Monthly Post

This Flight from Failure

A little while back I attended an open house at the newly founded What Cheer Writers Club across the river in Providence. Half coworking space, half social center for the busy Rhode Island writing scene, it’s a fine example of the kind of voluntary social institution American society used to be so richly stocked with and needs so badly nowadays, and I’d encourage any of my local readers who happen to be authors, poets, playwrights, journalists, or content creators in other settings to consider checking it out. I spent a pleasant couple of hours there that evening.

While there, I had a conversation with an illustrator, a very good one. He’d attended the prestigious local art school, but went veering away from the normal avant-garde trajectory after one of his classes went to visit the studio of a big name painter (hereafter, BNP) down in New York City.  One of the BNP’s many assistants walked the students through the process whereby the BNP produced his art. First the assistants came up with ideas and sketched them out, and the BNP glanced at the sketches and approved them. Next, the assistants prepared canvases the way the BNP liked them, and roughed out the paintings on the canvases. Once the BNP glanced at the canvases and approved them, the assistants then painted the paintings. The BNP then picked up a pen and signed each of the canvases, and away they went to be sold, as the BNP’s work, to rich collectors for jawdropping prices.

The illustrator-to-be was unimpressed by the prospect of going to work in this sort of artistic sweatshop, and even more unimpressed by the way that everyone else treated it as perfectly ordinary. The consequence was that he started asking the questions about art he’d been taught not to ask, and as soon as he graduated he ditched the kind of art that so often these days gets manufactured by the process just outlined, and launched what I suspect will turn out to be an impressive career outside the official art world. We talked about that, and about a number of other things relating to the art world, and one of the things he said has been circling in my mind ever since: “The reason so many people are into abstract art is that it’s impossible to fail.”

Let’s take a moment to unpack what’s being said here. Every artist in every medium has had the experience of having an artwork fail to measure up to the creative vision that inspired it. In that sense, sure, abstract art can fail. Every artist in every medium has also had the experience of having an artwork fail to communicate its creative vision to its audience. In that sense, too, abstract art can fail, and in fact does so far more often than not, though museumgoers are by and large too polite to point this out.

Compare a work of abstract art to a work of representational art, though, and there’s a dimension of risk that the representational artist accepts and the abstract artist shirks. Let’s say you set out to paint someone’s portrait. When you do that, your creative vision is no longer the only thing that matters. You’re not just expressing yourself, you’re expressing something that is not you, and you can succeed at that or you can fail. You can, for example, try to paint a likeness of someone and make something that doesn’t resemble the sitter closely, or at all.  You can also paint a likeness of someone’s face that fails to catch any trace of that person’s character and personality and life—the things that a good portrait can express better than any photograph, and a great portrait can express better than a three-volume autobiography.  What’s more, if you fail in either way, the failure is something that most people can see at a glance.

That’s the kind of failure from which a purely abstract approach to art protects you. Here as in the rest of life, of course, if you shut yourself off from the risk of failure you shut yourself off just as effectively from the chance of success; there are things you will never accomplish, things that are very much worth doing, if your sole criterion is that you’re not willing to fail.

This same sort of evasion has been taken much further outside the world of the fine arts. I hope no one will mind a reference to one of the subcultures I know best, the subculture of contemporary Druidry. In recent years there’s been a simmering disagreement among Druids about the handling of bardic arts such as poetry and music in Druid practice. Nobody argues that they don’t have a place—quite the contrary, the historic commitment of Druid organizations to the bardic arts, which goes straight back to the earliest days of the 18th-century Druid Revival, is more than matched by the present-day Druid scene.

No, the difference of opinion relates to the role of craft—that is to say, technical skill—among Druids who practice the bardic arts. In recent years, even fairly mild proposals suggesting that the development of craft should be encouraged by Druid organizations have come in for quite a bit of pushback. The substance of the pushback, based on the essays and blog posts I’ve read, is that it’s bad to encourage novice poets and musicians to develop their craft, since the only thing that matters is making them feel good about their creative activities, and talking about technical skill makes them uncomfortable. Therefore they should receive unconditional praise for their creative work, irrespective of its quality, and the huge and challenging issues surrounding the development of skill are casually dismissed on the easy assumption that the novices will pick up some degree of know-how by osmosis as they go.

There’s a lot of this sort of thinking in American alternative spirituality these days. That’s one of the reasons I stopped going to Pagan festivals.  Too much of the poetry presented at your common or garden variety Pagan bardic circle can vie for banality and gracelessness with the worst verse in the history of English literature, and let’s not even talk about the droning of badly played guitars, the drummers with a severe case of arrhythmia, and the voices—dear gods, the voices, like cattle trapped belly deep in drying mud!

That is to say, the performers are not the only ones whose interests matter when it comes to the bardic arts. There are also the listeners, who deserve considerably more mercy than they’ve been accorded in recent years. One of the reasons that so many bardic circles are so awful is precisely that people who’ve put in the time and effort to develop technical skill in any art usually end up becoming sensitive enough to its absence that they won’t sit through two or three hours of sustained mediocrity. Think of it as Gresham’s Law of aesthetics:  bad art drives out good.

Behind this whole phenomenon, though, is the same flight from risk discussed earlier. To contend with the development of craft in the bardic arts is to wrestle with something that is not you, and thus to run a twofold risk of failure. On the one hand, your poem or your song may be trite and stumbling, or fall into one of the other traps that lie in wait for the poet and composer; on the other, your performance may be clumsy or lifeless or just not quite good enough to reach your audience. You can flee from that risk by insisting that every work and every performance is as good as every other, and refusing to give craft its traditional place in the artist’s life—but if you do that, you pretty much guarantee that you will never be more than mediocre.

This same flight from risk appears all through contemporary life, but I’ve chosen to pick on the arts here, and that’s not simply because the conversation that launched this train of thought was focused on the arts. It’s fair to say that the rigorous, sustained, passionate pursuit of mediocrity is perhaps the most significant trend in the art world today.

The prestigious local art school where my illustrator acquaintance got his degree has an art museum attached to it, and that’s a good place to see that trend in action.  For a small museum in a modestly sized east coast city, it’s got some amazing things on display—a huge and vividly crafted wooden statue of Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Sun Buddha of the Japanese esoteric Buddhist traditions, dating from the late Heian period; a fine collection of 18th- and 19th-century landscape paintings; a good assortment of other works from various high points of human cultural history. You have to pass through a gallery or two of modern works to get to the real art, but that’s just one of the things museumgoers generally have to put up with these days.

Before you get to the gallery or two of modern works, though, you pass by the space where temporary and traveling exhibitions have their home. Very often, this contains brand-new works, sometimes by senior students or recent graduates of the art school, sometimes by other artists on what passes for the cutting edge these days. The works on display there by and large have certain things in common. They’re technically crude—it’s rare, for example, to see anything in one of the cutting-edge exhibits that couldn’t have been made by a reasonably enterprising sixth-grader who’d taken a few art classes from the local parks department summer program. They’ve all got artist’s statements couched in a vaguely pompous prose style, so indistinguishable from one another that I’ve wondered more than once if every young artist on the east coast gets theirs ghostwritten by the same middle-aged hack in New York City. Aside from occasional nods to whatever social or political causes might be fashionable at the moment, they’re utterly self-referential, little bubbles of inaccessible meaning cut off from the rest of the cosmos. Oh, and they’re bland. Despite the mandatory parade of edgy iconoclasm, they’re stunningly bland.

All this makes perfect sense if you remember my acquaintance the illustrator and his encounter with the BNP and his artistic sweatshop. In today’s world, the fine arts exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing expensive collectibles for the rich. (The fine arts have always had this as one of their functions, of course; what makes the present distinctive is that currently, that’s their only function.)  Thus it’s no surprise that the products of today’s art industry are as formulaic and interchangeable as decorative plates from the Franklin Mint. Nor is it any surprise that the producers of the collectibles in question, while acting out the traditionally edgy and iconoclastic role of artist, are careful to follow some currently fashionably formula to the letter, avoiding anything that might cause their products to be thought unsuitable by collectors, because that way they have some hope of paying off the loans that put them through art school. They cannot afford to fail—but this also means, of course, that they cannot afford to succeed.

Walk past the bland and self-referential collectibles with their bland and self-referential artist’s statements, and come with me to the sixth floor and the statue of Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Sun Buddha. The artist who carved it from great masses of cryptomeria wood didn’t leave an artist’s statement, but then he didn’t need to, as his work speaks powerfully for itself. We don’t know his name, or anything about his biography or his mind. It’s a safe bet, though, that he wasn’t interested in expressing himself.  What he was trying to express, and did so magnificently, was the tremendous vision at the heart of Japanese esoteric Buddhism—a vision in which the manifested universe in all its awkwardness and ignorance is itself the play of infinite enlightened mind, symbolized by Dainichi Nyorai. Photos don’t do justice to the result; to sit in the presence of the statue—and the museum has sensibly provided benches to encourage museumgoers to do just that—is to brush against the edge of a serenity as vast as intergalactic space.

The artist who carved the statue of Dainichi Nyorai could have failed, and in fact there are other statues of the Great Sun Buddha that failed, that are trite, formulaic, sentimental, vapid. He, like his less successful peers, was trying to express something that was not himself, and that decision required him, and them, to embrace the inevitable risk of failure. Because he did that, and only because he did that, he was able to succeed.

Let’s go down to the fifth floor, and walk into one of the rooms of European art. Here’s a large luminous painting of Paris in morning sunlight as seen from one of the windows of the Louvre. The sun shines down across 19th-century roofs; the Seine flows placidly past; in the middle distance is the little neglected gravel bar where Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Templars, was burnt at the stake seven hundred years ago, and the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris rise against the morning sky. Again, photos don’t do justice to the painting; sit in front of it—and the museum has again provided a convenient bench to encourage this—and morning in Paris springs inescapably to life.

Unlike the artist who carved the statue of Dainichi Nyorai, Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, the painter of this vivid and meticulous landscape, is well known to art historians.  Her works are found in a great many art museums, her biography can be looked up online, but like that earlier artist, she set out to portray something that was not herself.  Failure was always an option; trite, formulaic, sentimental, vapid paintings of Paris can be found by the metric ton; but she took the risk, and so accomplished something that’s powerful and moving in a way that the collectibles downstairs can never be.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. Now it’s time to draw all this together into a shape from which we can go further.

Many years ago, a Seattle architect of Hungarian origins named György Doczi published an intriguing book on form in nature titled The Power of Limits. It’s an extraordinary and richly illustrated work, well worth close study, but one of the most important things in it is a simple passage of text defining a new concept, that of dinergy. Dinergy is the relationship between a force and a resistance that creates form. Think of a grass blade bending in the wind: the wind is the force, the structural integrity of the grass blade provides the resistance, and the result is the exquisite curve that marks the balance between the two.

Doczi spends much of the book showing the way that the geometries of nature—the shapes of leaves and shells, the proportions of tree branches and animal limbs—unfold from dinergic interactions between force and resistance. He then went on to show that the same thing is true of the products of human art and craft. I’m looking at images of several basketwork hats of the kind traditionally made by Native American peoples along the northwest coast. Their shapes, as Doczi demonstrates, follow classic dinergic lines. Deliberately? Yes, in part—the First Nations in question have richly developed artistic traditions—but there’s another aspect that unfolds naturally from the interplay between the resistance of the cedar bark and beargrass of which the hat is made, and the force exerted by the maker’s skilled hands.

As this suggests, handicrafts made using simple tools or no tools at all tend to follow dinergic patterns, so long as the maker is skilled enough to push the limits of his or her material without going too far. That’s one mode of dinergy as it applies to human creativity. A second mode comes into play when the maker tries to represent something—something experienced with the senses, such as the bear on a Tlingit totem pole or a spring morning from a Paris window, or something experienced the mind, such as the monstrous bird-spirits of the Hamatsa dances of the Kwakiutl people or the infinite enlightened mind of Dainichi Nyorai, it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s something distinct from the artist’s own creative impulse, something the artist can succeed in expressing, or not.

Alternatively, of course, you can flee from dinergy and avoid the risk of failure. All you have to do is refuse the interaction with something that is not you. That’s pervasive in today’s industrial societies, especially but not only here in the United States. Look at the cratered wasteland of our national politics, to cite a very different example, and what do you see? Groups of people who all insist in shrill terms that it’s utterly unreasonable to suggest that they should take into account people who are not them.

You’ve got Democrats braying at the top of their lungs that anyone who questions any of their preferred policies must by definition be an evil racist Nazi, and Republicans who trumpet just as loudly that liberalism is a mental illness. (This in itself marks an ironic shift; not that long ago, it was the Democrats who liked to insist that their opponents needed therapy and the GOP who reliably claimed that their opponents were morally evil.)  Listen to both sides trying to claim they won the recent midterm election, and you can hear the terror of failure trembling in every word. Neither side can admit that the other side fought them to a draw, because that admission would force them to deal with the fact that the success of their cause depends on making their case to people who are not them.

It’s the same refusal of dinergy, the same flight from failure, and it produces politics just as ugly and irrelevant as the avant-garde collectibles you can see at the art museum of your choice. As art and politics, so every other aspect of our collective life:  the frantic attempt to avoid the risk of failure by refusing to interact with anything you don’t control absolutely is a pervasive pattern in contemporary industrial society. A long time ago, philosopher of history Giambattista Vico pointed out that the arc of history, “the course the nations run,” begins with necessity and ends in madness. The particular shape that madness takes in the present instance isn’t hard to glimpse; what a return to sanity might look like is something we’ll discuss in later posts.


