A return to art?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the wonderful 1969 British TV series, Civilisation, written and presented by historian Kenneth Clark. It was Clark’s attempt to summarise the last thousand or so years of western civilisation not by focusing on its politics (who invaded who and when) but on its art.

Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation

Clark’s assumption was that great art provides the truest form of expression of a civilisation because it is not caught up in the triviality of fashion, the hysterics of day-to-day politics or the dogmatic belligerence of religious dispute. Great artistic movements also transcend national boundaries and so provide an object of study that corresponds to the level of civilisation, which is almost always supra-national.

Recently, I went back to the final episode of Clark’s series to find a reference and realised something I hadn’t fully grasped the first time around. Clark called the final episode Heroic Materialism and it is the one episode in the series where he expressly forgoes an analysis of art for something different. That something different is the railways, bridges and skyscrapers that we all take for granted in the modern world but which originated in England in the 19th century. The building of these enormous objects required genuinely heroic effort and they also implied a worship of mammon. Put the two together and you get Heroic Materialism.

The first thing to note about this is what Clark explicitly didn’t cover in his last episode; namely, pretty much the whole of 20th century art. No Picasso, no expressionists, no cubists, no Jackson Pollock or abstract art, no Stravinsky or Schoenberg, no modernist literature, certainly no conceptual art. Clark implied that these innovations, whatever their artistic merit, were no longer the primary expression of the culture in the way that Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare or Michelangelo were in times past.

The phallic banana symbolises the masturbatory tendencies of modern art. Dontchya think?
The new style

If art was no longer the primary expression of the culture, what was? The answer was the aforementioned railways, bridge and skyscrapers. These were created not by artists but by engineers using the language of mathematics alongside the new materials that the industrial revolution had brought into being. This combination of mathematics and engineering created its own style.

Clark differentiated engineering from science because this was also the time when science, through Einstein and quantum physics, had begun to detach itself from everyday life and had even, both metaphorically and literally through the atomic bomb, become a threat to life.

It was engineering tied to capitalism that constituted Heroic Materialism and changed the physical world around us. The world that we still inhabit embodies the bourgeois ethic of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Bigger is better.

China has recently jumped on board the Heroic Materialism bandwagon
Concrete enthusiasts will appreciate the new rail bridge built near my house

Shortly after mulling over the above points, I happened to be sitting in my car at a traffic light and looking across the road at one of the many new rail bridges that have been built here in Melbourne in the last several years. Suddenly, it occurred to me that these bridges are also the ongoing expression of Heroic Materialism.

Now you might say to yourself that a rail bridge is built for practical, utilitarian reasons and that is exactly how the government here sold them to the public. But I can tell you from direct experience that this is not true. The reason I had time to sit in my car and peruse the giant chunks of concrete across the road was that, despite the newly built rail bridge, the traffic at the intersection where I was sitting has only gotten worse in recent years. As far as I can tell, the rail bridge has made no noticeable difference to traffic flows and, in fact, the changes in the local roads that were made in order to build the bridge have made my general commute around the neighbourhood worse. By utilitarian criteria, the bridges are a failure.

What if we don’t really judge such bridges by utilitarian criteria at all? What if the bridges are built precisely because they are the expression of our deepest values, of Heroic Materialism itself? Here in Melbourne, we have spent tens of billions of dollars on rail bridges in recent years and have increased the state’s debt in order to do so. The official reason was to save people time driving in their cars. But any time that might have been saved by the bridges was quickly eaten up by the increases in population which means more cars on the road and more time sitting at traffic lights. If we actually cared about making people spend less time in cars, a cheaper and more effective way would be to have smaller cities but smaller cities contradict the bigger is better ethos that underlies Heroic Materialism.

