wherefore the artists

The Enchantments of Mammon Thoughts: Part III

And we would allow her advocates who are not poets but lovers of poetry to plead her cause in prose without meter, and show that she is not only delightful but beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man. (Republic X, 158)

Reading The Enchantments of Mammon, I considered over and over again what it means for an artist to be a part of the political commonweal. McCarraher has a particularly sympathetic view of the role of arts in political society, given that his path forward for society depends on Romanticism.

While I balk at his conclusion, I deeply appreciated McCarraher’s emphasis, throughout the volume, on the vital role of the artist in creating work that lifts society above the concerns of and demands of capital and for the ways in which capital can corrupt and disrupt the transcendent vocation of the arts. Beauty, throughout the annals of capitalism, is viewed as nothing but a “new business tool” a handy tactic to drive sales.

This is surely an unjust use for art. Art cannot be a means for driving profit, for making money, something that one makes a “career” out of. But what does it mean to be an artist as a worker? And what role do artists play in the just society?

What is the democratic function of the artist? Plato famously banishes the artists from his republic. His reasons are that their imitative knowledge is useless, and furthermore, the pity that the emotions prompt seem to awaken a part of the human being that Greek philosophers would rather quash in a virtuous man—the “womanly” part.

Socrates condemns Homer for lacking practical skills that could “contribute to a democracy” and for personal vulnerabilities. Socrates’ contempt for Homer’s loneliness and neglect is the derision of the powerful for the vulnerable. The idea that beauty and insight arises particularly from someone on the margins of society, perhaps blind and shunned by others, but that their blindness holds a particular sort of sight, brilliant in the light it shines, is a uniquely Christian idea. Reading the classical philosophers in the light of Christ, it is hard to see how they would have approved of him: a week man, full of pity, who led no wars, as Socrates points out, who did not benefit any city state, king or nation, Christ’s knowledge was not practical. And his death was certainly a dishonorable death of loneliness and neglect.

This contempt for the impractical knowledge of the artists translates to a contempt for the feelings and ideas their art evokes: “when in our own lives some affliction comes to us, you are also aware that we plume ourselves upon the opposite, on our ability to remain calm and endure, in the belief that this is the conduct of a man, and what we were praising in the theatre that of a woman.” (130)

Greek philosophy’s contempt for—or, rather, fear of—femininity, and the expressions of “femininity” within a man never ceases to fascinate me. It belies a desire to categorize human behavior according to gender, which—going out on a limb here—I think underscores a belief that social orders allow for certain behaviors only in one gender.

If men weep, are affected by sorrow, nurture their children with care, then their ability to be the states’ war machines and enforcers of its power is threatened. If women believe they have the power to argue, resist, and do anything about their position other than emote, they become dangerously autonomous and might demand to be treated as equals. In order to keep the social order unthreatened, certain behaviors are deemed permissible for each gender. Thus, no balance of power will be disrupted, and no status quo is rocked,

Art, because it draws on universal human emotions, because it appeals not to intellect or power, but to our desires, our hopes, and our fears, is naturally subversive. It questions social orders that proscribes and prescribes behavior.

Not only is art a liberating force for an individual, Rowan William argues that tragedy is a communal art, a forum in which the polis can gather and examine itself in the mirror together. The classical tragedies—and perhaps, all drama—provides a political space for collective meditation. In the tragedies—think, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Medea—the city sees individual actors interacting with the rules and regulations of a city. The city’s conceptions of justice are both reinforced and called into question. The tragedies do not congratulate the audience on their society nor do they call for change, rather they simply let the community live in the tension of imperfectly-enacted justice. Despite building a bulwark of communal protection against the contingency of fate, each human in the audience faces their own perilous fragility and vulnerability through the forum of the drama.

Politics is not simply the realm of the economist and the social scientist. Political imagination is built by each person who contributes to the fabric of society—the artisan, the artist, the teacher, the family. Politics is not for beaucrecrats in squeaky suits, but for the painters, the tragedians, the dramatists. Throughout his volume, McCarraher notes the obsession and glorification of the Gothic that is positively endemic among 19th Century artisans, poets, and philosophers. Simultaneously, McCarraher journals the increasing commercialization and privatization of politics. A growing disdain for the philosopher, the scholar, or the statesmen boils up in American political and economic life, until the saperfare of the businessman becomes the gold standard of American wisdom.

With this increasing privatization of the polis, it seems natural that softer souls would long for the communal efforts of the Gothic, represented in their Cathedrals, which, first, have pride of place in the town or city square. They are indubitably marked as the cornerstone of the town. Second, they are a communal effort. The Gothic Cathedral represented the blood, sweat, tears, and gold of the entire community. The art of the cathedral is art that exists because of and for the community. Its goal is not profit, self-aggrandizement of the artist, but the edification of the entire community.

America, a country founded upon Puritans who foreswore aesthetics, seems to have missed out on making art a cornerstone of democracy. The fundamental religion of the Puritans, McCarraher argues, is profit. If that is the cornerstone of the American polis, all other efforts become evaluated only in relation to the alpha and omega, the logos of return on investment.

How can the artist contribute to the healing of a society enslaved to Mammon?

Von Balthasar writes that the saints are the true artists, meaning that there is a sacramental harmony between the work they do and their own lives. Their art is the fruit of their own being, their own ethos, there is no dissonance between their selves and their work—their lives and their art are joint expressions of the same truth and love.

McCarraher places his hope in a new generation of artist-saints who can reawaken an “Ontological wonder that entails anger at the profanation of human divinity.” Artists who live in the world, and are not of it, who reawaken the deadened senses to the glory of the world, whose art is full of wonder at the glorious simplicity of the world, and who inspire the polis to see itself with prophetic clarity.

The artist, perhaps more than any other voice in the American public, is the voice that can call humanity back to itself, can ask the soul to recast its image of itself not in the likeness of profit, but in the image of the Creator who calls the human to create, to cultivate, and bear fruit in radiant imitation of Divine Generosity. The artist, as the person who creates out of no other necessity but love, is perhaps the person who can lead a revolution away from the stinginess of mammon back to a community more tuned to the abundance of creation.

Part I
Part II

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