The Dangers of Aesthetic Relativism

Relativismby FJ Rocca7/27/15
In the current culture of moral relativism, what is good and right is often determined by popularity, the excuse being that anything is good if it is accepted. This is a distortion of the philosophy of Pragmatism, which actually does not say that everything is morally equal because situations in which actions occur differ. The exhortation not to be “judgmental” is shouted at anyone who criticizes something as bad or unacceptable. The mistaken notion that one can suspend judgment is ludicrous on its face and its application at law, that one is innocent until proven guilty, is cited as proof positive of its wisdom. Anyone paying attention can see the difference between judging someone’s innocence in general and making a final verdict in a court case. The first requires experience; the second requires careful examination of specific evidence.

There is certainly great value in not judging people without knowing them, but that is not suspending the faculty of reasoning observation. It is merely putting off one’s actions about whether to associate with a person until one knows enough about them. The same thing is true when buying something. The old saying goes, “Never buy a pig in a poke” which warns one not to buy something sight unseen. Aldous Huxley famously said, “Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.”

Wisdom is knowledge born of experience. Experience gives one perspective in judging situations and even people. If one’s experience (hence, knowledge) tells one that an empty street with dark alleys is a place where muggers might loom, no one in his right mind would suspension judgment of the situation. Experience is life practice and human experience has demonstrated that intelligent practice usually makes perfect.

Today a similar cognitive dissonance occurs in the evaluation of certain cultural elements passing for art. “Piss Christ” was not just a different kind of art. It was garbage. No skill was required to devise or create it. The image was objectionable on grounds much wider than religious degradation. It was artistically objectionable. It demonstrated nothing of the “artist’s” vision or soul—or perhaps, sadly, it did. Its message was childish anger and the artist’s ineptitude to express anything beyond an insult were at an unskilled, low aesthetic standard. The same can be said of the “elephant dung Madonna.”

Art is not just expression. It must be developed in a way that proves its value. For a painter, that requires the serious study, thought and practice of art from tradition. If, once the artist masters that part, he wants to move on to exploring possibilities beyond the established norms, he is free to do so, but to remain an artist he must do so by respecting the great achievements of artists who came before.

For me, this is especially true with music. I grew up in a household in which my French father and my American born Italian mother constantly showed respect for artistic achievement. My father was a painter and musician. My mother was a milliner and jewelry maker. Fine music was constantly played as background to our family life, like the sound track of a movie.

Not that my family were snobbish. My brother, sisters, aunts and uncles, all older than I by at least a decade, enjoyed the popular music of their day, which filtered into my time, as well. I listened to Frank Sinatra, Margaret Whiting, Tommy Dorsey and Jo Stafford, as well as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and the other great composers. My father took me almost every weekend to art museums and concerts. In fact we went regularly to the art museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, near our home, where there were concerts on Sunday. Before and after the music, my father led me past rows of fine paintings, pointing out the intricacies of Corot, Turner, Constable, the Flemish and the French. I read the “funny papers” every Sunday, paying particular attention to “Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon” and “Prince Valiant” whose creator, Hal Foster, I particularly admired. Later, when I was given opportunities to study art and music formally, it was natural that I should gravitate toward them.

But there was greater reinforcement for these high standards in the culture at large. Violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Arthur Rubenstein, were popular icons whose names and faces were known in ordinary households. I suppose this gave me an unfair advantage over many children today who don’t have the same atmosphere in which a high level taste for the arts exists. I admit to being stodgy and old-fashioned. But it supports my contention that experience helps one to know, to judge and to develop the skills of judgment necessary to appreciation of art and music on a high level.

