As I’ve now said in Art and Fear, in Carefree Art, and in The Hipster Fallacies (and as was implied in the quote on Science and Agnosticism) it is the job of the artist to awaken the sense of wonder in the world, to use their imagination as the organ of meaning and connect the reason of man to to the beauty of nature in surprising and interesting ways.
This and the next post will wrap up the week of talking about making brave art and making art bravely and today that means talking about our sense of wonder.
Our job is not to be the first to say, “Seen it all, done it all, don’t mean shit,” as the hipsters do. It is not to simply join a club, an intelligentsia of fashionable books and artworks and songs — and especially not a bleeding edge intelligentsia of people who like a thing before it has finished being painted, written, recorded, or programmed. It’s bad enough to worship the new to the extent that we don’t rub it up against every old thing we’ve ever had that is objectively good such as beer and cheese and sex, the sorts of things passed down since time immemorial. We worshipped the new era of India Pale Ale, that fluke of shipping lanes and shameful testiment to our fallacious belief in the East Indies, to the extent that we burn the rest of our brewing house with hops so that any given beer no longer means the mixture of preservatives with fermented grainmash, but comes to mean the preservation of preservatives. It’s like saying I always put a little pectin in my pectin to make it keep or that I prefer to freeze my ice. It says nothing of what kind of jelly or cured meat we hope to preserve. And so too with these hop-burned beers that have grown popular simply because it’s new and nothing else. Starbucks did this as well and burnt coffee beans for the better part of two decades before we remembered what was old: not all coffee roasters wait until the last second of the second crack to spill the beans. And we all have waited long past the second crack to spill these beans. We waited long enough that my mother’s preference of Denny’s and McDonald’s coffee ended up being closer to the truth of the essence of brewed coffee than our nearly raised coffee fields. And when Denny’s and McDonald’s coffee is being praised, you know you’ve lost your way. Enough that you might as well throw the lot in the Boston Harbor and start over. And historically speaking, some have.
These hipsters and other forms of modern intelligentsia or “Intellectuals” talk mostly about books and pictures, but especially new books and new pictures and about music as long as it’s very modern music that even their best critics mostly ignore in their day-to-day life. Sufjan Stevens himself, whom I do admire but who is practically worshipped in Williamsburg and Bushwick, admitted to some journalist over at Rolling Stones that the list of musical influences he had listed for the publication are not the songs he listens to from day to day, which, when you think about it, makes his alleged musical influences not very influential. And as Chesterton said, what’s true of the world is especially true of the intellectual world — it’s mostly fools. And it has a curious attraction to complete fools like warm fires have for cats. And like the cat who fell asleep next to the fire, they forget that it is water and earth and air that tame it and look surprised and hurt the moment they get burned.
Whatever we do with the arts, it must not be in subservience to novelty. It must be in subservience to keeping alive our sense of wonder with the old. If the new can teach us anything at all, it can only teach us about the old. Indeed, every breakthrough in mathematics relies on former proofs. Every rebellion in the arts needs something to rebel against. More often, art takes what is old and teaches us something new about it or helps us see it in a new way:
“The Arts exist, as we should put it in our primeval fashion, to show forth the glory of God; or, to translate the same thing in terms of our psychology, to awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man. The success of any work of art is achieved when we say of any subject, a tree or a cloud or a human character, ‘I have seen that a thousand times and I never saw it before.’ Now for this purpose a certain variation of venue is natural and even necessary. Artists change what they call their attack; for it is to some extent their business to make a surprise attack. They have to throw a new light on things; and it is not surprising if the light they use is sometimes an invisible ultra-violet ray or one rather resembling a black ray of madness or death. But when the artist extends the eccesntric experiment from art to real life, it is quite different. He is like an absent-minded sculptor turning his chisel from chipping at the bust to chipping at the bald head of the distinguished sitter And these anarchic artists do suffer a little from absence of mind.
“Let us take a practical case for the sake of simplicity. Many moderns will be heard scoffing at what they would call “chocolate-box art”; meaning an insipid and sickly art. And it is easy to call up the sort of picture that might well make anybody ill. I will suppose, for the sake of argument, that we are looking sadly at the outside of a chocolate-box (now, I need hardly say, empty) and that we see painted on it in rather pallid colours a young woman with golden ringlets gazing from a balcony and holding a rose in the spot-light caused by a convenient ray of moonlight. Any similar touches may be added to the taste or distaste of the critic; she may be convulsively clasping a letter or conspicuously wearing an engagement ring or languidly waving farewell to a distant gentleman in a gondola; or anything else I can think of, calculated to cause pain to the sensitive critic. I sympathise with the critic’s feeling; but I think he goes quite wrong in his thinking.