  1. Beautiful and humorous post. I think that the concept of dinergy explains the interesting variation but fundamental similarity found in traditional martial arts around the world, across both cultures and history. Regardless of the time or place, there are only so many ways that a human body can move effectively against another resisting human body, variations in weapons notwithstanding.

    Which brings up a somewhat related point: how is the re-working of The Spirit and the Sword coming along? I found the training principles very useful, and got to try some of it out in a recent HEMA tournament in a friendly but spirited series of saber bouts.

  2. JMG, today’s essay hits home for me. In my work as an antiquarian I regularly have to do woth exhibition catalogs of more-or-less abstract art; what most of them have in common is their utter boringness. But there seems to be a bit of a drift back toward representational art.

    The phenomena, that bad drives out good, is something which I have also experienced: workshops and other learning events around art, literature and other subjects are often sufficiently geared toward a relatively low common denominator that these things can’t relly hold my interest, or that I can learn much about them, and so there are things that I simply do for myself. And yes, the bland and pompous language, that you describe, is something which I have occasionally seen myself. And do I need to add that publications of current fashionable art often are quite undecipherable (for example, small grey typefaces)?

  3. Dear JMG, Thank you for this post and I cannot agree more. And of course the opposite is also true in that the buyers of these dreary modern works don’t have to worry about failure to appreciate a work either. Having had the misfortune to visit the HQs of several large corporations these offices are often full of the most anodyne artworks (bought I assume as investments and a show of what passes in their minds as ‘culture’). Not having to worry if a representational view of Paris is a masterpiece or tourist trash is presumably a great relief to todays harassed executive or billionaires personal secretary. I also assume this is why works that already have the status of ‘masterpiece’ command such absurdly high prices nowadays. Nobody has to argue about there worth, the ‘experts’ have already done that. All in all a sad state of affairs. Dare I say that a similar lack of aesthetic confidence might be a contributor to the current state of poetry, prose and music in the pagan/druidic scene..?

  4. I hope that bit about bardic mediocrity at poetry wasn’t a slight on that most unrefined genius, William McGonagall. There’s no improving on perfection.

  5. JMG, what is a good example of past politics in the United States of America that more closely resembled dinergic patterns than the politics of our current day?

  6. Good Morning Mr.Greer,

    At the beginning of this post you mention that the illustrator in question had “started asking the questions about art he’d been taught not to ask” (3rd paragraph). In this post, you discuss two main themes: the need to practice the technical skills of your craft and to think of failure as a learning experience.What other “questions about art” had the illustrator asked or discovered?

    Thank You,
    Felix W.

  7. John–

    A few random thoughts, hopefully no too far a-field. Politics first, then an anecdote.

    With respect to the notion of conformity and the us/them dynamic, it has been interesting to watch the simmering rebellion develop over the pending election for Speaker. I’ve been lurking of late on the old political fora and the shift in the discussion has been notable. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the issue of these freshmen who’d sworn not to support Pelosi was met by and large with a “who cares?” kind of attitude, but as the resistance (!) has crystalized, the rhetoric has become increasingly shrill (“who do they think they are?” and other far less mentionable assessments of their character and intelligence). Several threads have devolved into blistering name-calling by various factions. While I am not of the belief that the rebellion will succeed, I *am* encouraged that it has proven as powerful as it has and the old guard of the party has been forced to deploy more of its strength to contain it. The idea that the newly-elected freshmen might have different notions of how to proceed seems to be confusing to the established powers. Perhaps this push-back is a sign that a much-needed shift in our political dynamics may actually occur at some point?

    Secondly, an anecdote (somewhat humorous, in a geeky sort of way) from my own life re flight from failure that was brought to mind by your post:

    Many moons ago, I had to stand before my doctoral committee and undergo the oral defense of my dissertation as well as a general oral examination. The latter, of course, had me rather nervous, as it consisted of random questions from the five professors from any topic in the field of industrial engineering that I was to answer on the spot. It was over-all not a bad experience, but I was very jittery nonetheless.

    At one point during the questioning, one of the professors pointed to the chalkboard and said “Draw me a concave function.”

    It was the simplest of questions, but I was so on edge that I couldn’t tell you at that moment which way was up, much less remember which direction a concave function was oriented. Then, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recalled that the mathematical definitions of convexity and concavity both included the equality (“greater than or equal to” and “less than or equal to”, respectively). So I went to the chalkboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and drew a straight line.

    The professor who’d asked the question looked at me, puzzled, then pointed out, “But a linear curve is both concave and convex.”

    I looked right back at him, nodded, and said, “Yes. I know.”

    I passed my oral exam.

  8. There’s a lot to mull over here, I think.

    One thing that I think there is not enough of is the understanding that standards and “inclusion” for lack of a better word, are not mutually exclusive.

    My example:

    I was fortunate enough to study ballet at an excellent ballet school that understood the difference. There was a professional track for children who could meet the standards, and also an amateur track for people of any age who wanted to study ballet, but who understood that they were doing it as a learning experience for themselves, not as something they would ever achieve mastery in. The tracks were similar in that the same basic technique was taught to both tracks, with the understanding that everyone was to focus and work hard in class to the best of his or her ability, whatever that might be. But a key differences between the two tracks was that the amateur track did not perform. We just studied the technique and learned some combinations in class and tried to get better at ballet, while knowing we would never be professional dancers. It was fun, it was good exercise, and it taught me a lot about ballet that I could not have learned without actually doing (or trying to do). As a result, I can appreciate ballet much better than I otherwise would have. But we in the amateur class did not inflict ourselves on audiences; we knew better, and so did the teacher.

    I feel like that is what is missing in a lot of arts education and practice: the fact that having standards does not mean that people who cannot meet them have to be excluded. They just have to understand that they are not good enough at something to do it professionally or to inflict it on others. There’s nothing wrong with failing, as long as you understand that you are failing, and can get better with study, but may never be good enough to move past the “doing it for yourself as a learning experience” phase so that you can better-appreciate the true masters.

    If those untalented bards could understand that there is nothing wrong with writing bad poetry and prose, and work at getting better, but do it just as a learning exercise to help them better-understand the art form, without feeling the need to inflict their lack of talent on others, I think everyone would be better off. Ditto for people who lack artistic talent; the art world would be better if they were happy to fail in private, learn from it, and leave professional art to people who can meet professional standards, rather than ditching the standards altogether.

    Perhaps it’s our culture’s refusal to let people fail gracefully (and privately), and understand that there is nothing wrong with that – in fact, it’s a wonderful way to learn, just don’t inflict it on others! – that has resulted in this insistence that nobody “fail”, and a resulting loss of all public standards.

  9. @Synthase:

    “Along the wires the electric message came:
    ‘He is not better; he is much the same'”.

  10. Great post John, and reminds me of something I learnt from the OBOD course, we learn wisdom from our failures not our successes. There is massive fear of failure in the modern world, something that I have to learn personally. And I’m glad I have.

  11. Lovely read — thank you for saying what so many will not!

    Your thoughts reminded me of a quotation I found a few years back and saved, from Keith Johnstone in his book, Impro:

    >We have an idea that art is self-expression — which historically is *weird*. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s.

    Also on this note, Ralph Keyes in his book The Courage to Write asserts that unclear, pompous, supercilious writing arises from a writer’s own mix of fears — including the fear that one has nothing worth saying. Moreover, Keyes points out how many such writers — especially in academia and the literary world — set themselves up with a self-defensive, self-anointing “out”: dismissing anyone who “doesn’t get it” as uncouth, uncultured, missing the “greater” point, and so forth.

    Yet as you note with your portrait-painting and poetry examples, quite possibly the trouble lies (gasp!) in the would-be artist’s failure to communicate!

  12. I am currently working toward a Master’s Degree in Middle East Studies and am noticing the same phenomenon. Everything is interpretation now. We barely drill our language skills or learn objective information about our target countries. Instead of learning languages we interpret texts by irrelevant writers. Instead of learning about our countries we make a trite observation about some social phenomenon, bury it in a mountain of theory lingo and call it a paper. We produce texts that are too boring and irrelevant for anyone to read, and I suspect a lot of people prefer it that way. If nobody reads it nobody can criticize you.

    Middle Eastern languages and cultures are my passion, but I’m seriously considering quitting and getting a degree in mathematics instead. With maths you always know when you’re failing, and I happen to like it that way.

  13. The disappearance of craft … as a musician, this is exceptionally painful to me. I practice a lot. I don’t want to play with people who don’t. And I don’t want to listen to people who don’t. I take pride in providing music that’s in tune, that sounds clear and beautiful in its tone, that has a tempo both solid and fluid so that those who want to dance can find the beat and dance with it.

    Today, there are too many people who think music is something we do for communal purposes only, and I do not agree. It’s not all craft, but unrestrained creativity for creativity’s sake is play. Strumming a few chords on the guitar in your living room beats the heck out of watching TV, but I sure don’t want to have to listen to it.

    I heard a band at a nice venue last night in which the guitar player had not tuned his guitar. SMH, as the kids like to say.

  14. I was struck by the drive towards mediocrity ( or, as Yves Smith at NC puts it: the crapification of everything™) at a fine furniture show last week. Most of the work was of very high quality, and there was also an exhibition of furniture by students from two local schools: the Prestigious Local Art School; and the North Bennett Street School in Boston, (which teaches traditional crafts, including cabinet making, bookbinding, violin making and others). The difference between the two was a perfect example of your point: the NBSS students made traditional furniture that looks beautiful and functions well today, and will look beautiful and function well 100 years hence. The PLAS students made chairs that look uncomfortable and are ugly, (although the joinery seemed good) and won’t be around 100 years hence to be judged. At least the PLAS still teaches the furniture students the value of craft.

    The experience of your illustrator acquaintance with the BNP brings Warhol to mind: he knew he was selling overpriced crap to the rich, and he named his studio the Factory for exactly that reason.

    The joy of doing something well will stay with you forever: I still remember the day, 20 years ago, when I was bringing a boat into dock under the eyes of an experienced pilot. I was new at it, and he fully expected me to clang into the dock. I brought the boat in perfectly and just kissed the dock. Before and since, I have clanged into the dock too hard, jerked the boat around when I should be smooth, run aground where I can see it’s too shallow, and generally failed. The failures are fewer now, though.

    Whenever I walk past the sign for the What Cheer Writers Club, I half expect to see you emerge.

  15. @Tom Welsh
    Those gems really do have the power to move the soul in directions it does not expect to go, don’t they?

    “Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least many sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses,
    For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.”

  16. John, I don’t know if this was your intent but I’m seeing a connection between the modern worlds “flight from failure” and its refusal to accept limits. Also that we can control what is really beyond our control, e.g. that we can control terror by waging a war on terror, or that we can control nature when we separate ourselves from it, objectify it and regard it as a limitless resource we can exploit endlessly. I’m reading a book by Stephen Jenkinson called “Come of Age”, in which he argues that we have a lot of old people but very few elders, a direct result of our culture’s denial of death and its refusal to accept limits. He writes: “…there is something about limit and ending that conjures elderhood from age.” He goes on to say that a culture dedicated to “personal growth” is a culture that “no longer believes in wisdom and ancestry”. Your thoughts?

  17. The concept of dinergy resonates a great deal — like a natural path of growth as opposed to the regimens prescribed by society. It leaves me wondering about those who fall outside the norm and how differently they evolve from those who fit in. Being gay, I often feel like I’m constantly confronted with those who aren’t me, and navigating that experience has definitely forced me to grow in different ways.

    I did some art classes online ten years ago or so, when I had it in mind I wanted to become an artist in representational realism (with a dash of fantasy illustration for good measure.) I took classes from two schools, one which took advantage of people who wanted to be artists and the other which was an actual brick-and-mortar art school in a major city with some standards to uphold. Although the curriculum was definitely more advanced at the second school and the instructors more critical, I didn’t find much difference in the students’ progress or, more telling, the students’ attitudes. Everyone in every class was already an “artist” — whether or not they progressed to a degree was more the responsibility of the art school; they just had to show up and submit their work, whatever it was. As you mention with the musicians, I got frustrated with the mediocrity (and the money pit) and went off on my own, only to eventually find the force I was personally working against was a dose of innate dysgraphia I’d never overcome to the extent of being able to draw the way I needed to in order to create what I wanted.

    Massive feeling of failure in the end, but the whole experience certainly shaped my growth more than anything I encountered in those art classes.

    Knowing most people have at least some personal struggles, I can’t quite believe that our society as a whole has so lowered standards and accepted mediocrity that most people have little to struggle against and therefore little to encourage real growth — I know a great deal of people struggling against a lot of different factors. But they seem to accept the struggle and bend to one extreme or another, instead of trying to grow against those forces and create that lovely bend in the wind.

  18. I have a confession to make: I have failed at playing the saxophone. It took me a long time to get past that special kind of failure where the instrument won’t make a sound. It’s taken me an even longer time to get past the point where if I try to play softly, it doesn’t work. Sometimes I still fail to play the right note. I keep playing though: it’s called practice.

    I wonder how much of the mediocrity of life around us is related to the utter unwillingness to practice anything that so many people seem to have these days.

    I think you’ve also touched on one of the key weaknesses of Faustian culture: it’s not just our shape of time that can’t handle failure: it’s hardwired into our entire culture. Faustian humanity has none of the usual tools available for handling failure, since it’s one of the key aspects of human existence we deny. Is it any wonder then that we run screaming from anything that reminds us that it exists?

  19. Hi JMG, I have mentioned to you the issues I see, here, working at the “war factory” that are in line with your posts and “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” I see the flight from failure everyday in inaction, delegation, and finger pointing, and most often, nothing gets done.. Heading down hill quickly.