That experience simply does not exist at large in today’s culture, in which Rap seems to dominate popular music stations and one is exhorted not to decry that a double decker stack of vacuum cleaners by Jeff Koons or orange drapery in Central Park by Christo are artistic achievements. Much less than being art, they aren’t even achievements. I admit I’m confused sometimes by this kind of thing. I went to MOMA with a friend some years ago. We entered a room with a tall window at the back. Over it was draped a gauzy shade. Next to the window was a brass plaque. “That’s it,” I declared. “That window is just a window. It’s not art!” She smiled and touched me on the arm. “No, dear,” she said. “That IS just a window. The plaque is for that Claes Oldenburg sculpture.” She pointed to a gigantic slice of pie in painted canvas. Well, thought I, at least that required some effort. And Oldenburg is a trained artist.

But rappers on the radio are obviously not musicians. Their output is mostly semi-literate and the imagery (do I dare call it “message?”) is dismally primitive. It says nothing of importance about anything human and its sounds are often offensive. They are dully written, and performed at a level that requires absolutely no artistry or talent.

Please note that I am not even getting to the substance of their lyrics (lyrics?) with their constant references to gutter dynamics. I can’t even get to that point. I’m still stuck on how bad it is aesthetically. I asked one of my stepdaughters why she liked rap. She replied simply, “I only like good rap.” Her answer reminds me of what someone said once when I said I liked Brahms, not rap. He was insulted and said, “Rap is as good as Brahms.” I could think of only one response. “That answer supposes that you know something about Brahms.” He didn’t. He’d never listened to, or even heard of, Brahms.

At stop lights I often feel assaulted by the thunderous bass thud of bass emitting from the car next to me. I usually just roll up the window. But one day, I stopped at a light and, absorbed in listening to a particularly vigorous rendition of a Beethoven Symphony, forgot to raised my window. The person pulling up next to me gave me a sour look and closed his window. Presumably my music was as offensive to him as his was to me. I seldom express my true feelings about Rap to my children, but once, when I said, “Would you please turn that down. I really hate that stuff,” she flashed her anger. I could see it in her eyes, as she replied, “Well, I really hate classical.” Although her mother regularly plays classical music around our home, our daughters rarely listen to it. They don’t think it’s cool.

This is what I mean by aesthetic relativism. If one’s sphere of experience is constrained, one’s tastes will be constrained, as well. I heard Wynton Marsalis once speak to a bunch of children about jazz. He said that one could not truly appreciate jazz without recognizing its roots in classical music, Mozart, for example. I have no desire to dictate to anyone what they should like or not like. But I do bemoan the loss of a culture in which the vital line of tradition, which shows clearly the evolution of culture and recognizes that the very nature of civilization hangs on its tenuous cord. Once broken, that cord will be difficult to reconnect. It may take generations if we have that long.


FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com. • (1520 views)

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FJ Rocca

About FJ Rocca

FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com.
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23 Responses to The Dangers of Aesthetic Relativism

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Part of the problem is the politicization of art. “Piss Christ” has nothing to do with what anyone would call aesthetics, and everything to do with hatred of the Catholic Church. There has always been some degree of message in art, such as the work of William Hogarth, much of it political. But that message was added to genuine aesthetic value. Today, avant-garde artists care nothing for aesthetics (which, after all, is a tradition and thus something to be derided).

    Elizabeth and I have visited a number of state capitols over the years. Such buildings usually have some very fine artwork. This art is designed to highlight the state’s good points, but also to be admired as fine art. One wonders how much art today would really be appreciated in that same respect.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    At stop lights I often feel assaulted by the thunderous bass thud of bass emitting from the car next to me. I usually just roll up the window. But one day, I stopped at a light and, absorbed in listening to a particularly vigorous rendition of a Beethoven Symphony, forgot to raised my window. The person pulling up next to me gave me a sour look and closed his window. Presumably my music was as offensive to him as his was to me. I seldom express my true feelings about Rap to my children, but once, when I said, “Would you please turn that down. I really hate that stuff,” she flashed her anger. I could see it in her eyes, as she replied, “Well, I really hate classical.” Although her mother regularly plays classical music around our home, our daughters rarely listen to it. They don’t think it’s cool.

