Monday, June 29, 2015

Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word


Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is one of the finest hatchet jobs ever done on modernist art. Modernist art is of course a fairly easy target but Wolfe’s little book, published in 1975, goes beyond the usual aesthetic criticisms and penetrates to the very core of the great 20th century art scam.

Wolfe’s starting point is that the weird and wonderful theories which have been such an endemic feature of the modern art world are not there merely to enhance our experience of the art. They are actually there to replace our experience of the art. The art itself is nothing without the theories. In fact the actual pictures are not even necessary. All that matters is the theory. This is rather ironic. The modern movement in art started as a revolt against “literary” art - art was supposed to be experienced and judged purely on its aesthetic qualities without any regard to meaning. What actually happened was that art became almost entirely literary - the pictures became unimportant while the text that explained the theories behind them took centre stage. 

One result of this was movements like Abstract Expressionism. The Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock became celebrated as the greatest artists of their day even though absolutely no-one actually wanted to buy their paintings.

The reason for this, as Wolfe explains, is that the art world was a very very tiny world. In consisted of perhaps no more than 10,000 people in about eight cities in Europe and North America - these were the artists, the theorists, the patrons, the dealers, the collectors and assorted hangers-on. The public was not part of this world and was entirely excluded from it. Out of the 10,000 members of the art world perhaps a few hundred were collectors and only a small minority of those collectors bought contemporary work. The market for art was very very small. While artists like Pollock could be lionised as geniuses within that world that didn’t mean there was an actual market for their paintings.

That didn’t really matter because artists like Pollock didn’t count. The people who counted were the theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. 

Wolfe also points out that by the late 19th century the main purpose of art was to shock the bourgeoisie. The problem with that was that the art world became a tiny enclosed little club existing purely to upset the bourgeoisie. The end result was that for all the efforts of the artists to shock, the people who were supposed to be shocked mostly didn’t notice. 

Once these things are understood the whole sorry sordid tale of the degeneration of art in the 20th century becomes clear. The fact that art became increasingly ugly and irrelevant didn’t matter as long as theorists continued to come up with elegant theories to explain each new batch of aesthetic horrors. There was of course fierce competition between the theorists who had to keep coming up with new theories, each new theory spawning even more dreary and worthless pictures.

While Wolfe is concerned with art this book also tells us a good deal about the way in which our civilisation has collapsed into decadence.

It could have been a very depressing tale but Wolfe’s sparkling rapier wit makes the book immensely entertaining. It’s a joy to see such a target receiving the skewering it so richly deserves. If you want to find one book that explains the entire history of 20th century art then The Painted Word is that book. Highly entertaining. 

Gender Reassignment of Children - the ultimate in evil?


Just when you think society can’t get any sicker we get this - Gender Reassignment of Children. This is the kind of child abuse that would have made even Dr Josef Mengele shudder. "We’re talking about a radical intervention in the normal process of maturation, and this intervention begins before the age of consent, i.e., 16 years of age in most Western countries."

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation


Very few historical subjects have inspired as many books as the fall of the Roman Empire.  Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation is slightly different. Ward-Perkins has little interest in the reasons that Rome fell. What interests him is a slightly different topic - what were the results of Rome’s fall?

These days it is unpopular in historical circles even to admit that the Roman Empire did fall. The fashionable view is that there was a largely peaceful transition and that for most people life went on much as before. Civilisation did not end. There was peaceful change and change is a positive thing and should be embraced. Marxist historians have even suggested that if Rome did fall it was a good thing - that it represented the overthrow of evil oppressive capitalist Rome and its replacement by a golden age of egalitarianism and freedom.

This means that the author’s first task is to demolish this sort of fashionable feelgood nonsense. Which he does, quite comprehensively. He is not however interested solely in the disastrous fifth century when various barbarian tribes overran the western empire and the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was finally toppled. Ward-Perkins is concerned with what happened next.  Was it just a change of masters for the empire or did civilisation really fall apart? If civilisation did collapse what did this mean for ordinary people? And what evidence is there for the consequences of civilisational collapse?

Ward-Perkins relies to a considerable extent on archaeological evidence. He points out that we can learn a great deal from looking at the evidence of pottery, coins and the remains of ancient buildings. The evidence points overwhelming towards almost total economic collapse and a cataclysmic decline in living standards. He isn’t concerned with making moral judgments - the Romans could be every bit as unpleasant as the barbarian invaders. What matters is that a complex civilisation that supported fairly high material living standards was replaced by a much simpler culture that supported a significantly lower material standard of living. And the decline was dramatic - post-Roman western Europe was economically and technologically on a level even more primitive than pre-Roman Europe.