    Thanks for another good essay,


  20. Are you familiar with John Minahand’s book on the filid of Ireland, The Christian Druids? Their dedication to the poetic craft was rather intimidating, although I’m not sure if many of their stylistic conventions would be worth resurrecting…

  21. @El: Absolutely agreed. And I would furthermore note that everyone learns at their own pace, and some people just aren’t interested in hitting the “right” milestones.

    One of the reasons I haven’t gotten back into martial arts, for instance, is that both classes I went to regularly seemed to take it as read that of course we all wanted to be black belts and teachers, of course we all wanted to get there in a certain time limit, and we thus wanted to be ready for tests at regular intervals–and I didn’t, and wasn’t. I’d have been happy practicing front kicks for years. (See also: tournaments.) Likewise, I’ve had friends who stopped taking voice lessons because they just wanted to sing well enough for karaoke and Christmas carols, and the instructor didn’t know how to teach without aiming at operatic solos.

    (Fanfic gets a lot of flak for being “not real writing” along similar lines, and I think the people complaining really miss the point: most people in that field are hobbyists of a particular sort, and almost none of them are looking to go pro.)

    The tricky part comes with “inflicting it on audiences,” granted: for example, where cooking is concerned, my dad is not a professional chef, but he can and does cook for company, whereas I enjoy cooking and baking, but my skills (and, honestly, my taste–I like things a lot sweeter and a lot blander than most people I know) are really not up to a fancy dinner for guests. (You come over to my place and, unless you like scrambled eggs or spaghetti a lot, we’re ordering out.) So there’s a grey area.

    I think that area is one a lot of laypeople occupy with regard to politics, too. There are definitely some mainstream-ish opinions whose holders I don’t want to be close to, and whose well-being I don’t particularly care about (other than a vague notion that society should look after everyone to a certain extent), but I can have a relationship of businesslike and/or familial civility with them when I have to, and I frequently have to. (Goes for interpersonal relationships in general, too. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “You don’t have to like your friends’ friends.”)

    @JMG: “Too much of the poetry presented at your common or garden variety Pagan bardic circle can vie for banality and gracelessness with the worst verse in the history of English literature,”

    Ugh, so true. Pagan poetry (I do not recommend that any of my fellow English majors ever search for spells/incantations on Google–it’s a fetid swamp of twee passive voice and sentence mangling that would put the rack to shame) vies with fantasy poetry (including a fair amount in books published by major houses) for the top example of Sturgeon’s law in action–at least in my experience. I’m told that Christian rock/lit stuff is even worse*, but mostly I haven’t had the nerve to look.

    My general maxim re: art is that, when intention/message gets prioritized over technique, the results are going to be mediocre at best.

    * Though actual hymns, as I think we discussed, are fine–as long as everyone knows how to sing them. The tiny local church here in PA, sadly, combines a total lack of baritones and an extremely decrepit organ with a strange enthusiasm for hymns nobody’s ever heard of. The result resembles a drawer full of crickets more than anything else.

  22. It’s past midnight here in Beijing, so this is going to be a bit scattered. Still, I’m fascinated that you wrote this, since it’s been on my mind a lot recently.

    One of my lifetime-favourite authors has been Rosemary Sutcliffe, whose books I first read in primary school, and which I still enjoy today, forty years later. Her best-known sequence of novels follows different generations of a Roman military family through the centuries when they live in the province of Britannia. It begins with Rome in her prime, an ascendant empire only recently arrived in Britain. It ends with the Arthurian period; the legions have left, the island’s cities are semi-derelict, and the shores are under furious assault from the building Saxon invasion. The remaining elites – educated Romano-Britons who still identify with Rome and her culture, allied with the remnants of the pre-Roman Celtic tribal aristocracy, refer to themselves as “lantern-bearers”; they know they have lost much, maybe most, of what their forefathers knew, but they dedicate themselves to preserving what they can for their descendants, hoping that their culture will flourish again one day.

    In terms of Druidry, I rather think we are midway on that journey. It’s a problem I have with the OBOD course, which refers to the 20 years’ education of the classical Druidic colleges, and breezily reassures us that our contemporary education covers most of it anyway… except that it doesn’t. Readers of your blogs know that our education today is unfit for any purpose; through TADR, I discovered the Trivium and Quadrivium, and was appalled by how much higher the standard of education was in the past in my own case – and, truthfully, I had an exceptionally good education compared to many in the UK. A recent gwers told me not to worry, that we couldn’t be expected to remember everything we were taught: but we know that memory was the foundation of druidical education.

    In short, we today cannot, in almost any case, approach the educational standard of the old druids. The very best we can do is, in humility, to try to preserve the tools that have come down to us, to strive to master them as best we can, and to pass them on to the next generation in the hope that they will surpass us. To tell ourselves that all effort is good, and none better than others, is to betray both the past and the future; we have an obligation to attempt excellence. Some will succeed, and some will fail, and all need to acknowledge the difference.

    Here, of course, you have firmly entered Jordan B. Peterson territory. I know you say that you don’t read him, but one of his key maxims is that hierarchy is both natural and desirable, because in any and every field of endeavour, some people will be better than others, and that this needs to be acknowledged.

    This is part of what drives the fury against Peterson: it’s the rage of those who cannot bear to be told that they aren’t special, or outstanding – that they are, in fact, mediocre. Once upon a time, our society had value structures that allowed people to deal with this, and which prompted them to strive to be better. One challenge that Green Wizards, and Druids, and anyone else concerned for the future, needs to be doing is contemplating how such structures can be re-established, and soon. I propose that this is one area where contemporary Russia – but not China – is succeeding, and that this is another reason why the elites of the Anglosphere are raging so vehemently against a culture which accepts that life has losers as well as winners.

  23. I’ve always followed what I call the Unwritten Law of the Art Museum – the bigger the write up regarding a work, the worse the work is.

  24. Small essay this week with huge implications. Thank you.

    To your point, I think the fear of failure endemic today is related to the lack of practiced craft among most people. In earlier times or poorer places most worked at least some times on projects that gave clear and often immediate feedback: mending clothes and maintaining roofs, cooking and entertaining for friends and family, managing small enterprises, almost everything we used to do either took dinergic forms, or failed right there in our face and in front of the world.

    Failure is our greatest teacher, and learning to manage and harness it used to be an integral part of becoming a healthy adult. Not so much anymore, especially among the elite. The emotional fragility and pervasive unhappiness that’s shot through our civil society right now looks due in large part to this.

    Every kid should learn to do well something difficult that others judge honestly and publicly. Barring physical injury, private failure is a poor teacher.

  25. Is this a divergence from the “sobornost” vs. “tamanous” posts? If so, are we going to pick back up on that, or is that done like the post on education back on the ADR?

  26. Interesting! I’ve failed many times in every medium I’ve been involved in. I’ve failed at making music, at acting, as a playwright, as a draughtsman, as a photographer, as a short story writer, screenwriter and as an essayist. I’ve made so, so much bad art, mountains of bad art that so earnestly failed, some of it quite publicly! And with some mediums I feel I have made some qualified successes, and they have felt real to me because failure is always an option.

    Reading Hesiod’s lovely Theogony, he makes the point early that the Muses gave him the divine voice from which he sang. Point being that he served as a vessel to the goddesses. The inspiration in no way was his. Whenever I’ve really gotten into a piece of art that has succeeded, I felt I was carried by something outside of myself. Indeed, it can be a mystic experience, and Evelyn Underhill points out the similarities between the mystic and artistic temperaments many times in her books.

    Perhaps the rigors of practice, of study and of refinement could be conceived as of the making of the vessel; being sure there are no holes and the shape is correct to receive the divine flow of inspiration from the Muse.

  27. I wonder if this is part and parcel of the fashionable insistence the people should be “nonjudgmental”–that no one should ever judge anyone or anything. I’ve often been on the receiving end of a tirade when I calmly tell people that, no, I’m not “nonjudgmental”, that I think it is impossible for one to be “nonjudgmental” and conscious at the same time, that you may judge things differently and have different values than I do (and that’s okay), but that’s not being “nonjudgmental” which is, again, impossible (to have a functioning mind and be “nonjudgmental” at the same time.) I guess it’s b/c I don’t validate their virtue signaling that I get on the receiving end of the tirade, but I simply will not tolerate this “nonjudgmental” about face and foolishness. It is so liberating to allow yourself to judge and to judge freely and w/out reservation. I often tell the “judgement police” that my judgments only matter so much as they give credence to them, and I’m more than willing to let them disregard my judgments so long as they allow me to disregard theirs in kind.

  28. Wonderful post, Mr. Greer!!

    We don’t treat our artists of any stripe very well; it’s almost impossible to make a living in the arts, unless you teach. But for those who taste the water, and find it irresistible, art holds them for life. Art circumvented in one field will crop up in another. For me, the other was Music, and after 65 years of picking it up and putting it down but never forsaking it, Guitar and Voice have become old and patient friends, faithful mirrors, and demanding in terms of technical prowess.
    The musician (any artist) faces this truth; The more you play, the better you get and before you know it, you have become a Music (Art, Lit, etc) Snob, eh? in that you recognize excellence and are only just tolerant of trite and predictable execution. Of course, in the long view, the looong view, we’re all beginners, so the teacher mind becomes involved with those who actually want to pursue the craft more than they want to display for everyone. Anyone who pursues a craft knows that thousands of hours go into mastering it, and almost all of those hours are private. When a craft of any kind is honed to that level of technical skill, it is a worthy medium for the revelation of content; expression, emotion, tapping the universality of understanding. To hone craft and yet retain spontaneity of presentation and depth of maturity, this is mastery.

    Thanks again, JMG!

  29. The fear of failure as a phenomenon in our society is widespread as you say, and the fine arts example is the tip of the iceberg. The education system feeds it (and then feeds off it at the higher end) with the focus on standardized testing which can only measure things which are “right” or “wrong.” The schools that don’t test well are labeled as “failing,” and are largely full of students from poor families, which reflects our collective fear that poverty (otherwise known as failure) might be contagious.

    Thus what you’ve written largely makes sense and seems worth reflection to me, with one minor quibble. Describing the recent election as a “draw” seems a bit of a stretch. On one side you’ve got a net gain of 2 senate seats (which is not nothing, of course, but the Republican party couldn’t have asked for a more favorable set of contested seats), while on the other there’s a net gain of 38 house seats and control of the legislature, 7 governorships, over 350 state legislative seats, and a net gain of control in 5 or 6 state legislatures. Granted, it’s certainly not the Blue Wave ™ that was bandied about in the media, but it looks a little lopsided to be a draw.

    Still, it’s your living room, and I’m curious to see where you take the discussion of our society possibly returning to sanity from the current madness. Thanks for the food for thought, and a Happy Thanksgiving to you and all of the other US readers and commenters.

  30. One thing that really sets off the “nonjudgmental” set is when I tell them that, IMHO, “nonjudgmental” people, more often than not, are doing things that go against their conscience, that they know in their heart of hearts to be wrong, according to their values, and that when others notice that and point it out to them, it rubs them raw and they go off on a “nonjudgmental, who are you to judge?!” tirade. Who am I to judge? A person who judges w/every breath in and out, just like every other living person.

  31. so the “everyone gets a trophy” principle has been adopted by druidry? i guess i shouldn’t be surprised. one question though: my understanding is that the bardic tradition originated in the era before widespread literacy. the bard was therefore the repository of the oral history and culture of the people, making a good voice and poetic sense secondary to a prodigious memory. are today’s druid bards the inheritors of that oral tradition or merely modern equivalents of the bad bob dylan clones of my youth?

  32. @ Bogatyr

    If you don’t mind, what is the name of that sequence of novels you mentioned (Roman to Arthurian Britain)? I’d be interested in hunting those down.

  33. @ Shane

    Re judgement

    What many fail to distinguish properly, I’d argue, is the difference between judgement (which, as you point out, everyone does by virtue of being sentient) and respect. I can disagree with you, judge something according to the values I hold, and yet be polite and respectful. Not all judgement is rude. I can say, “I don’t care for that” or “that stance goes against my values” while being respectful to others’ assessments. People who insist that *any* judgement (that is, disagreement) is inherently wrong are, to my mind, peddling a worldview of enforced conformity.

  34. I just want to make the obvious point in the modern west, very especially America, “loser” is the fundamental insult.

  35. Interesting essay. The bit about the big name painter was an eye-opener to me. Having an assistant paint the finer details of a lace ruff — okay. Having him paint the whole thing — not okay.

    Doczi’s “The Power of Limits” appears to follow in the footsteps of an earlier work by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “On Growth and Form”, which explored patterns in nature, and growing things, and much else besides.

    Which makes me think. These two books are anchored in nature. Classical art, and some modern art like my favourite Impressionists, is anchored in nature. But abstract art has no anchor. Perhaps politics based on an abstract ideology is anchor-less, compared with politics which responds to the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood people.

  36. John–

    Okay, I’m afraid this may be coming from far left field (as in beyond the fence-line and well over the horizon), but how do the contending forces of dinergy which create form — which I immediately link as well to Ring-Cosmos and Ring-Chaos in their interaction with one another — relate to the contending forces of Thaumiel (or not)? What got me going down this particular rabbit-hole was the pondering of the perpetual political contest — there will always be an opposition and therefore “both sides” will suffer from perpetual frustration, much as the two rings dynamically interact with one another and cannot exist in the absence of the other — and I thought to myself, how does this differ from the nature of Thaumiel? Do the Qliphoth denote some degree of truth in terms of the nature of things?

