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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Biased journalism doesn’t have to mean low standard reporting

Journalism is the recording of stories and facts that people don’t want recorded. At least, that’s what it used to be.

Today, journalism has become either activism or infotainment. Online new media tends to veer towards advocacy, while the big, old fashioned media companies compete for the public’s outrage and compulsive curiosity.

Journalism is not dead, but the idea of telling stories that people want suppressed, is increasingly unsexy. The very people who don’t want certain stories recorded, tend to be the same interest groups that have a command of the media.

In the last few days a debate has sprung up online about the difference between activism and journalism. Of course, this debate presupposes a distinction between recording facts, and having a reason to record them. There is rarely such a clear distinction.

The concept of a purely ‘objective’ journalism has always been a kind of veneer for consensus reporting, whereby large interest groups maintain a limited scope for civic curiosity by commanding the boundaries of public debate. This is the very reason there is such a thing as ‘the mainstream media’.

Lauren Southern is a commentator who formerly worked for Rebel Media, a conservative, and nationalist, online media channel in Canada. She now runs her own independent channel, and is famous for a stunty kind of activism, and unapologetically advancing a nationalist, right wing view of current affairs.

She recently posted a video in which she called into question not just the existence of objectivity in the media, but the possibility of it, and even the desirability of it.

In another video published almost simultaneously, left libertarian skate-boarding reporter Tim Pool spoke about the dangers of activism creeping into journalism, and his own experiences at left-leaning companies where trendy narratives and grievances are stressed in order to drive traffic to their sites.

Pool is a new breed of journalist who appears to reclaim the old-fashioned desire for independent reporting that seeks to record the ‘best version of the truth’ (as Watergate newsman Carl Bernstein once put it), while embracing new technology and online media.

Pool has experience in Vice and similar organisations, and made his name reporting on the Occupy Wallstreet march.

Both sides of the story seem to have a point. Objectivity is a false ideal, and can have its own dangers in that helps to foster consensus, which itself helps to suppress the most pertinent stories.

However, the growing trend for activist journalism and blogging threatens to erode the standards of rigour and fastidious method that characterise the best and most revolutionary stories such as Watergate or the British expenses scandal.

Tim Pool and Lauren Southern actually met recently and recorded a short discussion about these issues, and though both take a different view, there seemed to be an agreement about the importance of this question, and a shared disdain for the Vice-type advocacy journalism that dominates online media.

However, it seems that both commentators might be missing something. There’s a conflation here between truth without a perspective, and truth without a standard.

Journalists need to have a moral conviction to drive their work, or else they become simply machines processing information. Too often the greatest threat to hard-hitting reporting is not corporate bias, but a careerist malaise whereby the rigour of method gives way to an uncritical organisation of mere facts. For this reason, Lauren Southern has more than a small point in her criticism of ‘objectivity’ as a standard.

The test of a good story is now simply what makes a good headline. Whereas the true test of a story should be the nature of the vested interests who don’t want it to break and the lengths to which they will go to suppress it. The more extreme these factors are, the better the story.

A sense of moral conviction is key to this news sense, and such stories will completely pass by jobbing reporters who hide their lazy resignation behind the excuse of remaining objective. It’s a little like refusing to denounce honour killings for fear of being ‘Islamaphobic’. They use virtue to justify moral apathy.

No reportage is without bias or perspective, but that doesn’t mean that reporting is by nature purely subjective and can’t be trusted. True journalists need their critical self-awareness and rigour not as ways to guarantee objectivity, but as tried and tested ways of offsetting their own limitations.

Moral conviction is part and parcel of good news sense. Rigorous standards of reporting are matters of how you deliver the story you are pursuing.

You can have a conviction, as long as you seek to get the best version of the facts that you possibly can. Simply having a perspective doesn’t discredit the journalism. It’s the rigour of your process that determines the credibility, not your bias.

The crime of modern advocacy media is not that they have a bias or a perspective or a moral cause to press. The crime is having sloppy methods of information gathering. In leftwing journalism especially, having the ‘right’ moral view, compensates for having a lack of rigour, and makes writers think that they don’t need it.

