Black artists protesting Emmett Till painting are fatuous philistines

A painting of murdered black boy Emmett Till’s beaten body on show at New York’s Whitney Biennial has become the latest object of fatuous, philistine claims of cultural appropriation and so-called systemic racism.

In 1955, 14-year-old Till was beaten and murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother famously insisted on an open casket so the world could see the full horror of the crime.

‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz recreates the original, iconic photo of Emmett Till’s disfigured face, as an impressionist, modern and powerful reminder of a decisive moment in the movement towards civil rights in America. Whitney claim the painting was made as a response to worries about police brutality against black people today.

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However, a number of protestors have taken it upon themselves to brand the art work as racist and illegitimate, claiming that Schutz has no right to objectify black victims, as a white artist.

Rather than see the painting as a sign of solidarity, these silly, imbecilic activists are determined to make Schutz the enemy.

Artist Hannah Black has written an open letter to Whitney calling for the painting to be destroyed. She writes:

‘Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’

It appears we are suffering here from the ‘sacredness of the protestor’ syndrome. From Islamist victimhood to Black Lives Matter’s self-entitled immaturity, all someone needs to do now to be taken seriously or to make a university board cow to their every need, is to pull off the pose of the protestor.

We have been so programmed with the Apple Mac repackaging of the sixties, that the image of a marching, placard-carrying youth is now the shorthand for progressive ideas, and any attempt to criticise it is automatically reactionary.

Protesting has now become a lifestyle choice, a badge of honour for the instagram age. People seem more concerned with being seen to be on the right side of public opinion, than they do on being on the right side of history.

We really have to take a look at the issue of white guilt. Doing so does not mean we are re-writing the past, or turning a blind eye to colonialism. If we now live in a public space in which any reference to whiteness and privilege clears the ground for arbitrary moral claims to be given extra weight than they really deserve, then surely there is something wrong with the idea.

It is now impossible to weigh the claims of Black Lives Matter protests or outcries over ‘Islamophobia’, on their own merits. All someone needs to do to rise above scrutiny is shout accusations about systemic oppression or marginalisation, and all of a sudden they elevate themselves to some ethereal moral space that rules out further discussion.

If you pursue the fundamental moral worry, you hear all sorts of apologism about such and such a person’s experience, the marginalisation of their historic perspective and so on… on and on and on. All of this is supposed to give such claims a special dispensation against scrutiny and challenge.

If you are black, muslim or gay, for instance, you are now immune from such ‘white supremacist’ concerns about free speech, logical consistency or public order.

And this doesn’t even touch on the concern about artistic freedom. History tells us that when a movement begins to prescribe which art is morally acceptable and which is not, then that movement has turned from revolutionary to reactionary, it has assumed the role of executive power, and often does so without any deference to public warrant.

Not only that, the protestors in this case are not content with the removal of the pice of art in question, nor the closing of the exhibition – both of which would be an outrage in their own right. What is being piously demanded is the destruction of the piece of art in question.

How close are we now to book burning? How much further do we need to go from destroying works of art that we don’t like, to exterminating people we deem to be collectively guilty?

These protestors have ever right to protest and express their anger. But that same right gives the rest of us the freedom to not give a monkey’s behind about their feelings, and ignore them.

Crying wolf about racism and oppression is a double insult. Firstly, such claims are false and amount to a slander on what is undeniably one of the freest and most expressive cultures in history.

Secondly, they are a mockery to the countless feminists, journalists and political dissidents currently languishing in rat-infested cells around the world for simply disagreeing with their governments, or being of the wrong skin colour or racial group.

Appeals to invisible racism, or sub-conscious oppression, or hidden biases, amount to nothing more than a tenuous attempt by spoilt, bratty bourgeoisie kids to give their life some kind of elevated meaning. All you need to do to make yourself feel like a revolutionary is to invent through circuitous sophistry some reason for explaining away your liberties as examples of fascistic oppression.

Ultimately, if we are to accept the claims that only black people are allowed to discuss or creatively reflect on the crimes of white racists, what will happen to the numberless songs or works of art that formed the backbone of the civil rights movement? If we destroy this piece of art, what other mementoes of struggle do we have to wipe from our history? And who gets to decide which works stay and which have to go?

