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The Many Failures
of Modernism


by Miles Mathis

Before I proceed to the main thesis of this paper, I would like to finalize an argument that I have just touched upon in other places.  That argument concerns the terminology of Modernism.  In most of my papers I use Modernism to refer broadly to post-classical or post-traditional art.  I do not honestly think anyone has had trouble understanding what I mean when I do this, although many Modernist readers have tried to invent problems.  Most people will understand that when I say Modernist readers, I mean readers who disagree with my main thesis—readers who like the avant garde or modernism or postmodernism or the trend by any other name.  These readers like novelty and theory and politics and don’t care so much about technique or figuration or traditional subject matter or even expression.  In the same way, every rational person will understand what Modernism is—a category that includes all works influenced by the redefining of art in the early part of the 20th century.

        To be more specific for a moment, I will drop a couple of dates and names.  I have said before that 1917 and Duchamp loom large in defining these terms.  Not that there were no Modern works before 1917 or that there were no Modern artists before Duchamp.  But Duchamp put a finer point on what had come before.  In fact, it might be said that he put about as fine a point on it as could be put, and that no one has done any amount of important sharpening since.  Up until the teens there had been a lot of things going on simultaneously.  Conventions were being dropped, expression was being promoted, politics was being absorbed into art, and theory was making huge inroads.  What Duchamp did is to focus all these things.  He found expression to be gratuitous, so he melded theory and politics and jettisoned everything else.  By dropping all conventions and all expression, he was left with a politically tinged theory that wholly defined the artifact.  In fact, it was the act of dropping the conventions and the expression that was the political theory.   The art was not the artifact; the art was the act of dropping the conventions and forms and expression.


Contemporary critics have invented a distinction between modernism and postmodernism and post-postmodernism.  They claim that something changed around 1970 and then again around 1990.  No one is too sure what that something is, and I for one think it is just a sales ruse—a bit of prestidigitation to fool people into thinking something is actually happening.  But I assure you that nothing actually is.

           Many of these critics would no doubt say that my choice of examples proves my confusion, since Duchamp's Fountain is postmodern (or a postmodern precursor) not Modern.  But which of us is confused, the one who has the seminal work of postmodernism coming before High Modernism (1917 is before 1945 on my calendar), or the one who points out the confusion? 

           The answer to this question is clear, as is my contention that the current groupings and terms and dates must all be thrown out as a conglomeration of contradictions.  The analysts have quite simply failed to gather all the recent data into any comprehensible form.  Some people may find a certain jouissance in artworks that make no sense, but a critical overview of a century that makes no sense lacks all piquancy.  It is not an amusing annoyance, it is an annoying annoyance.

          My enemies always attack me for not dropping all the names at the right places, for not being au courant on all the new isms and groupings and subgroupings.  For not calling Damien Hirst a Brit Art man and for not calling Warhol a Pop Art phenomenon, and other such things.  As if the term “Brit Art” has any content.  What is the term Brit Art telling us?  That Damien is from Britain?  Is that information crucial?  Is there any substance to the term “Pop Art”?    No.  It is just a tag.  Using it is a clue to insiders that you have studied closely and accepted all the naming and grouping, and that you find this naming and grouping interesting and poignant.  Well, I don’t.  It is all a complete waste of time, conceptually very close to counting angels on the head of a pin or arguing about transubstantiation and consubstantiation or memorizing who begat whom in the Old Testament.  It is all a fiction anyway, and you might just as well memorize elven genealogies in Lord of the Rings or memorize Friends trivia as waste time memorizing the subsubisms of 20th century art.

        Nothing important has changed since 1917.  Modernism bottomed out at that point.  Five minutes after it was invented it hit bedrock.   It “said” all it had to say.   A complete theoretical deconstruction had been achieved, and the rest has been a bombing of the surface of the moon, a strafing of barren ground.  “Artists” since Duchamp have been on a seek-and-destroy mission, stomping on any blasted bush that had managed to survive the nuclear wind.  The critics huddled round and cheered loudly at the stomping, elevating each withered crunch into an act of heroism.

