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Modern Art

by Miles Mathis

by Edvard Munch

September 13, 2007

I have already published several papers that discuss Nietzsche, including one with his name in the title, but I have never yet addressed Nietzsche’s attitude toward Modern Art directly. You will say that would be very hard to do, since by the time Nietzsche went mad in the late 1880’s, art had only reached the level of modernity of Impressionism, or perhaps the first years of post-Impressionism. The 1880’s saw very little commentary on post-Impressionism, perhaps none that put it in a historical context, so Nietzsche had no opportunity to reply to this, much less to all that came after. True as far as it goes; and yet Nietzsche’s opinions on Modernity are not difficult to find and to extrapolate into our own time. In fact, all one has to do is study his attacks on Wagner, where one finds pages of quotes that can be applied to almost all Modern Art, with only a tweek or a nudge.

Nietzsche’s most well-known translator in our time, Walter Kaufmann, recommends
Nietzsche contra Wagner as the last and most concise word on the subject; but I have always preferred the earlier version in The Case of Wagner, since there we get more of what one might call digressive remarks, and these remarks often contain the most color, and the most pertinence for my argument here. On my very first reading of this essay, at university, it occurred to me how easy it would be to change the title to The Case of Picasso. Long passages of the essay, entire sections, could stand without an edit, only changing the names. After my latest reading, I decided to do the work at last, pulling the most prominent quotes and showing my readers precisely how timely this essay still is.

Let’s start in section 8, where Nietzsche says,

Was Wagner a musician at all? At any rate, there was something else that he was more: namely, an incomparable histrio [actor], the greatest mime, the most amazing genius of the theater ever among Germans…. He belongs elsewhere, not in the history of music. Wagner and Beethoven—that is a blasphemy and really wrongs even Wagner. As a musician, too, he was what he was only in general: he became a musician, he became a poet because the tyrant within him, his actor’s genius, compelled him. One can not begin to understand Wagner until one understands his dominant instinct.

How little we need to change to apply that to Picasso. Picasso and Michelangelo? Blasphemy! Even Picasso admitted it, in print. Picasso’s genius was the actor’s genius: that was his dominant instinct. And more recent Modern “artists”, though hardly geniuses of the stage as Picasso was, still find their dominant instinct and talent in acting, or less, in posing.

This is the age of the actor, as we all know, of the $30 million leading man or lady. When else in history could Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts have been a “top artist”? In any other era, the idea would be an absurdity. But this is the era into which Picasso was born—lucky for him that he was born into the earliest part of it—this is the era Picasso helped to create and perfect. He was nice enough to leaven his lump of acting with some real works, at least in the beginning: he was required to, by the standards of the time. But as the 20th century lengthened, he saw (with gentle prodding from Duchamp, et. al.) that the works were superfluous. The audience was focused on the acting—that is what
they needed—and the works could just as well go by the boards. The audience wanted colorful personalities, talk-show banter, stories to tell, newspaper copy, love affairs, and so on. Compared to all this, painted pictures were, well, so boring.

Wagner understood this in 1860, though perhaps less perfectly. The audience didn’t want music—that is to say, art—they wanted a sights-and-sounds extravaganza, hence Bayreuth.

About “the one thing needful” Wagner would think approximately the way any other actor today thinks about it: strong scenes, one stronger than the other, and in between much shrewd stupidity.

One has to remind oneself that this is Wagner we are reading about here, an Olympian compared to all so-called artists now. And yet Nietzsche was correct about him. And yet how much more correct he is once we transpose these criticisms to our own contemporary “arts”: to Hollywood movies, to popular music, to New York installations, to the entire avant garde agenda, in all its pathetic forms. The swirling, multiple camera angles and quick cuts standing for dramatic effect, the echoes and redubs and reverbs and voice coloraturas standing for musical emotion, the printed weighty insights and tenuous ties to various holocausts standing as artistic content.

More than this, Modern Art attempts, like Wagner, to justify itself by means of a “philosophy”.

That Wagner disguised as a principle his incapacity for giving organic form, that he establishes a “dramatic style” where we merely establish his incapacity for any style whatever, this is in line with a bold habit that accompanied Wagner throughout his life: he posits a principle where he lacks a capacity.

