There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently- the role of beauty and aesthetic in the world. I’ve written about aesthetics a bit in my article Why I Don’t Talk About Politics (or: Philosophy 101), but never at length, at least as far as I can remember. (Cover Picture is Bryan Larsen’s “The Letter.”)
That is going to change this year.
Aesthetics are philosophy- show me what someone thinks is beautiful and I will tell you what they value in life- it’s a bit of a Rand paraphrase, so sue me, but it’s true. What we think is beautiful is an expression of what we value in the world. When you see a statue with perfect proportions, something that exemplifies the ideals of the human form, you’re seeing what could be, what we’re fundamentally capable of. On the contrary, when you see modern “art” that glorifies distorted and grotesque figures, you’re seeing a distorted and grotesque idea of what humanity is. It’s contempt for the beautiful and self-loathing all wrapped up in the disguise of high-society art snob pretension.
I’m not about that sort of malice.
Good art is something that makes you believe that the world, despite the darkness and blemishes, is capable of being something more. It inspires hope, it motivates us to live better, to be better, and to build better. A beautiful song, a magnificent sculpture, an elegant dance, a virtuoso’s painting, or a phenomenally designed building- all of these are representations of the extremes of the capacity of the human spirit to capture the essence of something that goes deeper than art itself.
That thing is beauty.
In the past century or so, there has been a war on beauty. Miserable bastards like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol (who was funded by the CIA, not a conspiracy theory- but we’ll get to that in a bit) elevated disgusting rejections of beauty to the level of art, glorifying disorder and commercialism and, in the process, claiming some sort of avant-garde status that makes the objectively superior, high-skill, high-effort art somehow inferior. (The increase of abstract art may also have something to do with its use as a money-laundering tool, but I won’t get into that here.)
Let’s look at why.
During the Cold War, America tried a number of ways to combat not just the Soviet Union, but the ideology of Communism as a whole. (The CIA also reads French intellectual theory, interestingly enough.) One of these was by fighting on the aesthetic front. At the time, there was a form of art called Socialist Realism:
Now, I am about as anti-Communist/Socialist/Marxist/etc. as humanly possible- I’m a die hard individualist. That being said, I think this sort of art is incredibly cool. It’s pro-human, it shows people cooperating and triumphing, it glorifies home and work life, and it’s quite positive overall- certainly better than that Pollock-bollocks nonsense.
The CIA realized they couldn’t fight it directly, so they decided to do something drastic- change the rules and make beauty ugly. They funded people in the modern art scene as a way of changing the tastes in the art world to make Socialist Realism obsolete, and they succeeded. This, however, proved to be a pyrrhic victory, because as a result most art in America is God-awful, and, as I’ll explain, that precedes many of the compound problems we see today.
Central to the destruction of objective beauty is the idea that there’s any objective reality at all. Certain debates about quantum physics aside, the fact that stop lights work for everyone and that we all generally agree that some people are better looking than others should be evidence enough that there is an objective-enough reality, and that there’s an objective-enough sort of beauty as well. Yeah, some people have weird fetishes or whatever, but even if people won’t admit it, we treat attractive people better than unattractive people.
The irony here, before we get into the actual conflict, is that Marxism is best served by destroying beauty, because biological inequality comes long before social or financial inequality (and probably serves to promote both). If everyone is going to be equal financially, the beautiful people will still win. However, socialist realism presented everyone as noble, strong, and attractive- so when the CIA tried to destroy beauty, they actually destroyed the basis for fighting back against Marxism. Remember when I said they read the French intellectuals, too? The French intelligentsia is an outgrowth of Marx’s work.
When everything is subjective, there’s nothing left but feelings and interpretations. I’ve literally seen, and I am not kidding or exaggerating, I’m using the actual definition of literally here- a white canvas, which was then painted white, in an art museum. While in the renaissance, this would be considered a joke, we now hang it up in a museum, presumably because of some preposterous “interpretive” value- “art is subjective, man, you just don’t get it.”
Fun fact- there’s a strong correlation between people who think that dumbass nonsense like that is somehow good or valuable and the degree to which those people have never provided any sort of value in their lives whatsoever. (Source: prove me wrong- you can’t.)