         Can anyone imagine a more arid pastime, a more pathetic group of lonely and talentless people?   It would, I think, surpass the creative invention of all the novelists and poets and artists and philosophers of past centuries to conjure up such a bleak stretch of art history.  Only Nietzsche approached the ability to imagine it, and I think it can be argued that even the idea of the lastman doesn’t really do it justice.  The artists and critics of Modernism were not cows blinking in the sun, the metaphor Nietzsche used for the lastman.  Cows blinking in the sun are harmless—useful even.  They are good to paint, to eat, to milk, and they keep the grass green and mowed.  Beyond this they are cute and give everyone a cozy feeling.  The artists and critics of the 20th century were far from cute and cuddly.  They were not even as useful as a swarm of locusts or a great prairie fire.  These natural catastrophes at least leave the ground fertile behind them.  The artists and critics swept over the earth, consuming all leaf and flesh, and yet left no ash or manure for future growth.  They were like modern governments: masters of desertification.  Entire seas dried up in the 20th century, and art was another of these.

        Just as I know more than I would want to admit about Friends trivia and Lord of the Rings genealogy and Biblical minutiae, I also know a good deal more about the details of 20th century art than I let on.  This I file away as “know thy enemy”.  If I do not use all the approved terms in the approved ways you can be sure it is not because I am ignorant of the passwords.  I do not use the passwords for three reasons: 1) I do not want entry.  I do not want to be mistaken for one who is clubbable in this club, 2) I do not accept the truth of the terms.  Using the terms implies that you find them useful.  I don’t.  3) I prefer to antagonize my antagonists.  By not using the approved terms, I let them know that the terms are not worth using.  This makes them angry, which is pleasant in itself. 


Now on to the main thesis.  I have just argued that the artists and critics of the past 90 years have existed on inventing distinctions.  They have fabricated a long list of quibbles and cavils, have dreamed up a million volumes of manufactured analysis.  Now I will argue that they have completely missed the important distinctions.  It is possible that they have seen these distinctions and have preferred to ignore them.  But either way we have been educated ad infinitum on the inessential, while the essential has remained obscure. 

          In another paper I have talked about the beginnings of Modernism.  In that paper I used Cezanne as example, as I will here again.  However, that paper was concerned with other issues, and I did not make the distinctions I will make here (although I will cover basically the same period of art history).  What I want to do now is draw a very sharp line between Modernism and pre-Modernism.  The 20th century critics almost always gave the Impressionist, post-Impressionists, Expressionists, Fauves, Picasso, Munch, the Symbolists, and so on, to Modernism.  I will give them back to pre-Modernism.  The important historical line is not in the mid or late 19th century, it is in the early 20th century.  It is the line drawn by Duchamp on or around 1917.

          Before I offer you the distinctions that allow me to give all these artists and isms back to pre-Modernism, I will tell you my motive for doing so.  This may seem an unorthodox method of arguing—both too revelatory and too topsy-turvy—but what the hell.  Many contemporary realists seem to accept the lines drawn by the avant garde.  That is, they, like the critics, want Modernism to start with the Impressionists.  These realists think Impressionism was the first major error, and their greatest dream is to return to a time before Manet.  They tend to look more favorably on Ingres, and many would probably throw out Delacroix without much urging.  The only thing they are interested in keeping after 1850 is the academics like Bouguereau and Waterhouse and Lord Leighton.

          I don’t agree with this opinion at all.  I like both Ingres and Delacroix, and I like both Bouguereau and Gauguin.  I don’t want to throw out any of them.  Nor do I want to throw out Munch or Picasso or Kandinsky or van Gogh or a lot of others.  As for the Impressionists, I have very little problem with them beyond the fact that they were oversold in the 20th century.  I am weary of them, but not because they offend me or threaten me artistically.   And if I don’t like Cezanne, it is not for theoretical reasons.  It is for artistic reasons.  I find his work ugly and mostly expressionless.  I consider him a failure as an artist.  But I do not think he intended to destroy tradition. 