We depend upon journalists to spot the stories that major interests go out of their way to keep from the public eye. This requires a balance between moral conviction and critical method. It’s okay to have a bias, as long as that bias does not compromise a commitment to truth.

The mere existence of a bias, does not necessarily mean a lack of standards.

You can follow Tim Pool on @TimCast and Lauren Southern on @Lauren_Southern

White guilt, masochism and immigration: Douglas Murray gives the inaugural Smith Lecture

The inaugural Smith Lecture of the New Culture Forum was given by author and journalist Douglas Murray this week.

Murray’s book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam is already a bestseller in the UK, and set to become one in the USA. In it, the author sketches a terrifying picture of European immigration and its effects on social stability across the continent.

Europe, claims Murray, is committing suicide by allowing unregulated, mass immigration, a policy that is changing the cultural and political landscape at the expense of existing citizens.

However, Murray’s book is more than an assault on immigration policy, or the lack of it. The book’s real purpose is to ask the tough questions politicians and pundits are at pains to avoid.

While the Right grandstand and appeal to nationalist identities, the Left preach about tolerance and diversity without actually offering practical ways those ideals can be realistically maintained.

This was the starting point of Murray’s lecture – whatever one believes, wherever you are on the political rainbow when it comes to immigration, the substance of the public discussion is dangerously flimsy.

Those on the Left would like to dismiss Murray and his readers as Rightwing scaremongers (he was recently called a ‘hate preacher’ live on the BBC, for which the BBC apologised). However, with the rise of nationalism, Britain voting to leave the EU and the increased threat of jihadist violence across the continent, a failure to engage in this discussion means surrendering serious questions about Europe’s future to the whims of the political fringe.

Murray’s book is vast and covers everything from hard policy to the more spiritual questions of European culture and identity. One question he feels all commentators are failing to ask is: ‘who is Europe for?’

If, as the Left and compassionate centrists claim, Europe needs to make itself a curator of the world’s cultures and a place of refuge for the needy from all corners of the globe, how are we to solve the problems of resources, capacity, open borders and integration?

It is clear that even the most well-intentioned progressive can’t simply base practical policy on ‘being nice’ to everyone who needs our help. If we want Europe to be a safe space for the dispossessed, then we need to move beyond virtue-signalling and admit that we are prepared to change the culture to make that happen.

In the early parts of his talk, Murray spoke of the hypocrisy in places like Sweden and Austria, where, despite subscribing the the EU’s free movement policy, they have erected what seem to be old-fashioned borders in response to the fears of jihadism.

The result is a laughable PR spin, where they talk the talk of free movement, while walking the walk of tough counter-terrorism responses.

This is just one of the many contortions and unsustainable policy contradictions that European powers are finding themselves in as a result of mass immigration.

When challenged on what he believes to be the first practical step in preventing the ‘suicide’ of Europe he warns of, Murray offers a surprisingly liberal and sane starting point: slow it down.

As he details in his book, Murray mirrors the broad consensus among citizens across Europe, who are not against immigration, but simply want to see it better controlled.

As a conservative, one suspects that Murray’s answer to the ‘who is Europe for?’ challenge is a little more exclusive than the standard view, which seems to be that Europe has a duty to offer limitless succour the the world’s needy.

Murray is adamant that a Leftwing driven white guilt about European empire and the crimes of slavery and colonialism, is what is stopping many politicians from even limiting immigration numbers, never mind stopping the flow.

He is at pains to acknowledge that a country that does not have a healthy knowledge of its dark past as well as its achievements, is a dangerous one. However, the culture of white guilt, he argues, has left us with a heritage of ‘original sin’ from which we can never be redeemed. And it is this that is stopping politicians from acting to limit immigration, even when they know it is unpopular with their own electorate and it is causing serious security threats.

Murray, however, is less concerned with the hard policy solutions, as he is with the spiritual questions about European identity.

With sardonic irony, he believes Europe’s problem is a kind of cultural masochism, which has unfortunately found its ideal sadist in Islamic terror.

Even if one disagrees with Murray about the solution to the migration crisis, it is still a kind of self-hatred and white guilt to refuse to even ask, never mind answer, the tough questions.

Not once did Murray mention any nationalist agenda. His concern in this talk was in re-igniting a sense of cultural ‘continuity’ among Europeans.

