Saturday, November 27, 2004


Nihilism In Art And Life

I dare suggest that a love of artistic beauty coincides with a preference for harmony in civil affairs

I really like classical music from the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Innovative minds in this period took composition to new levels of beauty and pathos. An equal respect for both harmony and dissonance mimicked such tensions in life itself. An intelligent construction of sound portrayed the Taoist dance of opposites in conflict and reconciliation. Something one might call “bitter sweet” can be heard in the music of Mahler, Shostakovich, and Hindemith et al.

By the 1960’s, other more abrasive musical goals culminated in the utter chaos and cacophony of pure dissonance. One can hear such screeching howls in the works of Karl Heinz Stockhausen as well as other “experimental” writers of music. It’s probably no coincidence that Stockhausen described the 9/11 murder of innocents as “great art.” Such is the mindset that undermines repose and praises chaos and destruction.

There are a lot of intellectual arguments that can be made for why one may consider chaotic music to be great. Such composition is certainly unique, perhaps even witty – but it’s not beautiful. One certainly must be intelligent to even write musical noise, just as many "scholars" devote praise to "revolutionary" violence and destruction.

During the same period of music history that edgy mind-noise came of age, other composers reacted in numerous schools of neo~ (i.e. Classicism, Romanticism).

The symphonies of Howard Hanson clearly respect the value of well-placed disharmony, yet their general mood is one of beauty.

I’m not going to make the pedestrian claim that Hanson’s music is “better” than Stockhausen’s or, in the visual arts, that Rembrandt’s soul-inquiries are better then Andy Warhol’s pop vision (though personally, I believe this to be the case).

In the social sphere of the time span I’ve been addressing, a similar reckless nihilism arose, also culminating in the 1960’s. “Down with 'the system',” became the mere social equivalent of the screeching aleatory whines of atonal music. In music and political philosophy, the intellectuals marveled at such contrived heresies (and, vicariously, marveled at their own self-importance).

The nihilist hates beauty. Harmony, stability, and grandeur are the enemies of any angry pseudo-rebel. “Fighting against oppression” is a mere incidental contrivance to justify the true cause of mock “revolution” -- wanton destruction.

Whether the raised fist of Marxist “anarchists” or the raised screech of un-tuned violins, nihilism in art and life offers nothing to souls who seek solace in beauty. They're both just noise in the end.


A problem with musicians, artists, and entertainers is that some are good at what they do and think it somehow qualifies them as experts in completely unrelated fields; like domestic and international political policy.

"Fight the powers that be" -- then collect a check from them for singing about it...


My friend John who blogsThe Tanuki Ramble recently made note of the overwelming trash sitution in the Chuetsu region of Japan after the serious earthquake there (here) last month. I added a brief comment to his blog regarding the unintended bureaucratic fallout from a new set of environmental regulations. As a follow up to that, I found a quote in a local magazine, Metropolis, that captures the issue quite well:

"NOW YOU CAN TAKE A HAMMER TO AN OLD TELEVISION, SAY IT WAS THE EARTHQUAKE AND GET RID OF IT FREE" ("a survivor of the Niigata earthquake on how cheap it is to get household junk hauled away, which before the quake cost money") -- priceless


A well stated case against the media in Fallujah;

"Journalists quick to judge the Marine are more forgiving when it comes to the terrorists. "They're not bad guys, especially, just people who disagree with us," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews."

-- what utter nonsense. Where do these jerks come from?


This guy appraises an issue in more conservative terms than I would, but he addresses something I too have thought about from time to time. When exactly did the socialist clowns of academia decide to change B.C. and A.D. to the new politically correct contrivance?

I'd be interested in other examples beyond Stockhausen of 20th century music that you think expresses nihlism. I personally prefer Hanson to Stockhausen as well but I suspect I like other music that doesn't meet your artistic beauty criterion.

Robert Gable
Point well taken.

I Didn't mean to sound like some ultra-stodgy harmonic puritan. I fully recognize the wider emotional range available to modern composition. There are passages in John Corigliano's Symphony Number One that are extremely dissonant, yet he ultimately puts such dissonance into context -- the work as a whole is full of meaning.

There are people who have never warmed up to some of Stravinsky's music -- a mere matter of taste I suppose -- but they probably recognize the unerlying order and purpose in, for instance, The Right Of Spring.

Hans Werner Henze's symphonies comes to mind as an example of something I find overly abrasive.

I fully realize that there are some who's tastes simply differ from my own. It's even possible that I've failed to give such novel compositions a truly fair hearing. None the less, I think a distinction can be made between an artist who seeks to express something and one who is deliberately trying to express nothing. Schoenberg certainly wrote some beautiful works but what do his purely atonal works tell us about anything? They may make some kind of intellectual statement, but they're not beautiful...they're not even ugly!

Perhaps this issue is better addressed in the visual arts. I'd say that, if someone rolls around naked in the mud and says it's "art" it's about the same as saying "destroy the system" and calling it "political philosophy." The point can be argued intellectually, but so can murdering a few million people.

God bless the simple folks who can see through the nonsense.
And may nonsense bless you.
Thank you for your brave post, on the hateful rejection of beauty by so many "modernistic" and "progressive" composers. Paradoxically it is true that beauty rests in the eye of the beholder, yet that merely thinking of something as beautiful is not enough to make it so. Those who defend the beauteous traditions of the past, hear often these days, "Yes, but what is ugly to you, may be beautiful to another." Who can disagree? A seven-year old's scribblings are certainly beautiful to the child, and perhaps an indiscriminatory mother.

In music the true source of beauty, the sound, has largely been forgotten. We are now prone to praise invented systems, justifications for a work's existence - often overly technical analyses, sometimes trite political statements - as beautiful; we are prone to praise celebrations of the ugly aspects of human nature incorporated into art as beautiful. The mere fact that these ugly aspects can be expressed, does not necessarily qualify those expressions as beautiful.

One cannot argue that beauty is totally subjective; after all, many composers knew ugliness in sound and deliberately employed it, for example Stravinsky and Bartok. They desired the effect of great dissonance, and ugliness, and knew how to produce it. That is fact enough, to remember the existence of beauty and ugliness in music.

Many composers these days have been subdued by the Emperor sans vetements syndrome, believing that to carry on traditions of the past is worthless compared to the neverending drive for "progress." As you stated in your post, others have reacted against that. I recall the words of Honegger, who said about Schoenberg and his disciples, "The cure for drinking sulphuric acid will be to drink syrup." More prophetic words could not have been spoken.
Some very wise and insightful comments. Thank you.
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