“Now, what do we mean when we say that this is a silly picture, or a stale subject, or something very difficult to bear, even when we are fortified by chocolates to endure it? We mean it is possible to have too much of a good thing; to have too many chocolate-boxes, as to have too many chocolates. We mean that it is not a picture, but a picture of a picture. Ultimately it is a picture of innumerable pictures; not a real picture of a rose or a girl or a beam of moonlight. In other words, artists have copied artists, right away back to the first sentimental pictures of the Romantic Movement.
“But roses have not copied roses. Moonbeams have not imitated each other. And though a woman may copy women in externals, it is only in externals and not in existence; her womanhood was not copied from any other woman. Considered as realities, the rose and the moon and the woman are simply themselves. Suppose that scene to be a real one, and there is nothing particularly imitative about it. The flower is unquestionably fresh as the young woman is unquestionably young. The rose is a real object, which would smell as sweet by any other name, or by no name. The girl is a particular person, whose personality is entirely new to the world and whose experiences are entirely new to herself. If she does indeed choose to stand in that attitude on that balcony holding that botanical specimen (which seems improbable), we have no right to doubt that she has her own reasons for doing so. In short, when once we conceive the thing as reality, we have no reason whatever to dismiss it as mere repetition. So long as we are thinking of the thing as copied mechanically and for money, as a piece of monotonous and mercenary ornament, we naturally feel that the flower is in a special sense an artificial flower and that the moonlight is all moonshine. We feel inclined to welcome even wild variations in the decorative style; and to admire the new artist who will paint the rose black, lest we should forget that it is a deep red, or the moonshine green, that we may realise it is something more subtle than white. But the moon is the moon and the rose is the rose; and we do not expect the real things to alter. Nor is there any reason to expect the rules about them to alter. Nor is there any reason, so far as this question is concerned, to expect the woman to alter her attitude either about the beauty of the rose or the obligations of the engagement-ring. These things, considered as real things, are quite unaffected by the variation of artistic attack in fictitious things. The moon will continue to affect the tides, whether we paint it blue or green or pink with purple spots. And the man who imagines that artistic revolutions must always affect morals is like a man who should say, ‘I am so bored with seeing pink roses painted on chocolate-boxes that I refuse to believe that roses grow well in a clay soil.’
“In short, what the critics would call romanticism is in fact the only form of realism. It is also the only form of rationalism. The more a man uses his reason upon realities, the more he will see that the realities remain much the same, though the representations are very different, And it is only the representations that are repetitions. The sensations are always sincere; the individuals are always individual. If the real girl is experiencing a real romance, she is experiencing something old, but not something stale. If she has plucked something from a real rose-tree, she is holding a very ancient symbol, but a very recent rose. And it is exactly in so far as a man can clear his head, so as to see actual things as they are, that he will see these things as permanently important as they are. Exactly in so far as his head is confused with current fashions and aesthetic modes of the moment, he will see nothing about it except that it is like a picture on a chocolate-box, and not like a picture at the Post-Futurist Gallery. Exactly in so far as he is thinking about real people, he will see that they are really romantic. Exactly in so far as he is thinking only about pictures and poems and decorative styles, he will think that romance is a false or old-fashioned style. He can only see people as imitating pictures; whereas the real people are not imitating anything. They are only being themselves– as they will always be. Roses remain radiant and mysterious, however many pink rosebuds are sprinkled like pips over cheap wallpapers. Falling in love remains radiant and mysterious, however threadbare be the thousandth repetition of a rhyme as a valentine or a cracker-motto. To see this fact is to live in a world of facts. To be always thinking of the banality of bad wallpapers and valentines is to live in a world of fictions.”
— G.K. Chesterton
That said, when was the last time you felt the sense of wonder over something you’ve seen a thousand times?
When was the last time you felt nostalgia for something from your past?
When was the last time a view or vantage you’ve passed a thousand times filled you with a new sort of longing?
And how can you give that to others through some artistic sneak attack?