This Was the longest string we ever had.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so cranky about contemporary pop culture, lately. Obviously my posts on music and film, have elicited a good deal of helpful feedback. But I don’t think it’s just an “in my day” rant. What our culture is giving us now is fast food when in the 60’s and 70’s, it was a meal. The action movies and the video games and the hip hop records may provide us a jolt of energy–Cultural Red Bull–but there is neither brain nor body sustenance in much of the music and film. Erich Fromm, in The Sane Society wrote something about this that I think was quite profound. The quote is long, but stick with it until the end. Then you will get a glimpse of what’s bugging me.
It is characteristic of all culture that it builds a man made, artificial world, superimposed on the natural world in which man lives. But man can fulfill himself only if he remains in touch with the fundamental facts of his existence, if he can experience the exaltation of love and solidarity, as well as the tragic fact of his aloneness and the fragmentary character of his existence. If he is completely enmeshed in the routine and in the artifacts of life, if he can’t see anything but the man-made, common-sense appearance of the world, he loses his touch with and the grasp of himself and the world. We find in every culture the conflict between routine and the attempt to get back to the fundamental realities of existence. To help in this attempt has been one of the functions of art and of religion.
Ever since I started posting The Cost of Empire, I have been wrestling with the thought that perhaps the grand transformation I am hoping for is as much cultural as it is political. The thrill of being in this blog community is that I think a lot of you share that feeling–and that the cultural sometimes proceeds the political. The Beat Poets were happening in 1958 and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd was published in early 1961, just as the folk music protest scene was starting. It wasn’t until 1966 that the full power of political change started to effect the country as a whole, and in that same year Bob Dylan put out Blonde on Blonde and completely moved in a different artistic direction. After ranting about bad movies and sold out musicians I tried to wrestle with the meaning of the death of Solzhenitsyn. But here too, I was looking in the wrong direction, the political and not the cultural/spiritual. It took Hugo, our correspondent from Georgia to straighten me out about the Russian.
In gulag he was able to concentrate on (through writing and study) and participate in (through clandestine prayer and worship and witness) what became a bona fide underground reclamation from the Soviets of Russian Orthodoxy.He perservered; he overcame; he transcended. What came of it was art, and his freedom, and an intimidating rejection of the Nietzschean, the totalitarian, claim that the individual human spirit can be extinguished.
So I’m not saying we don’t have to deal with politics, but I am saying that the artist has a role in society that goes beyond just entertaining us. Part of the role of the artist in the 60’s and 70’s was to hold a mirror up to low road commercial culture, not be part of it. Marcuse said it well.
“In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.”