    Rap is a form of self-abuse. One should hate it. Your poor daughter is being reduced by a medium that should be uplifting.

    Sinatra, on the other hand . . .

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Rap is a form of self-abuse. One should hate it. Your poor daughter is being reduced by a medium that should be uplifting.

      I knew an ex VP of CBS records who had the theory that teenagers looked for music which irritated their parents. And since the baby boomers grew up with Rock-n-Roll, it took a long time to find that music. But once rap came along, the teenagers knew what they had and ran with it, thus its popularity.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I don’t know how accurate that really is, though no doubt there’s an element of truth to it. MAD Magazine once had a piece about a recording mogul who tried to come up with the next big music star. The acid test was a live performance — before a bunch of parents. They loved him — and so much for his potential career.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I believe there is a fair amount of truth to his theory. I also believe that the more art and culture are “democratized” the lower will be the quality of both.

          Take music for example. Every fool who plays with the “Guitar Hero” game seems to believe he can really play guitar. Any idiot who tries to rap, believes he has musical talent. I have seen such things and have shown kids that it takes about zero talent to be a rapper. Like so much in this country it comes down to marketing which is dishonest at its core.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Today a similar cognitive dissonance occurs in the evaluation of certain cultural elements passing for art. “Piss Christ” was not just a different kind of art. It was garbage.

    There are those who venerate the profane, even the diseased, and then there are those who venerate the holy (truth, beauty, and goodness, broadly defined…I’d include the musical side of Sinatra in that).

    One of the passages in the Bible that I have no problem believing is that fifteen minutes after Moses had left his people to receive the Word of God written in stone, they were back to venerating the profane. I don’t know why, but this seems to be the natural state of man. He likes to baste in his moral disease. He spits at goodness and decency.

    And I say that without a hint of dismissiveness or snarl. It just is. I listen to classical music to and from work (sometimes a little jazz, sometimes a little of the oldies station). My soul craves nourishment. And rap is worse than malnutrition. It’s poison.

    Dennis Prager has noted that the Left (“Everything the Left touches, they make worse”) has inverted the entire point of art. Where it used to be about beauty, broadly speaking, now it is about ugliness (or deconstruction, at the very least).

    Why? Why this ethos of “out with the old, in with the new” even if the foundations they build on are sand? I can’t say for sure. Surely our aesthetic tastes are somewhat built in. But they are also malleable and made. Man can be made to revere ugliness (or, as I suspect, to applaud ugliness simply because he thinks that keeps him in the “in” crowd).

    Tom Wolfe has a book that deal with this very subject that I hope to read someday: The Painted Word. You might want to read that, Frank, if you haven’t already.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Dennis Prager has noted that the Left (“Everything the Left touches, they make worse”) has inverted the entire point of art. Where it used to be about beauty, broadly speaking, now it is about ugliness (or deconstruction, at the very least).

      Why? Why this ethos of “out with the old, in with the new” even if the foundations they build on are sand? I can’t say for sure.

      I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the degradation of education overall. If you push out ignorant people they will often fall for any crap which is presented to them as art particularly if “everybody” likes it. This “turning truth upon its head” has been a goal of Marxists for a long time.

      As to the fools who claim Koons’ or Hirst are great artists, well let’s say I suspect one group is simply saying this for the money and the real fools are the ones who preen and think they have a superior understanding of the meaning of art and what passes for art. They are smarter than the rest of us, you know. I went to school with a couple of these types.

      To be clear, Koons and Hirst are great businessmen and as to the aficionados, well to paraphrase P.T. Barnum, “a sucker is born every minute”.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        The TV science fiction movie short series Probe had an episode that included a sculptor who deliberately created bad art to sell to corporate philistines because of his dislike for them.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I am aware that “shared pretense” underlies most of art today. Art becomes yet another “construct.” Much like the phenomenon of “climate change,” it’s real just so far as everyone (the Smart and Nice People) say it is. And this reveals the Marxist revolutionary core, including the “2 + 2 = 5” factor. The point is just to call black white and white…hey…wait a minute. Sinatra has the answer to this too.