Ward-Perkins admits that the investigation of ancient pottery can be a rather dry subject. Fortunately he gives us just enough detail to make his case and to make his story comprehensible. This is a book aimed at the intelligent general reader. No specialist knowledge of archaeology is required and anyone with at least a cursory acquaintance with late classical history should have no difficulties following the author’s arguments. 

His speculations on the extent of literacy in the ancient world, and its decline in the post-Roman world, are especially interesting.

One of the problems with books written by modern academics is that many are quite poorly written and in particular tend to be repetitive. Happily this book does not suffer from any such flaws. The author makes his points clearly and succinctly and he assumes there is no need to labour points that are already self-evident.

It’s also refreshing to encounter an historian with no particular ideological axe to grind (although he does display a certain understandable aversion to Marxist interpretations of history). In fact it’s ideologically driven history that he is reacting against and he points out the obvious ideological underpinnings of the currently fashionable theory of a peaceful transition from Roman to post-Roman society. The parallels to social and demographic change in our modern world are clear enough not to need spelling out.

A stimulating and fascinating work. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2015

mocking the cultural left


If you’re in need of a laugh then I urge you to check out Godfrey Elfwick’s Twitter feed. Godfrey Elfwick is a self-proclaimed demisexual genderqueer Muslim atheist and claims to be a black man trapped in a white body. He’s responsible for the explosion of the #WrongSkin meme on Twitter.

What makes this funny is that thousands of enraged Twitter Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) haven’t managed to figure out that he’s trolling them. He’s practising satire on them and they can’t spot it.

My feeling is that this is one of the few effective means by which we can successfully push back against the liberal madness of our age. The Left has been very successful over a period of many years in portraying conservatives as rigid, humourless, bigoted and stupid. Mockery is a formidably effective weapon. And now Godfrey Elfwick has exposed leftists as the ones who really are rigid, humourless, bigoted and stupid.

The timing is perfect as well, given that black civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal has just been outed for not being black at all - she's totally white! It also coincides nicely with the whole Bruce Jenner/Caitlyn Jenner lunacy. 

What makes Godfrey Elfwick particularly dangerous to the SJWs is that he is genuinely smart and genuinely funny. And he doesn’t lose his cool. He just keeps raising the satire to ever more absurd levels. The SJWs who have figured out that he’s trolling them are foaming at the mouth. The ones who haven’t realised it are foaming at the mouth. It’s a win-win situation!

Lord Kinross’s The Ottoman Centuries


The Ottoman Empire endured for more than seven hundred years and at its peak embraced much of western Asia, the whole of North Africa and a very large chunk of eastern Europe. Lord Kinross’s 1977 history of the empire, The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, provides a magisterial survey of a fascinating subject that has many lessons in it for our modern world.

The Ottoman Turks established themselves in Anatolia at the end of the 13th century. By 1453 they had conquered the Byzantine Empire and captured Constantinople, thus finally bringing the story of the Roman Empire to a close. Unlike earlier Asiatic conquerors such as the Mongols the Ottomans were far from being a merely destructive force. In fact their intention was not so much to destroy the Byzantine Empire as to bring it to new heights of power and influence under new management. 

As the Ottomans swept over eastern Europe they were as often as not hailed by the Christian peasantry as liberators, and to a large extent the peasants were quite correct. Ottoman government was on the whole more efficient and more enlightened than the regimes it displaced. Eastern Europe and the Balkans had been torn by religious strife between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. The Ottoman sultans brought such strife to an end. On balance the Ottoman conquests were of great benefit to Orthodox Christianity.

The Ottoman Empire was a bold and surprisingly successful attempt to create a multi-ethnic multi-lingual multi-faith multi-cultural empire. It was not a partnership of equals. Moslems and Christians were not treated equally under the law. On the other hand Christians certainly enjoyed the protection of the law and the opportunities open to them were considerable. For the first few centuries of the Ottoman era it was the practice of the Sultans to recruit not just the bureaucracy and much of the army from the Christian populations, but to fill the highest offices of state with them. The empire was governed by men who were slaves of the Sultan but they were slaves who could aspire to actually running the empire. Being a slave of the Sultan’s Household was an opportunity rather than a disaster.

Of course it couldn’t last. The rise of European nationalism in the early 19th century doomed the Ottomans. What is remarkable is that it was still able to endure for another century. Empires that last for seven centuries can scarcely be dismissed as mere failures.

While multiculturalism has been a catastrophe for modern nation-states there have been at least moderately successful multicultural empires. It seems that any kind of multicultural society requires autocracy to make it work. It’s a policy that has to be enforced in a top-down manner and ironically only an autocracy can provide genuine protection for minorities. This certainly has worrying implications for those who believe that freedom and democracy are the magical solutions to the problems faced by minorities. 

