I collect illuminating tidbits from Modernity and offer them to discriminating readers from time to time. Herewith are the most recent for your delectation.
A Parade magazine poll on spirituality reported that “69% of Americans believe in God,” and that “77% pray outside of religious services.” While the article invites us to find encouragement in this, I wonder about that extra 8 percent who apparently do not believe in God, but pray anyway — outside somewhere. What exactly are they doing? Is this some kind of insurance policy? Perhaps it’s the spiritual equivalent of President Obama’s health-care plan.
More intriguing yet are the results of the survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life as reported in the Washington Post. The survey discovered that 25 percent of its respondents believe in reincarnation. That number only drops to 22 percent among Christians, for whom the resurrection should be a particularly interesting event. Will they be coming or going?
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I love modern art and architecture because of the lengths to which people go to convince themselves that it is wonderful. Occasionally, the cat is let out of the bag. In its March 10 obituary of Chicago architect Bruce Graham, the Wall Street Journal reports that Graham once asked famed German architect Mies van der Rohe why he did not live in his famous glass and steel apartment building on 860 Lake Shore Drive. Mies responded, “There’s no place to put the furniture. I was born in a little village in Germany. I can dream and imagine this new world, but I can’t live in it.” In fact, I had a friend who lived “in it” at 860 Lake Shore; he was an alcoholic. I spent the night there once and joined him in some adult beverages to ward off the chilling sterility of the place. If the furniture can’t fit, how are the people supposed to? It’s enough to drive you to . . . well, you can guess.
I found some black humor in the Washington Post’s Sunday Art Section article celebrating Mark Rothko’s seven huge canvases of various shades of black at the National Gallery’s East Building. Oddly enough, author Blake Gopnik found them “flesh-colored.” Only later in the piece did I realize why: These works, Gopnik tell us, “allow us to look more closely than ever at that shift toward the lightless and color-free in Rothko’s work.” I have to admit that this is not a progression (or, rather, regression?) that holds me breathless: black, blacker, blackest! How breathtaking! Likewise, I often lose interest in soundless music.
Gopnik is annoyed at those possessed of “trite ideas” who insist that “blackness . . . must always come saddled with the weightiest of connotations: It’s never just a tone; it’s always a kind of placeholder for something else, bigger and deeper and more ‘profound’ than itself.” Those pesky people who look at paintings expecting them to mean something; the nerve of them! Can’t they just leave blackness alone? But then Gopnik has an epiphany; he realizes “an almost-moral imperative to go beyond our clichés about what blackness means.”
How does he achieve this? Well, it happens that there were two African-American security guards, dressed in black uniforms, in the room with the Rothkos. (Now I get the “flesh-colored” description.) “And it suddenly seemed wrong to reduce the complex color of their skin . . . to a single formulaic reading. These guards, happily protecting the works under their care, certainly didn’t stand for existential angst, or for a depressive mood . . . .”
So there you go (and so much for Rothko’s suicide). If you find Rothko depressing, you are probably a racist who finds African Americans depressing. You have reduced them both to the same dark meaning. If only you could realize what Gopnik calls the “tremendous joie de vivre” in these works, you could see how happy the African-American guards are as well. And so, children, there really is meaning in (modern) art.
I was so inspired by Gopnik’s article that I made a pilgrimage to the Rothko exhibit to see the happy guards for myself. Only one was on duty during my visit, but I was able to ask her what she thought of the paintings. She replied, “He’s weird. He got depressed.” What about the background music that was playing, titled Rothko Chapel, composed by minimalist Morton Feldman? “It puts me to sleep,” she said. I suggested that she might consider becoming an art critic.
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To experience real art criticism, go to YouTube and watch British philosopher and composer Roger Scruton’s BBC program Why Beauty Matters. He says of modern “art,” such as Serrano’s Piss Christ, that “willful desecration is also a denial of love, an attempt to remake the world as if love were no longer a part of it.” This is one of the single most profound sentences on the art of modernity that I have encountered. It effectively exposes the spiritual viciousness at the heart of much modern art. Thus we are left with “a loveless culture,” which is, according to Scruton, “determined to portray the world as unlovable.” This art does “not show reality but takes revenge on it.” He adds that a “fake work of art shares in the ugliness it shows,” and that it is “immoral because it attempts to obliterate meaning from the human form.” Sounds positively black, doesn’t it? For more, see Scruton’s essay on “Beauty and Desecration” in the City Journal.
