Modernism in the Arts and Politics

David Friedman has a theory about the “modern” movement:

Suppose you are the first city planner in the history of the world. If you are very clever you come up with Cartesian coordinates, making it easy to find any address without a map, let alone a GPS—useful since neither GPS devices nor maps have been invented yet.

Suppose you are the second city planner. Cartesian coordinates have already been done, so you can’t make your reputation by doing them again. With luck, you come up with some alternative, perhaps polar coordinates, that works almost as well.

Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra. That done, you design the Combs building at ANU, the most ingeniously misdesigned building in my personal experience, where after walking around for a few minutes you not only don’t know where you are, you don’t even know what floor you are on.

I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality—formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.

It explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn’t worth looking at, modern music isn’t worth listening to, and modern literature and verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen’s, or a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

In other words, if you can’t readily do better than your predecessors, you take the easy way out by doing something different — ugly as it may be. And you call it “progress.” As I wrote here:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

As it was in the arts, so it was in politics. Yes, there was sleaze before 1900, and plenty of it. But presidents, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court generally remained faithful to the Constitution, especially its restraints on the power of the federal government. Then along came populism and “progressivisism” — the twin pillars of political modernism in the United States — and down went liberty and prosperity.

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