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In early July, from the corner of my vision, I caught glimpses of various efforts staged to memorialize the late Michael Jackson. Several friends commented to me during that week on the surreality of the intense displays of devotion. Among ourselves, we lamented the reverence accorded Jackson by the media, but we also had the disturbing sensation that it would have been a sacrilege to raise questions in public about the alleged magnitude of Jackson’s talent, let alone about the unseemliness of our culture’s adulation of a man with such a malformed life. During our conversations, I kept recalling observations from a number of books and articles I’d read about the idolatry and confusion evident in the culture of celebrity.
One book about the social history of modern art best helped clarify this odd moment. While the faithful were gathering to honor the death of the King of Pop (what a remarkably undemocratic moniker!), I happened to be rereading Jacques Barzun’s compact but powerful book, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton University Press, 1974), based on six lectures given in 1973 by the polymathic Barzun at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. In a chapter called “The Rise of Art as Religion,” Barzun observes:
Even now, despite the rebellion against high art, the present age as a whole assumes without question that man’s loftiest mode of expression is art. The models of human greatness are not the soldier, the statesman, the divine. They are occasionally the scientist and persistently, pre-eminently, the artist.
Barzun’s book helps explain part of the story about how we got here, how changes in Western culture since the Renaissance brought us to the point where Art—forms, institutions, and beliefs dedicated to creative expression—replaced religion as a focal social experience of transcendent meaning.
Nature Becomes Divine
The story begins in the eighteenth century, a time of alleged Enlightenment (and skepticism and materialism) in which “many earnest souls [were] seeking an outlet for piety, a surrogate for the infâme church that had been discredited.” Romanticism posited the experience of Nature as a replacement for the old religion, and artists were soon honored as members of a priesthood who could mediate the divinity in Nature to us.
It wasn’t enough to enjoy a casual encounter with Nature, let alone study nature in a scientific way. Rather, the divine power of Nature had to be known experientially, and artists could convey such knowledge. In the 1790s, Friedrich Schiller produced an influential essay in which he identified the Genius, usually an artist, and one who
does not proceed by known principles [that is, by ethical or philosophical theory] but by feeling and inspiration; the ventures of genius are the inspirations of God (for all that healthy nature inspires is divine); its feelings are laws for all time, for all human generations.
As Barzun summarizes this important cultural shift,
the way of salvation can only be shown us by the genius, the artist, because he is not self-conscious like the rest of us. Hs is inspired by self-belief, which gives him power, a magnetic attraction and control over others, like a saint or a great leader of men.
Art thus becomes talismanic; artistic objects produced were receptacles of the divine encounter enjoyed by the artist, precious grails that could convey something of that encounter to lesser beings.
Nature Loses Its Hold
The alliance of art with Nature commenced its rise as a replacement for religion. But by the late nineteenth century, something very different had happened, largely because of the rising place of science and technology in the West. As Barzun explains:
[N]ature had lost its hold on the imagination. It had been fully exploited by four generations of great artists; and what is worse, it had been taken over by science and reduced to meaninglessness. Science had persuaded the intelligent that the universe was but the mechanical interaction of purposeless bits of matter. Thoughtful people in the [eighteen]nineties told themselves in all seriousness that they should no longer admire a sunset. It was nothing but the refraction of white light through dust particles in layers of air of variable density. To paint a sunset would be to compound the ignorant mistake of admiring emptiness.
So artists stopped trying to represent Nature; Barzun calls this “the elimination of the world” from art. God was dead. Nature was dead. By the turn of the twentieth century, “Art alone was in possession of Being.”
What happened in the twentieth century was, in Barzun’s view, simply the working out of trends already underway in the 1890s. You’ll have to read the whole book (it’s only 150 pages) to enjoy his telling of this remarkable story, a tragic tale of a protracted cultural suicide.
Nature divorced from God leads to creativity divorced from creation. The apparently triumphant human will expressing itself insistently is almost all that’s left. I think Barzun (whose last great book was called From Dawn to Decadence) would agree with my sense that Nietzsche would have understood Michael Jackson all too well. •