As I explained in the Philosophy 101 article, there’s a progression of ideas through society. We start with metaphysics (big ideas like what God is like or how the universe works), then that informs epistemology (how we fit in to the picture, how we think and learn, the nature of the Self), which informs aesthetics (what we value, what we think is beautiful, what we desire to achieve), which leads to ethics (how to act correctly to get what we want out of life, what good and bad actions are), and finally, politics (how to apply ethics to actions involving other people, and at the scale of society). (Epistemology actually has to come first, because you can’t figure out the universe if you don’t know yourself- you can’t read a book if you’re blind.)
This matters because it’s not a far leap from “beauty is subjective” to “ethics are subjective, do whatever you want” and finally, to “my feelings are valid and you should make laws to protect them,” aka 2020 America.
Well, butter my biscuits, looks like we screwed the pooch on that one. Thanks, CIA.
I’m not huge on pointing fingers, though- how do we fix it?
Next, we need to build an aesthetic on that foundation. This is the task I will commit myself to this year. This strategy comprises what I will call Aesthetic Warfare.
People no longer have the social infrastructure to believe in beauty. Our lives are ugly and filled with the cheap, disposable trash that consumerism produces from a blind chase for profit. Ironically, the most profitable company in the history of the world actually got that way by making beautiful stuff, but most people are morons and can’t put 2 and 2 together in that way. Look at Microsoft stores, they look like if you told a 10 year old to describe an Apple store to a failed architecture student- blind copying and no vision whatsoever. We used to have entire cities made of stone and wood that were coherent in design and looked incredible. Now, we have the abominations against mankind known as brick and stick apartments and terrible modernist hellscapes ruining once proud art-deco skylines.
If you prefer the second one, leave this website and never come back.
Now, I’m obviously not saying let’s bring back castles… unless you want to, in which case, let’s do it. What I am saying is that our experience in life and the world is directly influenced by our environment. If the environment is ugly and we have no connection to it, then we will feel isolated and crushed- look up Brutalist architecture for examples of soul-crushing via architecture.
This isn’t just architecture, of course, it’s all aesthetics. Our art museums (as I’ve probably beaten to death) glorify mediocrity and contempt for skill. Our culture glorifies physically unhealthy bodies as well as mental illness. Our movies show dystopia, social decay, and misery- while it was a well made film, the recent Joker movie is the epitome of this aesthetic of nihilism. Where is the real heroism? Even the Marvel movies show superheroes, not regular people overcoming the difficulties of the world.
We need real heroes, people who can resist the decay and malaise that infest our society, not fantasy figures with magic powers or obscene wealth. Heroes are supposed to show us the right way to act in the world. They’re symbolically representations of ethics and aesthetics personified- while I’m ragging on Marvel (which I generally like, actually, but for this argument I have specific criticisms), Captain America is a great example of this. He’s the human version of American values, and he’s a great role model.
The issue isn’t just that our heroes are superhuman, it’s also that we have yet to conceive of normal heroes who can fight the nihilism because no one knows what that looks like yet. It’s the unsolved problem, the disease at the heart of the symptoms, that no one has dealt with adequately. What can fight ugliness? What can fight purposelessness?
I have an idea.
If the CIA could fight Russia with art, why can’t we fight nihilism with art, too? We need a new aesthetic, one that’s inspiring. I think, personally (and I could be wrong), that it has to unite both the old ways of doing things with the modern ones. There’s no universe (barring a systemic global collapse, which I think is unlikely simply due to scale and information storage) where everyone goes back to living in cob houses overnight, and the current universe where everyone is going to live in a cheaply made, ugly modern apartment, while substantially more likely, is arguably far worse.
No, if we’re going to fix it, we need to bring the two together. People have actually understood city design for far longer (and I’d argue far better) in the past than we tend to currently suspect. There’s a phenomenal writer on Twitter who goes by Wrath of Gnon who likes to explore older city concepts like this great thread on the Roman “impluvium,” and it’s clear from some of the ideas he presents that we lost a great deal in the rapid surge of modern innovation.
In the same sense, you’d have to be high to tell me that modern art is in any way superior to the Renaissance masters or the German Romantics, and if you try to tell me otherwise, I won’t listen, and I don’t care. You’re just wrong. One exception is my personal favorite living artist, Bryan Larsen, and the Nigerian Hyperrealists are another fascinating group to look at (although more for skill than theme). Larsen’s work is all magnificently uplifting and triumphant, and it elevates humanity (even modern things, like technology, which we don’t often see in art) in a way that no one else that I’m aware of does.