         This takes me from motive to argument.  Anyone who reads of the life of Van Gogh or Cezanne or any of the rest can see that the intention of artists in this period was not to destroy tradition.  Destroying tradition hardly seemed like an option in 1880, much less in 1850.  After all, the Impressionists were forced to show separately because the Salon—tradition—was so powerful.  Artists from Manet to Picasso had no idea of destroying tradition; all they wanted was a bit of freedom to create an alternative to it.  If you read Van Gogh’s letters you will see that he had a great respect for tradition.  The same can be said of Manet, Cezanne and Picasso.  They would not have become artists if they had no respect for tradition.  Van Gogh would have been dumbfounded by the idea that classical art could come to an end within the lifetime of his contemporaries.  Not only dumbfounded, but distressed.  This was a man who worked as hard at technical mastery as anyone in history.  All his toil did not take him where the Prix de Rome winners’ toils took them, and his toil perhaps didn’t take him exactly where he wanted to go in the beginning, but someone who wanted to destroy tradition wouldn’t have toiled at all.  Did Duchamp toil?  No.  For Duchamp it was ultimately pointless to learn to paint.  For Van Gogh it was the most important thing.

         The Armory Show of 1913 has also been called a great turning point.  In some ways it was.   It was the first major show of the new art in the US.    It greatly affected the market.  But for me even the Armory Show was pre-Modern.  Duchamp was still doing figure painting!   Even Kandinsky and Picabia were not wholly abstract.   Their paintings had titles like “Garden of Love” or “The Procession”.  Really weird for the time, yes, but not yet wholly determined by theory.  Color, form, paint quality, design—all still very important.  And most of the other works were outright figuration.  Matisse has pretty little dancing figures, a nude, and a couple of portraits.  Munch and Puvis have their Christs and Madonnas.  And so on. 

        If you have only two categories and you have to put all the Armory works in one or the other, which would it be?  Modernism or pre-Modernism?  Or, to put it another way, do all these works have more in common with Titian and Velasquez and Delacroix, or do they have more in common with Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s soup cans and Hirst’s shark?  The critics have said that because they are all weird in some way, they belong with the latter.  They are pushing the boundaries, they deal in novelty. 

        Yes, they do, but this is not the crucial distinction of Modernism.  A lot of art in history has pushed boundaries and dealt in novelty.  Leornardo pushed boundaries and dealt in novelty. 

        I maintain that the Armory Show works belong with pre-Modernism, and the reason they do is that they are not defined mostly or entirely by theory.  It is true that some have a large dose of theory propping them up.  Picabia and Duchamp and Picasso are already trafficking pretty heavily in theory.  But at this point they have not yet crossed over.  As for Matisse and the rest, theory is a small part of the whole.  Theory allows them a few freedoms, but theory does not define the work.  Lots of people who know nothing of theory like Matisse and Munch and Kandinsky and Redon and Van Gogh and Cezanne and Puvis, and it is easy to see why.  You have figures and/or pretty colors and/or trees and/or subject matter.  Most people who know nothing of theory do not like Modern art, including Duchamp’s Fountain or Warhol’s soup cans or John’s flags or Rauschenberg’s assemblages or Newman’s stripes or Twombly’s scribbles or Nauman’s concepts , and, again, it is easy to see why.  What’s to like?   The theory is the only thing with any possible appeal, and if you take that away, you have next to nothing.  This is the crucial distinction.

        Of course, by this definition, even Pollock and Rothko fail to be completely Modern, since they are not altogether defined by theory.  At least here we have real paint on real canvas and we have pretty colors and patterns.  In this way they are dangerously traditional, and I think that if they hadn’t been so popular with decorators and the general public, Modernism would probably have found some way to discredit them.  In fact, many critics attempted to do just this, and for the exact reasons I have just mentioned. 

         The hardest artists to categorize are of course the major artists who straddle the year 1917.  Even after that year, Picasso never got around to being just a theorist.  His early work is almost classical, as everyone admits.  Then his work until 1906 is experimental but hardly offensive to anyone.  After that he takes bigger and bigger draughts of theory, until, in the late teens, he gets very close to disappearing into theory.  But then he gets bored of it and makes various comebacks.  His fame allows him to do this.  Almost no one besides Picasso was allowed so much content, and even he took heavy critical hits for it. 