        Well, perhaps that doesn’t quite do justice to the Marxist revolutionary core. Boundaries tend to be stretched and that was happening before Karl Marx. But the attempt to totally reverse the existing order isn’t just about stretching boundaries. This is more like our own internal Taliban, destroying ancient statues right and left.

        What kids (who grow into adults, or at least pseudo-adults) learn is that Novelty is King. Out with the old, in with the new. This is a culture we’re brewing that can’t, in principle, have a foundation. Look how easily your average rube adopted “gay marriage.” It was out of (moral) fashion one day. Into fashion the next. Oh, they’ll backfill it with rationalizations such as “marriage equality” or other Orwellian slogans. But the fact remains that novelty-driven people are anchored in very little and are thus highly prone to fads and to manipulation. And the products will always tend to be ill-considered and tinged with destructive vulgarity. But if everyone just agrees it’s “art,” then problem solved.

        And I think you’ve touched on something enormously important regarding rap. It’s such a low form of music. Anyone can do it. It’s the “Guitar Hero” of musical forms, as you suggested.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          So, basically, you’re saying that our cultural tendency to follow fads (I remember when we got hula hoops) has now expanded to cultural faddishness. We already see polls showing support for homosexual “marriage” receding a bit, perhaps because of how it was imposed, perhaps because of the overall speed of societal cultural change, or perhaps because success removed some of its faddishness.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            So, basically, you’re saying that our cultural tendency to follow fads (I remember when we got hula hoops) has now expanded to cultural faddishness.

            Mass communication is still a fairly recent phenomenon. And it’s been honed, by various forces, into a strong force to change the culture…often for money (in the case of jeans or cars) or politics. One or two zebra running around the Serengeti is one thing. But a herd acts much differently. And a herd that is pre-programmed to be a herd takes it to a whole new level.

            Think about what we encounter when we talk about politics, global warming, feminism, or whatever, out there with anyone who has undergone Progressive indoctrination. We encounter not just disagreement but an inability to think. No wonder bumper-sticker types of slogans are what drive the Left. It is a convenient substitute for thinking. (As Barbi said, “Math is hard” and so is thinking).

            It’s doubtful, for instance, that 98% of the people who claim that Darwinism really is, and must be, true have any idea of the biological realities…especially including those fresh out of college. All they know, as David Berlinski noted, is a series of anecdotal stories. The same about global warming. Probably 99% of those who believe in it haven’t a clue as to how climates typically act, how temperature is measured, the problem inherent in trying to understand something so complex, etc. All they know is a series of anecdotes (polar bears photographed on melting ice) or bumper sticker slogans.

            This is the diminution of thought. It’s been reduced to bumper sticker slogans and anecdotes (mere stories…more properly known as “narrative”). So we have entire generations pre-programmed to except baloney for real thinking. Hey, if some clown on TV (Jon Stewart…a comedian) said it, it must be true. Nothing more than the reality of guys such as this clown — people getting news from a comedian — can better show the trivialization of thought.

            So thought itself becomes a mere fad, a thing that turns this way and that. And all the “smart people” will repeat, like the trained seals that they are, the bumper sticker slogans of the day to show you why their caving to mere thoughtless fad is, in fact, a thoughtful position.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              This is the point Ann Coulter was making in Demonic. Liberals as a collective behave like a mob. And, as it’s been said, the IQ of a mob is the average intelligence of its members divided by the number of members.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                it’s been said, the IQ of a mob is the average intelligence of its members divided by the number of members.

