The fugitive thoughts captured below came to me while I was reading about, then visiting, the city of Vienna, Austria, a place much more famous for its composers and artists than its politicians. Vienna arose as the Baroque wedding-cake setting for a single imperial dynasty, the Hapsburgs, who were known mainly for their ability to persist. Emperor after emperor staggered into disaster, but from the Middle Ages to the end of the First World War the Hapsburgs managed to outlast their enemies.
The only ideology to emerge out of Vienna was political anti-Semitism. The only politicians of note in its long history were Prince Metternick, master of repression, and Adolf Hitler, who began his career as a painter of Viennese monuments and ended it as the embodiment of the Satanic in politics.
Given this context, it should not surprise us that the movement of art for art’s sake that swept Europe at the turn of the 20th century displayed singular purity and intensity in Vienna. Ambitious minds in London and Paris could opt for the great game of power. The Viennese were smothered between the dead hand of the empire and the rise of the mass movements that would soon destroy it. Art became more than a release: it was a religion driven in part by a spiritual hunger to soar above the grime and conflict of the industrial age, in part by the simple wish to escape reality.
It struck me that the worship of art, like our own digital age, trapped individuals in the delusions of a virtual existence. And it struck me, further, that as with the digital, the esthetic impulse began with high idealism but led by uncertain steps to a dark and vicious place. That probably wouldn’t have surprised a Viennese specialist in a different kind of repression, Sigmund Freud, who in his day must have rubbed shoulders with great artists like Gustav Klimt and unformed monsters like the young Hitler. Freud’s ruling hypothesis was that infants wished to rape and murder their parents, and that the guilt and frustration in adulthood from failing to do so powered political nihilism and reigns of terror.
Needless to say, the notions below are highly speculative. I place them before you, good reader, in the manner of a sketch for a longer essay, or even a book, that will never be written.
The life of extreme estheticism – of art for art’s sake – consists of cherishing experiences about experiences. It is, in every sense, a virtual affair that relegates naked reality to a secondary plane. Sometimes the passionate enjoyment of art is seen as the most sublime sphere to which the human spirit can attain; sometimes it’s a refuge, a walled garden protected from the tawdriness of the real. In both cases, energy is redirected from the immediate to a world mediated by artistic visions.
This process can only end in self-worship – that is, in narcissism. Since art can be validated only by the feelings it arouses, the esthete is sucked into a downward spiral of introspection in which his own feelings become, at some point, far more fascinating and meaningful than the works of art themselves. Divorced from function, from life, art ultimately loses any purpose other than to awaken those feelings. True creation then occurs, not in the artist’s mind and hands, but in the gilded temple of the esthetic soul. The ideal life is an eternal gaze into the mirror.
For those rare moments in history when esthetic sensitivity swelled into a movement – for example, Europe at the turn of the 20th century – a special style of art was produced. It was sexual and abstract. Anyone who imagines this to be a contradiction should consider the paintings of Gustav Klimt or the sketches of Aubrey Beardsley. Art for its own sake needed to balance two objectives. The sexual arouses potent instinctive emotions. Abstraction, the stripping out of social and historical context, keeps reality at bay.
I find it instructive to compare fin de siècle estheticism with 21st century digital humanity. This too may seem like a contradiction: one era displayed exaggerated sensibility and refinement, while the other, alas, trends in the opposite direction. They were dainty while we are gross. However, similarities can be found without looking too hard.
Digital humanity famously exists in a virtual and indirect realm: it can only know experiences about experiences. This is life once removed from life, and it inspires the same reversal of values as it did for the esthete: what begins as an outward voyage into digital information is soon transformed into a search for exciting internal states. Connections – friends, likes, retweets – are stimulants rather than interactions. Real persons, real friends, real communications matter strictly because of their effect on one’s feelings. The web is many things, but it is always the mirror of Narcissus.
The content of the web, like that of art, is the human comedy. To achieve the intended effect of the online life, the user must strike attitudes about real life as refracted through the digital prism. The esthete, in his realm, was drawn to the erotic and the abstract. A third of all the downloads from the web are dedicated to that most sterile expression of self-love, pornography. The purposes are easy to guess at but rarely noted in the theories of the intellectuals. Digital smut amputates humanity and reality from what was once the sexual act.
That’s not enough, of course. The hunger for a response, a click, another follower or a million, can never be satisfied. The flight from reality becomes the affirmation of existence. Politics, which deals with crowds, is a superior form of pornography. Rage is more sustainable than sex. Repudiation trumps lust. The actual world – all the flesh-and-blood humanity and its creations – can be destroyed to elicit one more orgasmic feeling in the user’s soul. And still that’s not enough. The virtual must conquer the real. Rage must spread like a plague to pollute every noble sentiment.
On behalf of some internal fancy, lone shooters have drenched nightclubs and theaters in the blood of innocents. Out of a dream of repudiation, the exalted brutes of ISIS turned the Levant into a charnel house. Reality can’t be conquered but it can grow narrow and dark. Somehow, unwitting, we have stumbled into claustrophobic quarters suffused with the stench of death. We began a pilgrimage to the center of ourselves, and we have ended the journey lost in the labyrinth of that human beast, the Minotaur.
Art is a function of life. The web was supposed to be an extension of life. Their declaration of independence from life merely opened up a space for bestial and predatory forces to enter history and dominate society. The esthetes of Europe were swept away by the mass movements that gave us the holocausts of the two world wars. The idealists of digital technology have been buried under an avalanche of mindless nihilism. We are stuck in a blind bleak place with the monster near at hand. We want out, but how? We want the truth about our condition, but where to find it?
What is the truth? When all experience is mediated that word begins to lose meaning. The farther we spin away from reality, the more reality appears to be just what we desire. In the mirror of Narcissus, truth is anything that triggers a novel sensation. In the labyrinth of the Minotaur, truth is whatever feeds the beast.
There is a thread on the ground that will lead us back to daylight. It has always been there, but we must look away from the mirror, make a pause in the rant and the rage, to find it. That transition is unexpectedly hard. We are afraid of the dark but terrified of the sun. We cry in loud voices that we wish to escape, to start the trip over, but are we willing to chance it?
The thread leads to places remarkable less for excitement than sturdiness: home and family, workplace and playing field, church and synagogue. The return to reality won’t be the gift of science but a painful moral turning – a turning away from ourselves. Under the light of the sun, we will recognize our own insignificance, and in this way regain our dignity.
Narcissus was punished for his cruel heart. To shatter the mirror that is his kingdom, we must learn again to walk in the shoes of others. The Minotaur was a devourer of the young. To break down the maze of confusion that is his lair, we must bear the wisdom of the past into the future and persuade the young that life is a synonym for courage. Art and the web will be there to assist us. They can enrich and expand our lives. We can even enjoy the feelings stirred in us by the mediation of great artists and thinkers. But that can never be the sum of who we are.