The truth is that Clark was right, the bridges are built because they are an expression of our values. The State Premier here in Victoria, the man who became world famous during corona for telling people not to watch the sunset, has enjoyed great popularity in recent years and looks set to win an election again this year despite having given Melbourne the longest lockdown in the world. How is this possible? Because he gives the public what they want and what the public wants are large, public demonstrations of power in the form of rail bridges, rail loops, huge underground tunnels and skyscrapers.

The link here to corona is not accidental. The lockdowns and vaccines were also Heroic Materialism in action. They were Heroic Materialism applied to a domain where it doesn’t belong and doesn’t work but, again, that was not the point. The point is the expression of values. In that way, it was fitting that Melbourne had the longest lockdown in the world. That was only ever possible because people here really believe in the underlying ethic.

Heroic Materialism also explains other seemingly incongruous aspects of modern society. For example, why has the environmental movement shifted away from the local, communal, small is beautiful ethic of the 70s towards the save-the-planet ethic of recent times? Answer: Heroic Materialism.

Environmentalism in the 70s
Environmentalism today

We can’t possibly fix all these problems at the household or community level. That’s not heroic enough. No. We must build enormous wind farms and solar plants. The bigger the better.

The modern environmental debate now revolves around which ginormous technological solution will save us. On the right side of the political spectrum are those who say we should stick to coal and gas and on the left are those who think wind farms and solar panels will do it. Underlying it all is the assumption that heroic feats of engineering must be deployed.

Strangely enough, it seems both sides of politics have recently agreed that nuclear power will once again solve all our problems. Didn’t these people watch The Simpsons?

What’s that, Smithers? Nuclear power is back in fashion?

One of the side effects of Heroic Materialism is the feeling of powerlessness at the individual level. Heroic Materialism dictates that we formulate problems of such enormous scope that there simply isn’t anything a single person or even a small community can do about them. So, we must leave it to “the experts”. Gigantic projects also require gigantic injections of capital and thus behind the scenes are Mr Burns and his friends who fund the whole shebang and from whose point of view bigger really is better because their cut is directly proportional to the size of the transaction.

It’s the bankers and technocrats who run Heroic Materialism and always have. The de-humanising aspect of the ethic has always been its scale which seems expressly designed to make the individual feel as small and insignificant as possible. Just a cog in a machine. I noted with interest that the new Italian Prime Minister said almost exactly that during the recent election campaign in Italy. She spoke of “identity” and not being a “consumer slave” beholden to financial interests.

Those with a knowledge of history will recognise the tone of those words. Last time we tried to combat the problems of Heroic Materialism through politics it turned into an even worse version of Heroic Materialism much like the environmental movement has since it sold out in the 1980s.

And this is where we come back around to Kenneth Clark and to art. Art has always been concerned with the individual. Art took a backseat in the 20th century because the 20th century was the turning away from the individual and towards the mass, the crowd, the aggregate. As Heroic Materialism continues to falter around us every day, one of the silver linings for those of us who care about art is that we may see an artistic revival and along with it a return to the human and the humane.

21 thoughts on “A return to art?”

  1. It is quite funny to delve deep into what is actually driving the ridiculous busyness of western culture. What is this all for? I think the assumption is a better future for all, but if that was the case you would sense we would actually be making some different decisions. What drives me most crazy about our culture is the ‘thou shalt’ that it implicitly carries within it, the world bettering, ordering socialist tendency that comes through most brazenly on the left but is everywhere if you look close enough.

    What if we didn’t care so much? What if we were more indifferent to the fate of all mankind and the world? It is such anathema to our intellectual culture that we can barely countenance it, but it really is quite fun to step back and back and back and see all our ridiculous worry and care as something strange and unusual. If we were to truly ask why?, I think the whole thing collapses in absurdity. I suppose once you take away religion and art, this is all that is left, a frantic running on a hamster wheel of crass expansionism and bigness to stave off the metaphysical dread.