Some may respond to what is being said here with a claim that though the reaction of the protestors is extreme, their concerns are legitimate, that Dana Schutz’s art is an example of cultural appropriation, so we as white people should ‘check our privilege’ nonetheless.

Well, this too has hidden repercussions. Beneath this seemingly moderate claim is the admission that artistic value depends on political correctitude. And what is deemed correct still needs to be referred to some mythic council of tastemakers.

Fundamentally, the protests against Dana Schutz’s work are an insult to everyone who would otherwise get to make up their own mind about the painting. The very idea of cultural appropriation itself is an insult to the notions of artistic experiment and cultural exploration.

The people protesting this painting are using the right to protest to give their ideology credibility it does not deserve. They will no doubt claim to stand in history alongside Martin Luther King Jnr as dissenters against ignorance and racism. However, this claim has no more weight than the claims of warmongers to stand alongside Winston Churchill as one of history’s just warriors.

We must not be cowed by accusations of racism, or feelings of white guilt. A free society depends on its citizens feeling empowered to protest the protestor, to dissent against the dissenters. This right is the foundation of creative freedom, and the only thing that stands between civilisation and rapacious philistinism.

The unsurprised liberal’s conceited nihilism

These days to be switched on and ‘hip’ is to be devoid of any idealism, to affect a dreary disillusioned scowl, which has become a cultural shorthand for intelligence. This attitude, or pose, is the most prevalent among academic people, or in the sphere of media professionals. These atmospheres have seeped into the arena of middle management and administration – the civil service and commercial office spaces where the majority of graduates work.

Among genuinely working class people, or among more courageous entrepreneurs, you’ll encounter more optimism and, ironically, more openness to dissenting views.

In a discussion among nurses or construction workers, any criticism of Islam, for instance, or any talk of the myths of feminism, will not be met with the same scorn and reproach as they will be in council offices, real ale bars or newsrooms.

It’s a curious fact that the more educated one is these days, the less able one is to deal with new ideas or competing interpretations of everyday experiences. The paradox of this is made more strange by the fact that intransigence and consensus thinking is often accompanied by a smug, affected and simplified form of irony that rarely amounts to anything more than sneering and sanctimonious self-praise.

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Go to a party or a gig or any social interaction involving 20-35 year olds, and you will encounter the ubiquitous educated cynic, the foot-soldier for consumerist nihilism, the type of person who unwittingly propagandises safe, consensus thinking while deluding themselves that their acerbic, non-conservative tone of voice puts them on the vanguard of independent thinking.

Most likely this person has a passing knowledge of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, without actually having engaged with these ideas in any deep way. Like owning a blues anthology and thinking you know everything about Blind Lemon Jefferson, this dilettantism makes people think they have the inside scoop on the folly of cultural values, regardless of what those values may be.

Everything is relative; Christianity is just as bad as Islam; America is just as bad as Russia; all love is reducible to a sexual agenda, and all beauty is a matter of opinion and most likely the product of some conspiracy of white men.

The blandness and despair concealed in this worldview is buried under the affectation of edgy scornfulness and sarcasm. The apparent irony gives the snotty cynic the sense of being cut off from the crowd – an ‘observer of people’, when in actual fact their nihilistic insouciance is an excuse for doing nothing, for conforming to the flow of consumer pressures and pop culture fashions.

This is what irony has become. As long as you pull off the odd wisecrack, and perfect a visage of imperishable non-surprise you can fool others and yourself that you are an independent thinker, without ever having to take an intellectual risk, or feel humiliated for taking an unpopular point of view.

True irony involves self-deprecation. Not the socially polite kind, but a deeply-held knowing of your intellectual limits.

Thinking independently means caring less about having the ‘correct’ views, and devoting one’s energies to the process by which those views are formed.

Disputation is not a sport. It’s not something to pass the time away, or a platform for showing off. It’s a way of making doubt and scepticism a kind of neural institution, part of the fabric of your inner world.

The real test of an independent mind is sacrifice for a higher ideal. It involves suffering. Commitment, in a word.

Scepticism is a habit of thinking, it is not an ideology in itself. If we allow doubt to become an end, rather than a means, then we start to celebrate meaninglessness.

Being a cocksure, manipulative and sneering teacher’s pet may garner cool points when you are down and out on the scene, but it also helps to cultivate a sense of moral capitulation too. Slavish nihilism is the lifeblood of the tyrant.

