RS delivered this Point Of View, BBC Radio 4 Fri Dec 5th 2014, where he identified a cultural structure where an activity antipathetic to art, has come to dominate it. The same thing happens in sciences where experiments are problematic. I think it happens when those joining the enterprise (art, science) find a way to “get on in their career”, and identify and ride arbitrary but effective patterns in the behaviour, but which turn out to be parasitic. I don’t usually warm to his views but I do here.
“To thine own self be true” says Shakespeare’s Polinius, “and thou canst be false to no man.”
“Live in truth” urged Václav Havel.
“Let the lie come into the world,” says Solzhenitsyn, “but not through me.”
How seriously should we take these pronouncements and how do we obey them?
There are two kinds of untruth – lying and faking. The person who is lying says what he or she does not believe. The person who is faking says what he believes, but only for the time being and for the purpose in hand. Anyone can lie; faking however is an achievement. To fake things, you have to take people in – yourself included. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed but his pretence is part of the lie. The fake really is shocked when he is exposed since he had created around himself a community of trust of which he himself was a member.
Immediately the cladist community comes to mind: based on simplistic pseudoscience, often able to get easy things right, hamfistedly corrupting everything non-trivial, and like Scruton’s art fakers, blocking whatever they don’t understand.
I think cladists do believe in what they are doing, though unfortunately it never seems to be “only for the time being”. They can’t create new science, so everything is fossilised.
In all ages people have lied in order to escape the consequences of their actions. And the first step in moral education is to teach children not to tell fibs. But faking is a cultural phenomenon more prominent in some periods than in others. There is very little faking in the society defined by Homer for example, or Chaucer. By the time of Shakespeare however, poets and playwrights are beginning to take a strong interest in this new human type. In Shakespeare’s Lear the wicked sisters Goneril and Regan belong to a world of fake emotion, persuading themselves and their father that they feel the deepest love when in fact they are entirely heartless. But they don’t really know themselves to be heartless; if they did they could not behave so brazenly. The tragedy of King Lear begins when the real people, Kent, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, are driven out by the fakes.
This is indeed the worst aspect of cladism. I wouldn’t mind if they did their own stupid thing over in the corner and let the grown-ups operate freely, but it’s the drive to grab the controls of the science – which will justify them as important scientists – which causes the problems since they tend to drive the good out.
The fake is a person who has rebuilt himself with a view to occupying another social position than the one that would be natural to him. Such is Molière’s Tartuffe the religious impostor who takes control of a household through a display of scheming piety.
Yup! Well, cladism is a kind of religion, the piety being towards the false god Simplicity.
Like Shakespeare, Molière perceived that faking goes to the very heart of the person engaged in it. Tartuffe is not simply a hypocrite who pretends to ideals that he does not believe in; he is a fabricated person who believes in his own ideals since he is just as illusory as they are. Tartuffe’s faking was a matter of sanctimonious religion.
With the decline of religion during the 19th century there came about a new kind of faking. The romantic poets and painters turned their backs on religion and sought salvation through art.
Or nowadays, science.
They believed in the genius of the artist, endowed with a special capacity to transcend the human condition in creative ways, breaking all the rules in order to achieve a new order of experience. Art became an avenue to the transcendental, the gateway to a higher kind of knowledge.
In cladism of course, there is no originality.
Originality therefore became the test that distinguishes true art from fake. It is hard to say in general terms what originality consists of, but we have examples enough: Titian, Beethoven, Goethe, Baudelaire. But those examples teach us that originality is hard. It can’t be snatched from the air, even though there are those natural prodigies like Rimbaud and Mozart who seem to do just that. Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium,
Are you talking about my science here, Roger? Too kind (-:
and most of all the refined sensibility and openness to experience that have suffering and solitude as their normal cost.
To gain the status of an original artist is therefore not easy. But in a society where art is revered as the highest cultural achievement, the rewards are enormous; hence there is a motive to fake it.
Artists and critics get together in order to take themselves in: the artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant guard. In this way, Duchamp’s famous urinal became a kind of paradigm for modern artists. “This is how it is done!” The critics said. “Take an idea, put it on display. Call it art, and brazen it out.” The trick was repeated with Andy Warhol’s Brillos boxes, and then later with the pickled sharks and cows of Damien Hurst. In each case the critics have gathered like clucking hens around the new and inscrutable egg, and the fake is projected to the public with all the apparatus required for its acceptance as the real thing.
