A friend of mine, staying in Paris with his wife, booked into the same room in the Regent Hotel in which they had stayed two years ago in order to enjoy the beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower that it afforded. Upon setting foot in the room and looking out of the window they were shocked to see the view of the Tower obscured by the giant Ferris Wheel that now dominated the Parisien skyline. My friend, being pensively inclined, wondered whether the decay and decline of French culture could be seen symbolically in the transition from the scholastic piety of Notre Dame Cathedral via the secularist pomp of the Eiffel Tower to the superficial preposterousness of the Ferris Wheel. He further mused upon the meaning of modern art and the attitude that tradition-oriented folk should have towards it. What, for instance, was the rationale behind G.K. Chesterton’s disdain for impressionism? Also, taking the example of T. S. Eliot, why was his poetry considered bizarrely modernistic initially but is now considered part of the western canon? Was there legitimate innovation which conservatives should not constitutionally oppose and how is this distinguished from so much modern silliness?
These excellent questions set me off on my own musings on this intriguing topic.
Chesterton saw impressionism as a manifestation of relativism because of its literal abandonment of definition. Following the romanticism that preceded it, the impressionists placed subjective feeling and emotion above reason and virtue, laying the foundations of the radical relativism which followed in romanticism’s and impressionism’s wake. This was refllected in the way in which the impressionists’ blurring of definition led to the abstract expressionists’ obliteration of anything definite, replacing the concrete and the real with the merely abstract. Other forms of reductionism led inexorably towards the reductio ad absurdum of ultimate meaninglessness, such as the surrealism which had its vogue in the twentieth century, much as impressionism had been à la mode in the nineteenth. Surrrealism supplanted the realism of an awakened perception with the imperceptibility inherent in the delirium of dreams.
Although I think Chesterton is right in his exposé of the philosophically flawed foundation of impressionism and the disastrous ramifications that its errors wrought, I must confess to having several Monet prints on the walls of our home! In displaying these images I am hardly likely to be seen as a dangerous radical but, on the contrary, may be accused of being somewhat safe, unadventurous and even unimaginative (perish the thought!). The fact is that impressionism was once considered daring and radical but is now the height of conservative respectability.
I would also confess that I have Salvador Dali’s Impressions d’Afrique on the wall above the desk in my office, in which the self-portrait of the arch-surrealist stares at me in eternal perplexity from behind his canvas. Does this make me any more daring, redeeming me for the reprehensibly timid choice of Monet’s landscapes for the living room downstairs? Not really. Surrealism is now as safe and conventional as impressionism. How many avowedly conservative Christians have Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross hanging piously in their homes? The joke is that the avant garde soon becomes bourgeois and acceptable. Sassoon wrote a wonderful satirical poem about Stravinsky’s Sacre de Printemps to illustrate how it had caused a riot at its premiere but was thoroughly bourgeois within a few short years.
Eliot is another case in point. Considered an enfant terrible following the publication of Prufrock and The Waste Land, he was lauded by the nihilistic avant garde as an iconoclast and was demonized by the poetic old guard for what they perceived (erroneously) as his flagrant disregard for tradition. Today, almost a century later, he is demonized by the nihilistic avant garde for his retrogressive Catholicism, classicism and royalism, and lauded by traditionalists for these very same qualities!
What I find most ironic is that abstract expressionism, which was once the epitome of punkish artistic non-conformity, is now ubiquitous as kitsch in hotel rooms. It is now utterly conventional and en vogue because its non-figurative colours are considered completely safe and inoffensive!
As to whether tradition-oriented folk can be comfortable embracing new ideas in art, it depends on how traditional the novelty actually is. This seemingly contradictory connection between innovation and tradition is the paradox at the very heart of art itself. Most people doing so-called new things in art have borrowed enormously from the past. The neo-classicists were “new” because they borrowed from classical Greece and Rome; the neo-mediaevalists were “new” because they scandalized the Enlightenment by borrowing from the Middle Ages. Hopkins was avant garde because he resurrected Gaelic and Old English verse rhythms and scholastic philosophy. Eliot was avant garde because he rejected modernity in modernity’s own language while peppering it with spices harvested from the canon of western civilization. The question is not whether something is traditional or avant garde, not least because the traditional is always avant garde in the same way that Christ is always radical; the question is whether something is good (virtuous in inspiration and expression), true (conforming with right reason, objectively understood) and beautiful (reflecting the order of Creation).
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.