The Preoccupation with Novelty in the Arts

Within the culture of industrialized liberal democratic societies people tend to be more interested and preoccupied with new music, new literature, rather than forms of art that have flourished  in earlier eras. For example, music aficionados tend to be driven to explore newly released music rather than exploring earlier forms of music. Likewise, connoisseurs of literature tend to be on the lookout for the next great book series, rather than being preoccupied with some earlier literary tradition. Of course I am not suggesting that there are no people who are enamored with older forms of the arts, but there is a general tendency towards the new and novel and against older forms. Now this is not something unique to modern liberal democratic societies, but it is peculiar in that unlike in many other previous societies it is fairly easy for a member of a modern liberal democratic society to experience arts that have flourished in previous eras because of the growth of technology and the ease with which art can be shared. A member of the learned class of Renaissance Florence may have been interested in the poetry of Ancient China, but it was relatively difficulty for him to access that poetry, whereas we today can access it through a simple search on the internet.

This excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts is problematic as it prevents us from learning from the vast intellectual wisdom of the past and prevents us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Now towards the end of this entry I will go into more detail as to why I think this excessive preoccupation with novelty is problematic, but in the meantime I want to try to give a basic sketch of why we have this excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts in our society.

One plausible cause of the preoccupation is the societal prejudice that dismisses the relevance of the wisdom of early ages. Any person who has studied the canonical texts of Western Philosophy knows that for many, most of these texts within this tradition can only be of antiquarian, academic interest.  For such people there is nothing we can learn from Aristotle, as his teachings are irrelevant to our present situation, and they represent a backwards past. In sum, this idea suggests that we should be more interested in newer art forms as they speak more to our present predicament whereas earlier art forms do not speak to the issues that arise within our live.  This idea tends to lead people to be dismissive of earlier art, as it does not relate to their particular experiences, and to be preoccupied with novelty in the arts. Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth within this idea in that while I may appreciate Moliere it is difficult for me to fully understand all the dimensions of his work, as it was developed against the background of an entirely different context than the one that I now inhabit. However, the problem is that art often speaks to what is shared across all human lives, rather than what is particular to a given time within a given society, so even if newer arts speak more to our current predicament, older art forms can speak equally well to the general human predicament as it is experienced across varying historical eras.  So we have little reason to be preoccupied with newer art, as there is no reason to think that we cannot learn something about the human predicament from older art forms.

 

The second cause reinforces the preceding cause. This second cause is our desire to share our appreciation of arts with others.  If others are preoccupied with novel forms of the arts we will tend to follow suit, because sharing our appreciation of the arts with others is much better than enjoying them on one’s own. I may love the works of Mahler, but I find myself less drawn to being preoccupied with his work then newer composers, as I have not found a friend yet who I can discuss and appreciate his music with. We don’t simply want to enjoy the art on our own we want to discuss the art with others and share our appreciation with others. This is a perfectly valid desire, and I have no criticism for it, but unfortunately it has the problematic consequence of reinforcing conformity as people are drawn to forms of art that are widely appreciated within a particular social context.

Earlier, I laid out a couple of reasons as to why the preoccupation with novel arts is problematic. The first was that is prevents us from learning from the wisdom of earlier ages. This is problematic, because novel arts tend to simply reinforce our existing prejudices, whereas earlier art forms often present us with wisdom which can supplement and critique our current beliefs. For example, after reading  Moliere’s the Misanthrope I may have a new appreciation of the importance of politeness and tact, and the danger of always being completely authentic and honest. Furthermore, this new appreciation would cut against the tendency of modern thought to extol the virtues of brutal honesty and authenticity.    Thus, earlier forms of art often provide us with unique resources to supplement and correct our understanding, by confronting us with alternative perspectives, which allow us to properly assess our own beliefs.  But if we are preoccupied with novel arts we do not encounter this wisdom and thus our growth is inhibited.

The second reason was that an occupation with novel arts can impoverish our lives by preventing us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms. No matter how many great pop songs one hears, one’s life is richer if one has also experienced a great classical symphony. The forms of beauty of the pop song and the classical symphony are distinct, and are lives are enriched as we are exposed to a wider variety of beautiful forms. A focus on novel arts tends to limit us to a more narrow selection of beautiful forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Furthermore, one additional benefit to experiencing earlier art forms is that we also begin to see certain flaws in novel arts as we are exposed to other earlier art forms and see what they do well, and what is missing from novel arts, and this helps us to develop a more refined appreciation of the arts.  Consequently,  our preoccupation with novel arts is something that we should try to overcome.

