The End of Civilization

It’s easier than you think to gauge the goodness of a work of art: rather than probing the craftsman’s technique, rather than applying an arbitrary set of rules to chaos, it’s enough to see if a new and untested clash of images simply holds your attention. This unseen unknown must be more than a mere alleviation of boredom, it must make you jump up and down on your bed and scream with joy…nevermind specifics, nevermind searching for meaning, nevermind what others think: are you enraptured, mesmerized, enthralled, and convinced that the maker has said everything one could possibly say? Homer and Ovid unfortunately took that prize thousands of years ago—and the greatest creation is, in fact, Creation—but for now, when viewing the new, how do you feel? Does the artist seize your shoulders and slap some sense into your cheeks?

Werner Herzog said the decline of a given civilization is linked to that civilization’s wealth of images: if the images are stale, repetitive, and recycled, if we see the same inorganic shitheads babbling about side-effects whenever we turn on the television, if action stars dart and bob back and forth in the same way when they start shooting sparks at each other in gunfights, it is a sign of the light fading underneath society’s skin—which is naturally why artists with novas in their souls are the only ones who can keep civilization from shattering and splintering like a world made of ice thrown into the sun. Even if a man as convincing and inspiring as Ian Bremmer seems to know why the age is going dark, I’m still biased in a different direction, and I suspect the fall of Rome had less to do with economic or militaristic disasters (important as they were) than the repetition of the same pagan motifs in art and literature. Sculptors could not hope to outdo Phidias as long as they stuck to the same images, the same battleground of gods and myths, and poets had no hope of excelling Ovid or Virgil or Horace if they continued extolling the Roman state and the various geographies under the dominion of the Caesars in the same fashion wrought to such unbelievable perfection by the craftsmen of a far more golden age.

Now, from theory to practice: yesterday I was once again desperately trying to get some of my grownup Korean students to speak English: we were watching music videos, any music videos they wanted, with the goal being for these good people to tell me why they liked what they liked. The first video was of Rain, a petty annoyance who is famous here because he knows how to tear a shirt off of a wild, gyrating body (admittedly very well proportioned); second was Justin Timberlake, bringing sexy back with a nose like an arrowhead (and I had the unenviable task of explaining just what it means to bring sexy back); third was Avril Lavigne, punk/pop chimera, seemingly reviled and despised by everyone. I, of course, showed a video of a wild festival in the desert…but when I watched the other music videos a strange thing happened.

I wasn’t thinking of how much I hated these works, I wasn’t picking them apart and analyzing why this here is a soulless cliche and why I’ve seen that there ten thousand times—I simply wasn’t thinking about them at all. I was zoning out. My mind flew away and wondered about how anti-semitic Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock really is and then waded through the sun’s rivers of jasper with Satan while my eyes fluttered with the hundred charmed eyes of slumbrous Argus and tasted the milk drained from the decapitated body of Ichadon and the acidic rainfall in Blade Runner plus the sweet juice of Parajanov’s bleeding stop-motion pomegranates…when I woke and when the videos ended I couldn’t believe I had gone so far away, that such emptiness had forced such flight.

Therefore if the artworks bore you, including this one, then they’re no good. Simple! The videos meant nothing to me, but one girl liked Rain’s body, and another guy said the video made him sad because of an ex-girlfriend. To each his own! As for whether or not civilization is ending because of this or that—who knows?

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