One is reminded of Camus: “when one has no character, one must have a method.” But again, how much more powerfully this applies to our contemporaries than to Wagner. Because they cannot paint, because they cannot create beauty or subtlety or any organic form, they claim that these things are now outmoded, “aristocratic”, and that all the easy incapacities are democratic, and thereby, in principle, superior. This principle now states, outloud and in quotable type, that it is more useful to the future of civilization that artists not be able to do anything well, least of all paint, sculpt, or express clearly. Any such talent would be discouraging to the masses, and is not to be thought of. Incapacity is defined as artistic, as a first and guiding principle of progress.

Art is thereby replaced by an infantile cue for compassion. Commonly the artist still points at some external bullseye for our compassion, but more and more often it is the artist himself of herself who is the one in need. We do not need to cry for some dispossessed or wretched third party; we can weep our puddle of tears directly onto the artist—either for his wretched past, or for her wretched attempts at art.

Like Modern Art, the music of Wagner had a literature, about which Nietzsche said this:

Not every music so far has required a literature: one ought to look for a sufficient reason here. Is it that Wagner’s music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily—that one will not find it difficult enough to understand?

Concerning art now, the answer here is clear. The artifact has been boiled down, or away, to a noxious dreg or vapor, so that it must be rebuilt in some way in print, by some series of detached words. A mystery must be manufactured from near-nothing, a difficulty concocted upon a trace, like re-constructing an entire body from a DNA-smudge on a slide. But one must be reminded, perhaps, that before the 20th century, not every art required a literature. In fact, none did. Art might be defined as precisely that thing that does not require a literature, that eludes a literature, that upends any literature.

[Wagner] repeated a single proposition all his life long: that his music did not mean mere music. But more. But infinitely more. “Not mere music”—no musician would say that.

No indeed. Only a non-artist would need to fluff up art with non-art. Wagner fluffed and padded his with Parsifalian redemptions and such, and the contemporary artist now pads his or hers with politics and Theory. To get noticed now, you don’t need a painting or a sculpture, you need the right politics. You need a cause. You need a relevance. You need a hook for a critic to hang a hat on, a cause celebre for the major mags. Even in Southwest realism, it is better to have a hook than a painting. Anyone can have a painting (it is thought): better to have a promotable tag, a politics or a theory or, at least, a narrative that bears repeating in a thousand PR blurbs and ads.

Let us remember that Wagner was young at the time Hegel and Schelling seduced men’s spirits; that he guessed, that he grasped with his very hands the only thing the Germans take seriously—“the idea,” which is to say, something that is obscure, uncertain, full of intimations; that among Germans clarity is an objection, logic a refutation.

Mein Gott! Are we Germans still? He has us, pinned and wriggling! Not only our art, but our science, our “new” religions, from the obscurity and illogic of quantum mechanics and string theory to the “great intimation” of the Zen koan. The roots of our error keep retreating: it is not the 1960’s, not the 1920’s, not the 1880’s, but now the time of Hegel, 1810ish.

Of course this mistaking of obscurity for depth is as old as man.
Omne ignotum pro magnifico. By some trick of the eye or brain, all the unknown seems rich and appealing. It has been said that the unknown is man’s greatest fear, but man is actually very generous to the unknown. He gives it the highest benefit of the doubt: he assumes that what he doesn’t understand must be more interesting, more worthy of respect, often more worthy of worship, than what he does understand. What we know is commonplace—therefore what we do not know must be extravagant and excessively compelling. And those who know the least are in the best position for imaginings. In this predicament, knowledge can only be a letdown, wisdom a terrible deflation. By this priority, we tend to seek not wisdom: we seek instead the seductive paradox, the Zen koan, the problem that will never be solved—and that will never therefore become a boring commonplace. By the same strange priority we seek Modern Art: the manufacture of ideals and easy moralities and dutiless politics from kindergarten clichés and lessons learned from television. That recipe will never lead to any fruition, and perhaps we choose it for that very reason. And it appeals to ancient sloth as well as to ancient perversity: you don’t need to learn a craft or a skill, you don’t need to have an idea or emotion that has fully jelled: no, all you need is a foggy idea clipped from the A-section of the newspaper, and some images vacuumed from the other sections and pasted together willy-nilly. If it is all done with enough vulgarity and brutality and opacity, you may be famous by Friday. In which case you will have avoided effort, knowledge, and boredom, all at once. What more could a Modern ask for? Your obscurity gives you the right to claim Zen-master status, by the standards of the day, but since your elevation is based on no-knowledge you are a threat to no-one. You are simultaneously a guru, a democrat, and a rich person, all by means of no-creation. You are Bruce Nauman.

