There remain few topics in our current age which haven’t been absorbed or in some way consumed by a would-be “culture war.” One finds polemic after polemic, critique after critique, lamentation after lamentation bemoaning the abundance of ugliness and scarcity of beauty across our world. But what of the culture borne by these so-called“culture wars”?
Like most wars, the results are more than a little disappointing, often even heinous. If anything, the culture wars have drastically undercut our actual culture by poisoning the conversation and saturating the discourse with false choices.
Essentially, while one ostensible side of the war looks to a golden age of the past in which everything was essentially correct, another looks to a golden age of the future in which everything is essentially perfect, and yet neither can pinpoint what this age is or how to get there from here. Despite the constant interest in reform and rebirth, or progress and change, our own age remains inundated with ugliness, desperation and indifference on virtually all sides. One side seeks to preserve the timeless, the other seeks to recognize that development and change exist in time.
But are these choices even inherently opposed?
With false binaries like to censor or not to censor, to go forward or to go backward, whether to embrace time or remember the timeless, is it any surprise that people are confused, or that our current culture has suffered?
Alas, where to look for a model capable of resolving these paradoxes in our own unique age? In reality, Western civilization has many such models; and many such instances have a occurred where these same paradoxes were resolved. For one, every great artist and work of art across time has resolved this very same timeless paradox through beauty. The changing and the unchanging, the One and the Many, time and timelessness have always been effortlessly wed in the great artistic and cultural traditions of the West.
So must they be today.
The poet Friedrich Schiller understood this very question. Speaking on the nature of the artist and his task within his own age, Schiller wrote:
The Artist, it is true, is the son of his age; but pity for him if he is its pupil, or even its favorite! Let some beneficent Divinity snatch him when a suckling from the breast of his mother, and nurse him with the milk of a better time that he may ripen to his full stature beneath a distant Grecian sky. And having grown to manhood, let him return, a foreign shape, into his century; not, however, to delight it by his presence; but terrible, like the son of Agamemnon, to purify it. The matter of his works he will take from the present; but their Form he will derive from a nobler time, nay from beyond all time, from the absolute unchanging unity of his nature. Here from the pure aether of his spiritual essence, flows down the Fountain of Beauty, uncontaminated by the pollutions of ages and generations, which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it.
Friedrich Schiller – Ninth Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Man
Like Schiller, no less a leader than John F. Kennedy himself recognized the importance of the artist and poet in any society, echoing a message similar to that of Schiller. Speaking at Amherst College where he delivered a eulogy for the Robert Frost, Kennedy made the following remarks:
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.
Kennedy goes on:
Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
While in some instances man has been able to rely on nothing other than his own raw strength, how often have the most important moments in man’s history come down to a reminder that within him lies something more?
So Kennedy reminds us:
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role… If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
Rather than having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope,” we believe that now is a time to remember our greatest traditions with a fresh mind and to look forward with renewed enthusiasm as we take on new noble visions in which time and timelessness, beauty and truth, the individual and society are resolved the way they always have, through beauty.
So today, we are proud to announce the release of the fifth instalment of our journal of arts and letters, New Lyre. In this latest issue, we reconstruct Aeschylus’ lost tragedy of Prometheus Unbound, revisit Plato’s age-old war against public opinion, and celebrate the many new creative voices who have chosen to stand above the fray of the culture wars and reap the immortal fruits of our timeless tradition.
Therefore, we invite you all gently to read, and kindly to judge, our journal.