Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

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Michelangelo: His Epic Life (book review)

The greatest strength of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford is the way that Gayford distills the sweeping genius of Michelangelo into accessible, journalistic prose, a style of writing directed at the curious layman, rather than the pontificating specialist.

Like all young artists, Michelangelo faced severe, sometimes, physical resistance to his choice of career from his family the Buonarotti. Gayford demonstrates the timeless struggle of artist versus bourgeois security in a clear and contemporary way.

‘We read about the ‘rise of the artist’ in Renaissance Italy, but of course such changes are not homogenous, any more than the causes of racial and gender equality have been in our own times…. Not everyone was so admiring of artists and the arts. The Buonarotti brothers, it seems, saw nothing but painful social slippage. A clever boy who might have become a bishop was determined instead to become an artisan who worked with hands. They probably felt it was their duty to try to beat it out of him.’ (pg45)

Gayford is an aproachable storyteller, able to get out out of the way of the story, while at the same time succinctly brief us on the context and background of the drama of Renaissance life.

He brilliantly sets up Michelangelo’s place in his time, capturing the way the man was both a product of the society into which he was born, but how he fought against these circumstances. It is this paradox of inheriting the ambitions of his forerunners and his patrons, but not being content to follow their script that makes Michelangelo worth returning to for biographers.

‘One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, “he formed the wish to make a colossus that would be visible to mariners from a afar.” In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure. One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body.’ (pg 211)

Storytelling clarity and accessibility are pre-eminent in Gayford’s short discussion of Michelangelo’s early painting copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer – The Temptation of St Anthony.

‘Schongauer’s St Anthony was a powerful example of a new medium which some people were probably already hanging on their walls as an affordable substitute for a picture. The thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Michelangelo was therefore doing something shrewd and timely by transposing it into colour. It was also a bizarre phantasmagoria of an image which it is easy imagining appealing to a teenager. In modern terms, as art historian Keith Christiansen has put it, this is “a Star Wars picture.” “…a fastidious sense of line and form, a willingness to work ferociously hard to produce as sharply telling as possible and an overpowering urge to compete.”‘ (pg 59 and pg 61)

Michelangelo comes across as exactly the temperamental genius we always assume him to be. However, his irascibility, his grumpy egotism and aggressive ambitions, don’t take away from the essential lovability of the man. Gayford calls him a ‘….hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man…’

Gayford is never shy of demonstrating the man’s limitations emotionally, nor his lack of hygiene and his manifestly anti-social character. What’s strange, though, is that the overall result of Gayford’s portrait is not an artist whose arrogance and violent moods make us hate him, but a brilliant and sometimes unstable genius whose volatility was necessary to his achievements.

‘[Ascanio] Condivi reported some thoroughly insanitary habits: “When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and in the boots he had always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s.’ Vasari had little more information on that last, revolting, point. The buskins were dog skin, worn next to the skin, with which they bonded.’’’ (pg228)

Gayford points out that the more Michelangelo complained and threw tantrums against his family, friends and even his patrons, the more brilliant and historic the work he must have been working on.

This offers a point worth considering. Mood swings and aggressive paranoia do not, as we often lazily suppose, go hand in hand with creative ability. There are plenty of stable, compliant and socially adaptive people who are creative, and man great artists who are too.

However, visionary power, the ability and proclivity to see beyond your times, to entertain impossible feats and to have the obsessive, arrogant and hubristic determination to carry them out – these qualities seem necessary linked to some kind of peculiarly neurotic genius. Civilisation comes at a cost, and that cost is very often an epic and violent discontent, both within the artist, and his surroundings.

Michelangelo was a malcontent, oblivious social norms, gentilisms and social expectations. His only considerations of class seem purely egotistical, given his desire to elevate the status of his family name through his achievements.

Gayford illustrates this brilliantly by contrasting Michelangelo with Raphael:

‘Raphael’s art projected just this sense of mastery with ease, whereas Michelangelo expressed heroic effort and passionate vehemence. A sixteenth century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures looked like porters. Clearly, Raphael had the manners of a courier himself. It was rumoured that Leo X intended to make him a cardinal, but was prevented by Raphael’s early death. This, too, emphasizes the contrast: it is impossible to imagine Michelangelo as a prince of the Church – a hermit or a mystic, perhaps, but not a cardinal.’ (pg 257)
One of the mysteries of Michelangelo is how he was able to sustain his characteristic levels of physical and mental concentration. From an angle of pure physical labour, the Sistine Chapel is a superhuman accomplishment. And that’s before we consider the grandeur of the aesthetic achievement.

The decision by Michelangelo to include scenes from the gospel that had not been covered by the existing frescoes on the lower walls of the chapel, is probably the key to what makes the work truly great, rather than just a work of genius. As a simple depiction of the Apostles, the project could have had no particular interest to Michelangelo, it was a decorative assignment. But with a multidimensional creative design, suddenly the rolling and shifting challenges of cramming so much poetry into the limited designs of the architecture of the ceiling, must have given Michelangelo enough sense of shifting possibilities, to make it worth the blood and the sweat.

Gayford’s Michelangelo is gruff, anti-social, cruel and egotistical. Yes, he’s a product of his times. Yes, he’s a deranged genius. Yes, he’s a self-mythologiser, and all the things we have come to associate with the self-aggrandising Renaissance man. However, the sincerity of the man, and the limitless poetic ambition of imagination are what redeem him, and it is this crucial element in the Renaissance and in Michelangelo, that is often forgotten in the impersonal, critical hindsight art history that seeks to reduce individual greatness to impersonal forces.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (Penguin) is available on Amazon