What is beautiful has a fly in its ointment: we know that. Why, then, have beauty? Why not rather that which is great, sublime, gigantic—that which moves masses?—Once more: it is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful: we know that.

Think Clement Greenberg here, taking Nietzsche seriously, proposing just this. Beauty has been done away with for precisely this reason. But, first, what is the fly in the ointment of the beautiful? What does Nietzsche intend here? The fly is the fact that Keats was wrong: beauty is not truth nor truth beauty. Beauty is no guarantee of anything, even pleasure. Beauty may be the most misleading thing. Even Nietzsche, the anti-Christ, could admit this. But what is the logical response to this fly in the ointment of beauty?—to seek that beauty which does not contain a fly. To be specific, if you have found that not all beautiful women are in possession of truth, or even pleasure, that does not mean that no beautiful women have anything for you. This is simply another rush to a conclusion, another bad Modern syllogism, another mistake. A large part of contemporary feminism has slurred all beautiful women and all beauty by rushing to this conclusion. But if all beauty does not deliver as it beckons, by a necessary link, some beauty delivers exactly what it promises, and it is this beauty we should seek. This is the beauty that Keats is praising. Beauty is not truth: beauty may be truth, in which case the truth is doubly pleasant.

So Modernity has slurred all beauty to no purpose (other than co-option), replacing it with an even sandier palace, an even buggier ointment. Among other things, the Modern program has praised the gigantic. This is one of the greatest sentences in this essay, one I have quoted many times. “It is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful.” It all turns on the word “easier”. The new “artists” have claimed that they have changed directions for all sorts of grand principled reasons, but the real reason is that they are incapable of beauty. They do what they can, what is easy, and it is easier by far to fake a “principled” pose, to repeat current catch phrases, to move masses by giving them what they want. One thing they want is the gigantic, which they conflate with the great. Another thing they want is the “idea”, which they conflate with expression.

It was not with his music that Wagner conquered them, it was with the “idea”—it was the enigmatic character of his art, its playing hide-and-seek behind a hundred symbols, its polyphony of the ideal that leads and lures these youths to Wagner.

Change one word, “ideal” to “ideational”, and you can apply that sentence directly to Deconstruction. Nietzsche might be talking of Derrida here. Of course it also applies to Cubism and to much of Picasso’s oeuvre, but the farther we go into the 20th century, the more applicable this sentence becomes. It is true of Wagner, truer of Picasso, and truer still of Derrida. All were histrios, actors, with a special appeal to hysterical people, but whereas Wagner was both musician and histrio, and whereas Picasso was a quondam painter as well as a histrio, Derrida was naught but histrio. Wagner and Picasso used smoke and mirrors, but Derrida was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Derrida was the game of hide-and-seek and nothing else. After Derrida this game spread in a thousand directions, achieving a truly terrestrial width, but it never thereby achieved any depth. Every small boat in need of a tow threw a grapple to Deconstruction, but the entire fleet never gained an ounce of ballast, since all were still afloat on a false sea, with nothing onboard but an airy ambition.

Deconstruction was pre-fabricated to appeal to a Modern audience of precisely the sort Nietzsche describes: they were looking to be thrown. “Whoever throws us is strong, whoever elevates us is divine, whoever leads us to have intimations is profound.” Who is this Modern audience?—“The culture cretins, the petty snobs, the eternally feminine, those with a happy digestion”, in short, almost everyone now. Nothing has been more influential with Modern Art than Deconstruction, not Duchamp, not Dada, not Democratic politics, not even the Dollar. Deconstruction has become the bloated rubric that can contain them all, and still be empty: a Zen koan that.

