Fall -- Or Setback?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Reader Dismuke emails me a link to a striking example of the degree to which Western culture has declined in the short span of a few decades. Writing at PJ Lifestyle, "Zombie", whom readers here might remember for photo-blogging various leftist gatherings, notes the following about a juxtaposition he observed (and photographed) during a museum visit:

In the foreground we have a marble sculpture entitled "California Venus," in a timeless neo-classical style. It was carved in 1895 by sculptor Rupert Schmid. In the background, just a few steps away, we have its companion piece, a sculpture entitled "Pink Lady." It was created 1965 by artist Viola Frey.

In just 80 years, the state of sculpture in America went from beautiful and exquisitely refined to ugly, klutzy and incompetent.

I don't know whether the curators at the Oakland Museum juxtaposed these two pieces intentionally, or if it was just an accident, but either way they deftly summarized everything that went wrong with 20th century art.
Zombie further elaborates:
A side-effect of this artistic shift is that it opened the door to incompetents. Let's just be frank: Rupert Schmid was simply a better artist Viola Frey. Even if they had worked during the same era and were both informed by the same cultural attitudes, whatever he created would always be superior to whatever she created.

But, you see, that could never have happened, because if someone like Viola Frey had crafted "Pink Lady" back in 1885 and tried to pass it off as art, she would have been laughed out of the gallery. And if someone like Rupert Schmid had created "California Venus" nowadays, he'd be pitied as a pathetic unoriginal throwback from the Unenlighted Ages.
Zombie chooses not to discuss why this shift occurred, noting that "entire books" have been written on the subject. This is too bad, because a thinker who has enjoyed a resurgence lately, Ayn Rand, had volumes to say on the subject. In her time, Rand noted many negative cultural effects, including the decline of art, emanating from the spread of modern philosophy. The decline of art, the injustice of someone like Frey being hailed as an "artist" (and of a Schmid being so off-handedly dismissed), and the sad fate of Schmid's model, which Zombie does discuss -- all of these are obviously caused or made possible by the widespread rejection of reason brought about by the rise of modern philosophy in academia and its consequent transmission throughout our culture by intellectuals.

I do not know why Zombie chose not to even mention why he thought this decline occurred, but I can't help but wonder if the bad reputation philosophy in general suffers thanks to modern philosophy might be to blame.

Perhaps if more people knew of such connections as Rand made, they would realize that philosophy is not something one can safely ignore as non-objective nonsense. Rather, they would know that good philosophy is necessary for the Rational Animal to live and flourish, and that bad philosophy is ugly, dangerous nonsense that must be fought with better ideas. Perhaps Zombie himself might have realized that he had photographed an example of the still-reversible decline -- but not necessarily of the collapse -- of Western civilization. (He says "culture", but what civilization can go on for long with a diseased culture?) Indeed, perhaps the greatest danger posed by bad, modernist philosophy is that it preempts such discussion by causing people to dismiss it on the basis of what they know of philosophy, only the nonsense.

-- CAV


Dismuke said...

Why did Zombie not mention why the decline occurred? I can venture a guess - with the proviso that I am not familiar with Zombie's other writings.

My guess is that he he probably could not come up with a way to provide an explanation in a way that would be brief enough for a blog entry. His comment about "entire books" having been been written on the subject is a clue that this might be the case.

Moving away from Zombie in particular (as I do not know anything about his background) I think most commentators who grasp that such a decline has taken place would be hard pressed to state a precise reason for the decline. It is not so much because of a lack of respect for philosophy. I think most would readily agree that there IS clearly SOME sort of underlying philosophical force at play. But I think they lack the philosophical base necessary to essentialize it. I am sure many can come up with "entire books" of documentation THAT such a decline has taken place - and a perfectly valid in-depth analysis of various important instances of it. But getting to the root of it all is much more difficult.

What is remarkable about Rand is that she was able to identify philosophical mindset responsible for the decline in just a few sentences - and not in an essay but in the words of her villain Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead:

"Don't deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection .... Don't set out to raze all shrines—you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed."

Obviously a great deal more must be said to fully understand the issue. But there it is in a nutshell. When you have standards of achievement open to all, in practice the result is world in which there are NO standards. In a culture without aesthetic standards, a person such as Zombie can easily look at the two sculptures and see THAT something has gone terribly wrong - but our philosophical decline makes it impossible for many to explain WHY.

And, for those who DON'T grasp that something has gone terribly wrong, merely explaining to them that something HAS gone wrong can be as difficult as explaining the concepts of private property and the rule of law is to an illiterate from a violent third world hell hole - and for the same reason. What makes individuals civilized is the standards that they live by and practice by rote in their daily lives (even though they might not fully understand them philosophically). When those standards become meaningless and fall out of daily use that is when civilizations revert to barbarism and savagery. And the trends Zombie notes in aesthetics and trends elsewhere in the culture are the early warning signs of a civilization heading in that direction.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for significantly adding to the value of this post with the Rand quote and the following: "What is remarkable about Rand is that she was able to identify philosophical mindset responsible for the decline in just a few sentences..."


Anonymous said...

In line with the same approach and what one might call "boot-leg" objectivism, I believe that the villian, Syndrome, from the Pixar film "The Incredibles" offered this quote.

"And when everyone is a super, then no one is."

I'm not saying that he was channeling Ellsworth Toohey or that superpowers are a legitimate benchmark of achievement, but there does seem to be some connection there.

(with tongue firmly in cheek)

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


I saw that movie and liked it. Thanks for reminding me of that quote.

Regardless of how it came about, it's good to see that the enshrinement of mediocrity is being questioned in our culture.

You also reminded me of the pernicious trend, in youth sports of "everyone gets a trophy". I'd like to see/help that one go away.


Jim May said...

If you look into the comments in that article, Zombie refers to being "blown away" by a similar decline that happened in Roman sculpture, from its Hellenistic period circa 150 to "distorted homunculi" by 500AD.

I was tempted to tell him, why be "blown away" just look around and watch it live, maybe he'll learn something. But there's a lesson for us in his confusion: one of the bizarre things about declines like this, is that the people living in it know it's happening and don't like it -- but are far more petrified of the prospect of discovering why it's happening.

Cory Doctorow recently tweeted that he found it "amazing" that he was relieved at the re-election of a president who is such a disaster for the civil liberties he professes to care about. Doctorow obviously believes that there are things more important than civil liberties, and these things were served by OBama's re-election. As to what those things, are, Doctorow dares not discover what they are; he's content just to feel it, but leave that emotion unintrospected -- to believe he's fighting the fire, while avoiding the risk of discovering that he is in fact feeding the flames.

That's the ideological causality of Leftism at work, of course, demonstrating why all Leftists move towards tyranny no matter how sincere some of them may be about "civil liberties" (never "individual rights").

But it is also of precisely this phenomenon -- the ideological causation that moves men towards what they deserve rather than what they want -- that civilizational declines and falls are made.

Ayn Rand noted that humans were the only species that could act against their own nature, because of free will. Put another way, humans are unique in that they can be physically and mentally in perfect health, and yet still behave in a manner completely indistinguishable from the worst sort of physical derangement.

What can cause a man to do horribly wrong things if he is not otherwise "broken"?

The answer is: ideas.

Ideological causation is a BEAR.

Gus Van Horn said...

Quite true.