Kinross approaches his subject in a generally even-handed way. He is able to find much to deplore in the Ottoman Empire but he finds even more to admire. He is also quite fair in stressing that the failures of the reforming sultans of the 19th century were largely due to the sheer impossibility of the task before them. The difficulty was to find a way to take the positive things that the West had to offer (such as technological advancement and education) whilst trying to avoid what the Sultans saw as the negatives (such as democracy), and to satisfy the demands of their Christian and other non-Turkish subjects while at the same time preserving the empire intact and maintaining its fundamentally Islamic character. It’s a balancing act that has proved very difficult for any Islamic state to bring off successfully. Kinross is even able to judge the notoriously reactionary Sultan Abdul Hamid II (who ruled from 1876 to 1909) quite fairly. Abdul Hamid was indeed a political reactionary but he was no fool and he saw quite clearly the need for rapid modernisation.

Kinross is able to make a complex history consistently entertaining and stimulating. Whatever one’s views on Islam it is difficult to read this book without feeling a good deal of admiration for men like Suleiman the Magnificent. A fascinating read. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Culture Wars, neocons and Kumbaya Christianity


It’s clear that the Culture Wars are all but lost. We have maybe ten years left to turn things around but it seems increasingly unlikely that’s going to happen.

The obvious response would be to blame the Left. I don’t agree. I believe the Culture Wars have been lost because they have never truly been fought. They have never truly been fought because the conservative side has been betrayed from within. More specifically, betrayed by the neocons and by Kumbaya Christianity.

Every battle that has been lost has been lost because two groups that should have fighting against the Cultural Marxist agenda failed to show up on the battlefield. The two groups concerned are the mainstream conservative political parties and the churches.

The mainstream conservative political parties turned traitor because they were hopelessly infected by neocon thinking. Neoconservatism is a philosophy that reduces everything to money. It is even more blindly materialistic and economically reductionist than classical Marxism. Neocons don’t care about social issues or morality because they can’t be measured in monetary terms therefore they don’t exist. Actually it’s worse than that - neocons are likely to support the Cultural Marxist agenda because they see a short-term political advantage in doing so. Not only are they unlikely to show up on the battlefield - if they do show up they will probably fight on the side of the Cultural Marxists.

The neocons have also discredited conservative political parties by encouraging the view that such parties are simply the parties of greed. 

The rise of Kumbaya Christianity has destroyed Christianity as a force capable of opposing Cultural Marxism. Kumbaya Christianity is based on a tragic delusion - that if Christianity can be transformed into a feel-good bleeding heart social movement stripped of any genuine religious content then suddenly the churches will be full again. In fact the mainstream churches are more empty than ever. As a result of this delusion Christian churches have been at best lukewarm allies in the struggle against Cultural Marxism. At worst they have outright traitors.

If there is to be any hope at all of preventing final defeat we need to recognise neocons and Kumbaya Christianity as being more dangerous enemies than the Left. We need to recognise that neocons are not conservatives and that Kumbaya Christianity is not Christianity.

Friday, June 5, 2015

what holds a society together?


Traditionally there have been a number of factors that have held human societies together. A common ethnicity, a shared culture and history, religion, or sometimes merely loyalty to the ruling dynasty.

In the late 18th century there were two spectacular attempts to find an alternative means of national cohesion, based on shared values and political beliefs. Those two experiments were the French Revolution and the American Revolution.

The French Revolution tried to substitute slogans - liberté, égalité, fraternité - for traditional loyalties to the Crown. The results were not pretty. The French at least had the advantages of still having a more or less ethnically homogenous state and a shared culture and history.  The history of France since the Revolution has however been one of extreme political instability.

The American Revolution was even bolder. The original thirteen colonies were reasonably ethnically homogenous but although they did have a shared culture and history it was one that had been transplanted to another continent. Traditional ties to the land itself were obviously much weaker. The United State was a daring attempt to base a nation state on shared political and philosophical beliefs.

It sounded like a great idea at the time. The trouble with political and philosophical beliefs is that they are inherently unstable. It is also rather rare to find any society in which every member of society genuinely shares the same beliefs. 239 years after the Declaration of Independence it is clearly absurd to believe that there are any values at all that are genuinely shared by all Americans. And the ethnic homogeneity and the shared culture and history have gone by the board.

When a society is based on the concept of all citizens believing more or less the same thing finds itself transformed into a society bitterly divided along political lines, and when that society has no shared culture or religion to bind it together, what is there left to prevent complete social dissolution?

Societies based on political and economic principles, such as the United States or the Soviet Union, sound terrific and impressively rational in theory. In practice there’s a lot to be said for the old-fashioned notion of emotional loyalty to King and Country.