  2. Skip – I think psychologically it’s all just egotism but not just in the sense of selfishness. Jung pointed out that people really are scared of facing the “soul” and the reason I think is because the soul seems to represent “nothingness”. So, you’ve got to break through that illusion and let the ego see that it’s not so important after all. That’s when you see the “self” which includes all the other parts of the psyche. At that point the ego also learns that there’s so much it doesn’t know and ironically this helps to relax because somehow things work out ok anyway even though the ego is not involved. Sometimes I think you have to get “lucky” by having something pretty bad happen to you which forces the ego’s confrontation with the soul. This would also explain why the professional classes are most neurotic these days. They’ve never had anything go wrong and so are trapped in egotism.

  3. A brilliant example of silence speaking louder than words, your cited Clark’s series final episode! Concrete jungles suck the human spirit dry, whence the Art is supposed to emanate? ? It’s beyond sad that people en masse are enthusiastically on board of/with this train driving us farther from sunsets with every passing day. May it be bcuz the responsibility is hard, and we are only too happy to outsource it to experts™? ?
    All told, a fierce invasive species—the secular religion of science & tech aka Heroic Materialism—has shamelessly squatted the domains where it clearly doesn’t belong.

    Reminded me of another Heroic Age, that of Antarctic exploration, which morphed into Mechanical when technology took over as the driving force. The staggering Shackleton’s Endurance expedition arguably marked the end of sheer willpower and endurance ?

    ? The heroic era of Antarctic exploration was ‘heroic’ because it was anachronistic before it began, its goal was as abstract as a pole, its central figures were romantic, manly and flawed, its drama was moral (for it mattered not only what was done but how it was done), and its ideal was national honour. It was an early testing-ground for the racial virtues of new nations such as Norway and Australia, and it was the site of Europe’s last gasp before it tore itself apart in the Great War.
    ~~Tom Griffiths

    A side note to your commute woes. Just as gas molecules waste no time to take all the available space, so cars (mis)behave, ‘cept they proliferate. A textbook exercise in futility is all this additional concrete & asphalt. The fundamental law of road congestion: improved capacity generates more traffic ?

    PS Small is Beautiful[: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered] indeed ?

  4. Daiva – wow. That’s a beautiful video. A work of art in itself. I wonder why there aren’t more flying trains. If it’s still in use to this day then it must be viable, or maybe it’s funded by tourist dollars. Yes, Parkinson’s Law seems to be one of those laws that’s applicable across a wide range of domains. Build it and they will come. Yeah, they’ll come and clutter the place up! 😛

  5. PS Electric(!) flying trains at the turn of second last century. Maybe we should have stopped improving the world there ?

  6. Daiva – I hadn’t thought about it before, but maybe that’s where the idea of flying cars came from. Not to mention flying skateboards. Let’s make everything fly!

  7. Simon – I don’t know whether I agree with Clark that our monuments are the art of the modern age. The picture you included of him basically destroys his premise. Since the dawn of civilization we have created monuments which are also pieces of art. What separates them from our current monuments is that they often provide intricate details on the outside (e.g. ornamentation, statues, etc.) and are filled with art on the inside. If you compare a skyscraper with a gothic cathedral, the skyscraper does not offer much than a nice view from the point. There is nothing to explore on the outside and especially on the inside, where you just go to the elevator to get to the panorama platform. That does not mean that I am not impressed by skyscrapers and other modern monuments, but they are as bland as modern art. And if you consider how much energy we have at our disposal, you could even argue that it is embarassing that our tallest building is only around five times higher than the biggest pyramid which was built only with muscle power and comparably simple tools.

  8. Secretface – he never said they were good art 😉 But he did mean that they were the highest expression of Heroic Materialism. He also drew attention to the de-humanising element and warned of the totalitarian risk that comes with it. I think his phrase to sum it all up was that we could be “confident but not optimistic”. That could be seen as classic British understatement but I think he was also looking for some kind of positive to counteract the deep vein of pessimism that has been around since the wars. In any case, I don’t think he would have disagreed with any of the points you made. I agree too and that’s why I think there’s a chance that as Heroic Materialism fails we can find out way back to something better, at least in relation to art.

