Charles Jencks, the postmodern critic, recently began an article with the words "Beauty is back." It was a belated comment, but better late than never. There is a fresh wind sweeping through the arts. It is happening across the globe and in a hundred different corners of the arts and culture. This essay will look mainly at American and some European examples, but with the internet a significant new element has been introduced, and whereas it took the Renaissance perhaps three hundred years to diffuse throughout Europe, and the Romantic movement a hundred years to diffuse through the West, it need take only a decade or two for the whole world to wake up to the change that is happening in the cultural climate.
What makes this movement revolutionary is that it is a counter-revolution, a revolution against the ugliness and moral chaos-and wretched intellectual silliness-of the contemporary arts scene. Everybody now knows of the sawn-up human heads and elephant dung and genitalia and self-mutilation of the angry wing of contemporary art-the Mapplethorpes, the Serranos, the Damien Hirsts, the Karen Finleys, the Annie Sprinkles. We know also the blank canvases, the slinkies dropped from pianos, the "installations," the meaningless scatterings of words and boxy architectural gulags of the silly wing of it: the John Cages, the John Ashberys, the Jeff Koonses, the Mies van der Rohes, the Warhols. But there was purpose behind the anger and the flip irony-nothing less than the undermining of western civilization. This was the party line, and artists would not get their work hung in galleries, poets would not be published, architects would not get commissions, and composers would not get performed if they violated it. The idea was to replace the support that artists got from the "complacent" middle class with state support through grants and tax-based patronage, and to that end a government arts bureaucracy would be created, imbued with avant garde ideology, to ensure the orderly flow of money. Rebellion would be institutionalized-there would be a continuous cultural revolution, that would make the world safe for all the things-sexual adventures, envy of the rich, violence, self-destructive hedonism, dishonest personal and public behavior, intellectual snobbery, and moral superiority--that one used to be ashamed of. Once the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic structures of civil society were broken down, the way would be open for the establishment of an immortal state cultural bureaucracy, with secure livings for all its members.
The one thing one was not allowed to rebel against in Modernist and Postmodernist orthodoxy was the tradition of rebellion itself, the basic rule that whatever art one makes must help to bring down the bourgeois market society that supports the arts. The artist's heroic role was to insult the poor mugsies who go to galleries and read poetry and attend concerts. And the new classicism has resolved to violate this Prime Directive.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have brought upon us all a realization that conceptual art, incomprehensible "l.a.n.g.u.a.g.e. p.o.e.t.r.y," avant-garde performance art, plotless fiction, tuneless music, and inhuman postmodern architecture are not going to be able to deal with the real evil of the world. Only in the great artistic traditions of humankind will we find adequate means of expression. The new movement in the arts, as if it anticipated the need for them, has been busy recovering those traditions.
Who are the new classicists? A strange clan of independent minds, often cheerfully in disagreement with each other, without membership cards and sometimes with large reputations that they have put on the line. As The Utne Reader
(a leading avant garde journal) ruefully expressed it, there is "a classical revival that threatens to bury the avant garde."
To understand what the new classicism is up to, we must first recognize the broad outlines of what happened to the arts in the twentieth century, through a hundred years of modernism followed by its postscript, postmodernism. In poetry, rhyme and meter were rejected, as well as the power of storytelling and even the structure of argument and logic. Even in fiction, plotting was demoted to popular entertainment, and for a while the "plotless novel" of Alain Robbe-Grillet and William Burroughs was all the rage. In painting and sculpture, any reference to the real human figure and real landscapes was often discarded, together with the traditional techniques of drawing, perspective, and so on that make possible that marvelous imitation of the inner and outer worlds. In music, melody and tonality became old-fashioned, and the twelve tone row and atonality reigned supreme in "serious" composition. In theater Brecht told playwrights to avoid the dear old corny devices of acting, the conventions of comedy and tragedy that allow an audience to recognize and identify with a character. Playwrights aimed at the "alienation effect" and attacked the audience in the theater of cruelty. In architecture, as Tom Wolfe has pointed out, the Bauhaus aspired to a kind of building that was functional for machines but not for human beings. In all the arts there was a rejection of transcendental morality, a hostility to any reference to a spiritual world, an angry denigration of American and European history, and a contempt for the classical Western values.
New classical artists realized that Ezra Pound's modernist slogan "make it new" had led to an artistic arms race in which each new shocking novelty could only bounce the rubble of an already devastated culture; the only new thing left to do was, of course, the good old thing. New classicists are aiming to restore the pleasure of the arts.
