The Work of Beauty
Artists should reject the demolition brigade that has dominated the artistic fields in the last century.
All is well in my home. The sun shines unremittingly on the southern California coast and the palm trees sway like a trick of hypnosis. I order a double gauze dress from a small e-commerce store. I boil water for tea. I make travel plans and pay a bill. I am content.
Still, a dystopian hum lingers in the peripheral white noise. This soundtrack of my postmodern life threatens to drown out the peace. Eliot’s The Wasteland thrusts into my mind almost by now as a habit, and the prophetic rubble of Wall-E belligerently haunts my imagination. On a hill untouched by the advent of our apocalypse, working at the chirpy pace of a tech startup company client I love, I pretend we are in normal times.
I then wonder if my money will be worth anything tomorrow and if I should buy a small plot of swampy land in Arkansas. I ponder if carrots are hard to grow. I contemplate for a moment the growing list of songs I compulsively write for Armageddon stashed away on dusty hard drives.
Thoughts like these constantly alternate their way through my brain: the mundane and the extreme coexisting in relative harmony. I am aware of something unnatural at work, and the striking strangeness of this period of history.
There’s something clinical and removed about the slow-motion collapse of our times; the strange surround-sound cinematic experience of catastrophe via every digital corner within the screens that have become our worlds. It is easy to oscillate between denial and fear; most people of sense are dominated by one or the other. On the other hand, those given over to the zeitgeist rejoice in ruin while embracing the carnage of nihilism and despair.
But I am an artist, and the artist’s task is, without undue flinching, to see things and to face things and to explore things and, finally, to mold things. The true artist’s craft often involves catharsis and processing on behalf of a population that rarely performs this critical task for itself, perhaps now less frequently than ever. And there is much of that dystopian hum soundtrack to churn through.
There is need, too, of uncomplicated artistic works of simple joy and the reflections of the beauty that persists in spite of man’s worst crimes and devastations. I do not mean to diminish these. But the principle holds; without the processing of suffering, real joy or even real seeing is often elusive, and therefore quickly replaced by the bad mimicry of the sentimental. We do well to heed this.
One of the great skills of any artist of merit is thus to regularly take humble raw matter and the often obliterating experience of human suffering and turn these, in her respective medium, into strains not of destruction or sentimentality, but of sober hope, prophetic clarity, and, perhaps, comedy. And here she does a great service, and often at serious personal cost. As the Canadian lyricist Bruce Cockburn put it, you “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” Art is a labor, and when pursued authentically and relentlessly with a view to love, it is a labor that can lead to strength and fresh hope. In doing so, the artist often provides a map out of the loop of dystopian drama into a kind of mature, circumscribed realism made palatable by poetic beauty. The love and skill of the artist humanizes that which seems mercilessly alien to our nature, helping us to integrate our suffering into the whole of our lives through ordering it and imbuing it with meaning.
The artist in this way helps grow and revivify – or rebuild – the human person, and thus human society.
The doctor works through the night to provide health; the farmer wakes at dawn to provide food; and the artist keeps a constant vigil with the state of the human heart, monitoring its spiritual beat and assessing how to provide some solace, hope, clarity, conviction, and truth to its often bewildered, cowardly, and meandering state. The artist is diagnostic, nourishing, corrective, prophetic, medicinal, and constructive.
This constructive, building element in the postmodern age also takes on a new quality: the artist can be spoken of as a primary reconstructor of civilization and culture. She intentionally overlooks large swaths of the ephemeral ugliness that is now collapsing or collapsed, finding its proper place in the analogous heap, but with determination digs through the rubble to find solid building materials previously misused and abused to repurpose them to service of the good. Most especially, she seeks out the intact solid foundations worthy of new and fitting structures.
In a time of passing through this landscape of metaphorical and increasingly physical ruins as we are in, the artist is in the deepest sense a skilled builder – and rebuilder.
Following this analogy, it goes without saying that the artist is not to be confused with the demolition brigade that largely hijacked the artistic fields in the last century; these people have helped reveal the profound power and influence of the artistic sphere, and should add weight to any consideration of the artist’s critical role in society, but they are not suited to the term “artist.” These vandals, rather, without regard for excellence, objectivity, or history, are to a large degree responsible for the work we now have before us; upon what Roger Scruton called the “cult of ugliness,” which they augmented, we built much of disordered modern society, with its fitting real and symbolic plywood and plastic.
The worthy artist is thus now, alongside being a creator, a “reconstructionist,” as are those who support him. This is the intentional poetic nemesis of the proud “deconstructionist” so rampant in art, academia, human resource departments, and many more professional fields as its infection spreads at breakneck speed. The reconstructionist seizes upon the remaining foundations – previously rejected, obscured, or debased by the deconstructionist – of reason, tradition, philosophy, and beauty, eager to return to these foundations, assess where we are and what the project is before us, and lead the way in building us again to the heights.
But the reconstructionist is not building an abstraction, nor just physical edifices, nor fleeting works of paint, paper, or voice. This artist understands himself to be playing a necessary role, through his committed artistic work, in rebuilding a human and noble civilization, and thus affecting many specific, unrepeatable humans both alive in this moment and to come long after us. The reconstructionist’s work is at root generative, protective, and redemptive; it is about love. But, it should be noted, this love does not exclude a frequent kind of excruciating spiritual surgery. Great art is rarely mere comfort.
No society has ever been built, much less thrived, without the artists, and it is often only the prophetic artistic visionary who gives a hope and a prayer to the task of building, or, in the aftermath of war of all kinds from the physical to the ideological, reconstructing. The artist sees what could be – or could be again – and deliberately sets about his task of creating, with beauty, excellence, humanity, and renewal in the foundations of his mind, no matter his particular artistic instantiation and its unique tools, demands, and sometimes messy modality. There are many ways of driving at the realization of these ideals – as many ways as there are sincere, talented artists.
We can take heart in that in real architectural reconstructions, for example, perfect replications are not always possible due to many factors. However, if such reconstructions are done in the true spirit of the original creator’s intent, they can sometimes manage to be even more beautiful than the original, and can therefore also carry the added beauty of a redemptive quality.
This is the bright flame of hope I keep as I continue through this time of tectonic uncertainty, navigating the juxtaposition of luxurious technological advance with the implosion of reason, sense, morality, and love: that the artists, together with all those of good will and creative, passionate hearts, can believe in and enact a redemptive arc, thus marking our era of history not with the compulsive deconstruction of fools, but with a formidable, necessary reconstruction that will resound much more loudly than the former for the generations to come.
That the legitimate threat of grave destruction looms will only make this coming reconstruction all the more exquisite. We are in a great battle, not a mediocre one, and victory can thus also only be great.
Even in essay format, I clearly wax artistic and poetic at the risk of a little melodrama. But in spite of the deceptive monotony of our scrolling and physical postmodern ease, these words pale in comparison to the magnitude of the real drama of destruction and human misery unfolding now. But we can choose, with courage, to face the crumbled edifices around us; and we can begin the arduous work of adding, to our good foundations that persist, stones of revival, renewal, and beauty, tasking the artists especially with this responsibility. This work will require both serious courage and serious skill, as well as the particular affinity for inspiration unique to gifted artists. It will require the sacrificial, ego-absent, persistent work of devoted creative geniuses, as well as the critical support of and direction from many other virtuous men and women. Ingenuity and generosity from all will be imperative.
We are already living among the ruins. Thus we are now commissioned as reconstructionists, and must set about building it all back – but beautiful.