Superstition and wisdom: Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s recent podcast featuring psychologist Jordan Peterson is a debate about how we should view religious meaning in a scientific context.

Jordan Peterson’s project is part of his Jungian attempt to answer Nietzsche. The essential problem here is that since Christianity was a disciplining force in human civilisation, perhaps the strongest, the cultural coup d’etat of science and Darwinism leaves us with a problem of where we are to get our values from.

When God is dead, how do we avoid nihilism?

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Sam Harris’s project is to show that we can source moral truths, truths about how to act, from the world of science. We can avoid the historic crimes of religious belief, and find equally compelling ethical systems that are sourced from our scientific view if the world.

For Peterson, Christianity, although Sam Harris perfectly lays out its problems, gave us the primacy of the individual, the purifying honesty of the word. It gave to us a model of honour and integrity in the face of suffering that is unmatched by any other religion. So the issue is not about how do we deduce moral laws from the world of facts. Peterson accepts Harris’s arguments on this – he does not have any argument with the idea that moral truths are grounded in fact, rather than decrees based superstition.

Peterson’s point is that religious imagery and tradition has a more powerful connection to our basic evolutionary impulses than mere scientific deductions could ever have. The critical task here is for the cultural excavator to go through the tradition and salvage these primal rituals and images and place them in the very ethical context that Sam Harris has laid out in The Moral Landscape and Waking Up.

The first conversation between Harris and Peterson got bogged down in the question of truth. Harris takes a hard, materialist line about truth. He accepts that mind might play a part in what we call truth, but he is not prepared to accept that the goal-posts of what is true can change. Truth has to be grounded in facts. It has to be scientific.

Peterson, though completely committed to scientific method, thinks there is a need for an notion of truth that is more expansive. Peterson is concerned with how we retain the moral truths of our religious and mythic past in the face of science.

Harris has deep worries about any such attempt if it means modifying the standard of measured fact in the scientific method. If we accept any other idea of what truth is, we are in danger of relativism and ‘playing tennis without the net’. It’s this free for all that in Harris’s mind, has caused the great crimes of religion.

For me, the key moment was Peterson’s challenge about the wisdom contained in fiction. The intuition at the heart of Peterson’s more ‘evolutionary’ or ‘pragmatist’ concept of truth (truth is what works), is not a desire to get non-scientific claims in through the back door of intellectual discourse. Rather, it is based on the fact that we know there are profound truths about ourselves contained in Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, that are grounded in scientific existence, but cannot be claimed to be truths based on fact.

Peterson, reflecting on the stalemate in his previous conversation with Harris, distinguishes between wisdom and truth. Truth is scientific, wisdom is cultural. Peterson then is concerned with salvaging the wisdom that religious traditions and images are uniquely placed to bequeath to us. This uniqueness is based on our evolution, our needs and desires and our recognition of ethical self-transcendence, even before we can put such a need in conceptual propositions.

Harris remains sceptical amid all of this. His worry is when fiction starts to pass itself off as fact, and he is correct in asserting that this is the recurrent habit of religious institutions. They go from storytelling as a form of primal ethical discipline, to claiming those stories are representations of fact, as statements of authority about reality. This is what makes them descend into factionalism, tyranny and dogmatic barbarism.

One core objection from Harris about Peterson’s project is its Joseph Campbellian tendency to create a kind of industry of interpretation about religious claims, that somehow gives them legitimacy they don’t deserve. It’s not hard to claim that even the most absurd stories, the most brutal and psychopathic representations of God, could have some basis in evolutionary truth, that they are descendants of a primal ethical instinct.

Again, for Harris, this is tennis without the net, and it is not really that productive. It doesn’t serve the modern individual in his  or her moral challenges now, and in fact can just get us bogged down in more absurdities.

Peterson accepts this challenge. He is not advocating uncritical acceptance of any story that can be told about religious claims. He is simply attempting to rehabilitate tradition in the face of post-modernism, which he sees as a dangerous amputation of human culture and therefore a threat to civilised life.

Both Harris and Peterson left a question unanswered. For Harris, he could do more to explain why Dostoevsky and Shakespeare continue to offer ethical truth that are non-scientific. Why do we find truth, even when such truths are not factual? I think in exploring this more deeply, it will make his position about moral truths more persuasive to non-scientifically minded people.