Like many conservative commentators, Murray is quick to put blame on the Left for the breakdown in cultural pride and the fragmentation of common values that are necessary to a resilient identity. He is right. The Left have made a fetish of ‘the new’, and associate history, the constitution, parliament and the rule of law with stuffy old white men in bowler hats.

The new world of gay marriage and Five Guys burgers and Snap Chat is far preferable, according to the counter-culture narrative, than anything associated with heritage, christianity and a veneration for the great men who sculpted our liberties over centuries.

As we can see with the new Winston Churchill film, old white guys are bad, no matter what they did. They represent a power structure that leaves everyone else ‘marginalised’, they represent established might, rather than egalitarianism. It matters not a jot that Churchill, like many ‘old white guys’ before him, carved out an indelible legacy of freedom which every tech entrepreneur and rap star and YouTube celebrity enjoys and takes for granted today.

Even the word ‘civilisation’ is often conflated with colonialism, as is anything which doesn’t explicitly pay homage to the trendy, Twitter-friendly, right-on, emancipation-lite of Black Lives Matter and Amy Schumer.

All that being said, the Right have a lot to answer for too. What Murray and many conservatives fail to acknowledge is that the neo-liberal, nation-building Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutionary politics of the eighties and nineties also did a lot of damage in not only eroding the power of our cultural institutions, but also in eroding the faith citizens are supposed to have in them.

The industrialised, bottom-line utilitarianism of the modern Right is as much to blame as the anachronistic protest culture of the Left. Both collapse the credibility of notions like common identity, cultural heritage and civic duty.

The Left talk big about ‘civil rights’ but they pour scorn on the very process of history that formed these bedrock principles. The past is racist, and the future belongs to the oppressed, however much the definition of oppression changes to suit the mood of the day.

The Right simplistically revert to reactionary, better-the-devil-you-know nationalism, and claim that they are a kind of insurgent rebel class, merely because they detest the Left-heavy media elites.

Neither remaking the world anew, nor reverting to pre-Sixties institutions, will do the trick. Murray’s demand that we re-establish ‘continuity’ with our cultural inheritance and really live the values bequeathed to us, is spot on. However, we must create cultural pride as a bedrock to individual freedom, not as part of some ideological flight into the past.

Invoking the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, Murray insists that we are the beneficiaries of a rich and robust cultural heritage. As citizens it is part of our duty to make sure that liberty, pluralism and equality under the law are preserved for coming generations.

Even if we want to be the source of refuge for the world, we cannot do it out of a default masochism. And neither can we allow our sense of a brotherhood of man to erode the very principles which make Europe the safe, stable and free continent that it is, and which makes people seek refuge here in the first place.

 

The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam is now available on Amazon, and at fine bookstores everywhere

 

 

 

Bohemianism versus hipsterism and lifestyle marketing

Traditionally, bohemians are middle class. But they are not bourgeois, in the sense that they don’t define themselves by wealth. Bohemianism emerges from the middle classes who are disillusioned with economically-driven social values.

Today, bohemianism has been distorted by lifestyle marketing.

Bohemians made an artistic statement through their lifestyles. Hipsters, use lifestyle fashion to seem like they are making a statement through their lives.

The difference is in the substance. Not just your actions, but your values.

Part of the problem, if not the complete problem of modernity, is that consumerism, brand marketing and public relations have made what you say more important than what you do.

The real value of bohemianism is in the influence these kinds of lifestyles have had on the culture. You can’t impact history, by simply dressing a certain way.

By putting out into the culture that it is possible to live a certain way other than through commercialism or politics, that you can put individual values front and centre of your existence, certain groups of people in history have left a legacy of stories, art and values, that remind us that individual growth is as important, if not more so, than collective survival.

This is different from the right wing individualism that is so prevalent in American politics. It’s also wildly removed from the liberal, hummus-eating, Camden-condo lifestyle hipsterism you see everywhere online and with which London is packed right now.

How do we tell the difference between crude individualism and lifestyle fashion, and genuine bohemianism? The influence.

Influence as a cultural force can be defined as that which new generations can’t avoid, they have to confront the phenomenon, before they can be free of it. They both love it, and resent, and the struggle for a new creative influence comes from this need to master the influence and transcend it.

