The Collapse of American Morality and the Dangers of Aesthetic Relativism

In the current culture of moral relativism, what is good and right is often determined by popularity, the excuse being that anything is good if it is widely accepted. This is a distortion of the philosophy of Pragmatism, which actually does not say that everything is morally equal, because situations in which actions occur differ. The exhortation not to be “judgmental” is often shouted at anyone who criticizes something popular as bad or unacceptable. The mistaken notion that one can suspend judgment is ludicrous on its face and its application at law, that one is innocent until proven guilty, is cited as proof positive of its wisdom. Anyone paying attention can see the difference between judging someone’s innocence in general and making a final verdict in a court case. The first requires experience; the second requires careful examination of specific evidence.

There is certainly great value in not judging people without knowing them, but that is not suspending the faculty of reasoning observation. It is merely putting off one’s actions about whether to associate with a person until one knows enough about them. The same thing is true when buying something. The old saying goes, “Never buy a pig in a poke” which warns one not to buy something sight unseen. Aldous Huxley famously said, “Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.” Wise counsel indeed. “Once burned, twice shy,” is another.

Wisdom is knowledge born of experience. Experience gives one perspective in judging situations and even people. If one’s experience (hence, knowledge) tells one that an empty street with dark alleys is a place where muggers might loom, no one in his right mind would suspend judgment of the situation. Experience is life practice and human experience has demonstrated that intelligent practice usually makes perfect.

Today a similar cognitive dissonance occurs in the evaluation of certain cultural elements passing for art. “Piss Christ” was not just a different kind of art. It was garbage. No skill was required to devise or create it. The image was objectionable on grounds much wider than religious degradation. It was artistically objectionable. It demonstrated nothing of the “artist’s” vision or soul—or perhaps, sadly, it did. Its message was childish anger and the artist’s ineptitude to express anything beyond an insult were at an unskilled, low aesthetic standard. The same can be said of the “elephant dung Madonna.”

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classical deathArt is not just expression. It must be developed in a way that proves its value. For a painter, that requires the serious study, thought and practice of art from tradition. If, once the artist masters that part, he wants to move on to exploring possibilities beyond the established norms, he is free to do so, but to remain an artist he must do so by respecting the great achievements of artists who came before.

For me, this is especially true with music. I grew up in a household in which my French father and my American born Italian mother constantly showed respect for artistic achievement. My father was a painter and musician. My mother was a milliner and jewelry maker. Fine music was constantly played as background to our family life, like the sound track of a movie.

Not that my family were snobbish. My brother, sisters, aunts and uncles, all older than I by at least a decade, enjoyed the popular music of their day, which filtered into my time, as well. I listened to Frank Sinatra, Margaret Whiting, Tommy Dorsey and Jo Stafford, as well as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and the other great composers. The popular music I listened to was considered an anachronism, as I grew up in the era of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

My father took me almost every weekend to art museums and concerts. In fact, we went regularly to the art museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, twenty or so miles from our home, where there were concerts on Sunday. Before and after the music, my father led me past rows of fine paintings, pointing out the intricacies of Corot, Turner, Constable, the Flemish and the French.

On Sunday mornings, on our way home from church, we stopped at the little newspaper agency nearby and bought several Sunday editions. I read the “funny papers” every Sunday, paying particular attention to “Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon” and “Prince Valiant” whose creator, Hal Foster, I particularly admired. Later, when I was given opportunities to study art and music formally, it was natural that I should gravitate toward them.

But there was greater reinforcement for these high standards in the culture at large. Violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Arthur Rubenstein, were icons whose names and faces were known in ordinary households to people who were not versed in classical music. They were known as great achievers, great practitioners of their art. Who among the uninitiated even knows their names today?

I suppose my upbringing gave me an unfair advantage over many children today who don’t have the same atmosphere in which a high level taste for the arts exists. I admit to being stodgy and old-fashioned. But it supports my contention that experience helps one to know, to judge and to develop the skills of judgment necessary to appreciation of art and music on a high level.

That experience simply does not exist at large in today’s culture, in which Rap seems to dominate popular music stations and one is exhorted not to deny that a double decker stack of vacuum cleaners by Jeff Koons or orange drapery in Central Park by Christo are  artistic achievements. Much less than being art, they aren’t even achievements.

I admit I’m confused sometimes by this kind of thing. I once went with a friend some years ago to an exhibit at MOMA in New York City. We entered a room with a tall window at the back. Over it was draped a gauzy shade. Next to the window was a brass plaque. Being momentarily reminded of the recent “draping” of Central Park with orange gauze, I declared, “That’s it. That window is just a window. It’s not art!” My friend, a smart, beautiful and sophisticated woman, smiled and touched me on the arm. “No, dear,” she said. “That IS just a window. The plaque is for that Claes Oldenburg sculpture.” She pointed to a gigantic slice of pie in painted canvas. Well, thought I, at least that required some effort. And Oldenburg is a trained artist.

But rappers on the radio are obviously not musicians. Their output is mostly semi-literate and the imagery (do I dare call it “message?”) is dismally primitive. It says nothing of importance about anything human and its sounds are often offensive. Their lyrics are dully conceived (written?) and performed at a level that requires absolutely no artistry or talent. At best, they are semiliterate. At worst, they are abjectly illiterate.

Please note that I am not even getting to the substance of their lyrics (lyrics?) with their constant references to gutter dynamics. I can’t even get to that point. I’m still stuck on how bad the stuff is aesthetically. I asked one of my stepdaughters why she liked rap. She replied simply, “I only like good rap.” Her answer reminds me of what someone said once when I said I liked Brahms, not rap. He was insulted and said, “Rap is as good as Brahms.” I could think of only one response. “That answer supposes that you know something about Brahms.” He didn’t. He’d never listened to, or even heard of, Brahms.

At stop lights I often feel assaulted by the thunderous thud of bass emitting from the car next to me. I usually just roll up the window. But one day, I stopped at a light and, absorbed in listening to a particularly vigorous rendition of a Beethoven Symphony, forgot to raised my window. The person pulling up next to me gave me a sour look and closed his window. Presumably my music was as offensive to him as his was to me. I seldom express my true feelings about Rap to my children, but once, when I said, “Would you please turn that down. I really hate that stuff,” one of my daughters flashed her anger. I could see it in her eyes, as she replied, “Well, I really hate classical.” Although her mother regularly plays classical music around our home, and our daughters actually do listen to it, even if rarely, they don’t think it’s cool.

This is what I mean by aesthetic relativism. If one’s sphere of experience is constrained, one’s tastes will be constrained, as well. I once watched a TV program on which Wynton Marsalis spoke to a bunch of children about jazz. He said that one could not truly appreciate jazz without recognizing its roots in classical music, Mozart, for example. Marsalis is an educated, very competent musician. He knows what he’s talking about.

I have no desire to dictate to anyone what they should like or not like. But I do bemoan the loss of a culture in which the vital line of tradition, which shows clearly the evolution of culture and recognizes that the very nature of civilization hangs on its tenuous cord. Once broken, that cord will be difficult to reconnect. It may take generations if we have that long.

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