Peterson would do well to demonstrate his system of critical analysis as regards to what is salvageable and what is dangerous superstition in our religious traditions. If we don’t find some standard of wisdom that is as rigorous as our standard of factual truth, we will continue to face the danger of religious violence and sectarian tyranny.

Peterson’s claim about mythic truth, as opposed to simply factual, propositional truth, is an important one. It is important not just because it is clear that we all have some tendency to find truth in fiction, but also because it is a primal, non-linguistic or conceptual need within us to do so.

There is something unique about the power of myth and imagery and ritual that conveys ethical truths. Attempts to relay these truths in conceptual reflection tend to be prescriptive and authoritarian, like the Ten Commandments. Seeing the truth in beauty, allows us to arrive at wisdom from within, as individuals, and this is a crucial requirement if society is to be coherent, rather than held together through fear of retribution.

Why Jim Morrison was a true poet

Whether we consider Jim Morrison a poet or a rock star, his real art was as a vocalist. This was a form that he mastered, and studied, and took very seriously.

Look at the Hollywood Bowl concert, or listen to his poetry recordings, and you will start to understand his prowess in vocal phrasing, his sense of timing and feel, his complete lack of hackery and automatic recital. Morrison never phrased the same thing the same way twice. He relished the possibilities in the rhythms each word presented, the way you could rearrange conversational cliches to make poetry.

The word ‘spontaneity’ is obviously overused to the point of being meaningless, but in Morrison’s case it is a practical description of his approach to vocal performance.

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At the very least, the common image of Morrison as a buffoon pretending to be Byron doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, when you study him as a vocalist. He sounds like no one else, but you can hear echoes of Billy Holiday, Sinatra and Johnny Cash. He is versatile, can go from lyrical whisper to a gasoline growl in an instant, and had a Brando-esque ability to balance the violence and the tender with a Shakespearean command.

The charge of pretentiousness relies on the iconic image of him as a mere stream-of-consciousness garbler, a man who made theatrical use of his babbling narcissism.

When you listen to LA Woman, whatever limitations you may or may not find in the writing, the performance, the timing and ironic sense of feel, the playfulness of his delivery, show an artist who considered the effect of his work very deeply. There is a self-awareness and sensitivity to his audience that is overlooked with an almost ideological fervour by his critics. It suits everyone to dismiss Morrison as a cavorting fake, because to admit any level of craftsmanship would be to admit that a beautiful, sexually dangerous drunk had greater talents than oneself. An unconscionable proposition.

At the very worst, The Doors could be shambling, disordered and masturbatory. However, their characteristic style was progressive and dangerous, and very much centred around playful rhythm.

This playfulness extended to Morrison’s verse, which no one can argue is Milton or Donne, but is far better than is usually given credit for.

Morrison wrote in moving images. If we can say that the Ezra Pound imagism of the early twentieth century was a response to photography, Morrison’s great innovation was to write in dynamic images, as a response to cinema.

Without this understanding of Morrison, and without putting two and two together with his background in film and his love of Brechtian theatre, the poetry will inevitably seem meaningless and contrived.

In its proper context, it can be seen as an attempt to make poetry come off like film, to communicate via images and internal dialogue, rather than sculpted lyric for the page.

A perfect example is LA Woman, the song. We are placed in a revving car on the Sunset Strip, images of topless bars and drunks flashing past us, and a girl’s hair streaming in the flying air.

The song is all about creating a sense of movement, and we don’t get this just from Densmore’s drumming or Krieger’s hysteric runs.

‘I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone’

‘Midnight alleys roam’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, grammatically. But imagistically, it makes perfect sense. It’s language as cinema.

The language is forced and contorted to meet the stretched activity of the moving thought being communicated.

Morrison was a master of this. In Texas Radio And The Big Beat, the phrase, ‘soft, driven, slow and mad, like some new language,’ captures perfectly the swampy, overwhelming and dreadful creative possibilities that the young poet felt in confrontation with the blues and rock and roll music of his youth. The words don’t make sense the way a WH Auden poem makes sense. This stuff won’t pass the test of literary society.

A pretentious person wants to be accepted, to be part of the cool crew. Morrison sang the blues as himself, not in impersonation of anyone. In this sense, he’s easily a better vocalist than Mick Jagger. No cultural appropriation here, sorry.