        Kandinsky also starts out traditional, veers into a lovely childlike naivete, and then discovers the dark side of theory.  I find the Kandinsky of 1910 very appealing; in 1920, not at all.  What happened?  1917 happened.  Before 1917, Kandinsky was a colorist and his lines were curving and expressive.  After circa 1917 he was not mainly a colorist and his lines were straight and sharp and mathematical.  He was a theorist.  He had gone from pre-Modernism to Modernism: his work was defined mainly by theory.  Throw out the theory and the work has little appeal.

        Max Ernst show this very clearly, too.  Ernst is rarely Modern.  Only with works like The Hat Makes the Man are we predominantly in the realm of theory.  This work is straight pre-Warhol.  At most other times Ernst is an anomaly, far away from the main line of Modernism, like a 20th century Bosch.  My favorite work of his, The Attirement of the Bride, is Modern only by date.  It is far more closely related to Bosch than to the work of Ernst’s contemporaries in the 20’s and 30’s.   This does not mean that Modernism is multi-faceted and nearly all-inclusive.  It means that the only time artists generated any interest is when they ignored Modern theory.  The critics didn’t appreciate Ernst ignoring them, and that is probably the main reason he isn’t as famous as Duchamp or Warhol, although he is a far greater artist.   


If I have argued that Kandinsky and Picasso and even Duchamp were still pre-Modern in 1913, then you will expect that Cezanne and Van Gogh and the 19th artists are even less Modern.  In fact, I don’t think they are Modern at all.  They don’t belong in Modern museums, much less contemporary museums.  They would not like to be there if you asked them.   Van Gogh is one step away from Delacroix but a thousand steps away from Duchamp 1917.  VG would have nothing but contempt for Duchamp and Warhol and all the rest.  This applies equally to Cezanne and Gauguin.  Cezanne and Gauguin were not anti-artists, not by the greatest stretch of the imagination.   They were a bit anti-Salon, but this is a very different thing.  Gauguin had no more desire to destroy art or tradition than Baudelaire had, or Whistler, or Rodin.  He felt it necessary to fight certain manifestations of tradition, as they all did (and as did Giotto, Caravaggio, El Greco, and Goya).  But how could someone who was depicting beautiful naked girls with pretty colors on a canvas want to destroy western art?  The contention is absurd.  He didn’t want the Salon or the galleries to tell him what or how to paint.  Nor do I.  You might as well say that I want to destroy art and tradition.

           The distinction that everyone fails to make is between what the artists did and said and what the critics have tried to tell us they did and said.  That is, the myth of Impressionism and post-Impressionism and Expressionism and Symbolism was created by the critics, not by the works or the words of the artists themselves.  Cezanne was not Modern; he did not want to destroy art or tradition.  Van Gogh was not interested in novelty for its own sake; he was not a precursor to the main line of 20th century art.  Redon was not interested mainly in theory.  Nor Matisse nor Whistler nor Rodin nor Monet nor any of the rest.  All would be horrified by the direction art history has taken.  The clearest example is once again Van Gogh.  Van Gogh is further away from Modernism than even Ingres is.  Ingres was more interested in formalism and theory than Van Gogh.  Even Delacroix was more modern than Van Gogh, in the sense that Delacroix was more aware of his forms and his media.  Van Gogh was mainly an intuitionist, which puts him at the furthest possible remove from the self-conscious formalisms and theorizings of the 20th century.  I absolutely guarantee you that VG would hate Johns and Newman more than he hated Bouguereau or Tissot.  VG is two steps away from Bouguereau; he is a googol parsec away from Newman. 


Some will wonder what I am going to call the period from 1880 to 1917 if I don't call it Modern.  Those who think I have just called postmodernism Modernism will wonder how I am going to categorize all the things that used to be Modern.  The short answers are that I am not going to call the period anything and that I don't need a third category.  These short answers are made possible by the fact that we have only two broad categories to start with.  The period from 1880 to 1917 is just a mixing of the traditional definition and the Modern definition of art, and any artwork you could offer me for consideration I would call more or less Modern depending on how much it is influenced by critical theory.  The Impressionists and post-Impressionists are wholly traditional, in the sense that any novelty is only the outcome of aesthetic theory.  They are no more modern than Delacroix or Goya or even Fragonard, whose novelties were all determined by strictly artistic choices—that is to say, these choices were in service of a visual and emotional effect.  Munch is also wholly traditional by this definition.   Artworks after 1917 can be judged in the same way.  Pollock and Rothko don't require a third category to explain them.  Color and design and expression make them traditional.  Jettisoning other conventions makes them partly Modern.