                So for a mob of 500 average people, we are talking about an IQ of 0.2. Sounds about right. Imagine the IQ of a mob consisting of thousands of Leftists.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    If one’s sphere of experience is constrained, one’s tastes will be constrained

    Not necessarily. If one has a modicum of curiosity it is very easy to look for and find excellence in abundance. Perhaps this is not as true today for current art, but Western culture is something which has built up over centuries.

    once, when I said, “Would you please turn that down. I really hate that stuff,” she flashed her anger. I could see it in her eyes, as she replied, “Well, I really hate classical.” Although her mother regularly plays classical music around our home, our daughters rarely listen to it. They don’t think it’s cool.

    Without wishing to offend, I would have to ask, was your daughter’s reaction (I really hate classical) actually based on a hate of classical music or on the fact that you enjoyed it? And of course, on your clear expression of your disdain for rap.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I claim no expertise as an art critic, but I know what I like — and in terms of painting, we’re talking about things like the Dutch Old Masters of the 17th Century, the British portrait painters of the 18th Century, and some of the Renaissance painters (and sculptors, i.e., Michelangelo Buonarroti).

    • FJ Rocca says:

      To Kung Fu Zu: My daughter was reacting angrily to my criticism of what she liked. Also to my dismissive attitude (which she observed correctly). About your comment regarding constraint, I thought I said that if one’s experience is constrained, so will his taste (i.e., his ability to appreciate something) be constrained. If, as Huxley says, “Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him” his experience will expand and be less constrained. I think curiosity is the initial motivator to knowledge. Today’s Politically Correct so-called “education” on university campuses is meant to KILL curiosity, not stimulate it. They are TRYING to constrain experience so that one is kept inside Wayward Pines!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Today’s Politically Correct so-called “education” on university campuses is meant to KILL curiosity, not stimulate it. They are TRYING to constrain experience so that one is kept inside Wayward Pines!.

        It’s an interesting Orwellian bit of indoctrination that kids are undergoing (and that their parent have already undergone). As Allan Bloom has noted in “The Closing of the American Mind,” kids are specifically taught by public schools (especially colleges) to be “open” to all things. But this “openness” is highly selective (as well all know, being conservatives, Christians, straight, and/or white capitalists). Kids have been blinkered in such a clever way that they think they are open to everything and know everything.

        This is, after all, the recipe for Libertarianism as well. One or two crank Ron Paul dogmas and they think they know everything. This is a masterful bit of mind-farking by the Left. To get people to believe that they are so open (after all, they “celebrate all cultures” via “inclusiveness” and “multiculturalism”) and yet actually have their minds severely constrained is an amazing bit of manipulation

        But this is not so amazing to those who understand that this is precisely the techniques used by cults. The first rule of a cult is to alienate people from their own culture. And they do so by constantly criticizing that culture with the mind to instilling as much guilt as possible. Then a way out of the guilt is offered, and one that makes one *feel* (and feeling, not thinking, is king) that one has some kind of secret knowledge — as well as believing they are the smartest, most compassionate people the planet has every known.

        Your typical indoctrinated Progressive emotionally (not intellectually) “knows” that he knows you are wrong and that he is right. And rarely stated is that he doesn’t even need to consider what you are saying because he has been taught that you represent retrograde (if not outright oppressive and evil) ideas. This is why (as others have often noted to me) that it is often fruitless to try to reason with your son or daughter. The son or daughter perhaps even notes that much of what you say is correct. But that son or daughter will remain unconvinced because your arguments, first of all, do not *emotionally* connect to them (their emotions having already been wedded thoroughly to something else). And, second, they are not apt to easily give up the idea of themselves being the smartest and most compassionate people on the planet.

        The cult of the Left provides many disincentives to thinking outside the Cultural Marxist box. And this is exactly the way of the cult. They program people in such a way to make them dismiss contrary evidence out-of-hand.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          So what we need are deprogrammers who can free people from the liberal cult.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Yes. But deprogramming is notoriously difficult and time-consuming. The real answer is to oust the Left from the choke-points of the culture. Better to get to them before they are programmed.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Without wishing to offend, I would have to ask, was your daughter’s reaction (I really hate classical) actually based on a hate of classical music or on the fact that you enjoyed it? And of course, on your clear expression of your disdain for rap.