Morrison’s style is his own, it’s the growling, theatrical, ironic intellectual outburst of a damaged, middle-class and mercurial boy. His soul is as expansive as the western desert, everything from barren sands to sweltering suburbs. It’s both apocalyptic and a celebration of the human spirit.

The strongest argument for calling Morrison a true poet lies in John Densmore’s creative reaction to his words. Densmore said himself that on first hearing:

‘You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, try to hide
Break on through to the other side’

…he heard rhythms, his jazz instrumentalist’s brain was awakened to the possibilities of song dynamics in such subtle and joyful interchange between rhythm and image.

Densmore is a consummate percussionist, one of the great underrated heroes of modern music, a true innovator in combing jazz music with rock and roll, something which has never been achieved since, without seeming bloated and tiresome.

The test of a poet should never be if another poet likes it. It should never be a decision for the critic. But when a drummer, himself admired by the likes of jazz genius Elvin Jones, says he can’t help playing along to your words, then you know are onto something.

People say such and such a thing is pretentious because their own relationship with their subconscious is thwarted. Their own creative energy feels like a threat, rather than a strange friend. In a word, they have failed to break on through.

You create movement, by creating friction. And Morrison’s poetry gets its energy not from established meters, or from mimicking an accepted style, but from innovating a new way of combining words and rhythms that clash and seem incongruous.

This is deliberate, just as his suspenseful phrasing and ability to goad and provoke a crowd were deliberate. Whatever you think of Morrison as a poet, claiming that he is a stoned idiot jacking himself off, is a clear sign of ignorance, not just of his music, but of the history of poetry itself.

The most powerful show of solidarity is dissent

If something is right, it is not right by virtue of consensus. The popularity of a view has nothing to do with the truth of that view. The prejudice of mistaking popularity with goodness, and uniformity with love, is very primal, perhaps having its origins in our tribal roots.

Equally important to tribal unity, however, is the creative power of individual intuition, the ability of the human conscience to break free from the common habits of the flock. In many ways this defines what it is to be human. It proves we are not governed by instinct alone, that we can fight against our biology, and it is that fighting, ironically, that makes us supreme in survival.

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Some might say that solidarity is the chief virtue of the Left, that by dissenting from the collective one risks betraying the cause. This is, among many competitors, the most persistent and dangerous myth of the Left.

Solidarity is the ability find common cause, to see that other people, under wholly different circumstances, have their own struggles for self-realisation. Despite the differences in circumstances, I can empathise with them, because a core sense of human empowerment unites us.

Solidarity is what makes me able to feel invested in the struggles of Kurdish female fighters and working class men in the USA. Solidarity is a leap of the imagination that moves past and through the barriers of time and space.

None of this says that I have a duty to fall into line, and march in unison with anyone that I feel this solidarity for. If anything, the very thing that drives my sympathy and common humanity is the recognition of individual will versus the forces of conformity. Solidarity is a product of individual conscience, not collective thinking.

In many cases, the greatest act of solidarity is dissent. The most important thing is preserving the human ability to act upon personal conscience. Without personal conscience all morality and love is a sham.

Human rights are not the final end of any progressive movement. They are just a convenient approximation of what we need to preserve in order to maintain human dignity.

Human dignity, ultimately, comes from this very ability to conceive truth independently and to act upon our conscience.

Democracy is not good in and of itself, it’s good to the extent that it empowers us to act on our conscience. Human rights are not ends in themselves, they are just as close as we can get to making an institution of liberty of conscience.

The charge of contrarian is a conformist tactic. Perhaps the most insidious one. Dismissing those who insist on arriving at truth on their own terms, as being infantile, and reducing defiant conscience to a kind of adolescent tantrum, is a totalitarian reaction.

People tend to confuse dissent with mass protest. They think that it is progressive to join the march, to “unite” in crowds, show strength in numbers. Sometimes these things are good. One of the more heartening aspects of the women’s march after Trump’s inauguration was the sheer diversity of the women involved. It was just too big to be about one agenda, despite the best efforts of the lunatic organisers and desperate celebrities.

However, too often mass protest gives license to mob tactics. Collective action too easily becomes collective thinking. The many objections to the current state of the progressive Left are not always grounded in a distaste for change. Some reactionaries are jumping on the flaws of the psycho fringe, but most objections come down to a fear of purely ideological thinking.