          Duchamp is the dividing line and defining line because he is the first to be 100% critical theory and therefore 100% Modern.  Fountain has no aesthetic qualities, and its novelty is not an outcome of any aesthetic theory.  It is an outcome of critical theory.  Which is to say that it is all analysis and no synthesis.

           So I have not created three periods, I have only created two. What I called pre-Moderism above is simply traditional art. Traditional works may have more or less novelty and invention, and may be influenced more or less by artistic or aesthetic theory, but they are influenced very little by critical theory. Once again, aesthetic theory is a synthethic theory that is concerned with creating emotion or beauty. Critical theory is an analytic theory that is concerned with ideas and definitions.
     In my opinion, there are no Modern works before 1906. Cezanne and a couple of others arguably had some amount of critical content, but the work was not defined by it. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon probably has enough critical content that it can go either way. It also has a lot of aesthetic content. The Futurists are the first movement to be defined by critical theory. Cubism and futurism were both jelling in 1909, as was total abstraction, but I think Futurism beat Cubism to the punch. I say this because the Futurists wrote their own manifestoes and this clearly gave the critical intent to the artists themselves. In abstraction and cubism there is still a strong mixture of aesthetic theory. In futurism the critical theory predominates without any doubt. Early on Duchamp was influenced by both the Futurists and Cubists, but Fountain comes right out of the theory of Futurism. The Futurists were anti-past, anti-museum, and anti-art, and this is where Modernism was headed—it is where it still is today. 1909 might therefore be called the zero-year of Modernism. 1917 is its peak year, and it has re-hit this peak in every decade since, like old-time clockwork.

     Most art historians tell us that Futurism died with the Futurists in WWI. But Futurism has never died. The contemporary avant garde is still defined mainly by Futurism. All the big name artists are now Futurists. No matter what they are doing in form or content, they have accepted the basic stance of the Futurists: anti-past, anti-museum, anti-art. They may gladly hang in museums, since this is how they get famous, but they are sure to ironically undercut this process every step of the way. Some may incorporate forms of the past—may borrow, steal, sample, or copy styles or poses or models—but never as an homage, only as a mockery. They are anti-museum and anti-past because they are anti-art: they are anti-expression and anti-depth and anti-subtlety and anti-beauty. This is the explanation of Currin and Richter and the rest. Why should these artists go to such lengths to achieve "vacant images" and "ironic distance" and "purposeful banality". Because they are the Futurists of the moment.


All this means that recent art history has been sliced up in the wrong way, no matter who is doing the slicing.  The avant garde and the classicists and the new pluralists all have it wrong.  All seem to me to have a very basic misunderstanding of what art is about.  The avant garde believes that art is defined by theory and politics and abstract formal qualities.  It is not.  The classicists believe that art is defined by technique and subject matter.  It is not.  The new pluralists believe that technique and subject matter should be reintroduced as an adjunct and support to Theory, since the 20th century must be respected as a time of great progress.  Neither of these beliefs is true.  The 20th century was mostly a horrible wasteland of presumption, laziness, greed, pretense, and deception.  Propping up this list with technique and subject matter will not change its character.  The perfect example of this is John Currin.  Technique and subject matter may at first fill some of the largest holes in the plaster, but they will not rebuild the tower.  Technique and subject matter are useful to art only when they are wedded to a proper definition of art and artist.  Technicians become artists only when all the proper ingredients come together at once.  As it is, we have a long list of ingredients, but most of these ingredients simply prevent the cake from rising.  Politics, theory, novelty, formalism: all these ingredients are pollutants.  Not only do they fail to compel or impel art, they impede it.  They prevent it. 

        Technique can also impede art.  The classicists will find this blasphemous, but it is true nonetheless.   It is not true in the sense that the Moderns have tried to tell us.  Technique is not a necessary impedance.  In fact, some rather large amount of technique is surely a requirement.  But a slavish regard for technique is fatal to art.  It always has been, from medieval icons painted without a sliver of expression or a marten hair’s variation from the pattern, to academic works painted without a dot of inspiration or personality, to photo-realist works that are not a single pixel away from reality.  Technique cannot stand alone any more than expression can stand alone or theory can stand alone or forms can stand alone. 