      The “disdain” portion is probably decisive. After all, as far back as Woodrow Wilson the idea was that the point of public education was to make children as unlike their parents as they could. It’s truly remarkably to see people (and I’m not talking about Frank) continue to send their kids to public schools and then pay even more to have them indoctrinated in Cultural Marxism in high-priced colleges. Even good parents have little chance against this force. Why they don’t care to recognize it or do anything about it would make for a great article if someone has a particular insight on this, for it’s been negligence in engaging the culture wars that has been our downfall.

      Why? Why? Was the era of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” and its promise of Utopia so all-powerful of a vision? Were parents too busy (because of exploding material opportunity) chasing the middle class life? I don’t know. But I do hope someone with some true insight on this topic will pick it up and run with it.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The “disdain” portion is probably decisive. After all, as far back as Woodrow Wilson the idea was that the point of public education was to make children as unlike their parents as they could.

        It is interesting to note, that in no Asian country where I have lived, do children exhibit the disdain and rebelliousness which we in American find normal. In Asia, age and experience are venerated.

        This goes back to my point about culture. None of this nonsense happening in American is genetically based.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    If one’s sphere of experience is constrained, one’s tastes will be constrained

    Let me contribute to giving this quote a rectal exam…more than any one quote deserves, but what the heck.

    One of the main dividing lines between right and Left is the belief held by the Left that shear, unremitting “openness” to all things is the way to go. The right, on the other hand, says that an open mind tends to collect junk. We must be discriminating. Shall I read nothing but porn and dime-store novels or the classics? Take your pick, because there isn’t enough time to fill your head with everything.

    Although there is much to be said for a wide range of experience, even that is no guarantor of wisdom. A person can flail about the world wide and just keep flailing. One can repeat the same four or five notes of one’s life in a chaos of “experience” and yet garner little wisdom.

    Add to that the fact that every person is different. And how tastes are developed is (or at least used to be) a complicated thing. But now consider the spot that Frank and so many other parents are in: Their sons and daughters are no longer the product of their upbringing. They are the product of the state and of the pop culture. Public education, along with movies, junk news told by clowns (Jon Stewart, for example), inane entertainment, and just a culture that offers non-stop novelty gives almost no room for a conservative thought which says: Slow down, be choosey, not all the glitters is gold, scratching every itch just gives you eczema.

    Perhaps there is no better clue to what is happening inside the minds of yutes than their non-stop attention to the small 2 x 3 screen on their phones through which they are fascinated by an endless chain of mere nothings. We’ve come to the point (something I’ve long noticed about movies) that simply jiggling the electrons in your brain by causing a stir is what people are hooked on now. It’s mental masturbation, for all intents and purposes.

    And there is no room for God (the true anti-Christ of secularism) in any of this. Perhaps the most important quote from the Psalms is “Be still, and know that I am god.” Now, contrast that to all the yutes (and their parents, and sometimes their grandparents) who go to these modern hip churches with mega-dollar video and sound systems. It’s just a continuation of the daily noise with church trappings. And without a sense of self tied to something other than endless novelty and fads, how can a person ever be anything but an unhappy wreck, for fashions constantly change and are inherently incoherent? And rap music (and other forms of abuse) are there to try to convince oneself that this profane way of life is good. Turn it up. Keep out those small voices and notes that call one to something richer, if only Sinatra or Moby Dick.

    Pop culture (especially with such cancers as rap) is no way to grow a good or sane person. One can have all the unconstrained experience in the world in this vulgar landscape and never develop good taste. Taste isn’t just about quantity. It’s about quality. It’s as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

  6. SkepticalCynic SkepticalCynic says:

    If there i s one thing I can agree with you on it is that rap (note lower case) is NOT music. It may be called noise, and bad noise at that, but “music,” never! I believe it is a perfect example of the degradation of America.

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