I was recently watching an interview with Patti Smith, by a Scandinavian cleric. He told Patti that she was embodying a very traditional, and long-forgotten Christian value-system, by centring her art on expressions of the divine.
Patti acknowledged that is actually her mission – to harness the ineffable beauty inside of her, and communicate it to her fellow man.
It made me laugh, because this view of art, and the placing of a high-value on the individual artist as spiritual missionary, flies in the face of the hipster nihilism of our times.
The very notion that an artist would arrogate herself the role of divine PR-officer is a direct threat to those with a vested interest in a Godless, Machiavellian culture.
Not only is it a threat to the CEOs and the elite billionaires who profit from animalistic consumption; it is a challenge to the smug, wise-cracking, hipster, social critics and academic liberals, who see themselves as independent thinkers, but assume that this role requires nothing more than pointing and laughing at human folly.
The tendency to assume that purely egotistical motivations lie behind everything, especially art, has its roots in the puritanical iconoclasm of the late medieval period – the Reformation.
Like the reaction to colonialism, the reaction to corrupt religion is legitimate, and accurate in ascribing narcissistic motives to the trumpery of ritual and scriptural propaganda.
But the danger is that all sacredness becomes suspect, just as today, all statements of purpose are considered suspect.
In the modern, post-Marxist, post-everything world, it is not enough to reject religion. Purpose and meaning are also to be treated with contempt.
When an artist says – “my purpose is to manifest the divine in the material world,” it sounds grandiose. But what is the alternative?
A belief in the sacred is simply the expression of gratitude and love, not just for people, but for life itself. Enthusiasm, curiosity, idealism and a faith in the flourishing of life are unfashionable.
The advantage of nihilism is it allows you to be lazy. The advantage of cynicism, is that it allows you to be right, all the time. When one lives with faith, one must live with the possibility of failure and disappointment. When one lives with enthusiasm and purpose, one must live with the prospect of one’s own frailty, one’s sinfulness and self-destructiveness. A sense of purpose is a lot to live up to.
This is the ultimate defence of the artistic missionary. As it is with the person of faith. It may be that a simplistic Freudian explanation is true. The artist is grandiose and narcissistic. But it is more likely that their sense of who they are, the sense of meaning that guides them, is tested at every creative juncture – with every choice and new beginning, and with every moment of inevitable exposure.
In that way then, the artistic life, the life of the self-ascribed missionary of beauty, is one of great humility and egotistical cost.
The egotist plays it safe. The missionary takes risks. The egotist has the benefit of always being right, because he is never testing himself. The missionary is always wrong, and her success emerges from acceptance of that fact.
To live an artistic life, the poet’s life of spiritual purpose, contravenes the arrogant assumptions of modernity. Far easier is it for the modern happy worker, and the contented cog in the great technological wheel, to believe that human beings are narcissistic and greedy, and live lives of meaningless consumption.
Thinking this way gives a person a sense of righteous insight; it also embodies the very values that allow the worst crimes of exploitation and rapacious consumption of our times.
What people cannot stand about the artist, is not that she has elected herself to be a voice of the divine, though that might be the stated reason for contempt. Rather, it is the values implicit in an artistic world view, that the modern, Hobbesian nihilist cannot abide.
The artist, as opposed to the prosaic creative craftsman, is a threat to the very value-system of intellectual slavery that governs modern life. In order for the consumptive economy to persist, higher meaning and alternative forms of happiness must be rejected and purged from our consciousness. The pursuit of fulfilment must be replaced with the pursuit of lust.
Scientific method has come to represent nothing more than this violent nothingness, this industrial void. Academics and cultural commentators no longer feel a duty to propose alternative views of human nature and social values. Instead, they invest their rebellion in disgust at consumerism and the will to power. They sneer from the sidelines of public life about the gracelessness of human nature and reduce all human achievement to an imperial instinct for self-aggrandisement.
As a result, rebellion is really now just a form of conformity to the dominant power-worship of the day. By simply professing contempt for power, without affirming alternative values (other than economic equality), the liberal rebel is not really challenging the intellectual regime of the age.
The modern critic does not see fit to offer new models of living, or to affirm bygone values of a higher happiness.
The hipster – the scientist, the broadcaster, the prose writer, the journalist or academic – is content to be complicit in modernity’s nihilism, because exposing it for what it is, is enough to feel superior and intellectually penetrating.
A belief in beauty, a leap towards an earnest view of human potential, would mean there is too much to lose. The modern rebel, the hipster, has thus become simply an unwitting propagandist for meaninglessness, and he is usually happy to be just that.
In an age of nihilism, the profession of faith is the most damaging form of rebellion. For this reason, the hipster rebel must pour scorn on the true artist.