If the critics have manufactured inessential distinctions and missed the crucial distinctions, they can hardly be of any use.  Criticism is analysis, and a critic who cannot analyze a large mass of data into its important piles is a superfluous person.   More than that, he is a pest.  No, even more, he is an enemy, a person not just to be avoided but to be actively resisted.   Someone whose influence one has an obligation to counteract and oppose, not just for the sake of ones own field and owns own well being, but for the sake of art history. 

         This is another one of the central facts of the 20th century, since that period is not simply defined by the influence of the critic and administrator, but also by the silence of the artist.  In that time, the artist did not consider art history to be his birthright and obligation.  If anything, he felt this way only about the act of painting or sculpting.  Arguing and fighting was either beneath him or beyond him or just too damn unpleasant.  He had recourse to a thousand excuses: he was outnumbered, the tide was inexorable, history was unstoppable, “there is no going back”, “what can one person do?” and so on.  All patently false and absurd, since history and the tide are determined by people and since numbers have nothing to do with it.  Michelangelo and Titian were also outnumbered by non-artists and administrators.  The Impressionists were outnumbered, Whistler was outnumbered.  Everyone who ever did anything was outnumbered, since he was one person.  Doing the right thing is not a statistical question.  As Thoreau said, you cannot wait until everyone else does the right thing in order to act yourself.  He asked, do I wait upon my neighbors’ example to eat my own dinner?   No, I eat my bread when I am hungry and speak my truth as I learn it.  Waiting for leadership from others, if generalized, is a guarantee of inaction. 

         It is just this inaction that Modernism encourages and relies upon.  Modern governments and institutions—including the institutions of art—discourage hierarchies for very good reasons. Hierarchies require and promote leadership.  All the cries against elitism also work as insurance against leadership.  A community of equals has no leaders.  Without leaders there is no action, and the status quo becomes even more entrenched than in aristocracies.  Equality is the ultimate guarantee of stasis, since no one feels qualified to publicly disagree. 

        In this way, Modernism’s promotion of a flat egalitarianism becomes easier to understand.  No one but a fascist would argue against equal opportunity, but it has always been difficult to understand the theoretical appeal to anyone of a field or society with no top end, with nothing to strive for and nothing to attain.  Modern capitalism has countered this “communistic” situation by keeping the hierarchy of wealth.  Money is the goal that keeps the culture moving.  All other hierarchies are suppressed.   Culture moves in the sense that the economy grows: people keep going to work rather than sit at home and collect welfare.  But culture does not move in any other way.  Art history and all non-financial arenas stop.  This suits Modernism fine, since it is the entrenched institution of the moment.  As long as leadership remains obsolescent Modernism will remain the entrenched institution of the permanent static future.  

       Of course this is just the opposite of the way we should want it, whether we are artists or not.   The only way that communism or socialism was ever theoretically attractive was as an economic theory.   If any hierarchy was going to be suppressed, it should have been the hierarchy of unearned wealth.  Then we keep all the other hierarchies to give people things to strive for and attain.  We give them prestige and status as they become masters of their respective fields.   This both allows an outlet for  ambition and propels society.

        The various socialisms and capitalisms are all failing “spiritually” for the same reason: they have jettisoned the most meaningful attainments in the lives of men and women.  The various world governments have so far avoided collapse by filling the empty spaces with money and material goods, but money and material goods cannot fill the important spaces in the lives of men and women.  

         You can see that my political argument is analogous to my artistic argument.  In art I am neither modern nor contemporary-classical, since I have argued that both positions are fundamentally flawed.  The stresses are in all the wrong places.  In regard to capitalism and communism, I am once again iconoclastic, and in precisely the same way.  I support all the hierarchies except the one that has been kept.  Recent history is therefore completely upside down and inside out.  In both art and politics we have a bilateral argument in which each side is fundamentally in error.  The left wants equality of achievement, which is suffocating in every possible way.  Its effects exceed any possible outcome of a logical communism, since a logical theory would be mainly economic.  A communism limited to economics could actually feed cultural hierarchies by impelling more talent into non-financial fields and enterprises. 