  9. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic: I am in California at the moment and watching it go through what looks an awful lot like it’s death throes. They are so wedded to heroic materialism that they can’t see beyond it. The right promises the present lifestyle and more by continued extraction of fossil fuels, which are at their peak. The left promises the same thing via renewable energy, which will never ramp up enough and needs the fossil fuels to build it. None of them suggest that we might scale back a bit. The heroic materialism seems to be hardwired in their very being.
    Last month the governor, Gavon Newsom, announced that from 2035 there would be no more petrol cars sold in CA. The next week there was a heat wave that strained the electric grid within inches of blackouts, and people were asked not to charge their electric cars during the evening peak. Of course no mention of how that would work with another 10 or 20 million Teslas or whatever.
    It all seems so much a part of their whole world view that they can’t imagine life any other way.

  10. Stephen – it’s fascinating to watch, isn’t it. I mean, we now have the leaders of whole countries unveiling plans that simply cannot work. Not that they are uneconomical or that there’s a better way to achieve the same outcome. Nope, they just flat out can’t work. What’s more, they’re going to fail so quickly that it will be an undeniable fact that they don’t work. We seem to be witnessing the collapse of an entire worldview in real time.

  11. Hey, Simon – what’s also fascinating is how many people just keep on doing business as usual, as if nothing crazy is happening: pursuing the same fantasies, same old goals, same rewards. I keep reading stuff about how progressives tend to be pro-technology (hence their ready acceptance of experimental ‘gene therapy’ or whatever?), while conservatives distrust technology. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading essays on AI from the left for some time, & lately they’re starting to make more sense in the context, if not inherently. The latest I read was, like most of them yet even more so, stressing AI’s religious/spiritual dimension. AI is ‘a very new miracle’ & ‘an encounter w/ the superhuman is at hand’. ‘Magic is coming, and it’s coming for all of us.’ A former Shakespeare scholar fails to distinguish AI-generated Shakespearean text from the real deal… ‘transcend’… ‘unfathomability’… ‘spiritual conundrum’… ‘sublime’… ‘divine mystery’… Quote from former Google chief business officer: ‘We’re creating God.’ Not saying these sorts of articles lack irony. Far from it. I mean, we’re all atheists here. But the subtext feels like, not to worry if our leaders look befuddled, because AI is about to save us… any day now. 😉 Oh yeah: AI can also make Art.

  12. Hi Simon, here in WA we are squandering the excess of our mining boom on maintaining and expanding our state of the art road system. Barely a pothole to be seen and bypasses constructed around congestion that doesn’t even come close to Sydney of 30 years ago.
    On a recent trip across the Nullarbor the transition to SA could be detected by the deterioration in the roads.
    WA is so relatively open that our heroic materialism remains mostly at ground level. Our ruins of the future will be kilometres of cracking bitumen, with just the occasional concrete bridge over a stream to break them up.

  13. Shane – I haven’t kept up with the latest technology, but my understanding is that most of what gets called AI is machine learning where they feed enormous amounts of data in and tune algorithms based on probability matching. That can work to get computers to copy what humans have already produced with a high degree of precision, hence the Shakespeare example. But how do humans produce that stuff in the first place? I don’t believe it’s from “intelligence” alone (rational manipulation of symbols). Needless to say, I’m not holding out much hope for AI. Although, the spiritual/God idea is metaphorically close to the mark. Their “God” is reason itself.

    Jamie – if there’s one thing we still know how to do in Australia, it’s build roads. Not surprised that WA would have more money for the job. It’s an awful good time to have huge mineral reserves. I remember driving up to Shark Bay once. “Congestion” was if you saw more than two cars an hour 🙂

  14. ? stressing AI’s religious/spiritual dimension
    Shane — Doesn’t it testify to the yawning God-shaped hole in human heart, in desperate need to be filled? With whatever comes your way?

