists, the BBC and cultural aficionados.

Paul and culture

One might think Paul was as content to eat porridge as haut cuisine. The gospel is the great leveler. It shows no interest at all in whether I'm "Essex man" or a son of Glyndwr, of whether I studied at a comprehensive in Lampeter or Eton college, or if I have an identifiable accent that is redolent of sophistication or conjures up thoughts of plebeian roots. But, as these exchanges show all too clearly, being a Christian does not erase all identity markers (English, Welsh, Laplander) any more that Paul's insistence that there is "neither male nor female" reduce us all to androgynous beings (despite a clearly discernible trend to do just that in our modern world). Vive la difference.

Paul can, however, discern what is true and honorable and lovely and excellent (Phil. 4:8) which makes one think that it is right to speak of arts and fine arts. We recognize them instinctively and put greater value (lasting value) on the poetry of Dante, Donne, Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, Eliot, and the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Bruckner, or the writings of Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Defoe, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. But what we have done is singled out artists with Christian leanings one way or another and there's nothing (or so it seems to me) that suggests that good art only comes from the minds and emotions of Christians.

On the contrary Christians are capable of appallingly bad judgments and poorly expressed artistic productions. Deliver us from the tyranny that suggests "Christian" art is good, "Non-Christian" art is bad. Who knows what we mean when we apply such labels. For good or ill (and it is often more ill than good), the doctrine of common grace frees us into perceiving "the good" (the noble, the enduring) in Mozart or Debussy, John Lennon, or Eric Clapton. It always catches me off-guard when I read Kuyper's tirade against the music of Claude Debussy (in the "Lectures on Calvinism"), as though impressionism were redolent of all that is wrong with the modern world! It is easy so why someone might make that case (the lack of clarity suggesting moral uncertainty, or something of the kind). But it is breathtakingly naïve. I remember listening to a lecture/sermon once given by a renowned twentieth century preacher (now deceased) in which he argued that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was "Christian" on the basis that it contained no discord. The idea of harmony suggested gospel creation as it should be, as God intended, and elements of discord suggested sin. The nonsense of such an analysis need not detain us now, but something of the same finds its way into many a Christian discussion where arbitrary factors suggest more or less Christian ideas.

Sarcasm and grotesquery

Listening to Shostakovich's symphonies is not easy to do, wrapped as his music is in emotional baggage that can quite literally drain the life away. As one reviewer said following a series of concerts given recently in commemoration of Shostakovich's centenary in which all his symphonies were played: "he wrote works in which sarcasm and grotesquery are hard to separate from nobility and pathos, base materials difficult to tell from the sublime; and the more keenly he felt political pressure -- Stalin's dirty thumb -- the more assiduously he doubled his meanings, put in jokes and let irony engulf all. His harmonies can be absurdly pert, his rhythms merely capricious and his melodies are more like deceptive simulacrums of a tune than the thing itself. One can feel it is only the architectonic aspect of composing that for him is not debased" (Paul Driver, "Maddened in Manchester" The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006).

Not all of Shostakovich's music is good. It can occasionally sound quite banal. Nor should we think of him as a hero of the dissident movement against socialist realism. He was a loyal patriot and Presidium member during the Brezhnev era. His struggles are just as much with himself as with Stalin's oppressive regime. He writes a mea culpato Stalin in the Tenth Symphony. And he dies wearing all his State medals. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich went on to create one of his most important works - Symphony No. 13, Babi-Yar, for bass, bass chorus and orchestra. Written in 1962, this devastating critique of the Soviet system is based on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was the Khrushchev era and many had envisioned a different era had arrived rather than the Cold War which ensued.

Felix culpa!

Something essentially biblical and puritan emerges in Shostakovich: a sense of the brutality of this world. There is nothing saccharin about Shostakovich. Socialist realism was not an issue to trifle with. Life is hard and unrelentingly hostile to those whose point of view differs from the establishment. Like the puritans whose conscience forbade them the luxury of conformity, Shostakovich (while seeming to comply) wrote in irony much the same way as one imagines John did in writing the Apocalypse.

Out of the most brutal circumstance extraordinary good can emerge. Great literature, great art, great music! And therein lies a great lesson that the Bible reinforces again and again. That spiritual growth and vitality--the best things we ever do and say, emerge from the crucible of suffering and trial. The puritans knew this lesson well and often preached and wrote about it. Wrote John Geree, a seventeenth century English puritan, in his tract "The Character of an Old English Puritane or Noncomformist (1646)": "His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui patitur[he who suffers conquers]."

"Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice" C. S. Lewis wrote, and Christians of the past were not afraid to be reminded of it so long as it drew to live out-and-out for God as a consequence. I've no idea where Shostakovich stood spiritually, but his music reminds me of the frailty of this life and the need to live for Christ in a brutal, fallen world.

North American Christianity anesthetizes itself with promises of ease and comfort for the faithful. Too much Christianity is concerned with personal pleasure where soothing syrup from preachers mollycoddles over-indulged Christians to expect the wrong things. Instead of preparing them for battle against the world, the flesh and evil, they are hoodwinked into the belief that pain and deprivation are the greatest obstacles to Christian vitality and growth. Nothing could be further from the truth: God tries us "in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10).

James MacMillan, one of today's leading Scottish composers, said back in the year 2000 (at a twenty-fifth commemoration of Shostakovich's death) referred to Shostakovich as "the public atheist who provides us with a scorching vision of the human soul." Pointing to the composer's "extraordinary double vision," MacMillan outlined a music that simultaneously embraces "the lyric and the grotesque, joy and irony, hope and despair; a music which holds a mirror up to the human condition" (See, Michael Tumelty, "At last, the score is settled" in Glasgow Herald October 30, 2000). Like the music of Shostakovich, some truths can only be heard in minor keys.

*This post was originally published at Ref21 in September of 2005.