Almost no one who claims to take art seriously stands outside this rubric. The worldwide response to Nietzsche in the last 120 years has been to prove his point with ever greater pluralities. What his Germans were in 1880, we are also, but exponentially moreso. Nietzsche’s “German youths, horned Siegfrieds, and other Wagnerians” would have been astonished and offended to find that they were called “culture cretins” by anyone; but the youth (and not just the youth) of today would embrace Nietzsche’s slurs with relish.
Of course they want symbols, they would answer, of course they want enigmatic characters, of course they want to be “thrown”, of course they want intimations, of course they want obscurity, of course they want vulgarity and brutality and opacity. What is my point? What kind of atavism am I? The problem is mine, for speaking in outmoded terms. For thinking there is something else than what is now. For wanting something no longer on the menu.

Besides, the youth now are quite certain that all these slurs of Nietzsche, and of mine, are signs of distinction. Vulgarity and brutality, for instance, are the ultimate symbols of honesty, they would say. People are, of necessity, vulgar and brutal, and to deny or transcend these categories in any way is to flee your own humanity. All distinctions are likewise a mirage and a falsity, so that to waste time learning facts or skills is simply vanity. There is no wisdom, only pedantry. No hierarchy but money. No sages but the sages of no-knowledge. No learning but unlearning.

Of course, by this logic, there is no waking but unwaking, no eating but uneating, and no moving but unmoving. These scrupulously honest youths, to remain consistent, must wake only to puke, and may not leave their bamboo mats to do so. But of course they have no interest in consistency either, or they would not have made it to the pass they are at.

Most amazing is that many of these youths quote Nietzsche, as if his Dionysian element applies to their sort of wildness in any way. They assume that because they have succeeded in startling their parents by getting tattoos, wearing dreds, or listening to various strange non-melodies, they have somehow become Bacchantes or Maenads. They are proud of having outgrown the cult of Jesus, only to jump immediately into some other cult, be it that of Buddha or Wicca or Gaia or Bob Marley. Where is the youth without an affiliation? For these, Nietzsche is just another floating name, another cool person who did something “radical”, they aren’t sure what, really. Surely he wouldn’t deny them every sort of freedom, would he? Surely he wouldn’t expect clarity, or consistency, or decency? He couldn’t believe in a hierarchy of worth, could he? He wouldn’t be allowed to be spoken of, if that were the case. He couldn’t have said anything against democracy, could he? That is totally like uncool, man.

But let us hear it from Nietzsche’s own German youths:

Let us dare, my friends, to be ugly. Wagner has dared it. Let us dauntlessly roll in the mud of the most contrary harmonics. Let us not spare our hands. Only thus will we become natural.

In precisely the same way have the youths of today misunderstood Lucian Freud, for example. Everything ugly is thought to be natural, and so everything beautiful false. Even Kate Moss must be monster-fied before she can become realized. A poor viewing of Van Gogh has led to this error, so that rather than come away with the truth, which is that the natural may be ugly, the youths have come away with the falsehood, that the natural must be ugly. They hold to this idea at the same time they hold to the idea that they themselves are a species of Greek Maenad, simply because they are undisciplined, though the Greeks, whether Dionysian or Apollinian, could never, of course, accept the notion of ugliness as a requirement of art or honesty. Daring to be ugly is not artistic, any more than daring to be undisciplined is to be a devotee or beloved of Dionysus. Just as the Modern attitudes toward art are utterly inartistic, the Modern attitudes to religion, of whatever sort, are profoundly unreligious.

Let us never admit that music serves recreation; that it exhilarates; that it gives pleasure. Let us never give pleasure! We are lost as soon as art is again thought of hedonistically.

And again,

Beauty is difficult: beware of beauty!—And melody! Slander, my friends, let us slander, if we are at all serious about our ideal, let us slander melody! Nothing is more dangerous than a beautiful melody. Nothing corrupts taste more surely. We are lost, my friends, once beautiful melodies are loved again!

Poor Greenberg, who took Nietzsche seriously here, who did not recognize that these were words in the mouths of the enemy, slandering art itself. For this is precisely what Modern art has done. This is the lesson you can still get today if you go to be lectured at MOMA or the Whitney by the curators and directors of the ugly and the gigantic and the unmelodious. They will tell you to flee your instincts, to flee beauty and all the ancient definitions of art. Why?—not because they are realized, advanced, principled, people of the future. No, because they and their puppets cannot create it. Real art must be slandered simply to protect the market. They are lost once things begin to have real definitions again, art first of all. If quality is re-introduced, either as beauty or skill or expression or melody or subtlety or elevation or decency, they are lost. They cannot supply the goods in that case.