  37. I like that dinergy bit, and it figures well to make sense of my experiences. I am going to give some cases.

    I am a (more or less deliberately) decidedly mediocre player of the two chamber North American flute. Check it, I figured about a decade ago that I would do well to have some music experience in my life, but I also knew that I only wanted to put a modest amount of energy in that direction. So I chose to play an instrument that had an intentionally limited variety of sounds, and which makes pleasant sounds with modest skill. Hence the native flute, 6 notes built around a pentatonic scale, and a hand full of ornamentation techniques to spice it up. Because it works with such a limited pallet the early swing of the learning curve is pretty sweet. That being said, I am a mediocre player, because beyond learning a handful of basic ornamentations and a small handful of songs, I haven’t accepted the limits of the musical craft other than those that the physical nature of the resonance chamber imposes. It sounds pleasant and on a good handful of occasions I have stumbled into performing a bit of music which, by the accounts I receive, really touched a person in a positive way; most vivid cases being from some homeless veterans I used to jam with who found the flute soothing. At the same time, I cannot reliably produce even decent music, and as often as not I go to play and the just ain’t any spark or jingle in the tune; a true master of the instrument can call forth a sublime serenity with overwhelming effect, that my efforts only occasionally touch on the lower range of. More practice would help, so would learning a little more craft… maybe getting a couple more classic songs dialed in. I cannot fail or succeed at playing my own little free styles, but I can very much succeed or fail playing House of the Rising Sun. But, at the same time I am only slightly interested in being more than a dabbler in music, fairly content to accept the resistance in my own life and the form it gives when acted upon my the mostest force of my desire to make music.

    Farming, is also a place where the will to mastery meets the resistance of life, and in that case gives me the shape of a specialist. Long story short, I have found that the various things I will in life do not fine well with the restrictions of owning or running a farm. But by accepting those limits, and then directing my energy along the path of least resistance, I now have an arbitrary supply of work as a helper / advisor for other successful organic market farms in my area. Allowing me to to work more diversified that I could ever successfully manage by my own hand, and to profit from the superior business craft of my clients who run their market gardens.

    Poetry is another domain where this dynamic meets, but in my experience it is two forces that resist and swirl around each other, then tied together by a third and harder to name thread. I like the kind of poetry currently approaching the maturity of it developmental form in lyrical rap. Now I ain’t a rapper, but I like playing with the form in casual poetry. Those two forces I am on about are on one hand the many poetic tools of various kinda or rhyme, pun, and meter one can bring in and on the other the vision to tell a story. These forces limit each other, the first force demands the story be told creatively, to use pattern of rhyme that are fixed realities in the English language; the second force limits the effort to weave sophisticated rhyme schemes by the need to convey a certain amount of content. This art form is modestly young and the craft is still evolving quickly.

  38. A sidenote: artistic sweatshops are nothing new under the sun: e.g. Cranach the Elder and Rembrandt come to mind.

  39. The art museums and mainstream publications are just catching up to the resurgence of representational art that’s been developing for several decades as a movement dubbed Pop-Surrealism. The “godfather” of the movement is painter, Mark Ryden. If you’re not familiar he’s worth a search, I think you’d be impressed by his craftsmanship and amused by his symbolism.
    Btw, yesterday I enjoyed your latest podcast with The Higherside Chats. I had to fanboy out and become a member to hear the whole conversation. Taking notes. Thx!

  40. One craft about which I do know something is quilting and I regret to have to say that we have passed Peak Quilting at least a decade ago. I see two influences at work here; cost and status.

    The revival of this wonderful craft began in about the early to mid-70s, when older practitioners were still alive and every town had a fabric store. Innovations in technique–rotary cutting–were not at first as corrupting of good workmanship as they later became. Much good work was done in the research, reviving and recreation of historic piecing and quilting patterns, and for several decades the standard of workmanship in most quilt shows remained very high. Then came the free arm quilting machine, which inscribes an ugly pattern of squiggles all over your carefully constructed quilt top; it was Fast, it was Easy and it made and makes a lot of money for quilt shop owners.

    Meanwhile, cost of fabric and tools has risen dramatically as has the social status of quilters, and the quality of design AND workmanship has declined equally dramatically, IMHO.

  41. I’m convinced the persistence of abstract or conceptual art is due to the fact it places the critics, collectors, and elite socialite types at the centre of the process and not the artists. An artist creates some vague art assemblage and then the intelligencia get to swoop in and determine it’s meaning, importance and value.

    With no standards or craft to ground the work the level of quality can be whatever the gatekeepers claim it to be. It’s like looking at a Rorschach test and insisting your interpretation is the correct one.

  42. Much to do about nothing.

    Makes me think of a intense and highly passionate conversation about peoples Christmas plans I overheard the other day. One couple were very intensely describing the abstract Christmas they were going to have. This went on for a insane length of time followed by a discussion about a recent art purchase of a BNA. It was a crumpled peace of paper that went for several thousand.

    My partners a composer, the examples are endless there as well. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not worth thinking about this level of retardation. It becomes like disaster porn. At some point we need to stop looking as it’s too much of a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. BNP or BNA, why not? If someone else is going burn money let them. Good hussle if you can find it imho.

  43. Hi Everyone,
    I have seen the result of this sort of thing in university theatre. Quite a few of the plays are excruciating despite the lovely and talented young actors because the Profs pick plays they like and they are dogs. The Profs don’t have to worry about bums on seats. They are paid no matter who turns up.

    The youngsters graduate and what saves more than a few of them is an insistence on acting in the theatre of the real world; the Fringe Festivals and the local theatre where the audience is directly critical. The Fringe performers rely on word of mouth advertising to make their show profitable. This means they can and have to change scenes up, do drastic rewrites, work with the lighting and other effects until they have the audience loving their performance. This is the way all the great actors and playwrights learned their craft.

    The same is true in the world of journalism. The universities produce journalism graduates who cannot write intelligible prose and have never seen a style guide, I kid you not! Old lags in the journalism world say journalism can no more be taught in school than lovemaking (that is not the word they use) can. They insist journalism can only be learned under the lash of a sub-editor and I am inclined to agree despite not enjoying the violently insane editor of my youth.

    Wonderful article.
    PS Druid magic has opened up my interest in and pleasure of creating representational art.

  44. I am minded of an excellent art teacher of my acquaintance. What makes her an excellent teacher, is her ability to teach students who have no particular aptitude. How she does it is the very opposite of praising mediocrity, but rather she teaches the techniques and disciplines of craft.

    I saw this at work in one of my sons, who would be gifted in the bookish sense, but whose relationship with art in primary school was one of profound dissatisfaction. Many days included assignments that went “here are some crayons, draw a picture of this or that, oh yes that’s wonderful” – but the “that’s wonderful” part just grated with him, because he knew there was such a huge gulf between what his mind saw and what his hand produced.

    Enter his secondary school art teacher. At the start of his first year his class did six week “tasters” with all the subjects, before deciding on the ones to stick with. I know that if she had not engaged his attention in those six weeks, he would not have stuck with the subject of art. But one day, during the “taster”, he came home and showed me the shading technique she had showed them that would turn a 2-d circle into a 3-d sphere. I could see the excitement in him (almost a TSW moment!).

    That got him interested and he stuck with three years of very hard work at perfecting the craft of art. I would say that, as a child with no special aptitude for art, that class was the one he worked at the hardest throughout any part of his schooling. There were drawing exercises that he had to do every single school day throughout those three years. And he did them, and ultimately gained a quiet satisfaction when he could see his own improvements.

    The end of this story is that he did not become an artist. It’s possible he may never touch another drawing pen or paintbrush. But he still remembers an art teacher who succeeded in drawing out of him, a student with little natural aptitude or talent, a yearning for excellence, and a dedication to working at the crafting of art. To me, that is a real sign of excellence in a teacher, because teaching a student who already has aptitude and talent is not nearly as challenging. To him also, she still rates as one of his very best teachers.

    Anyway, this story is by way of adding a wrinkle to the “can’t fail them” ideology. The fact is that it is hard to fool yourself as to whether you have succeeded or failed at what you set out to do, even if your teachers and other authority figures are conspiring to hide that hard truth from you.

  45. Thanks JMG for another look at modern culture through a different lens.

    As I was reading this, I began to wonder whether another factor besides fear of failure might be driving the observed lack of quality.

    I would agree that art, music composition, fine woodworking, literature – “the arts” – reached a peak in quality in the 1600s-1800s and have been declining ever since. Similarly, it seems that automobiles reached a peak around 1950-1980 and computer technology reached a peak around 2000-2010, and both have been declining in objective indices of quality (i.e. user experience and longevity) since those peaks. At the same time, I would argue that there has been no observable decline in the quality of top athletes, chefs, and musicians. If anything, thanks to a global playing field and a growing population, the level of performance and commitment to craft at the top has gone up a bit.

    The difference here, to my mind, is that live performers are always compared in the present – we can’t compare a meal prepared by a top French chef to one from the 1700s – whereas durable products and works of art are easily compared to the past. I might make a case that a loss of quality arises not so much from fear of failure but from commitment to the myth of progress, the idea that what is new (and endorsed by the right influential people) must also be better. As a field or technology is developing, changes are most often improvements, but once it becomes mature and subject to diminishing returns, our commitment to progress dictates that we must not be satisfied with a stable state of the art but must instead pursue dramatic “new and improved” changes, which more often than not push the pendulum away from objective quality.

  46. I teach woodworking. My client/student wants to build a 16″ x 20″ wet plate camera from wood. I have no experience building cameras. She has no experience in woodworking. We have a few examples of smaller format cameras from the late 19th and early 20th century. They’re well built, but don’t scale up. Because of budgetary constraints we can’t afford to use complicated mechanisms like rack and pinion gears. Neither of us are machinists. It has to be inexpensive, simple, rugged, and it has to work. It also has to succeed as an object of craft. The fit and finish of all the pieces must be spot on or it will look ridiculous and amateurish. The operation must be smooth and direct. I’m still not exactly sure how we’re going to do this.

  47. “n which he argues that we have a lot of old people but very few elders, a direct result of our culture’s denial of death and its refusal to accept limits.”
    The Greatest Generation was the last generation to fully mature to adulthood, and I felt the loss profoundly w/their passing, knowing that there were no adults left, only children.

  48. Mr Greer,

    Well thanks so much for the humorous screed on modern art. Most enjoyable and unfortunately so true. As a retired Artist (that is, one who does it for the money) I have long recognized the veracity of a couple of maxims common to the art industry. Namely; There is art, stuff that looks like art and garbage. If you cannot produce art, make what you do very big. If you cannot do it big, make it red. Yeah, I know, it’s a cynical view, but some 40 years in the game has had a twisting effect on me.

    Now that I no longer engage in the mind numbing pursuit of money I can happily call myself an artist (no longer capitalized). It’s quite delightful to paint representational images, portraits mostly, with no thought as to whether they will sell. I just finished a portrait of a recently deceased friend as a gift for his family. It’s actually the only piece I have done since retiring that has left my immediate possession. Believe me when I say this is something for which I am truly grateful. I cannot tell you how many people have told me I could easily sell what I do. To not have to do so is a real blessing.

    For those who would paint or sculpt well, in a classical sense that is, all I can say is it’s a lot of work. I attended art school in the mid 60s just as some of the changes were taking place. As a youngster I loved my avant-garde professors and could not stand the old schoolers. Darn, that has so changed. While I can recall no wisdom from the with-it profs, I still use and revere the teachings of the classical teachers. I particularly remember a class (several over the years, actually) by an older professor (name long forgotten) who taught life drawing. He came to class in a tan smock and used a metal pointer to emphasize the things he thought important in drawing the body in a realistic and believable manner. I can still see the wince on the faces of the models as he would poke a fleshy place to demonstrate the way light and shadow defined form. (The wince came from the fact that the pointer was cold.) His approach was so measured and steeped in doing it well that at the time I just was beside myself with impatience. But his teachings have served me far, far better as a professional than any others I encountered in that venue.

    I approach a painting now much like you recommend when discussing the task of writing. First, it’s a daily process. For a new painting, I get it down right away, without the editing. It’s all about the structure, the ideas, the big picture (pun unintended but enjoyed). Then it’s time to edit. Keep in mind that a period of rest can be essential to the editing process too. Sometimes I literally cannot see what I have painted until I have set the canvas face to the wall for a few weeks or even a few months. And then I edit and edit and edit again. I’m going to lift an idea (possibly verbatim) from Jordan Peterson where he describes his writing process; I’ll say that when I get to the point where further editing, further changes, do not improve the image, I am done. It’s not perfect but it’s as good as I am capable of doing at this time. I am at the very limit of my ability.

    I have been asked by people who have seen my work how I manage to capture so much of the character of my subjects. I honestly don’t know. It just seems to happen. I paint what is in front of me. The character is there all along. The magic for me is being the agent of transfer from real life to a piece of canvas. It’s called creativity but I think that is just a shorthand word for something much more enigmatic. (Kudos to whoever said, up thread, that we are just channeling the divine.) Even back in my art-for-money days I would thoroughly define the limits of what I wanted to do and then take a break from thinking further about it. Usually within a couple of weeks the answer to an artistic problem (project) would pop up all by itself. I irreverently called it the lazy man’s way to creativity.

    By the way, your words about the young illustrator brought to mind the work of Simon Stalenhag. He’s a young artist and I find his work quite refreshing. For an example of his work take a peek at his book: The Electric State. Easy to search for him online.

    My heartfelt thanks and very best wishes to you and to all who bring so much refined thought and insight to these pages.

    Aged Spirit

  49. There must be something deeper going on than the “refusal of dinergy” by an awful lot of people. We as a civilization seem no longer capable of profound artistic expression. Even those who attempt to make “honest” art more often than not turn out something derivative or simply mediocre. For example, in classical music, the fad for atonal and highly experimental music has long since passed and there are plenty of neo-romantic, neo-classical, neo-whatever-you-want composers plying their trade these days. But very few (if any) are really doing anything interesting. Very little of it will be heard in concert halls in fifty years, let alone two hundred.