One way of defining the new movement is in terms of a return to traditional forms, genres, and techniques in the arts. In "serious" music there is a recovery of the deep pan-human roots of melody, a renewed interest in worldwide folk music, a focus on the immediacy of performance, improvisation, and the context of audience and performer, and a disillusionment with Schoenberg's theories of seriality and the twelve tone row, with the atonality of Stockhausen and his followers. In architecture and landscape design there is a renewed attention to the classical languages of building, ornament, fittingness to the environment, and humane proportions.
In visual arts there is a return to representation, to landscape and the figure, a rejection of the modernist authority of abstraction, and a turn away from the idea of art as the ideological enemy of ordinary human life. In poetry there is a wave of renewed interest in poetic meter, rhyme, and clear storytelling, a questioning of the role of poetry as therapeutic private expression, and a return to the great public themes of enduring human interest. In theater there is a renewal of the audience's ability to feel concern about the fate of the characters. In fiction there has been a swing toward storytelling and "moral fiction," identifiable characters and plot and theme and setting.
In painting and sculpture the new art has been dubbed "visionary realism." The new art does not make a fetish of exactly representing gritty reality, although many of its landscapes, portraits and still-lifes are exquisitely detailed. The realism is rather a revelation of the psychological, spiritual, and cultural meanings that burn beneath the surface of the world. A central term associated with the new movement is "classicism". But the movement is not simply a return to ancient European ideas. It has learnt from the extraordinary advances in the sciences that have happened in the last few hundred years; it recognizes that classicism is not an exclusively European property, but a miracle that has happened many times throughout the world in a variety of societies. Ancient classicisms have proposed fixed and perfect ideals that never change; the new classicism sees the world as evolving into a richer and richer mix of physical and spiritual complexity. I have proposed the term "natural classicism" for the movement as a whole; our capacity for making and experiencing beauty is part of our nature, beauty is a real property of the universe, and our ability to feel and create it is founded on identifiable brain functions that are as universal as human speech. Thus beauty is not a mere convention but a fundamental human capacity and human need.
Even postmodern art critics like David Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl have started singing the praises of beauty, and the word is returning in movies like American Beauty
and Stealing Beauty
. What pomo critics and film makers mean by "beauty" is unclear-the best they can come up with is "jouissance", a sort of mental orgasm about the destruction of some past convention or expectation-but it is significant that they find a need to co-opt the word itself.
In poetry there are two highly vigorous movements that represent at least part of the new paradigm. They are known as "the new narrative" and "the new formalism"--named by its enemies, as often in the past. The former is self-explanatory: the new poetry breaks modernist rules established since Edgar Allan Poe condemned the long narrative poem, and dares to tell stories--often gripping and fascinating ones--in verse. The latter term, new formalism, refers to the revival of poetic meter, verse, and rhyme that is going on in poetry. Modernist critics of the new formalism have suggested that versification is elitist, but have been staggered by the rejoinder that it is free verse that is confined to a small group of academic cognoscenti, while meter and rhyme are the normal forms for blues and jazz lyrics, country and western songs, Cole Porter songs, rap, and Broadway musicals.
Several poets are practitioners of both meter and narrative, and the two movements are often lumped together as "expansive poetry," a phrase coined by the poet Wade Newman. Expansive poetry is expansive in the sense that it attempts to widen the scope of poetry beyond the short, free verse, imagist, private, existentialist lyric poem that has become the norm in late modernist letters. It is also expansive in that it feels free to recover past modes and genres of poetry, and presupposes an expanding and open-ended universe, in which new forms of order can grow out of the old, and where freedom can consist not just in wrecking traditional kinds of order, but in creating new ones.
For this movement is not simply reactionary, nor is it a brand of "postmodernism." As the renaissance taught us, and we have forgotten, the truly traditional and the truly original are not opposites, but are the precondition for each other. The movement is parallel with developments in the natural and human sciences, especially in the new models of the brain and mind, and in chaos theory--the study of nonlinear dynamical processes and their strange attractors. There is a relationship between the new movement and the profound political changes that have been occurring on the international scene, and the grand contemporary rethinking of economics and social philosophy. There has been a transformation in the environmental movement and in our view of nature, which has replaced the purist avant-garde alternatives of wilderness and ruined urban landscape with the idea of the garden and the cultivated and abundant countryside--a transformation that is deeply connected to developments in the arts.
The movement is still a minority element within the arts establishments, and is subject to various degrees of formal, informal or covert censorship by the academy, the public and private foundations, and some museums, publishers, critical periodicals, galleries, and the like. But in poetry the new movement is now recognized throughout the academy, and university and college creative writing classes have started teaching the techniques of meter and rhyme again. Several new periodicals, such as The Edge City Review, Light,
together with a rush of online magazines like Expansive Poetry and Music,
cater to the new literary taste.