Quite coincidentally, I just came across an old letter from my late friend Christopher Derrick, in which he says some things that perfectly comport with Scruton’s view. He wrote:
There are those who say that all art is liturgical, so that the first question you need to ask on seeing (hearing, reading) any work of art is, “What sort of God or god is being worshiped here?” One obvious instance: go into any gallery, and you’ll see pictures which are para-liturgical icons of Venus, and not necessarily pornographic . . . . In that sense, most characteristically “modern” art amounts to a para-liturgical service of Satan: it proclaims the chaotic, the meaningless, the absurd, the nasty, the despairing, and it denies the kosmos, i.e. reality seen as beautiful, so denying or rejecting the Creator. This goes in particular for that “music” which is the dominant cultural expression and art form of the day.
During my short tenure as director of the Voice of America, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, to which I reported, told me — as a way of justifying playing pop music to the Middle East — that “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.” I thought it was a laugh line; so I waited a few beats for the guffaws. No one laughed. He meant it. I wondered how long you would have to stare at a Rothko to believe this to be true. (The chairman, by the way, possessed the largest private collection of Serrano photographs.) I know there is a slightly more respectable opinion that holds that East Germany became rebellious because part of it could watch West German TV as it bled over the border in its terrestrial broadcasts. The East Germans, it was thought, wanted what they saw and were therefore restive.
However, not even this turns out to be true. They were, in fact, satiated and immobilized. In the Wall Street Journal article “The Digital Dictatorship,” Evgeny Morozov reports that data compiled by the East German government showed that “East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country and the communist regime.” How could this be so? According to East German writer Christoph Hen, who spoke in 1990 of the difficulty in mobilizing his fellow citizens, “the whole people could leave the country and move to the West . . . at 8:00 p.m. — via television.” It was those who were too far away to receive the broadcasts — for instance, the people in Dresden — who started the protests.
Thus, one more reason for stupefying the world with American TV and pop music (especially in the Middle East) falls by the wayside. One wonders: If there had been a BBC TV in 1776 and it had reached the American colonies, would there have been a revolution, or would the soporific effects of TV-watching (which, Scruton has written, “in the armoury of nothingness there is no weapon more lethal”) have forestalled it? Stay tuned to see if the American people have enough spunk left to rise up against the imposition of an East German-style health-care system (which will develop as a logical result of the recently passed health-care bill in this sequence: increased demand but not supply; the consequent rise in prices; the imposition of price controls; and finally, rationing). Or will they simply change the channel and watch health care in another country?
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Further into the brave new world, we see that some sensitive souls in Great Britain have objected to the March 18 raffle of a human ovum in London. In Fair Albion, as in the rest of Europe, it is illegal to sell a woman’s eggs for profit. Not to worry: The U.S.-based Genetics & IVF Institute (GIVF) in Fairfax, Virginia, has partnered with the Bridge Centre in London to promote a new service that allows recipients to choose an IVF egg based on the egg donor’s race and intellect. The raffle is seen by them as a great promotional opportunity.
Not everyone was pleased. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Melanie McDonagh said: “As for the ethics of allowing would-be parents to raffle for the chance to choose the mother of their children on the basis of looks, ethnicity and intelligence, all I can say is that it’s something Hitler could only have dreamt of.”
Actually, Hitler did more than dream of this. His best blonde SS officers paired up with the most attractive “biologically fit” and “racially pure”women in special breeding clinics set up for this purpose. The Lebensborn (spring or fount of life) program, as it was called, was devised to propagate Aryan traits. Gisela Heidenreich, the first of the Lebensborn children to write a book about her experience, thinks that (according to the New York Times) “the program, sinister as it was, has echoes in today’s world. With advances in genetics, she notes, discriminating parents will soon be able to select traits in their unborn children.” Therefore, she advised that the evils of the Nazi era should not be forgotten. “If we start engineering blond-haired, blue-eyed babies, can we blame just Hitler?” she asked.
The director of the Bridge Centre, Mohamed Menabawey, obviously no historian of the Nazi era, sees no problem with what he and his partners are doing. They are, he said, simply reacting to changes in supply and demand. How curious that, as we get further enmeshed in socialized medicine, we are embarking on free-market eugenics. Here in the United States there is no problem with selling human ova. Why should there be? Some people pay for sex without conception; since sex has been separated from fertility, can it be a surprise that fertility has been separated from sex? As sex has been commoditized and commercialized, why not fertility? The logic is impeccable. Only the premise is insane.
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To end on a lighter note, we offer evidence of how confused America has become on life, death, and gender issues. Here are some excerpts from actual court transcripts, recorded in Disorder in the Court, by Charles Sevilla:
Attorney: She had three children, right? Witness: Yes. Attorney: How many were boys? Witness: None. Attorney: Were there any girls?
Attorney: How was your first marriage terminated? Witness: By death. Attorney: And by whose death was it terminated?
Attorney: Now doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, he doesn’t know about it until the next morning? Witness: Did you actually pass the bar exam?
The end is near, as the signs used to say.