 

 

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The Careerist Model of Parenting

In many ways Hugh and Jenny Schuman were typical Canadian parents. They both had steady white collar professions and worked as hard as they could to provide their children with everything they required. They had three children: Joseph, Kirk and Annette. Furthermore, the Schuman’s lived in a beautiful manicured home on the outskirts of Ottawa.                                                                                       

Hugh and Jenny both came from backgrounds that emphasized morality; Hugh came from a family with roots in the Social Gospel movement, while Jenny‘s family were non-religious liberal humanists who tended to work with NGO’s.  Both Jenny and Hugh still felt some attraction to the high ideals of their families, but the experience of their lives had made them realize that a concern with these ideals would not ensure the stability of their careers and thus their family.  

While in many ways the Schumans were typical, one thing that made Hugh and Jenny slightly peculiar was their model of parenting.  For example, Hugh and Jenny encouraged their children to take minutes for all conversations that they had, so that they could prove that a certain conversation had transpired. Furthermore the children had to get sign off from their parents on a plan before they could build forts, play with Lego, or play dress – up. These plans had to speak to the purpose of the activity that the child was interested in pursuing.

The motivation that Hugh and Jenny had for this model of parenting was their concern for their children’s future. They believed that in order for their children to have stable careers they must learn to adapt to the norms of working life in the 21st century. In this world “litigiosity” is more important than religiosity and so rather than encouraging their children to learn about the religions of the world, they made sure that their children knew how to create documentation to prevent possible lawsuits.  It was not important for their children to be aware of the teachings of Confucius, Christ, or Buddha; however, it was of paramount importance that the children learned to start covering their bases in their activities to avoid possible legal action by others.

Jenny and Hugh saw other parents as deeply irrational and inefficient in that they spent their time encouraging their children to read for the mere enjoyment of it, appreciate athletics and develop friendships with others. For Jenny and Hugh while this approach to parenting might encourage an attachment to literature, athletics and friends it would not help their children be effective in their careers when they reached adulthood, and consequently this approach was deeply misguided. For the Schumans, anyone who truly cared about their children would adopt their model of parenting, as it clearly ensured that the most important aspect of a child’s life, their future career, was taken care of.

Jenny and Hugh’s love for their children ran deep, and their model of parenting would ensure that their children were effective 21st century workers, and what more could any person want to be.

 

Some Thoughts on Political Idealism and Prudence

There is a tendency for activists and ideologues to try to apply their political ideal to every society, no matter what conditions that society finds itself in. I will claim that it is problematic to apply a political ideal to a society through political action without confirming that this change is sustainable for the society given its culture, customs and the dispositions of its citizens. That this seems to be the case can be accounted for both by an examination of history, as well as through a theoretical examination. From a historical perspective one tends to see that when a political ideal is applied without recourse to the actual conditions of a society the consequences tend to be poor. In the case of the French Revolution the Jacobins tried to apply a political ideal based on popular sovereignty onto a society of peasants who had little experience with political activity and being viewed as a singular collective body that ruled itself. The people recognized that they were in some sense sovereign, but what that sovereignty meant in institutional terms was not clear. The results of the French Revolution (The Terror and the Rise of Napoleon) were terrible in part because revolutionaries had tried to apply a political ideal that was quite unrelated to the experiences, culture, and dispositions of the French state at the time. Thus, this example seems to suggest that there is something problematic about applying a political ideal to a society without ensuring that this society has the resources (culture, virtues and customs) to support this change.  Furthermore, examples of this sort are manifest throughout history.

On a more theoretical level one can see how problematic it is to apply a political ideal to a society without recourse to thinking about the actual conditions of the society by referencing the assumptions underlying this activity. In order for it to be a prudent course of action to apply a political ideal to a society without referencing that society’s ability to make that ideal sustainable all societies would need to be able to support all forms of politics, and all societies would need to be obligated to practise the same form of politics. Or political activity would need to have the capacity to make any political ideal sustainable society within any form of society. The first option seems implausible as differing sets of civic dispositions are necessary to support differing forms of constitutions. A commercial, liberal democracy requires civility, industriousness, and compassion while a martial aristocracy like Sparta required courage and harshness. Trying to make Spartans out of Canadians would certainly be ill-conceived. We might try to encourage Canadians to be more courageous by learning about the courage of the Spartans, but to try to apply the Spartan ideal to Canada would be dangerous and imprudent. The second option seems implausible because it exemplifies a perverse form of hubris. Man is not completely under the sway of fate or providence, but to suggest that any ideal can be applied and sustained in any society seems to put too much faith in the human ability to control nature and society.  

None of this suggests that ideals are bad. We are moved by them, and they give us something by which we can critique the present. But it displays a great lack of mindfulness to apply them without asking if a society can support that ideal and make it sustainable. This lack of mindfulness may be accompanied by a pure heart, but this pure heart does not make the lack of mindfulness any more excusable or legitimate. We certainly should devote our energy to improving society, but this should always be done in a way that tries to ask what future is sustainable for this political community at this particular point in history.