And yet when I revealed my artistic cache, no-one seemed to be interested )-:
So powerful is the impetus towards the collective fake, that it is now rare to be a finalist for the Turner prize without producing some object or event that shows itself to be art only because the critics have said that it is. Original gestures of the kind introduced by Duchamp cannot really be repeated. Like jokes they can be made only once; hence the cult of originality very quickly leads to repetition. The habit of faking becomes so deeply engrained that no judgment is certain except the judgment that this before us is the real thing, and not a fake at all, which in turn is a fake judgment. All that we know in the end is that anything is art because nothing is.
It is worth asking ourselves why the cult of fake originality has such a powerful appeal to our cultural institutions, so that every museum and art gallery, and publicly funded concert hall, has to take it seriously. The early modernists: Stravinsky and Schoenberg in music, Eliot and Pound in poetry, Matisse in painting and Loos in architecture, were united in the belief that popular taste had become corrupted, that sentimentality, banality and kitsch had invaded the various spheres of art and eclipsed their messages. Tonal harmonies had been corrupted by popular music, figurative painting had become trumped by photography, rhyme and metre had become the stuff of Christmas cards, and the stories had been too often told. Everything out there in the world of naïve and unthinking people was kitsch. Modernism was the attempt to rescue the sincere, the truthful, the arduously achieved, from the plague of fake emotion.
No-one can doubt that the early modernists succeeded in this enterprise, endowing us with works of art that keep the human sprit alive in the new circumstances of modernity, and which establish continuity with the great traditions of our culture. But modernism gave way to routines of fakery; the arduous task of maintaining the tradition proved less attractive than the cheap ways of rejecting it. Instead of Picasso’s lifelong study to present the modern woman’s face in a modern idiom, you could just do what Duchamp did and paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
The interesting fact however is that the habit of faking it has arisen from the fear of fakes. Modernist art was a reaction against fake emotion and the comforting clichés of popular culture. The intention was to sweep away the pseudo-art that cushions us with sentimental lies, and to put reality, the reality of modern life, with which real art alone can come to terms, in the place of it.
Straying from my brief here, but maybe Speilberg’s “emotional faces by numbers” might be due for an attack of Modernism?
Hence, for a long time, it has been assumed that there can be no authentic creation in the sphere of high art that is not in some way a challenge to the complacencies of our public culture. Art must give offence against the bourgeois taste of the conforming and the comfortable, which are simply other names for kitsch and cliché. But the result of this is that offence becomes a cliché. If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde. This at least is an authentic gesture. There therefore grew around the modernists, a class of critics and impresarios, who offered to explain just why it is not a waste of your time to stare at a pile of bricks, to sit quietly through ten minutes of excruciating noise, or to study a crucifix pickled in urine. To convince themselves that they are true progressives, who ride in the vanguard of history, the new impresarios surround themselves with others of their kind, promoting them to all committees that are relevant to their status, and expecting to be promoted in their turn. Thus arose the modernist establishment – the self-contained circle of critics who form the backbone of our cultural institutions, and who trade in originality, transgression, and breaking new paths.
In palaeo, never breaking new paths, but otherwise, yup, the closed clique seems to be a, or the, main aim.
Those are the routine terms issued by the arts council bureaucrats and the museum establishment…
With our museums, let me see… “Rigorous”, meaning the opposite of sound scientific practice; “Parsimonious”, that imposter totem; and maybe “confirmation” – the term that defines one incompetent scientist and convinces all the others. But he didn’t mention the BBC. Why didn’t he include the BBC in this talk I wonder? Ah, right.
…whenever they wish to spend public money on something that they would never dream of having in their living room.
But these terms are clichés, as are the things they are used to praise. Hence the flight from cliché ends in cliché, and the attempts to be genuine ends in fake. If the reaction against fake emotion leads to fake art, how do we discover the real thing? That is the question I shall explore in my next two talks.
Does Scruton feel, as I did, that everything first leads to a sound definition of the enterprise (art/science), and then everything goes back to that?
[Rats – I transcribed that from the audio, since you don’t usually get the text version supplied, though this time it is, on the page I linked to at the start, also here. At least it gives me the opportunity to check where I placed the paragraphs!]