The Derriere Guard, an artistic group named tongue-in-cheek by its founder, the musical composer Stefania de Kenessey, is one of the most prominent representatives of the movement as a whole, bringing together parallel developments in architecture, music, sculpture, painting, poetry, and city planning in a cheeky and insouciant riposte to the avant garde. The Derriere Guard has already staged major arts events in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and on December 7th-8th 2001 initiated the first of a series of salons at its headquarters in the upper west side of Manhattan.
The American Arts Quarterly
is not only a major voice in America for new classicism in the visual arts, but also an important venue for new classical theory throughout the other arts as well. Dozens of vital, fresh-faced young painters, refugees from the grim cloisters of the Politically Correct arts schools, throng Jacob Collins's atelier in New York. The Art Renewal website (http://www.artrenewal.org/
) gets thousands of hits every month. Fort Worth's beautiful Bass symphony hall, the cities of Celebration and Seaside in Florida, and Prince Charles' village of Poundbury, together with many new building projects in cities and universities, exemplify the New Urbanism movement in architecture and planning. Robert Stern, the neotraditionalist architect, is getting major commissions.
The arrival of NewKlassical, the website, directory, and nascent multimedia arts group, is a major milestone in the emergence of the new movement. In bringing together ideas, people, and artworks from all the arts and in a thoroughgoing international context, it marks the coming-of-age of the movement. Essentially there is now a global new classical coffee-house where artists of all kinds can find out about each other, look at each others' work, argue, collaborate, and prepare exhibitions, conferences, and performances. And, perhaps even more important, a place where the public can go to find the very best of the new work and learn about and contribute to its ideas.
The driving force of the whole movement is a desire to return to the ideal of beauty. As James Cooper, editor of the American Arts Quarterly
, one of the movement's leading periodicals, has said, "Beauty is not simply an optional aspect of art: it is the object and purpose of art." For new classicists, beauty cannot be detached from either moral beauty or from what Shelley called intellectual beauty. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, argued that the fundamental characteristic of the divine was its beauty. One does not have to buy his theology to find inspiration in the idea that beauty might be what we need to draw us out of the despair of the twentieth century.
At a weekend retreat at the Blue Ridge home of the sculptor Frederick Hart (creator of the Washington Cathedral "Creation" sculptures and the Vietnam Memorial "Three Soldiers" sculpture) some of the founding members of the movement put together a manifesto:
We stand for:
1. The reunion of artist with public.
Art should grow from and speak to the common roots and universal principles of human nature in all cultures.
should direct itself to the general public.
Those members of the general public who do not have the time, training, or inclination to craft and express its higher yearnings and intuitions, rightly demand an artistic elite to be the culture's prophetic mouthpiece and mirror.
Art should deny the simplifications of the political left and right, and should refine and deepen the radical center.
The use of art, and of cheap praise, to create self-esteem, is a cynical betrayal of all human cultures.
Excellence and standards are as real and universal in the arts as in competitive sports, even if they take more time and refined judgement to appreciate.
2. The reunion of beauty with morality.
The function of art is to create beauty.
Beauty is incomplete without moral beauty.
There should be a renewal of the moral foundations of art as an instrument to civilize, ennoble, and inspire.
True beauty is the condition of civilized society.
Art recognizes the tragic and terrible costs of human civilization, but does not abandon hope and faith in the civilizing process.
Art must recover its connection with religion and ethics without becoming the propagandist of any dogmatic system.
Beauty is the opposite of coercive political power.
Art should lead but not follow political morality.
We should restore reverence for the grace and beauty of human beings and of the rest of nature.
3. The reunion of high with low art.
Popular and commercial art forms are the soil in which high art grows.
Theory describes art; art does not illustrate theory.
Art is how a whole culture speaks to itself.
Art is how cultures communicate with and marry each other.
4. The reunion of art with craft.
Certain forms, genres, and techniques of art are culturally universal, natural, and classical.
Those forms are innate but require a cultural tradition to awaken them.
They include such things as visual representation, melody, storytelling, poetic meter, and dramatic mimesis.
These forms, genres, and techniques are not limitations or constraints but enfranchising instruments and infinitely generative feedback systems.
High standards of craftsmanship and mastery of the instrument should be restored.
5. The reunion of passion with intelligence.
Art should come from and speak to what is whole in human beings.
Art is the product of passionate imaginative intelligence, not of psychological sickness and damage.
Even when it deals, as it often should and must, with the terrifying, tragic, and grotesque, art should help heal the lesions within the self and the rifts in the self's relation to the world.