 

Do External Incentives Degrade Intrinsically Worthwhile Activities?

There are many things that are worth doing on their own account, and not because of the consequences they produce. However, in a society in which there is a desire for meaningful work there is a temptation to try to take those intrinsically valuable pursuits and translate them into career opportunities. For example, someone who is drawn to the intrinsically valuable pursuit of journalism may want to try to turn journalism into a career. If this person could not cut it as a journalist they would still pursue the practise of journalistic writing on their own time, as this activity is its own reward and it does not need an external monetary, or non-monetary incentive, to draw people towards its practise. This temptation to turn intrinsically worthwhile activities, which we are willing to do without external incentives, into a career is problematic, because in many cases these external incentives will degrade the value of the activity itself. This is not to suggest that no one should try to turn such activities into a career, but rather that the value of the activity will be lessened once the activity has been translated into a career.

The danger in the transformation of an intrinsically valuable practise that one is drawn to into a career is that the external incentives, monetary or non-monetary, may crowd out the values that the practise realizes. Let us consider the person who pursues a journalistic career because of an appreciation for the intrinsic value of journalism. This person does not worry about deadlines, and is a perfectionist because she wants to ensure that her works fully realize all the excellences of journalistic practise. She may be extolling the virtues of the ideal journalist, but as a careerist she fails because she is not attentive to the fact that in a job you are being paid not to fully realize the excellence of a practise, but meet particular deadlines and produce particular “deliverables.” Consequently, it seems, that at least in some cases, pursuing an intrinsically worthwhile activity as a career will require one to compromise the integrity of the practise in favour of imperatives that bear little connection to the excellences of the practise itself.

This example helps to clarify why the careerization of activities degrades their value. Once an activity has been made into a career the person engaging in the activity cannot focus on fully developing the excellences of the practise but must produce particular outputs at particular time. This is precisely why the demand that academics produce a particular amount of research over every year is so antithetical to the excellences of the activities of the life of the mind and research. If one is worried about having to produce so many academic articles every year, one will likely not be able to fully devote oneself to ensuring that the articles are of excellent quality. Often producing articles will merely be a process of meeting deadlines rather than ensuring that one’s research fully realizes the excellences inherent in research.

In this way those who have an opportunity to pursue an intrinsically valuable activity that they are drawn to as a career are faced with a daunting choice. On one hand, they are given an opportunity to earn an income pursuing something that is valuable and that they would engage in without external incentives. Surely, this is a great opportunity. But on the other hand, they may have the sense that once this activity becomes a career they will not be able to fully devote themselves to realizing the excellence inherent in that activity. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether it is better to pursue a compromised version of an intrinsically worthwhile activity that is not attentive to the excellence inherent in that activity, or to pursue a career that may not involve an intrinsically valuable activity, but that does not involve the degradation of an intrinsically valuable activity.

Some Thoughts on Secularism and the Public Sphere

Recently, it came to the fore that the Parti Quebecois were planning to try to prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols or religious headgear through the planned implementation of a “Charter of Quebec Values.” Much of the analysis of this Charter has focused on the fact that the PQ seems to be trying to capitalize on the xenophobia present in Rural Quebec.  However, this Charter forces us once again to reconsider the meaning of secularism and what interpretation of secularism is best, as defenders of the Charter of Quebec Values” have noted that this Charter is not an attack on any particular religious group, but rather a means of uniting Quebec much in the same way that Bill 101 helped to unite Quebec and this is very tied to the interpretation of secularism known as `Laicite`. `Laicite` is the idea that the private sphere is the sphere where religion should play its role, while in the public sphere all citizens should appear as equals devoid of any visible religious or cultural affiliation. In this way, `Laicite` privatizes difference in order to ensure that the state is free from religious influence. Since the Quiet Revolution in the 60’s in Quebec, it has been the dominant interpretation of what secularism means in Quebec.

It should be noted that I am not suggesting that this bill was not an attempt to marginalize particular religious groups from working in the public sphere, but rather that even if the Charter is being used in this way, there is a still an interpretation at its foundation that is worth considering,.

While `Laicite` has been a dominant model of Secularism in Europe and North America, it is not the dominant model, and in the Anglo- American world the more dominant model of secularism has been the idea that secularism does not require the privatizing of difference, but rather the diversifying of public space. Let’s call this the “Anglo- American Model.” On this interpretation, instead of preventing all public employees from bearing religious symbols we would allow them to wear any religious articles that they wanted to provided that these do not endanger other’s rights. The idea is that rather than banning all religious symbols from the public sphere, we should admit all religious symbols into the public sphere. This is still an interpretation of secularism as it stands in opposition to the formation of a State Religion.