If we’re creating a new aesthetic, we have to figure out what it’s going to represent. First off, we have to value life, otherwise you get nihilism, right? That means we have to aesthetically elevate the things that support life- family, health, fitness, beauty (a bit redundant, but you can never be too careful these days) love, adventure, challenge, overcoming adversity, enduring struggle, and that sort of stuff. Art informs action, as aesthetics inform ethics, so we need our vision and our heroes to show us what life should be, and how we, too, can embody such a vision and heroics.
I’ve written about what I think the modern hero is before (in the article that ends MasterSelf Year One), so I won’t go too far into detail there, but it will suffice to say that the sort of hero our generation seems to need most is one to restore some sense of normalcy to our insane (literally) modern lives, and to build a new kind of society that we can inhabit in a healthy way. Our job, then, is to not just say what that hero should be, but show what that hero looks like.
Thus, we come to a concept I have tried to write about probably 10 times over the last year and have thus failed to complete-
The Dream of the Beautiful World.
This is the new ideal I spoke of in The Birth of the Hero. The Dream of the Beautiful World is something like the notion of what I always interpreted as Christ’s meaning behind the “Kingdom of Heaven” (from Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you,”)- a goal to strive for. A similar concept I’ll use and adjust here is that of the “city on the hill” from the Sermon on the Mount, which I am originally familiar with from this quote from a Puritan named John Winthrop, “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
I’m not big on the Puritans, but I like that quote (and there are many versions used since then by politicians and others). The idea Winthrop is presenting is that a city on a hill is required to hold itself to a higher standard because it can be seen by its neighbors due to the elevation. I, however, like the concept a little differently- a city on a hill can be seen as you approach it, and it’s an uphill journey to get there.
Thus, the Dream is something we must struggle to achieve, but something we can see in the distance as we work towards it. What does the Dream encompass?
Imagine cities built in a way that makes sense- based off our hunter gatherer roots, with a pastoral element to promote sustainable food production and a connection to our meals. Imagine quiet, efficient public transportation, and cities built around people instead of cars and parking lots. Imagine sculptures and art instead of gaudy advertisements and derelict slums. Imagine cities we wanted to plan for hundreds of years instead of buildings made to be as cheap as humanly possible.
Imagine actually knowing and liking your neighbors. Imagine a social life centered around betterment and striving instead of binge drinking and eating unhealthy food. Imagine entertainment that brings out the best in us, rather than nihilistic misery like Joker and Uncut Gems. Imagine supporting the arts- musicians, opera, real theater, professional dance, proper art museums, and beautiful buildings that complement each other and uplift the citizens.
I don’t think this is unattainable- I don’t even think it’s far fetched. We’ve had much of this in the past in many places, and I think we can have it again. Somewhere during the Enlightenment, we lost the philosophical grounding (both metaphysical and epistemological) that allowed us to maintain our exalted aesthetic, and that, coupled with the onslaught of modernity’s focus on pure profit (though profit isn’t inherently bad) at the expense of valuing quality and beauty, created the very deeply ugly world we live in today.
We can get it back.
What the Dream represents is a call to arms. This is the clarion call to begin Aesthetic Warfare- we must unite to combat the widespread forces of nihilism and rampant ugliness in the world, before we’re consumed in misery.
How do we fight this war?
Cultivate the beautiful. Do not engage with ugliness in any form. Don’t watch movies that make you feel bad, or gross, or disgusted. Don’t listen to music that glorifies a way of life that lessens the greatness that humanity is capable of. Learn to believe in Love again, and don’t let the culture and bitter, lonely, miserable people tell you it doesn’t exist- not the cheap love that Disney and Hallmark peddle, but a deep, abiding belief that life is good and that we can have meaningful connections with other people beyond transactional, childish narcissism.
Learn to believe in yourself again- believe that you were born for greatness and despite what the world has told you, whether it be your parents, friends, teachers, or some other person projecting on you, that you have some spark within you that the world needs you to spread. You have, at your core, the very same spark of the divine that every other person in history, great and small, was born with, and it is your singular purpose to kindle that flame and share it with the whole of humanity- what that means is for you to determine.
We have become so miserable that we no longer believe that life is good, but it is, and it can be, and it must become so if we are to make it through this dark time. We need to dream again the Dream of the Beautiful World, to envision a brighter tomorrow that we can build as individuals working together.
Go forth and show us Beauty.