Neither selfish individualism, nor lifestyle hipsterism fall into this. The selfish right wing are concerned with short term pursuits, and they believe that a momentum of short term self-advancement keeps the culture alive. Any case of corporate malfeasance, or political corruption proves this wrong.

Hipsterism is a false individualism. It reduces freedom, emancipation and creativity to fashion statements, and therefore becomes competitive and ego-driven. It’s simply commercial values masquerading as bohemianism.

To repeat, bohemianism is when you display a fresh, non-commercial, non-economic way of living in the world. It’s got nothing to do with technology, fashion or whether you drink green tea or Italian coffee.

What matters is whether you are seeking to create a new way of living that sources its values from alternative places outside the dominant, contemporary culture.

In the nineteenth century, it was bohemian to be a socialist atheist, or a christian anarchist. Nowadays, these things have become mainstream, or simply uninteresting cliches.

If you were a member of the Bloomsbury group, drinking green tea and sowing your own dresses was bohemian. Nowadays it has become a fashion statement.

Being a bohemian is not about what you do, but what values you are manifesting in the world.

Bohemian values are not to be found in certain clothing styles, record collections, or political movements, which have themselves become fashion statements.

Marketing has turned everything into a fetish. Which means that the lifestyle affectations become ends in themselves, rather than means to ends.

The true value in bohemianism is in creating a legacy of independent thought. You don’t fall for branding, advertising or marketing.

Advertisers are expert at looking to what your values are, and convincing you that their product will bring you closer to those values.

But our values must always be ready to change, or if they are fundamental, we must always be prepared to re-examine why we hold to them.

The bohemian doesn’t wear her values as fashion statements. The only value that really matters is individual conscience, free of the manufacture of opinion that characterises modern democracies.

The fastest way to embody bohemianism in the modern Mactopia, is to be suspicious of all lifestyle, fashion and advertising.

Yes, it is a losing battle. The war has already been lost. But there is something curiously and quintessentially bohemian about fighting a losing battle. In some ways that just adds value to the fight.

The number one duty we have is to dig deep into our culture, into what has stood the test of time – the architecture, the philosophy, the ideas and concepts of beauty, that have lasted centuries.

Some say this is a reactionary philosophy. I say it is truly innovative. The purpose is not to use these resources for dictation on how to live, but to build up enough of an inner world of creative possibilities and imaginative sophistication so as to be resilient against the ephemeral culture of modernity.

I am not advocating an orthodoxy of values. Simply recommending a way of feeding the soul so that we can become truly independently minded, free from the influences of contemporary agendas.

Going back to the idea of influence; we do not revisit past culture to imitate it, but to be free of it, and retain all that is useful and valuable in it. Also we remain connected to aspects of who we are that have nothing to do with the short term interests of power and money in our immediate world.

Being free of these distractions and interests is really what being a bohemian is all about.

NETFLIX REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.

The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.

Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.

The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.

The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.

This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.

As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.

Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.

The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.

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

 

‘Love and peace’ is not enough: We must show them who we really are

Our enemies think of us as a decadent race. They think they have the advantage over us. They believe that they have a passion and a readiness to die for something greater than themselves, and we do not. They believe we are ripe for the plucking, because we are on the turn.

We need to show them that we too are friends with death. That we are not hiding our faces from the devil. That we are not so conceited that we live in some cartoonish, deathless world of consumerism fuelled by infantilism, just as they believe we do.

We must reject the critique of western civilisation, that it is somehow all simply founded on exploitation. That is self-hatred, and a gross oversimplification. Unfortunately, all societies, all nations and civilisations have exploitation and bloodshed in their history. The human DNA is packed full of trauma, and each of us has inherited monsters, rapists, abusers and warmongers. We are, without doubt, descended from tyrants and imperialists.

However, that is only a fraction of the story. The history of civilisation is a history of man’s battle with himself. Everything from Greek democracy right down to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jnr, through Michelanglo’s David, is a catalogue of desperate self-transcendence. Whatever our faults as a civilisation, the need to overcome our animal impulses is a defining feature of who we are, and what we have become.