Both models of secularism have difficulties, and I would like to take a moment to clarify them before making an argument in favour of either. On one hand, Laicite is problematic because by banning religious symbols we will certainly alienate many religious people whose political beliefs are intertwined with their religious beliefs. Now if a significant minority of people are religious and are alienated from the public sphere they will be less active in formal politics and this will likely mean their beliefs and interests will not be adequately taken into account in the formation of the public interest.  Somewhat ironically, while `Laicite` tries to create solidarity, it can have the negative effect of actually pitting certain groups against the public sphere and failing to be properly inclusive.  On the other hand, the “Anglo-American Model” is certainly inclusive enough, but it is problematic in that it seems difficult to figure out what the public interest is when all citizens come in bearing marks of distinct religions and cultures.  When there are conflicts between the values of the majority culture, and a religious minority whose value ought to take precedence? The “Anglo-American Model” of secularism on its own provides us with no answer to this question. In this way `Laicite` give us substantive values of citizen equality and solidarity, but fails to be inclusive, while the Anglo-American model is extremely inclusive, but makes it difficult to adjudicate what the common interest is, by bringing all of the fractious differences into the public sphere.  

It seems to me, that with a qualification, the Anglo – American model is superior to the `Laicite` model. The qualification is that it is understood that we do not value diversity in itself, but rather respect all equal citizen’s right to bear religious symbols and clothing in the public sphere. In this way the foundation of including religious symbols in the public sphere is not because diversity is inherently positive but respect for the equality of all citizens. This also gives the state and its citizens a barometer to adjudicate what is in the common interest and what is not, and what values ought to take precedence when conflicts occur. This solution certainly has its own problems, but it provides a substantial barometer as to what is in the common interest, and embodies an inclusive spirit that encourages all to see themselves as full citizens.

 

 

 

 

Elitism and Music

Tyler Cornwall`s life revolved around his love of Techno. He spent most of his free time listening to Techno and could easily classify any Techno track within its appropriate subgenre including Post Early 2000s Berlin Minimal Housey Techno. Whenever he encountered people whose music taste revolved around what they heard on the radio he would feel superior as he had done the work to dig through all sorts of music to discover the most beautiful music in the world, Techno.  Consequently, in Tyler`s daily life he took every opportunity he could to display the beauty of Techno and would try to illuminate and re-educate those who did not see its shining beauty.  

Kyle Cassian had the same characteristics as Tyler, except in his case his love was for Extreme Metal, rather than Techno.  On one occasion Kyle had even skipped work in order to respond to a poster on an internet discussion board who had disparaged extreme metal, as something that lacked musical ability and all sounded the same. With his post Kyle had fulfilled his raison dètre as he had overwhelmed the naysayer with a post revealing the distinction between different genres of Extreme Metal, and explained why Extreme Metal takes a great degree of talent to perform. There was no way this naysayer would ever go around badmouthing Extreme Metal again.

By happenstance Tyler and Kyle ended up posting on the same internet discussion board. Kyle had bad mouthed Techno and referred to it as something `that any talentless idiot with a decent computer could make.“ This drew Tyler`s immediate attention and soon after he responded to Kyle. Tyler`s response clarified the history of Techno and how much talent was required to take simple, seemingly dull, rhythms and make something infectious with them.  Furthermore, he posted several examples of what he considered to be quality Techno. This did not convince Kyle however. In fact Kyle was offended by the fact that somebody could take Techno so seriously. Extreme Metal was a truly majestic art form, but Techno was trite and any person with the least sense of the true meaning of what good music was, could not consider Techno to be good.  

Soon after this exchange of posts occurred two other people posted additional responses to Kyle and Tyler. The first of these, Harvey Johnston, was upset with the fact that these two people were trying to prove that a particular genre was good. His response argued that there no way to distinguish between good music and bad music, and that music was merely a matter of preference. For Harvey, just as some people like Olives and others do not, some people will like Techno and others won`t.                                   

 However, the other poster, Anthony Martin, took a different tact. He saw the great passion for the beauty of music that both Kyle and Tyler had, and because he shared that passion for beauty, he wanted to expose them to his favourite forms of music, Classical and Jazz. He did not try to illuminate their minds or convert them to being avid listeners of Jazz and Classical; he merely suggested some artists they might like given Tyler`s love for Techno and Kyle`s love of Extreme Metal.  In this way Anthony just wanted to share the love that he had developed. While Anthony did think that his music taste was more elevated than Tyler`s or Kyle`s, and this elevation signified his ability to grasp a more nuanced conception of beauty, he was motivated by a simple desire to spread his love of music.  He merely wanted to encourage the growth of a love in others that had enriched his own life.