         The right resists the left by holding on for dear life to the raft of capitalism, that is, onto the raft of potential wealth and potential economic disparity.  All other hierarchies are given only lip service.  Art and religion are sometimes thrown a bone, but it doesn’t amount to much.  In this situation it is true that capitalism is an important floatation device for culture.  It really does stave off imminent collapse.  In a milieu where all other hierarchies have been quashed, a removal of the wealth hierarchy would spell immediate doom. 

        But of course this description of the situation fails to mention alternatives.  You can see that it is not a question of a wealth hierarchy or no hierarchy at all, as we are led to believe by the opposing parties.  Why can we not resuscitate the traditional hierarchies of achievement?  Why can we not have masters and leaders and sages and so on, in any number of fields?

        We do have a few remaining pseudo-hierarchies.  We have hierarchies in sports and entertainment, but these hierarchies are either mostly manufactured and illusory, or they are simply unimportant.  The entertainment hierarchy belongs to the first category and the sports hierarchy to the second.  You cannot build a stable culture on sports and entertainment.  You can only build a delusional and manufactured and trivial culture on such foundations, and that is what we have. 

        The specific answer to this problem is to de-prioritize the existing hierarchies, which are trivial or counterproductive, and to re-prioritize hierarchies that are both meaningful and useful to a healthy culture.  Sports and entertainment hierarchies must be de-emphasized while artistic, cultural, and pedagogical hierarchies are re-established.  Once ambitions and talents can be deflected into these fields, then we can begin to diminish the profit motive and the wealth hierarchy.  I am not suggesting that we should completely dismantle this hierarchy, either.  I don’t think that is either wise or feasible.  But it can certainly be downgraded from current levels.  Just going back 50 years would be a start.   Was the US in the 50’s such an awful place for rich people to live?  The right wants to return to the 50’s socially, but economically this is looked upon as torture. 


It is obvious how all this would affect the field of art.   Art would be one of the first beneficiaries of a proper re-stratification.  Currently we have an absolute dumbing-down of content and form in the name of political anti-elitism, so that artifacts are now intentionally indistinguishable from garbage.  But we still create an elite simply by paying certain artists exorbitant sums for garbage.  All we have to do is recognize how upside down this is, and reverse it.  The elitism that is misplaced is the elitism in creating millionaires for nothing.  The unfairness is in the elitism of unearned wealth.   So do away with it and replace it by an elitism that is logical and fair—an elitism we should embrace.  That elitism is the difference in quality of various artworks and artists.  Some artists in the past created more beautiful or meaningful works.  Michelangelo was elite and deserved to be.  He earned it.  There was no unfairness involved.   This is the sort of elitism we need to return to.  A hierarchy of true ability. 

        No one disagrees with this when it is stated in simple straightforward language.  No one but the small and envious could argue against the usefulness to culture of true ability.  If this is so then we must flee unclear thinking and writing as well as the old unanalyzed hierarchies.  With all the social critique and analysis we have had in the last century, one would think all had been said again and again.  But it is not so.  I have shown that we have still failed to do basic analysis of common words such as “elitism”, which we think we must either embrace or deny.  I have shown that elitism is not a black or white term.  We must logically embrace it in some situations and deny it in others.  There are hundreds of other words and ideas sitting in full view, used a million times daily, without a full understanding of what they mean. 

        I am not suggesting a full semantic overhaul, which I would find as tiresome as anyone else.  This is not mainly a question of semantics.  The definitions are already there and the points I am making are not really subtle distinctions.   What I am suggesting is simply turning the lights back on.  How hard is it to see that Michelangelo is a better artist than Andy Warhol?  How hard would it be to start encouraging real art again instead of garbage? 

        For that matter, how hard is it to see that a financial or economic definition of life is shallow and uninteresting?  You don’t have to be a Harvard (or Yale) graduate to see that.  So, do something else.   Stop talking about economics and garbage art and start talking about more important things.  Start doing more important things. When that happens, a complete cultural reverse will have been immediately achieved, without the passage of a single law or the implementation of a single policy.

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