Aesthetic Morality in the 21st Century

Morality in art has always been a fascination of mine. And by art I mean literature, music, movies – the works. Some weblogs even. A favourite artist of mine is the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. One of Gould’s theories was that music should be judged on moral considerations rather than aesthetic ones. In an interview with himself, he told the hypothetical story of a town in which all of the houses were painted in battleship grey (Gould’s favourite colour). But one day an individual decides to paint his house a “fire-engine red” colour…

“g.g.: — thereby challenging the symmetry of the town planning.

G.G.: Yes, it would probably do that too, but you’re approaching the question from an aesthetic point of view. The real consequence of his action would be to foreshadow an outbreak of manic activity in the town and almost inevitably — since other houses would be painted in similarly garish hues — to encourage a climate of competition and, as a corollary, of violence.”

In the weblog world, I equate morality with a sense of community and the ideas that emanate from it. The blogosphere fosters a willingness amongst people to share ideas, innovations and stories. Andrew Chen wrote a nice piece today on a similar theme:

“But to me, the knitting together of the tapestry of ideas from the threads that I pick up from both my own life as well as the lives/blogs of others – this knitting is how I build both crazy ideas as well as attempt to build community. It’s not “all about” ideas or community or love or communication or being true to yourself or anything – it’s about all of those all together and more.”

The weblog world is very young and for me it still has a sense of purity about it, unlike a lot of other forms of self-expression and art in the Western world. However there are signs the blogosphere is beginning to be painted fire-engine red: comment spam, people who game the system to increase their Google rank, bloggers who write defamatory or negative things about other people, petty competitions and name-calling between supporters of RSS and Atom. These kinds of things are a concern. But it’s not (yet) as bad as other forms of art and media.

Television is probably the worst, which is ironic in a way because Marshall McLuhan held such high hopes for it. But here in the 21st century there is precious little thoughtful or innovative television. Even the news and current affairs shows have been overun by a culture of celebrity. The most popular type of tv show in 2003 is so-called “reality tv”. Normal everyday people take part in these shows, but their motivations are shallow – fame and money. Invariably only one person can be “the winner” – the rest will be branded as “losers”. This causes participants to employ morally dubious tactics in order to out-compete their fellows and win the dosh.

Movies are little better, but at least there are some gems like The Matrix. A lot of people didn’t like how the 3rd movie in The Matrix trilogy ended, but for me it provided a morally uplifting ending and that’s much more than most Hollywood bunk provides these days. And no it’s not morally uplifting when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character refuses to kill people and shoots them in the knees instead. There has to be some redeeming social or moral aspect to the story, which I felt The Matrix provided – even if some people thought it was hokey.

Music is possibly the most consistently controversial in the aesthetic morality stakes. Needless to say, I am not a fan of Marilyn Manson. But having a moral sensibility doesn’t mean I just listen to classical music. In the 90’s I was a big fan of Nirvana (still am), but I’d always felt their music was negative and pessimistic. There is no denying the originality and sheer genius of the music itself, but on the other hand it was depressing to listen to. It reflected the mind of Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. I was pretty depressed myself at the state of popular music after that. But then in 1995 an album was released that was a revelation for me: Foo Fighters debut album, written and performed entirely by the drummer of Nirvana Dave Grohl. Why was it a revelation to me? These are the primary reasons:

1) The music sounded positive – it was upbeat and the lyrics (when they could be understood) were generally of a positive vein. The titles of the opening songs are a good indication: ‘This is a call’, ‘I’ll stick around’, ‘Big me’. It was good positive life-affirming music, especially in the context of the depressive grunge era of rock music at that time. And open up the album sleeve, my God the band members are actually smiling! (Dave Grohl created the band after he recorded the album).

2) The fact that Dave Grohl did it all himself and nobody expected it. Who would’ve thought a drummer could write an entire album – lyrics and music – then perform all the instruments including lead & rhythm guitars, bass, drums, vocals? At the time there were plenty of comparisons to Ringo Starr, but Dave Grohl blew peoples’ preconceptions out of the water with his achievement.

3) Lastly, the Foo Fighters debut album lifted the pall that hung over a generation following Cobain’s death. At least it lifted it for me. Whenever I listened to the Fooeys debut album in the following years, I always got energized. To this day, it remains one of my favourite albums. Interestingly most people think their second album is better, but for me the second album is very loud and almost vitriolic. The third album gets back to a positive groove and that too is a fave of mine.

I have more to say in upcoming posts on the topic of morality in literature and writing. Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ was perhaps the most influential novel of the 80’s in this regard and it’s interesting to compare it to the extraordinarily well-written but morally dodgy Brett Easten Ellis novel ‘American Psycho’. And I want to explore 18th century literature in the context of today’s publish/subscribe technologies – Pope, Swift, Samuel Johnson. btw if anyone knows where I can pick up a cheap copy of The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century by Robert Edward Norton, please let me know. It sounds like the kind of thing I want to read 😉 Also I should explore some of the philosophy around aesthetics and morality.

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