Thursday, December 20, 2007

Death of the philistine

One of the books I'm currently reading is called From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun. It is breathtaking in its scope and Barzun's writing crackles with wisdom, perspective and panache.

Anyway, I was "doing the elliptical" this morning and reading about WWI and the end of the Cubist period and the beginnings of Dada and the "Wasteland" period of the 1920s. He noted one unsung death of WWI -- the philistine. He writes that they "disappeared into the trenches" with everybody else in that war. He then writes four sentences that sum up much of post modern culture:
"By 1920 any [philistines] that survived had been miraculously transformed, not into aesthetes but into but into trimmers and cowards. To this new breed anything offered as art merited automatic respect and grave scrutiny. If a new work or style was not easy to like, if it was painful to behold, revolting, even, it was nonetheless 'interesting'. Half a century later unless the reviewer finds it 'unsettling,' 'disturbing,' 'cruel,' 'perverse,' it is written off as 'academic,' not merely uninteresting, but contemptible." p. 713 of the 2001 Perennial Ed.
This lack of seemingly any standard goes back to the war on the Truth underway in post modern society. The lowest common denominator is the gold standard today. It's not that there's anything "wrong" with pop music, rock music, etc. I grew up on MTV and my iPod is filled with The White Stripes, U2, Radiohead, etc. But I know the difference. The White Stripes are not Bach -- they're not John Coltrane either. They're great at what they do. Many (most?) either don't know or don't care about the difference between art and throwing stuff on a canvas or any of the other junk (sometimes quite literally) that passes for art. The lack of a standard cuts across a lot of different areas -- legal, cultural, educational, etc. I don't think this is a slight complaint either. I think it is a symptom of a serious sickness in our culture -- beginning with the loosening of standards begun in the 19th century that picked up a full head of steam in the 20th.

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