    ? Their “God” is reason itself.
    Simon — Amen. Ty, the venerated Enlightenment, for boarding us on this crazy train that carried us through plain stunning scenery of technological & artistic adventure, but heads inexorably to its ultimate stop at civilizational demise ?

  15. Shane – A good friend of mine from University did a course in Machine Learning, and really liked it. In fact he made it his career. Many intelligent people from the left with atheist views really are oddly fascinated with AI. As Simon said, it is actually just a fancy way of fitting a model to given data, which makes it a good imitator. But the entire notion that we just need a lot of data, then we can transform it with complex and mostly random processes no human understands, and get a meaningful prediction sounds much like systems of divination, but with so much tech involved, that is hides this fact. Divination at least does not require so much energy. It would be amusing trying to compare predictions made my a skilled astrologer to an AI model.

    Simon – Very thought provoking. I recently got into Islamic geometric patterns, and find it interesting that this art form starts with a similar premise as to what you describe as heroic materialism.

    When I construct a pattern, I start with drawing a rectangle with a ratio between the sides that is determined according to the symmetry I want. I then draw circles and lines using precise geometric tools and mathematical definitions – Each circle and line is derived from the previous points, there is no guess work. When properly drawn, one never draws even a point because he or she thinks it may look good. The patterns must have a specific proportion between the shapes, and precision is key. Islamic faith maintains one should no create any image, even of things that are not God, which is why Islamic artists only used the abstract mathematics of Geometry rather than draw over it like Renaissance artists. All of this precise, rational, and mechanical mathematical thinking sounds like what would lead someone to construct a concrete bridge in an efficient rather than elegant form as you describe.

    In this case however, you end up with beautiful patterns, that while historically they may have meant to make people at mosques feel small, it also conveys the idea that everyone has his or her place in the universe, which has organized and elegant patterns that emerge. I am attaching a particular example of a mosque in Iran I wish I could visit to illustrate the similarity and difference to a large modern structure:

    I think this shows you math and science can be used to make beautiful art, if they would once again be used to correspond with reality rather than abstract models meant to maximize scale.

  16. Daiva – indeed. So long, Enlightenment, and thanks for the fish.

    Bakbook – is that the Friday Mosque? I think I’ve seen some pictures of that before. Of course, we owe a great deal of our mathematics to Islamic/Arabic scholars who expanded on the work of Ancient Greece. And both the Greeks and the Arabs saw mathematics as inextricably linked with spirituality. Actually, I hadn’t thought about it before, but I wonder if the importation of Arabic mathematics into Europe ever had a spiritual dimension. I’m thinking it did not. If so, maths was always aspiritual for the modern West. Hmmm, that’s seem important.

  17. Simon – I think John Michael Greer’s writings on the subjects may give a better answer, but aren’t Sacred Geometry and Numerology examples of Europeans using math for spiritual purposes?

  18. Bakbook – true. But the very fact that it became occult implies it was not part of the mainstream tradition.

  19. Simon – not keeping up w/ the latest technology sounds sane to me. The constant pressure from Big Tech to keep up makes for a lot of people w/ no time or space to focus on much else, such as the big picture, so expectations & beliefs re what’s possible or what people need can get pretty distorted.

    daiva – ‘God-shaped hole in the human heart’? Love it. Or a mystery-shaped hole in the human brain? The Enlightenment replaces God w/ Science, & then, the more all-encompassing Science gets, the more unequivocally it points back to God or ultimate mystery…

    Bakbook – interesting that you mention divination. There’s an ongoing debate in the field of astrology re whether what astrologers do is divination or not. Jung – the biggest single influence on 20th-century astrology – tried an experiment to prove it as science & failed (though his method amounted to bad science, so was doomed from the start), which is ironic, given his take on synchronicity is essentially – & explicitly – divinatory.

  20. Shane – true. most new stuff is novelty for the sake of novelty. It’s also in the financial interests of the people playing the game.

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