Solidarity, or even love, does not require total compliance. It has become all to common to dismiss people as ‘alt-right’ because they have reservations about certain tactics of protest, and the way a commitment to one cause requires an automatic commitment to a range of other causes.

Too many people are being driven to the centre or the Right by the tendency for automatic thinking on the Left.

It has become too easy to dismiss progressive values now, on the basis of the mob tactics and conformist mentality of a great many protesters.

What will save the Left is dissent. Though Thomas Paine and George Orwell were excommunicated in their own time for showing dissent in the ranks, their legacy was actually to prolong the life of socialism. Without them, it is difficult to imagine what the Left would have been like after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Embracing dissent means putting individual conscience before ‘the movement’. It means placing the individual before ‘the cause’. Why? Because dissent is a far better insurance against delusion and propaganda than consensus.

Technology makes us comfortable but it can’t make us happy

With technology, things become faster, more convenient and we are increasingly delivered from the struggle to merely survive.

All of this is to be celebrated. But where we go wrong, and we perhaps entrench our sadness and anxiety, is in thinking that this deliverance is equivalent to a fulfilment of human happiness and meaning.

A scientific method may, as Sam Harris insists, help source ethical facts about right and wrong. But even if we grant that, the scientific method can’t help us act on such facts or integrate them into our character.

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It’s one thing to know what’s right, and another thing entirely to act on what’s right. The whole history of literature and drama stems from this unfortunate fact.

Technology frees us from the struggle to survive. But it does not help us carry the burden of life, once our survival is secure. The burden of life comes from responsibility, the weight of choice, and guilt and self-determination.

This feeling of responsibility may emerge from an illusion of free will, but it is a very heavy and persuasive illusion. The proposition that we might not have true free will, does nothing to alleviate the weight of responsibility.

Technology makes our lives better. We have come to believe however, that guaranteeing survival should mark the end of pain and sadness.

This is a bourgeois conceit. Suffering is not something that can be eliminated by more efficient or pleasant surviving. Neither is a lack of suffering desirable or even possible.

The greatest mystery of all is the human inner space, human interior. Even if we conclude, and it would only be speculative, that the human soul, the experience of an inner psyche, is illusory, it would still be a very heavy source of pain and mystery as to why so much of our experience, such a big part of ourselves and our instinctual ideas about life are grounded in illusion.

That’s the real question. It is all very well for the positivist to say that what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence, but that’s impossible. Most of human culture has been an attempt to speak of what it is impossible to articulate. The reason for this is that our sense of self is a visceral one; illusion or not, it feels very much real.

So the task of any atheist and positivist and hyper-mundane materialist, is to explain why so much that is important to human beings is just a fiction, a delusion, a self-serving fantasy.

To simply accept that it is, is not only to avoid the question at hand, it is to pour scorn on curiosity and mystery itself, and as a result, it is to pour scorn on life.

This is the nihilist’s position, and in the short term, it is a comfortable one, because it avoids any conflict of certainties – the certainty of the inner experience, versus the certainty of the outer knowledge.

Far better to simply conclude that humanity is a deluded and infantile race, capable only of cunning and daydreaming; and to claim that the only real achievements of human culture have been acute observations of the world.

The technological mindset depends on these trenchant conclusions. The world is a machine itself, and all experiences of religion, mysticism and imagination are the product of superstition.

Ultimately, the technological mindset is a utopian one, as dangerous as any social utopianism, because it is predicated on the insistence that all problems are solvable, that all unhappiness can be turned into happiness and that all melancholy and depression is a result of bad thinking.

To place the mystery of human experience centre stage again, to set the imagination and the unfathomable sublime alongside science, would be to concede that there are some things we cannot know, that are essentially outwith the boundaries of method and analysis.

That’s not to say Sam Harris and his like are wrong – science can indeed give us a picture of the human good.

But that does not solve the ethical question as it exists on the frontline of human action. That question being, why do we persist in doing the wrong thing even though we know it is wrong?

This is a question technology has not answered, and can’t ever have a hope of answering.

Why hipsters secretly hate Patti Smith and how modern intellectuals have become the propagandists for consumerism

pattinakedI 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.