A hopefully short (sorry for the length!) and not too inchoate ramble through the by-ways of my mind . . .
There’s an inherent and not always well-articulated context to what I write here, and why I write here at all, which is the search for and evaluation of aesthetic values. I’ve read countless times in my life that art and art-making has an inherent morality to it, and it’s taken me time to agree with that, mainly because I think I understand what it means, but now how it’s said. For myself, I would put it this way: making a work of art means establishing criteria, i.e. a set of values, for that particular work, its purpose, roughly. Part of thinking critically about art, the major part, is to discern what that criteria – or set of values – is and how well it work lives up to those values. Put another way, does it practice what it preaches? Is it ethical on its own terms, or hypocritical?
I’m thinking of this with fervor and even fury today because of the usual swirling of dispiriting facts, all, conveniently, from one source. In the Sunday New York Times comes this story that international criminal indictments of some of the members of the Bush administration who are responsible for this nation torturing people may be on the way. This is welcome news for anyone, like me, who is inclined towards that our government is based on law, not rulers – the Bush administration tortured people (this is a matter of fact, and anyone who doubts this should catch the appearances of Johnathan Turley on Countdown or The Rachel Maddow Show), torture is a crime in this country and in many around the world (another fact), and criminals, i.e. those who commit crimes, should be prosecuted. On this last, much of official opinion wavers. This very morning, one of the people named in the Spanish complaint, Douglas J. Feith, is given space on the op-ed page in that same newspaper. I’m having a great deal of trouble with this dissonance, there’s an instant riot in my mind that I essentially have to ignore. How is it that official opinion values this voice, the voice of a torturer (again, facts are facts)? Even if opinion were somehow values- and ethics-free, this is the voice of an incompetent, an ignoramus, someone who is so wrong that in a field where being right or wrong matters, like science, he would be deemed a nut and a crank in an acceptably conservative suit, and dismissed and ignored.
But the world of official opinion is indeed values- and ethics-free. This is because it is a world of socio-economic stratification in America – classes exist here, no less than in England, they are just harder to define. These days this class is much easier to limn – this is the class that rewards its members simply for making it into the group, results and achievement be damned. It’s a class that seems to have only one purpose, which is to perpetuate itself and the livelihood of its members. I can’t think of any other way to explain it. There’s a lot of talk about rewarding success, but failure is also rewarded, no one is responsible for anything and members publicly elicit the opinions of other members with the belief that no other voices exist, or even matter. Personally, this is so infuriating that I can barely touch or consider the feeling – along with all the things I think about here, I have long experience working at jobs, and find myself unemployed for over two years in an environment where this class has destroyed millions of jobs. Nice work, here’s your bonus!
Amorality is one thing, but amorality combined with institutional power and institutionalized socio-pathology, which is the world of the corporate, media and government makers of official opinion, is repulsively immoral and odious. It literally destroys people’s lives. It is beyond criminal, and depend on your personal faith it may never be judged at all. This matters to me deeply, and it is truly maddening. So what can I do to stay sane?
I can listen to Wilhelm Kempff play Beethoven, for example. I can listen and think about this complex stew of Beethoven’s musical goals, the inherent expression of his personality which he strives for, and just what elements of his personality I am hearing, and how I react to them. There is also Kempff’s ideas about Beethoven, his own reactions to these same things, and my own responses to them. It is an ongoing discussion, through the centuries, about sets of values and ethics, amongst people for whom values and ethics matter. In other words, there is responsibility and judgement of success and failure. This is neither simplistic nor dismissive and it does not come to an end, which is why art endures. This is also why the art of previous civilizations is what we study most because it is there we find sincere expressions and arguments about values and ethics. Doug Feith will probably continue to fail upwards and never have to face responsibility for his actions, continually rewarded with money and audiences nodding with self-congratulatory sagacity, but eventually he will be completely forgotten, while Beethoven will endure as long as there is human civilization. Perhaps there is some small solace in that ultimate judgement.