In declining cultures, wherever the decision comes to rest with the masses, authenticity becomes superfluous, disadvantageous, a liability. Only the actor still arouses great enthusiasm.

That is clear enough from Hollywood as well as MOMA, since we are back to the actor, the poser. But it is also true in realism, where the inauthentic art is more highly valued than the authentic. Kinkaid and Pino are only the most obvious examples, the inauthentic par exellence. Almost the entire rest of the field would be the other examples. Authentic art is looked at with distrust and unease, by gallery and client alike. Where would they hang it?

Finally, I will close with a quote from Goethe that Nietzsche uses in this essay, a quote I have always loved. What is the danger that threatens all romantics, Goethe asks himself?

Suffocating of the rumination of moral and religious absurdities.

Nietzsche uses this as a lead-in to one of his many critiques of Wagner’s opera Parsifal, the naïve pseudo-Christianity of which he finds intolerable. But this danger doesn’t only threaten romantics. It has suffocated the entire 20th century, and continues to hold a pillow over the head of the 21st, neither of which has been, or is, especially romantic. These centuries like to pretend they have conquered both morality and religion, but they have only exchanged some forms for other forms. A large percentage of those who have “outgrown” Christianity or Judaism, where desire is a sin, have graduated to other religions or systems of belief, like Buddhism or Islam or the Force or Science, where desire is still negative, sin or not. Not even Jedi knights can trust their emotions, unless, apparently, they are firing weapons. Whether you are being lectured to by the curator at the Guggenheim or Yoda you hear the same sorry advice: fight your impulses, fight the things that give you pleasure. You might as well be schooled by Kant or Schopenhauer or Mother Teresa.

The Modern has a nearly flawless record of keeping the worst of all creeds, living on an amazing amalgam of falsehoods. As an example, he or she claims to have been freed from the negative limitations of the old religions, but still cannot look upon a nude without shame. The Modern American is “free” enough to sneak around on the internet, looking at huge piles of porn, but not free enough to hang a nude in the house. “The kids might see it.” I’m sorry, what?
What did you just say? Somehow it appears that you have freed yourself and your progeny for the bad, but not for the good. You are free to go lusting after other people’s lovers, with your pants around your ankles, but not free to hang art in your house?

On every other issue, the irrationality is as rampant. Moderns have nothing but contempt for Biblical inconsistencies, but find esoteric meaning in purposefully inconsistent, illogical, or meaningless koans and paradoxes, either religious or scientific. Eastern Monks fucking around with the language, like some perverse computer on StarTrek, is worth days of reading; and likewise textual revisionists, jerking themselves off for hundreds of pages, hypertexting and troping and whatnot till their balls hurt; likewise theoretical physicists thumping the empty Modern head with every species of high-falutin idiocy they can cull from the cosmos. Moderns have nothing but contempt for the Ptolemies of the past, watching their orreries rotate like dogs watching meat on a string, or the Aristotles of the past, compiling their Nicomachean absurdities like parrots playing the pipe-organ; but have an infinite patience and respect for every article in
Scientific American or Physics Today, assuming that these charlatans are not as fake as their forefathers. Based on what? Based on their absolute inability to deny anything being claimed? By that measure, they would have to sit in awe at the feet of Renny the Ratboy as he explains the rings on his pets’ tails as markers of geologic future time, or sing the praises of Little John Jehoshaphat as he counts the motes on his eye, tabulating them on his tiny abacus as a telltale of Parousia. And many of them will do that also, indeed, since Renny and Little John are the ones who will be picked by the Turner Prize jury, who will be shortlisted at the Whitney, who you will meet over expensive though tart champagne at Gagosian or PaceWildenstein.

Yes, the Moderns have managed the admittedly astonishing feat of having invented the reverse sieve. They have sifted through all the eons of human history, arriving at a completely inverted wisdom, which is to say
no-wisdom. Which is to say that they have become like the yogi standing on his head. Yes, the blood may have rushed out of their nether regions, to some small extent, but it is not doing their brains any favors.

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