The symbols of art are connected to the embodiment of the human person in a physical and social environment.
6. The reunion of art with science.
Art extends the creative evolution of nature on this planet and in the universe.
Art is the natural ally, interpreter, and guide of the sciences.
The experience of truth is beautiful.
Art is the missing element in environmentalism.
Art can be reunited with physical science through such ideas as evolution and chaos theory.
The reflectiveness of art can be partly understood through the study of nonlinear dynamical systems and their strange attractors in nature and mathematics.
The human species emerged from the mutual interaction of biological and cultural evolution.
Thus our bodies and brains are adapted to and demand artistic performance and creation.
We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical.
Cultural evolution was partly driven by inventive play in artistic handicrafts and performance.
The order of the universe is neither deterministic nor on the road to irreversible decay; instead the universe is self-renewing, self-ordering, unpredictable, creative, and free.
Thus human beings do not need to labor miserably to despoil the world of its diminishing stockpile of order, and struggle with one another for possession of it, only to find that they have bound themselves into a mechanical and deterministic way of life.
Instead they can cooperate with nature's own artistic process and with each other in a free and open-ended play of value-creation.
Art looks with hope to the future and seeks a closer union with the true progress of technology.
7. The reunion of past with future.
Art evokes the shared past of all human beings, that is the moral foundation of civilization.
Sometimes the present creates the future by breaking the shackles of the past; but sometimes the past creates the future by breaking the shackles of the present.
The enlightenment and modernism are examples of the former; the renaissance, and perhaps our time, are examples of the latter.
No artist has completed his or her artistic journey until he or she has sojourned with and learned the wisdom of the dead artists who came before.
The future will be more, not less, aware of and indebted to the past than we are; just as we are more aware of and indebted to the past than were our ancestors.
The immortality of art goes both ways in time.
If beauty is a real property of things and, though fertile of free and unpredictable developments, rooted in the physical universe, then the whole body of contemporary critical theory and practice is deeply in error and should be revised. A vital criticism is essential to vital art. Thus in the hopeful rebuilding of our culture that I propose in this book, a new system of critical theory is essential. What must that theory do to be successful? One way of answering this question is in terms if healing: the rejoining of broken wholes, the reuniting of false dichotomies, the bringing together of cutural energies vitiated by their division. Our theory, then, must rejoin artist with public, beauty with morality, high art with low art, art with craft, passion with intelligence, art with science, and past with future.
We need a new kind of poetics, which we might call ecopoetics. (The word is, I believe, the coinage of the scholar and literary biographer Tim Redman, who applies it primarily in the economic sense of "eco.") Though this approach can apply to all the arts, I shall specifically address literature. Essentially I am calling for the abandonment of a good part of the present activities of the literary academy, and the beginning of a new literature, a new poetics, and a new criticism based on the evolving universe and our own leading part in it. The "eco" in ecopoetics is derived from the Greek oikos
, household. In what senses will the new poetics be a "household" poetics?
First, it will experience literature in the household of a world of ratio, space, and quantity. It will reconnect with mathematics, logic, number theory and geometry. There is a promising beginning for this in structuralism (aborted by poststructuralism); but we must seek for roots also in the rhetorical, geomantic, numerological, iconographic, and mnemonic theories of the past. Literary critics should be able to read Benoit Maldelbrot. These are new mathematical theories of the topology of the universe that describe it as a double super-sphere, that is, a sphere with two centers, each of which is the periphery of the other. The mathematicians Istvan Ozsvath and Wolfgang Rindler, who are investigating this shape, have pointed out that this geometry exactly corresponds to Dante's account of the cosmos as described in the Paradiso
; they have thus dubbed the whole class of such topological forms Dantes
in honor of the poet.
Second, the new poetics will experience literature in the household of the physical world, a world that we are now realizing is full of subtle phase-changes, turbulences, emergent orders, and self reflexive processes that can act as amazing models and analogues for artistic creation. Some chemists, physicists, and cyberneticists, such as Roald Hoffman, Ilya Prigogine, Cyril Stanley Smith, John Archibald Wheeler, and Douglas Hofstadter, can help show the way, but within the literary and critical world there is virtually no criticism of this kind, and very little literature. The critics Katherine Hayles, Koen dePryck, and Alexandre Argyros are welcome exceptions.