    By the way, didn’t Spengler predict this as a consequence of entering the “winter” phase of decline? In any case, I can’t quite understand why it has all dried up. There are more art schools than ever, more wealth and comfort (theoretically conducive to making a better product), more exposure to other ideas, more tools, a much more egalitarian society (meaning more opportunities for more people to study art) — and yet so little quality. This is a cliched question, but why can’t we produce a Mozart?

  50. @David,
    an extension of that is everyone’s oversensitivity. Everyone needs everyone else’s approval for what they are doing, otherwise: meltdown. To the “nonjudgmental”: why do you need my approval for what you are doing? Why should my judgment matter one whit as to what you do, unless you care about it? I certainly don’t care about others approval of what I do, and it doesn’t affect my choices unless I value their opinion.

  51. The opposite of dinergy i guess is the wildly popular corporate buzzword ‘synergy’ which implies a merging together to achieve a mass – multiplier effect, as opposed to the delicate dance of the dinergy which you outline here. Am reading Teilhard de Chardins ‘Future of Man’ at the moment, where he saw the comng Anthroposcene as a dinergestic unfolding of a developing ‘universe’, in the form of the collective and spiritual impulse ,striving to itself become reflectively conscious in tandem with Gods will. This got me thinking we may have counterfeit this impulse with the internet and the culture of insitutionalised narcissism currently du jour. Chardin was coming at this from the perspective of a Jesuit holy man, i am surprised they didnt burn him at the stake. He is often portrayed as the grandaddy of the internet.
    Google ‘synergy’ and what comes up is a plethora of corporations striving to be identified with the term, which gives one a clue as to the inner nature of the corporate ethos.

  52. Besides abstraction, some people also refuse to engage with “not them” by taking an avant garde approach to something pedestrian. I’m thinking of artisinal food such as pizza or burgers. It’s true that a burger or a pizza are not abstractions, but by taking the artisinal approach there is also a certain isolation from failure. If I don’t happen to like the toppings on my artisinal pizza it’s not a failure on the part of the chef. It’s simply that I fail to share his vision of what a pizza should be. The same is true if I don’t like the exotic cheese on my chesseburger. Left unsiad, probably, but obvious to all parties, is that I may be too plebeian to appreciate his masterpiece and maybe I’d be happier at Micky D’s. I have more respect for the few remaining Mom and Pop burger joints that make an honest, but simple, burger. They could fail in a way that the avant garde chef can’t. At the same time they rise above the mediocrity of the fast food chains.

    I’m not suggesting that all avant garde efforts (food or anything else) can’t be good. I’m just suggesting thaat by doing something highly unique the artist/chef/architect is avoiding engagement with “not them” and thus saving themselves from the possibility of failure. At least sometimes, this is what’s going on. They’re kind of running away from the problem in the opposite direction, but ending up in the same place.

  53. @Will J – I think you are on to something; lack of practice is as much to blame as the notion that some people ‘will just never be good artists.” Sure, there are some people who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but there are other’s who have flashes of talent that, I suspect, never take the time to get better.

    @ Olof – As a student of language in both high school and college, I can sympathize with that analysis. In retrospect, I suspect that rote memorization of HOW to speak a language can fall by the wayside they way eating green veggies often gets skipped over for cake. Sometimes I suspect I made the same mistake when learning Russian. Fun side note – according to my mom, my spelling (In English) got better the longer I lived in Russia and was forced to rote memorize vocabulary out of bare necessity. This was especially amusing because I struggled to spell anything correctly from first grade through high school.

    @JMG – Odd, but I think, related note: I have been going to classes at the same gym for about 18 months. The workouts are crossfit-based, and the instructors emphasize proper form while exercising, both to improve strength and flexibility, but also to avoid injury. Last Friday, I felt ‘in tune’ during the work out in a way that I have not before, much the way that I took years for me to feel truly comfortable practicing martial arts. Ah, the power of repetition!
    Question: can you point to some examples of novels that have reached the point of ‘is not you’? I’m thinking here especially of fantasy and science fiction, since both forms operate in (fictional) worlds that are very often, the sole creation of the author. Beyond believable characters and plausible story arcs, in what ways can this form reach a point of being ‘not you’?

  54. @Maxine Rogers: Your comment brings back many boring hours sitting through the modern dance performances of college friends. I miss a few things about college, but that’s emphatically not one of them!

  55. @ David BTL – I am greatly heartened that a resistance is coalescing on the left side of Team Blue. I doubt they will win this battle, but we are very early in the fight to reclaim the party from the senile elite. My guess is, the establishment will double down on trying to control team Blue since they have lost control of the voting base (as distinct from the actual elected officials) of team Red.

  56. James, that’s a very good point. Right now The Spirit and the Sword is kind of on the back burner, but I hope to do more with it in the near future.

    Booklover, I tend to think of the small gray typefaces as an act of mercy — if it was readable, you might have to read it… 😉

    Mr. O, I ain’t arguing!

    Synthase, I have to say that I know Pagan poets (or, as the saying goes, “Pagon” poets) who are working hard at rising to McGonagall’s standard.

    Chad, go look at the process by which the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act were passed. They were passed with bipartisan support and signed by a Republican president.

    Felix, that’s a subject for future posts!

    David, there’s a very strong generational dynamic in the political scene these days — the Boomer old guard is clinging to power at all costs, and will have to be shoved out. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out.

    El, that’s a good point. Part of the problem — and this is something that’s going to require a lot of discussion in later posts — is that so few people have a developed inner life, and so the idea of practicing an art for one’s own sake, without performing for others, is basically incomprehensible. There’s a lot of ground to be covered to get to the root of that.

    Averagejoe, also a good point!

    Free.and.true, exactly! In my experience, unclear writing is always a result of unclear thinking, and if a writer fails to communicate to readers, that’s not the reader’s fault.

    Olof, fascinating. Thanks for the data point.

    Aron, oh dear gods, yes.

    Shane, yep. Watch the broader tech market, too.

    WRW, that’s hilarious. Thank you.

  57. @JMG,
    since Trump has already signaled he’s okay w/default, I’m hopeful that media histrionics aside (or perhaps b/c of them), he really will let the “economy” go, let the affected businesses fail, and not bailout.

  58. We got to know a lovely man, years ago, who worked in one of these art sweatshops. I had seen his own art, which was intricate, beautiful, and a joy to behold– vivid, minutely-detailed pen-and-ink drawings of Inca gods and dancers. His day job was manufacturing giant matrushka-shaped ceramic cats for someone else to paint, according to the vision of the “head artist” in charge of the project. It made me deeply sad for him.

  59. Hi John,
    I’m an abstract artist. Within abstract rules closely related to the rules of logic, I find and prove new number patterns and try to communicate their beauty. (I’m an amateur mathematician doing combinatorics, with a few peer-reviewed papers under my belt.) Sometimes the beauty is most easily perceived in the pattern: If a part of you goes, “ah, that’s nice” when it’s pointed out that the sum of the first n positive odd numbers id n squared, then you’re not number-deaf. Sometimes the beauty is in the proof, like Euclid’s proof that the number of primes is infinite. At its best the pattern and the proof stand as a single, beautiful unity. For me, it’s the beauty of logic and the logic of beauty. To what extent any of these patterns correspond to the physical world is a matter of ongoing discussion. I consider what I do as number poetry, worth doing for its own sake, and with its own structural rules, rules which grant an astonishing amount of artistic freedom, rules which demand a certain level of mastery but also allow for the free play of imagination.

  60. Regarding the development of craft in the fine and performing arts, I used to be a marching band judge and had to balance giving constructive criticism on the marching and equipment work with being as positive as possible; I was a visual judge, not a music judge, as I did not have a music degree. It was a challenge, although the bands did improve after listening to my comments and those of the other judges. In this case, improving craft did not interfere with the students’ self esteem. Instead, I’d like to think it boosted it. Then again, competitive marching band shares a lot with figure skating, which is more sport than art.

    As for your observation that “not that long ago, it was the Democrats who liked to insist that their opponents needed therapy and the GOP who reliably claimed that their opponents were morally evil,” I can say I participated in that. Seven years ago, I posted Blast from the past: Pathology on the Right, a commentary on Krugman’s “Two speeches and an editorial,” itself a repost of something I orginally wrote for Daily Kos nine years ago. In it, I referred a lot to the WHO and DSM-IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I did not, however, think that therapy was worth pursuing. In the comments to the original Daily Kos entry, I wrote “Everything I’ve read about people with NPD is that they are very difficult to treat, even when they seek help.” I still think so, which is why I’m not suggesting it for the politicians who display it.

    I was a lot more understanding in Food Fight! Thoughts on liberalism and conservatism inspired by the Preface to Food, Inc., also a repost of a Daily Kos diary entry. I wrote it later, even though I posted it to my current blog earlier. Progress, I suppose.

  61. Well, that explains why the local jam group was so hesitant when I showed up with my accordion. Jamming is play, but it’s play with others where you work together to create an overall effect that is Not About You. I’m now learning to pick chords by ear to support the guitars and violins. There’s a beautiful harmony when it all comes together.

    One of the functions of a guild (or a museum, or an art gallery) is to expose beginners to what good work looks like and to encourage them to aspire to it. A really good work is dispiriting and encouraging at the same time; obviously that standard of quality is possible, because someone’s done it, but it makes your own efforts look like a mess of failures. Getting good requires a willingness to suck for a while.

  62. Dear John Michael Greer,

    Thank you for another unusually insightful and thought-provoking post. Indeed there is something very The-Emperor- Has-No-Clothes-y about much of the modern art we find in top-end galleries and museums, and I think you have identified an important part of that.

    I would add, however, that mediocre or even completely inept as many of these works may be in terms of craft, the artists invest a good deal of energy and time in navigating the labyrinth of the cultural bureaucracies– and doing it well enough to land a show in a museum, or a well-known gallery, is a rare skill in itself.

    (And you know, most of this art is not being shown but is sitting in warehouses, and insured. Hmm. It is interesting to think about who is actually paying for this stuff and the reasons why…)

    But a question. What about abstract art that has an esoteric origin? Some of the early abstract art was inspired by or purported to actually be thought-forms (as in the book by Besant and Leadbeater). Now the Guggeneheim Museum in New York has a show devoted to the long-forgotten Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, who was active in the early part of the 20th century. Her works seem to me very rich with sigils. If you would like to see what these look like, there is more information about her and her paintings here

    and here

    I would be especially interested to know your take on Klint’s work.

    Kind regards,


  63. A lot of the modern art scene insistence of self-expression strikes me as a very tanamous inspired action, just as improv jazz was, but with a much less dynamic medium. With our Faustian inspired obsession with progress, until the failure becomes so obvious that we cannot hide from it with flight, until it can be seen from the heavens, we’ll probably continue down this path. When we come to terms with the limits of the individual, whether that is the individual in their expression, in the government, or within the economy, then we’ll finally begin pushing those limits in ways from which our culture can flower, and hopefully produce fruit.

  64. In literature–my field of study–I think the decline began with the Romantics. Not that the Romantics produced bad work themselves–although I do challenge anyone to read Wordsworths’ _Prelude_ with unalloyed pleasure. But I feel that they began the reversal of the age old relation between artist and society. In most cultures the culture defines art and a would-be artist must learn the standard and reach it before starting to innovate. You memorize the classics, you read and read and read, and imitate models when you begin to write. In painitn, you spend an apprenticeship painting rows of geese, or yards of drapery, before being allowed to paint the face of a shepherd in the Nativity. If that turns out well, maybe an angel next time, then Mary or Joseph. Paint Mary well enough and once you are an acknowledged master you might try some wild innovation such as having the Madonna lean a little forward or reach to tickle the baby Jesus. It is society that decides ‘yes, you are an artist.’ For the Romantics and later, the Modernists, one first declares oneself to be an artist, henceforth anything you produce is, by definition, art. If society fails to appreciate your work they are the crassly uneducated buffoons, not you. In the meantime you maintain your reputation by behaving in some artistic fashion–drinking in the fashionable watering spots, wearing striking clothing, etc.

    It has often been observed that this dynamic played out in the early years of Modernism. Artists such as Picasso had classical training and were perfectly capable of drawing a realistic horse, or woman. Such skills make the deliberately distorted figures in a piece like Guernica more effective. Robert Anton Wilson repeated an anecdote about Picasso that illustrates the difference between having a vision that may fail of execution and merely churning out fashionable dreck. According to the story Picasso was helping a friend go through a pile of Picasso drawings that he suspected of containing some forgeries. As Picasso set one drawing in the pile of fakes his friend objected “But that one is real, I saw you draw it myself.” Picasso replied “I can fake a Picasso as well as anyone.” Which I interpret as meaning that that drawing failed to achieve whatever vision he had started with and was ‘fake’ by his standards.

  65. For bad literature not intended as parody– there is an anthology of bad verse called “The Stuffed Owl.”

  66. This post is music to my eyes. During the past dozen years I’ve noticed an increase in pushback against the modernist art establishment and its ideology. Whereas 20 years ago among public intellectuals only Tom Wolfe was willing to criticize it, now authors and thinkers like Roger Scruton, Herbert Bangs and the art collector Fred Ross have been speaking up about it, and defending the traditional skills and aesthetics of classic western art. Schools that teach these skills, once very few, have sprouted up all over the world. Most recently the Mexican art critic Avelina Lésper has published a book entitled El Fraude del Arte Contemporáneo (The Fraud of Contemporary Art), tipping many a sacred cow.