Western civilisation is not decadent. Western culture is not the product of empire. Western civilisation is not the preserve of fat, white, iphone-addicted MacDonalds-munching morons.

No, our civilisation, with its secular ideals, its love of beauty and the belief in man’s capacity to overcome himself, is the product of the essential evolutionary impulse, the knowledge that culture can conquer death. We must get back the deeply understood knowledge buried in our biology, that we are parts only of some greater whole, some greater potential and cosmic project.

This knowledge is our greatest weapon against our enemies. They have missed this crucial piece of the battle plan. They have missed it because they are incapable of understanding it. Their minds are swept up in the passionate, bloodthirsty conviction of moral righteousness that attaches itself in desperation to anything that resembles the finality of truth.

They are convinced that this conviction and zeal gives them the upper hand. That they alone have the capacity to sacrifice themselves for a higher, divine order. In their narcissistic lust for martyrdom, they have blinded themselves to the fact that civilisation has the advantage. That they are fighting a losing battle.

However, it remains for us to reconnect with the beauty and brilliance of what our forebears have bequeathed us. It is time to stop apologising, to stop navel-gazing and indulging in guilt over our power and history. It is perfectly possible for us to extend the powers and privileges of our liberties and freedoms to those who were previously exploited, while at the same time salvaging the best of our inheritance.

Every family has a history of abuse and trauma. But every family equally has the assets of survival, struggle and overcoming that can be harnessed by its young. To salvage what is best in our culture, without guilt, without shame, without self-flagellation, does not mean we live in denial of the crimes of the past. It simply means we understand the context of those crimes, and we make sure that whatever powers we glean from our past are not excluded to the least among us.

And like our forefathers, we learn too to see this inheritance of survival and self-overcoming as the very blood of our culture, it is the means by which our genes survive.
We are not impressed by the supposed self-sacrifice of our enemies. We are not intimidated by it. Because, contrary to what they tell themselves, we are entirely familiar with it. We have seen it before, we too were once a culture that delighted in the egotism of a death wish. Some say that our culture is done for, that we are living in the last days of Rome, that the empire is collapsing on itself. History is repeating, and we are prisoners to inevitability.

Such gloom and self-hatred is the work of false prophecy. No culture before us has survived its own crimes of slavery and exploitation, no culture in history has triumphed over its own savagery, the cults of nationalism, pathological war, like the culture we call our own.

The 20th century is a blot of demonic shame on the history of human life. However, we came through it. And not only did we survive it, we learned from it, we grew, we innovated our way out of the squalor.

Rather than merely rise from the ashes of our unthinkable past crimes, we have emerged a resilient and loving people, willing to extend the hand of brotherhood to all who may wish to join us.

However, somewhere along the line we have convinced ourselves that we need to abandon our past in order to be free of its crimes. This is to give the enemy a free pass. The crimes of our history are not the products of our culture, but aberrations of it. It is our democratic values, our humanism, our love of beauty, truth and the ‘known rules of ancient liberty’ that define the best of our inheritance, not the many instances of our failure to live up to these ideals.

Our enemies are counting on us to hate ourselves. What they don’t understand is that civilisation triumphs over warmongering every time, because civilisation is never undermined by its own failures, and neither are we.

These people think they are the only ones with a cause. They think they only have the zeal and fire to die for the sake of their future generations. They think they and they only have the capacity to face horror, death and the monster of malevolent darkness. They think they have the upper hand because they write us off as scared, spineless, self-consumed animals, buried under technology, privilege and wealth.

They lack the intelligence to see what we are. To see that we are the product of Hellenistic democracy, the Renaissance, the birth of science, the emancipation of slaves, the suffrage of women. Our past is full of war crimes and slaughter. However, through all the struggle and blood we have bequeathed to the world landmark innovations of human progress that our race will never be able to undo.

We need to let our enemies know that if they go to war with us, they go to war with history itself. That even if they kill us, they cannot kill what we represent. That they may be able to rob us of individual life, but they will never rob us, or the world, of the indefatigable victories of our culture. And we must let them know that we too, then, have a creed worth dying for, and that we too are willing to sacrifice comfort, ease, and privilege to ensure that the triumphs of our civilisation also triumph over their boring, childish, conceited barbarism.