Third, the new poetics will experience literature in the household of the living world. Poetry is an activity of a living species, with a living brain and nervous system and body. As I have pointed out, the fundamental competencies of literature and art, such as our ability to produce and understand the poetic meter, narrative, visual patterns, and melody, are culturally universal and the result of gene - culture coevolution. We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical. Our literary and artistic nature is inscribed in our central nervous systems; that nauture is the algorithm that generates the extraodinary variety of human art and literature. We need to listen to what brain science is saying, to the ethologists and sociobiologists and neurochemists and psychophysicists, but molecular biology and biochemistry are just as important. The most powerful precursor of language in the physical world is the DNA molecule; indeed, it might be more accurate to say that language is just fast DNA, or that DNA is slow language. The things we are finding out about how DNA edits, expresses, repairs recombines, and reproduces itself are of the most crucial and central interest to literature, music, and art, which do exactly the same things, perhaps in similar ways. There is almost no literature or criticism along these lines. Such science fiction writers as Michael Crichton, David Brin, and Gregory Benford have certainly deal with the subject, but not in such a way as to have the subject matter reflect deeply into the linguistic and formal medium.
Fourth, ecopoetics will experience literature and art in the household of the human world, the ancient and perenial world of ritual, folklore, storytelling, oral performance, family; the household of craftmanship, of everyday activities like gardening, cooking, sewing, physical training, carpentry, and so on. The novelist and the painter used to know how to do the great scenes of childbirth, funeral, the local dance, the girl's first party dress, the boy's initiation, the family dinner; anthropology, folklore, and performance studies can enlarge this base. These are not just the characteristics of "bourgeois society"; in various forms they are common to all human cultures. When we return to these constants we will rediscover how akin all human beings are, how culture and biology are so subtly interwoven that the puzzle is of inexhaustible literary interest; and in the process we will recover an audience which has abandoned "serious" art. This study will also show us how much we have lost of the ancient biocultural techniques of storytelling. meter, allegory, rhetoric, literary structure, and iconology, and how we might recover them. Some comtemporary fields of literary scholarship can lead the way: the oral tradition studies inspired by Albert Lord and Milman Parry, the mnemonic investigations of Frances Yates and her followers, the myth studies of Joseph Campbell, the performance theory of Robert Corrigan and others, and the exciting blend of classical philology and anthropology practiced by Walter Burtkert and Gregory Nagy, for example.
Fifth, the new poetics will encounter literature and art in the household of sociocultural and economic reality. Much recent literature and criticism has professed to do just this, but, in fact, it has existed rather in a world of left-wing avant-garde fantasy, that has been revealed in all its cruel tawdriness by the collapse of the intellectual apparat of Eastern Europe. The new ecopoetics will takes its place in a world of real economic organisms, corporations, and social institutions, and must not alienate itself from the world of popular and commercial culture, or, more sinister, between popular and folk culture (the Nazi move). These are just ways for the avant-garde and academy to avoid the sting of failure in the popular marketplace. On the other hand, it must not truckle to the infantile and uncultivated appetites of the masses either, but properly take the blame for them, and the responsibility for gently and patiently educating them into something deeper and better. If TV is trivial and empty (and it often is not), it is because those who should have been the cultural leaders have either sulked in their tents or stood jeering on the sidelines. The great model in this respect is William Shakespeare, who is still being attended by enthusiastic popular audiences, and was never too proud to tell an exciting tale or a dirty joke; yet his poetry is still the most profound in the world.
Sixth, the new poetics will take its place in the household of history. What this means is that its scholarship should posses the genuine historical imagination, and should be as wary of importing contemporary moral fashions into the past as it would be of imposing "Western" values on a "non-Western" society. Important historical fictions or poems or plays might issue from such a reinhabiting.
Finally, the new poetics will experience literature and art in the household of the divine economy, the spiritual universe. The world can be seen, as I have shown in chapter 2, both as the fetal body of a divine being, and as a sort of theater in which its story will play itself out. In this drama, which was going on before humans arrived on the scence and which has already bequeathed us an inheritance of only partly revisable values, the very nature of the good, the beautiful, and the true is still being worked out, created, and unfolded.
Given the view of beauty, and the principles of criticism based on it, that I have presented in this chapter, the outline of an artistic and literary manifesto suggest itself. This manifesto, though in the tradition of the romantic, modernist, and postmodernist manifestos that have preceded it, and embodying some ideas from those periods, is also a replacement for them, and claims a significant differece from them. The difference is that it is more soundly based, bothe empirically and rationally, and that its scientific and philosophical underpinnings are more contemprary, having had an advantage of at least fifty years in which old factual and epistemological errors could be exposed and corrected. This manifesto is partly the result of a series of conversations among a group of artists, poets, composers, and other makers that took place at the home of the sculptor Frederick Hart, the group described in chapter 1 as "centrists." I have organized the manifesto under seven headings, though its implications go beyond them.