    In short, I think the historical tide has finally begun to turn against what has long since become a stultifying, oppressive establishment ideology of art, only barely in time to save a tradition that is in danger of disappearing along with so many other attributes of Faustian culture. Just as many largely fictive enterprises which now seem solid and real – finance, real estate, fracking, etc. – will come down like castles built on sand, so I think we will live to see the bottom fall out from under the contemporary art market.

    The applicability of Gresham’s law to this case had occurred to me also: the bad does indeed drive out the good, and the debasement of art is much akin to the debasement of currency.


  67. Following up on Aaron Blue’s post and musical performance in general: I studied a wind instrument from grade 4 through my freshman year of college. (We had no strings at my small town high school so violin was not an option.) After college I began the shift to violin – an uphill battle if you wait that long to begin. So I went from being a pretty good wind player to a pretty inept string player, but by my own choice. I recently left a small string group because the general skill level was pretty poor and the material we were playing was pretty boring, and I joined a pretty decent amateur community orchestra that plays professional repertoire. Forget that nonsense about “the only important thing is that you enjoy it.” That’s not true. This is representational art; the standard is that it must sound like the composer intended it, or at least something approaching a good professional recording. It’s all too possible to fail. And in this group, unfortunately, I’m one of the weaker players. I hope to improve. It’s similar with violin making. Possibly not that many people realize it but we are in a sort of golden age of violin making right now with modern makers from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor (and beyond) turning out instruments that can compete with the Cremonese makers of three centuries ago, and getting high prices for their work. This is not “feel good” art. But it’s certainly not in the spirit of our age, not by any stretch. Now I think I’ve forgotten what the point I set out to make was, but this whole endeavor, contrary to the prevailing current, does feel right, which is why I do it.

  68. @David, By The Lake.

    The author is Rosemary Sutcliff (not Sutcliffe), and the novels are the Eagle of the Ninth series. They are mostly for children or young adults but, perhaps because I read them when I was very young, the themes and values influenced me a lot, and I enjoy revisiting them.

  69. John,

    Thanks for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I thought I’d share an encouraging data point: I’m a high school teacher, and as such I attend 2-3 high school plays and/or musicals a year. Just a few weeks ago the students at my school put on a play called “Museum”… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the play, but it’s a deeply funny lampooning of exactly the sort of art scene you describe here. The kids did a fantastic job mocking the self-importance, the deliberate obfuscation, and most importantly, the “art” itself. Perhaps the tides of taste are turning…

  70. Hi John Michael,

    What an outstanding essay. And abso-fracking-lutley! Hear, Hear!

    I see a lot of fear of risk, and my gut feeling is that it leads to walking into even greater risks down the track. Fortunately, I have had the good luck to fail on my own terms plenty of times and then have to learn how to deal with the consequences and come back from that failure – or try something completely different. There used to be an old nursery rhyme that provided good guidance for that situation, and it went something like this: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” Good advice that word “try”. 😉

    Far out, I’m mildly in awe of the rats and parrots that I have to deal with on a day to day basis, and I’m not entirely sure that they’re not smarter than I am!

    Anyway, I see some very unusual and extraordinarily bonkers behaviour, driven largely by the sort of issues that you have so eloquently raised. Here is an article from a few years back, and it is something I’m starting to see filter through into the workplace. You’d be amazed at the sort of discussions I have with business owners these days: ‘Helicopter parents’ graduate to university and the workplace . Far out, I wonder whatever where they thinking?



  71. This discussion somehow reminds me of the book „Skin in the game“ by Nassim Taleb.
    The gist is that only with skin in the game actions tend to be risk-mitigated.
    This mitigation is a limit to gains but also a firewall against big losses.
    Likewise not accepting that there might be a big risk lurking, small gains are accepted until the big risk hits and destroys all gains.
    For this painter the risk could be that if the scam is detected and he loses his source of income totally and is ousted in the big-money community as nobody buys his new paintings any more.
    But as the community is so big and nobody can admit that he fell for a scam, this ousting might not happen until the big one hits and the prices for this art collapse.
    At this point in time the painter might be retired with a big fund of money. He had no skin in the game as the feedback-loops were so wide.
    And this guy might know exactly that …

  72. @ Bogotyr – Rosemary Sutcliff was the defining writer of my childhood, and I have a growing collection of her wonderful historical fiction, all found in op-shops, as not many of her books are still in print (actually, just looked them up, appears they are back in print. Excellent!). The Capricorn Bracelet is one of the finest, to my mind, as a student of history. It follows the trajectory of the fall of the Roman Empire over a period of three hundred years, from the building of Hadrian’s Wall to the end of the Roman presence in Britain. It is a series of short stories chronicling the lives of one Roman/British family who one after another inherit the Capricorn Bracelet awarded to a Roman Centurion. The decline of the Roman army’s occupation over this time is slow and gradual, ending ‘not with a bang, but a whimper’, and while it ends hauntingly, the last story is not the end of this family, by any means, who melt back into the tribes of their homeland. Its importance for me is that I see myself at the beginning of this journey, and if my descendants manage to avoid extinction from runaway global warming over the next century, I can see their lives running along the same trajectory, as our own Empire winds down. Only difference, of course, is that the British tribes were exquisitely at home in their bountiful landscape, and our descendants will be faced with a whole other world and will have to develop skills and culture to live well in it. Still, I find this novel comforting, because its essence is – humans adapt, and can be happy and make families and live good lives in so many ways. No doubt the first Roman family of this novel would have been appalled to know that their descendants would become Britons, living in the forest, with none of the conveniences or civilisations of Roman life. And yet their descendants live lives just as full and happy as their own.. but as ‘barbarians’.
    I have found that accepting this truth means that I am a much happier person, and I find I can live a much simpler life without the psychic burden of having to help keep the Empire going..

  73. JMG wrote: “In today’s world, the fine arts exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing expensive collectibles for the rich.”

    That seems to be the case, and your point about quality flying out the window is supported by countless examples — such as this one:

    This painting by 59-year-old Scotsman, Peter Doig, titled “the architect’s home in the ravine” sold for $12 million at an auction in England in 2013. It sold again in 2016 for $16 million. When I think of the word fraud, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind.

    Furthermore, the painting is described as “an epic masterpiece, infused with a magical atmosphere and executed with astounding technical virtuosity.” An art critic said of Doig: “Amid all the nonsense, impostors, rhetorical BS and sheer trash that pass for art in the 21st century, Doig is a jewel of genuine imagination, sincere work and humble creativity.”

    Really? Apparently, fraudulent prices are supported by fraudulent art critics. If this piece was surreptitiously placed alongside all the other uninspiring paintings priced in the $100-$500 range at today’s typical small-town “Art In The Park” exhibit, I sincerely doubt it would sell.

  74. I have an art degree from a prestigious 4 year university, so I came to talk a little bit about what happens at the type of institution that churns out those infamous abstract artists (as well as many competent illustrators, photographers, landscape or portrait artists, sculptors, etc.). The point will follow, I promise!

    The vast majority of art classes (in all media) follow a specific formula. There are assignments that teach specific technical skills, and the professor decides which skills to teach and in what order. There are usually also weird exercises, like gesture drawing or blind contour drawing, which are not even assignments, just weird practices (that teach very specific skills and yield tangible results). Each assignment is due on a specific day, and everyone brings in their assignment for a critique that day. Everyone displays their project, then the professor and all the students discuss how well each piece of art fits the assignment, what is great about the piece, and where it fails. The artist talks about their intentions, what may have gone wrong, their inspirations, etc. and they get real feedback to see whether other people picked up whatever messages the artist was putting down. The last assignment is a final project, basically the same thing except there is no “assignment” except to show that you have mastered the skills taught in the class. Every art student I know has cried (actually I don’t know if male artists do this, too, but I’m sure they suffer some male equivalent) after a critique at least once, but that’s rare, because serious art students take the critiquing as serious as the rest of the class, and each artwork has both merits and flaws discussed.

    Now multiply this process by all the art classes required to get an art degree, and remember, there are required courses for every art graduate. Everyone has to take Drawing 101 and Drawing 102, because even sculptors should be able to sketch their works in the beginning phase. Both classes are designed to teach how to draw actual physical objects. Color Theory is another important class, because it teaches about colors, and every artist should know how to work with colors even if they eventually decide to build their career on black and white. Similarly, several hours of art history classes are required, which include 101 and 102, which is usually a brief synopsis of every major period of art from the cave paintings in France all the way to New York a couple years ago.

    I will be the first to say elitism is ruining the art world, and if you took those art history classes you would learn that every major art movement that changed the world started out as a rebellion against the art world elites of that time (which is probably the real reason Duchamp hung a urinal in an art show, at some point he had to have taken Art History 101 and 102 as well).

    Anyway, my point is this: if you happen to run into a group that is discouraging the teaching of fundamental skills to people in the arts, or is trying to discourage criticism (even constructive criticism) of artists, you will not even get a mediocre abstract painter. You’ll get something much worse, and I doubt it would reach levels that could fairly be described as mediocre at all.

    That said, some people don’t paint for other people at all, they only paint to make themselves happy, and it might be cruel to critique the work of this type of person, however this person should know that to gain skills and please an audience of any kind, it takes great pain and great investment to achieve excellence, and they might find greater joy enriching the lives of others if they did decide to open themselves up to the world.

    Jessi Thompson

  75. High-priced artists these days may offer canvases or sculptures for sale, but such works are not intended as aesthetic pleasures. They are tokens which function like the stock certificates people keep in their safe deposit boxes.

    The real medium these artists work with is *exchange value.* And they are true masters at manipulating this. It takes a certain kind of genius to take worthless material and, through connections, publicity, and chutzpah, increase its exchange value by a zillion percent.

    It’s the kind of art our culture deserves, because they are doing what our culture respects: buying low and selling high.

  76. Just to add another angle here, Its not just a lack of skill or quality that I think plagues modern art in the western world, for me anyway, its a lack of meaning, or purpose, or soulfulness if you will. To take music for example, I see plenty of very skilled musicians around. What I often don’t see is a real sense of purpose or soulfulness in what they do, because of course they fail to engage in something that is not them. Its also I think in the way our culture refuses to acknowledge any specifically spiritual dimension to anything. Art becomes simply about ‘self expression’, without really truly acknowledging the ‘other worldlyness’ that comes with any great piece of art.

    I think for example of western architecture these days. These massive linear concert slabs that seem to dominate our modern urbanscapes. Buildings must be ‘practical’ (though these buildings often aren’t particle in the slightest) and look like spaceships or cargoships. the sense I always get with these buildings is that the people building them almost want to be ‘somewhere else’ anywhere but in the here and now and enaging with the world around them (yes I know thats the logical extension of the faustian dream of transcendence).

    Restoring a place for the explicitly religious/spiritual is essential in great art.

  77. This piece strongly reminded me of a hilarious yet tragic part in Adam Curtis “Bitter Lake” where a British art historian enthusiastically explains how daring and brilliant Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” was to a group of non plussed Afghan students.

  78. It’s my opinion that what passes as talent or quality in the arts (including singing, music, painting, acting, writing) is a byproduct of the industrial age and the huge expansion of the middle class with disposable income to spend on materialistic flotsam and the leisure time to define themselves as an artist, regardless of skill level. Another effect has been marketing forces subjecting the consumers with an endless stream of propaganda designed to reinforce the definitions of quality or merit, in support of their own gains.

    100 years ago most of us would not have had the time to be a “generalist renaissance” person, nor would we have had the money to support the, err, “products” of those trades. Today the BNP maximizes profits with an assembly line approach that would turn Henry Ford green with envy. There is no shortage of businesses designed around the “vanity publishing” model, with a goal of separating the student from their hard-earned cash.

    The luxury of defining our own reality will of course disappear further down the road of the Long Descent, as our motives and energies will become more focused on simply surviving. The artists who make a living in an environment with little surplus wealth to toss around will, in theory anyway, have to be well worth their salt in talent.

  79. Re political dinergy, in a parliamentary system: this is evinced by the oft-remarked theme, that it’s in some ways more convenient for a party to win an election with a moderate, rather than an overwhelming, majority. One side needs the other side to be reasonably strong, to have a contrary wind to lean against, as it were.

    Re abstract art: I seem to remember an episode of Boss Cat in which T.C. fixes brushes of paint to some tortoises who then crawl across a piece of canvas – his object being to sell the result. This ploy was presented dead-pan, it being such an obvious way of creating modern art that there was no need to accompany it with even the slightest archness of tone or twinkle of eye.

  80. Hi all,

    I’m a bit disconcerted that JMG’s contrast between skilled and unskilled has morphed, for some commenters, into professional vs. amateur. These are two totally different things. There’s very little money to be made in the modern UK jazz scene, so very few professionals (most of whom supplement their ‘jazz income’ with teaching and playing in function bands) but there are lots of players out there whose craft is astonishingly good.

    And in response to isabelcooper: the people around us need to be fed 3 times a day, give or take, and many of us home cooks can turn out daily or even celebratory meals that our ‘audience’ are exceedingly happy to eat. You don’t have to ‘order out’ to please your guests.



  81. @Shane W,
    I thought I’d share this with you. Years ago I was spinning my wheels in depression, which just feeds on and reinforces itself, when I came a book that suggested being grateful for all things, especially those with an apparently negative impact, making a point of thanking God or whomever for them. I gave it a try and lo and behold I became a much happier person, thinking of reasons for gratitude and defining myself as “lucky.” But then my poor mom, from whom I’d learned how to be depressed, was moping around one day, and I told her how I'(d learned to beat depression. She refuses to take anything I say seriously, but I went ahead and asked her what her toughest problem was and she said, “It’s that I’m such a judgmental person!” So I told her, “Okay, every day, then, say ‘Thank God I’m such a judgmental person! I’ve got two eyes…” But she did not like that one itty bitty bit.
    Several years back I noticed her church had a prominent sign up saying, “Judge not, lest thee be judged.” They were still getting along pretty well for a church in the modern age, being quite liberal to start with, but they’d picked up several misfits who for various good reasons did not wish to be judged. I assume that at some point they do actually find a way to judge them, just not call it “judgment.”

  82. Hi John,
    I see a link/similarity between the concept of “dinergy” and dialectics, but I cannot see their differences. Dialectics is the process of creative (and maybe inevitable) interaction of opposing phenomena (forces, ideas). In what way it is different than dinergy? (I ask it, because if there is no key differences, why defining a new concept?)
    — Bamdad

  83. Yes, and the gray and small writing makes ist difficult to find bibliographical informations! Since due to the industrial revolution, there was a much steeper rise (and fall) in energy per capita than in earlier civilizations, the cultural consequences of the industrial revolution would have been much more disruptive than the modest rise and fall of energy per capita of earlier, non-industrial civilizations, that might be the or a cause why the decline of traditional art and handicraft in Western civilizations went so much further than in other civilizazions, if I’m correct.

    By the way, was there in other civilizations something like contemporary, post-modern, abstract art with the accompanying pompous gobbledygook? I remember having read something stating that in late Antiquity Alexandria there was an art scene whoch tried to impress with gimmicks and shock effects in painting.

  84. HI JMG and Community,
    As many people have added in the comments, it seems to not only be a fear from failure but also a fear of hard work.

    For anyone learning a high art or any practice really, the proper way of mastering it involves gruelling practice. Memorising, physical activity, repetition, for years are required before you can even get to the basics of making your own art.

    To give an example, I have been learning two instruments in Indian classical music for most of my youth. Every day I do 2-3 hours practice (before and after work). The first 4 years on my string instrument all I did was scales to train my fingerwork. On the percussion I have learnt and memorised well hundreds of compositions that I am expected to play on stage spontaneously. I still learn compositions orally and only write them down as a reference, and am still not at the point where I can compose my own pieces after 9 years.

    I think that’s what pushes so many young artists to attempt ‘fusion’ music. Of course, there is good fusion music too. But when you’re scared of playing Raga Yaman in front of a musically literate audience, it’s easier to just call it ‘fusion’ and pass off any mistakes as the ‘aesthetic’. In doing so, you stop yourself from ever playing a beautifully expressive Yaman that will match the hundreds of recording and performances from masters that the audience might have heard. Being true to your art and accepting that you can fail to express the true beauty of the divine that is expressed through the raga, despite trying your hardest, is a daunting endeavour.

    However, for any genuine student of an art it should be a risk worth taking. It’s saddening that we have created a generation that can’t even face the chance of failure and therefore will never reach success, and in the process approaches the most meaningful parts of their lives with such dishonesty. How do we break out of this pattern?

    – YCS

  85. Hi, JMG et al. Wow–something I have some experience with, and some fun observations to share.

    I have come to realize that form is something that one needs to accept and to discover how to fit a vision with the form being presented. For example, I’m a playwright who prefers to write big cast shows and to create what one writer called “Big Cheap Theater.” (Cheap not in the sense of mediocrity, but in terms of expense. Creative ideas can work in a lot of different ways, and the theater of Charles Ludlam comes to mind as a purveyor of this grande, inexpensive vision.) But, things being what they are, theaters are reluctant to do shows that require the cast of thousands. I have rebelled against this, railed against, hated it… But after writing screenplays for a bit of time, which is a rather unforgiving form in many respects, I have come to appreciate the idea of accepting limitations and discovering how to work within them, where I can bend/break rules, and where I can discover a way to unleash my voice.

    In this sense, I require failure. That’s not an easy thing to say, but I’m a writer who seems to be enacting and practicing the idea of antifragility that N.Nicholas Taleb has talked about. It’s great to find resilience and all, but I really want something that makes me stronger and let’s face it–Saturn sorts of writers have an exactitude and an exquisite kind of purpose to them that inspires even as it daunts.

    One thing that I’ve done is to find plays I like or some plays that I don’t but have grudging respect for (like THE TEMPEST) and see how the form resonates with me. (My Tempest rehab is a quarterfinalist in a national competition, by the way, and I incorporated some ideas of Tamanous and V. DeLoria’s whole aspect of the land into the writing of this without even knowing I was doing it.) Part of my reason for doing that though is to discover the elements of craft and why I am attracted or repulsed by this or that work.

    While I am aware that it’s important to push artists to better their craft, and there have been times when I’ve undergone the most withering criticism of a failed piece of work, I have to observe that intention is important. Also maturity in the budding artist, which unfortunately involves sometimes being broken down without a breakthrough. I’ve been in that place at times with regard to works I’ve created, thinking I was stronger than I was, but also opening myself up to “critics” who had either an axe to grind or an ego to stroke. It helps to have some strong mentors who can help an artist discern the valuable insights into what’s not working craftwise vs. those “critic-asters” (like poetaster or dramataster or sculptasters) who are posing for their own closeup (“Mr. DeMille” in silencio).

    Peter Shaffer, who wrote AMADEUS and EQUUS and ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN (about Pisarro and Atahualpa) shared an anecdote about a famous theater director in avant-garde circles in the 1970s. This man liked to invite playwrights to his lair, get them to talk about what they were working on, then methodically and cruelly describe why such an idea and approach would not work–to entertain himself and his guests at the writer’s expense. Shaffer learned that lesson on his own, watching this C*** King flourish and flog the playwright’s germ of an idea. He was invited once again to the director’s place, and when asked “what are you working on?” he said “I’m resting.” It must have been fun to watch this man glower and stew that he didn’t get an opportunity to tear the future Pulitzer Prize winner to shreds. LOL

    FYI, for artists who are serious about learning craft and working with form in this “dinergetic” way, a wonderful book is had with Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” He’s got a whole series in this vein about how to move from mediocrity and forever being the Amateur, to turning Pro. And again, he urges people to embrace failure as part of the way forward. I am now more encouraged to try and “fail big” if I have to. If I get to learn about how craft is my a worthy adversary and sometime collaborator so much the better.

  86. @patricia,
    I worked w/a woman of the “nonjudgmental” type, a part of the “judgment police”. Her picker was broke and she was always involved in bad, if not abusive, relationships. I told her that if she judged the men she dated more, then she might not be in so many bad relationships.

  87. @ Bogatyr

    Re the “Eagles of the Ninth”

    Many thanks! I will see if my library has or can get them. And I, for one, have no issue reading well-written YA novels. (Finding well-written YA, novels, on the other hand, is more challenging…) Tamorah Pierce’s “Protector of the Small” quartet is a series I’ve read and reread many times as an adult.

    @ YCS

    Re your point about hard work

    I have always found it frustrating to slog through the long crap periods, particularly when one is comparing oneself to those who have mastered the craft. And then, of course, there are those gifted individuals who simply pick something up naturally, which only makes the whole thing worse. But slogging through is how normal people have to do it. I’ve been scribbling since I was a teen and only now, some thirty years later, is my stuff getting to be readable. I never mastered French, despite hours and hours in the language lab, but one of my high school friends was a natural polyglot and was fluent in multiple languages before he’d even started college. It is less the hard work and more the frustration of continuous failure that is dissuading, particularly when others can pick this or that up with ease. But in the real world (as opposed to a certain hefty, diatribe-laden novel we could mention) most people are not gifted in those ways. It is a matter of proper perspective, I suppose.

  88. @ YCS, JMG, et al.

    Re failure, hard work, and perspective

    Apologies, all. My comment above started an entire conversation among the various voices in my head (yes, I know) regarding these notions. I’ll use my own struggles with these concepts as an example, as I know them well.

    These are “historical” perspectives, as part of my path has turned out to be their alteration, which I’ll get to.

    Gifted people are superior in their skills. All other things being equal, the person who labored to achieve a result is less skilled than the person who did not. The notion of sprezzatura or effortless grace (as I recall from one of my lit classes) seems appropriate here. If I had to work hard to achieve, then I was already behind.

    As one example, I received my Ph.D. when I was 27, a relatively normal course for one going “straight through” (graduate high school at 18, four years for a bachelor’s, two years for a master’s, three years for a doctorate). What I had wanted to be was that kid who got his doctorate at fifteen or whatever and had multiple doctorates by 21. But alas, I was not gifted in that way and thus “condemned” to mediocrity.

    Of course, what I am learning now is that the point of it all is the Dance Itself and not the acquisition of knowledge, which means that all that time I was measuring myself against an erroneous standard and flogging myself quite inappropriately…

  89. Peter, I’m not in the least surprised. One of the galleries of modern stuff you go through at the museum connected to the Prestigious Local Art School is a gallery of modern design, and it’s the usual mix of sixth grade art class and the sort of glossy post-postmodernist industrial product that will look unbelievably dated six weeks after it goes out of production. Of course the furniture designs coming out of the PLAS would be ugly, uncomfortable, and fragile — that’s what they’re taught to consider good.

    Kurt, I think that’s an excellent point. “Personal growth” is an appropriate value for children and adolescents; after that, why, there’s this thing called “maturity,” which we have so little of these days.

    Diane, your description of experience makes sense to me — my difference from the norm is Aspergers syndrome rather than sexual orientation, but it’s certainly forced me to confront that which is not me over and over again. I’ve also had the experience of finding out that something I wanted to do is outside my reach, due to neurological issues — in my case, it was martial arts on the one hand and music on the other, and in both the dyspraxia that comes with my Aspergers syndrome puts hard limits on what I can ever expect to achieve. It’s a harsh lesson in limits, but productive in its own way.

    Will, good. Would it be fair to sum up one of your points by saying that practice is the process of failing constructively? As for the fear of failure in Faustian culture, no argument there — and it’s one of the great ironies of our age that from the perspective of the far future, the historical trajectory of Faustian culture will likely be regarded as one of our species’ supreme failures.

    Mac, you’re welcome and thank you. Yes, that’s another important aspect of it!

    Edgar, my illustrator acquaintance didn’t say, but I’d be surprised to learn that only one BNP these days uses that approach.

    Berserker, no, but I’ve read older works on the same subject. Traditional bardic training was pretty impressive stuff — the sort of training you have to have to preserve any classical tradition in the arts.

    Isabel, no question, Pagan poetry is to poetry as “The Eye of Argon” is to fantasy fiction.

    Bogatyr, now there’s a name worth recalling! I adored Sutcliff’s novels in my youth, and still enjoy them — especially her two brilliant adult novels, Sword at Sunset and The Mark of the Horse Lord. Your broader point is also valid; as I noted in an earlier post, there’s a huge difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, and the latter can only be imposed and maintained by force. Blake comes to mind: “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”

    JGregg, that makes sense to me!

    Yves, public failure can also be a bad teacher, since it very often gets mixed up with peer pressure and conformity. The kind of success and failure that strikes me as useful is the kind that involves measuring up to some objective reality.

    Shane, you’ve been here long enough to know that I don’t plan my posts in advance. We’ll just have to see all where this is going.

    Violet, that’s a very traditional way of thinking about that. Yes, you may take this as a compliment.

    Shane, dead on target. “Nonjudgmental” people in my experience are among the most judgmental people you’ll ever meet; they simply outsource their judgments to the collective consciousness of their subculture, and use their “nonjudgmental” stance to try to deflect anyone else’s judgment of them.

  90. I think I’ve teased out at least three strands that are entwining to give rise to this phenomenon. It was actually causing me some distress since I feel very differently towards one of them, so it’s been helpful to look at where the contradictions seem to come from.

    There is of course the phenomenon that Spengler pointed out happens when art no longer serves culture. When modernist art no longer promotes the culture’s vision the way cathedrals or classical music did, the only people who hold the artists accountable are monied patrons, most of whom don’t practice in the medium. I would say that the artists who can succeed in that milieu are in fact masters of at least one craft, namely self-promotion. The better ones have also mastered an artistic craft, but that is optional in ways self-promotion is not.

    Then there is the fact that failure is at least perceived to be very costly these days. A student can’t afford not to fail from time to time, but if the teacher can’t afford to have too many students fail – if the school’s funding or the teacher’s promotion are decided by the success or failure of the students – well, who is going to get their way? And that’s unfortunately far from the worst example. Protecting the public from one’s clumsy first tries is a great guiding principle, but someone’s got to critique them. There is a pervasive fear that those embarrassing early works could eventually cause the artisan serious harm. I think this is why my writing improved so much from frequenting anonymous image boards. The feedback was immediate and honest, but also ephemeral – it allowed me to develop a writer’s voice in a way I never could have had I been second guessing every potential future employer. But spaces like that are hard to find.

    Finally there is the current trend of doing first drafts out in the open. Speaking from my own experience, it is easy for an organized person to get an ‘A’ on a writing assignment in today’s academic setting; one must simply show the first, second and third drafts to the instructor or their assistant, and incorporate their feedback into subsequent iterations. Even at the collegiate level, the first priority is teaching basic skills of employability, so the instructor who would not reward a student for beating a deadline is rare. That really has been the norm for my generation and I think a source of much inter-generational tension. Examples of this trend abound. In the medium of computer games for example, the fashion now is to have customers pay extra to play the first draft of a game. This isn’t entirely a scam either – those early players have the most input over what sort of finished product they’d like to see.

    It’s this last thread that I have such mixed feelings about. I do believe that in the situation we’re facing, trying a whole lot of divergent approaches and noting what strikes a chord is more effective than spending the same resources going farther down a single path. After all, logically many of the paths available must lead to dead ends. On the other hand, your advice about keeping silent in the early stages of a project has been extremely timely for me personally… I suspect there is something between the interplay of fine control and sufficient energy that can resolve the tension. A good subject for further meditation I think.

  91. On fear of failing: I’m intimately familiar with this, and it’s insidious. I didn’t know I suffered from it until I had pretty thoroughly failed in a career I pursued without clarity and was poorly suited for, after putting a great deal of time and money on the line for it. Growing up, I was one of those “gifted” kids who was told I’d succeed at anything I wanted. Not so!

    If the situation had been just a little bit better, I might still be wasting my days doing no one any good and spending my nights self-medicating. Instead, I learned that I have a few things I’m very good at, and a lot of things I’m not; and it gave me the courage to just do what I want without making excuses or just doing what seems safe or sensible or admirable. And life’s gone remarkably well since then. It scares me to think of where I’d be now if the situation hadn’t been bad enough to let go.

    (More later, hopefully, on modernity, value judgments, postmodernism, and dinergy.)

  92. @Maxine Rogers

    I wonder if journalism degrees are often thought to be required these days to create a barrier to entry, because these days anyone can start a blog and become a journalist of sorts, but only those who can afford a masters degree for which there is not any student finance for other than a commercial loan, or to do unpaid internships can go on to be ‘real’ journalists…
    In the old days of course there were local newspapers worthy of the name that a young journalist could start out with.
    And the other profession you mention, how long is it, before formal qualifications become available in the subject?

  93. Many thanks for the post John

    As a spenglerian I am sure you are aware that you are describing the pass from a Culture to a Civilization, with the “death” of the creativity in metaphysics, philosophy, science and arts. As was the case of Rome after Greece in the Hellenic civilization, is happening now in the case of US vs Europe in the Faustian world, but not because the change of the geographical allocation of the power center of the civlization, or any intrinsic characteristics of the romans or americans, but because this is what happens in the decadence of a culture when Money triumphs over Blood (as Spengler liked to say)

    In Rome was absurd, for the brilliant people, to be a philosopher or an artist, it was the right time to be a general or a politic or a prestamist (banker). Pragmatism = look for money. Now it is the same.
    All the philosophical or artistic or mathematic or scientific schools in Rome were created by the greeks before, the romans only made minor re-elaboration and changes.

    The society is dominated by scores, ratings, targets, ratios, etc…so “what cannot be measured numericaly does not exist” or as my actual boss like to say “what cannot be measured, cannot be improved”.

    In our world a good artist is, by definition, one who earns a lot of money manufacturing “art products” ; a good scientist is one who publishes dozens of s**ttty papers normally with “fine tuned” data in many cases, and then have access to funds to continue producing s**tty papers helped by a cohort of students and new graduates that follow the “master” and learn how the science (and “life”) really works. Equally physicians have scores and targets to achieve, the teachers also (percentage of approved students), etc….So we have, as they say, “an objective system of evaluation of achievements and merits” that make society works much better than the old and clumsy subjective systems.

    It is the triumph of the abstraction, of rationality (ratio is merely a relationship between numbers), that afflicts all the societies when money dominates every aspect of life. The numbers, are considered, in fact, more real than the whole people.

    Other aspect of this is, as Toynbee calls it, the “etherealization” of societies, where the hands should not be stained never if you wants to have “success” in life. In fact the definition of “success” is the distance you maintain with the people that use their hands, because the immersion in abstract concept and numbers is what define the model of the winner in our decadent civilization.

    Michelangelo, with his hands, painted the entire Sixtine Chapel, stroke by stroke, as art historians have shown, painting 12 or 14 hours a day without rest, what a different with the modern BMP sweatshops!


  94. JMG,

    Yes, that’s a good way to put it! I’ve also had experience with knowing that there are things that I want to do that I will never be able to do to neurological issues: in my case it is any form of visual art. This includes anything from painting to calligraphy. Oddly, I seem to have some musical talent, which is getting better as I keep failing constructively 😉

    I also note another major irony with Faustian culture: we pride ourselves on being better at everything than the past, but we are so much more mediocre at almost everything you care to name….

  95. @Matt Staples: That’s sort of what I mean. My dad and his mom (and to a lesser extent–they both had/have the skills, but neither of them enjoyed/enjoy the process) occupy the “amateur but talented enough for an audience” area. I don’t–and I live alone, with a marked aversion to changing that for many reasons, so I don’t feel any pressing need to learn how. If guests visit *me*, we’re eating out, or ordering in–other things work for other people.

    Strikes me that there are several areas of potential success in any endeavor, and while there’s a rough linearity between “good enough to get by for yourself alone” and “good enough to set in front of other people,” it breaks down after that, because a lot of “success” depends on context. Singing familiar music in a choir or ceremony, for instance, often has different criteria than being the lead in a Broadway show; cooking a whole meal a particular sort of diner can and will enjoy is different from the skills needed at a restaurant; etc. (And the sort of success that involves making a living through a particular art form is a different matter entirely, a fair amount of which likely involves networking/self-promotion and possibly suiting the particular trends of the time.)

    Hierarchy, in general, may split at the top, like a pyramid that then turns into a star. Or tentacles.

  96. Dear JMG and all: I am enjoying this discussion very much, and I want to throw a spanner into it.

    I think one reason our artistic traditions are dying is that they are so often taught like cod liver oil is given, because they are ‘good for us’. Bleah.

    8 years of piano lessons is probably one of the most valuable parts of my education , but it did not make a concert-grade pianist out of me, although I was playing the repertoire with some competence. I just never had that ‘effortless grace’ that I could recognize in other players.

    Part of the reason for that, not all, but part, was that classical music was not played in my parents’ home, and much of the classical music I did hear lacked a certain something that is crucial.

    The crucial part is the joy of it, the chi or the nwyfre or the soul of it—which is virulently contagious to certain kinds of folks. Once a susceptible person catches it, the virus demands to be replicated, takes over, and makes a person into a music-replicator.

    In my adolescence the airwaves were saturated with really fine music made with just guitar and voice, enough to infect me thoroughly, and it inspired a kind of obsession to replicate that strain of the music-virus. So I pretty much taught myself the guitar, from chord books and listening to recordings, and kept at it as a serious ‘hobby’ for decades. That led to much deeper and richer involvements, and people seemed more interested in the results than in what I learned from the piano teacher or from art school.

    The crucial part of music cannot be captured by notation on a page. I was never exposed to the nwyfre of Bach, and from the notes on the page I could not grope my way into its soul. When, in middle-age, I heard a recording of Andras Schiff, I finally heard what I had been missing in Bach. Duh.
    The ensemble Arte del’ Arco has put life back into music like that of Vivaldi, by rediscovering the dancing joy of the gestures of bowing. I had always found Vivaldi insufferably trite, but these guys put the dance back into it, so that I can really hear and feel it.

    I think the most fundamental part of transmitting an artistic tradition is transmitting this soul or life-force which animates it; once that takes hold, the musician will be inspired and driven to do justice to it, to give it voice, to make the dream-vision come true. A little technical advice here and there can be really handy, but without the inspiration, it won’t produce much that anyone will sacrifice time and effort to preserve and transmit.

    The most fundamental service one can give to an art tradition is to enjoy it to the hilt and find your own way to transmit the joy of it.

  97. @David,
    as a gay man, sometimes I get “who are you to judge, aren’t you glad people are so ‘nonjudgmental’ of gay ppl?”, but that sidesteps the logic–society’s judgment of homosexuality has changed, what was once judged negatively is now judged either indifferently or positively, but judgment is still there, and now ppl judge negatively those who are not comfortable with LGBT people. Same thing for Civil Rights laws: where it was once acceptable to judge based on race, religion, etc, it now is no longer socially acceptable to do so, but it certainly does not mean the absence of judgment, just that the judgments have changed.

  98. Well, I hope your muse eventually leads back to “sobornost” vs “tamanous”, just as I’m still interested in the set of education posts that never got finished. 😉

  99. When I haul out my graphite and charcoal pencils to draw (for my own pleasure), if the art doesn’t come out right, I just erase it or start a new page in the sketchbook. I’ve never thought of this as failure, just as practice.

    The remark of BB about the lack of meaning underlying current art resonates with me after just having finished the book The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly. Her speculations about the true purpose of such places as Stonehenge, the statues on Rapa Nui, the Nazca lines in Peru as being memory spaces for the people who constructed them gave me an ‘aha’ moment. Music, dance and art were all vital in supporting the preservation of knowledge and culture in non-literate societies. My suspicion is that this goes back hundreds of thousands of years, becoming hardwired into us over the ages. Interesting to think we may have literally sang and danced our modern brains into being.

    However with the invention of writing as a way of preserving knowledge, the arts began to lose their vital purpose and gradually became just a means of entertainment. Now we have abstract art that’s ugly and conveys no real information, songs that often just repeat the same empty verse over and over and dancing that only serves the purpose of showing off toned bodies and skimpy costumes (think Dancing with the Stars). And we keep complaining about the ear worms we get, not realizing the deeper part of our brains are hungry for the kind of music that literally helped keep our ancestors alive through the Ice Age. If we are going to combat banality and revive beauty as well as quality in the arts, we need to restore their original purpose as much as we can.

  100. Sidney, that certainly fits my experience of writing!

    Steve, as I said, both sides are trying to spin this election as a win for them, and citing only those data that support that claim. Trump spent all his political capital keeping the Senate in GOP hands, and succeeded, meaning that he’s safe from removal from office, and can now tighten his grip on the executive and judicial branches of the Federal government — the immediate dismissal of Sessions as Attorney General is an important straw in the wind. That was the GOP’s win; you’ve outlined the Dems’ win. The result? A draw, and two years of stalemate that both parties will try to spin to their advantage.

    Jaymoses, the “everyone gets a prize” has been adopted by some parts of the Druid community and emphatically rejected by other parts. As usual with Druidry, dissensus rules!

    Monk, and that’s a good point.

    Martin, yes, Doczi’s book draws on D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson — good call. I think you may well be right about nature, too; I’ll need to mull that over.

    David, good. The difference is that dinergy works toward a greater harmony, where the Two Contending Forces always work toward disharmony and the dissolution of form.

    Ray, thanks for this. Very useful reflections…

    Emily07, it was normal, back when painting was passed on by apprenticeship, for apprentices to do a lot of work on the master’s paintings. The difference is that the apprentice was going to head out soon and start his own career — as far as I know, BNP’s assistants aren’t expected or encouraged to do that.

    Peter, thanks for this. Ryder’s definitely taken a major step back toward representational art, but I’d like to see more artists go the whole way!

    Nastarana, these things move in cycles. Give it another ten or twenty years and you’ll see a resurgence in good technique, driven by younger quilters who want better quality.

    Grey, that strikes me as a very good point.

    Shizen, if you aren’t learning anything from the discussion, why, I’m sure you can find something more interesting elsewhere on the internet.

    Maxine, fascinating. I’m not at all surprised, mind you.

    Scotlyn, thank you for this. I wish there were more such teachers.

    Mark, that may very well be a factor. Thank you for this!

    Gregg, glad to hear it. Go for it!

    Aged Spirit, many thanks for this.

    Cloven, of course there’s more going on. Since this is a blog post and not a 300-page book, I’ve focused on one aspect of the picture, knowing that there are many others.

    Apophatic, “synergy” in the corporate sense — yes, that would work as the opposite of dinergy. The goal in synergy is to have all the various forces working in more or less the same direction, which means no balance, and never the encounter with the other that makes dinergy possible.

    Christopher, good! And of course there’s always the class issue, just as there is in modern art — if you don’t like this (burger/painting) you must be one of those people, a lowbrow working class Trump voter blah blah blah.

    Ben, to my mind the best examples of the flight from dinergy in fantasy fiction are those novels that reassemble all the usual tropes in all the usual ways. Here you’ve got a dark lord utterly indistinguishable from every other dark lord since Tolkien’s time; here you’ve got the plucky teenage hero who alone can do something or other with the magic McGuffin that alone can save Upper Lower Southeast Central Earth; here you have the hero’s companions, each of which has his or her D&D character class tattooed on his or her rump, and so on through the whole dreary routine. It’s all solipsistically self-contained, and by and large fits all the other characteristics of bad art mentioned in the post.

    Paradoctor, no, you can make failure impossible, by the simple expedient of never trying anything at which you might fail. Of course that’s a failure on another plane!

  101. That’s why periodically going through economic Depressions is so useful: most people will not willingly subject themselves to the kind of stressors that lead to maturity. Those who survive the next Depression will be able to consider themselves adults, the children among us will not be so lucky–they’ll be the ones who die from suicide, substance abuse, etc.

  102. @Shane

    You said:
    “as a gay man, sometimes I get “who are you to judge, aren’t you glad people are so ‘nonjudgmental’ of gay ppl?”, but that sidesteps the logic–society’s judgment of homosexuality has changed, what was once judged negatively is now judged either indifferently or positively, but judgment is still there, and now ppl judge negatively those who are not comfortable with LGBT people.”

    I see gay people as being more accepted now overall, and am imagining it was caused by the “political correctness” you don’t agree with.
    I’m not sure absolutely sure this societal pressure caused more acceptance though (or if it is the only factor in the change) and would like to hear your views on what you think caused more acceptance (or are you saying the change is really only a superficial one?).

  103. Children saddled with the tag of “gifted” often end up with an extra-strong aversion to failure, and so fail to live up to expectation. They got by in school and received heaps of praise for work that bubbled out naturally from naive talent. From well-meaning teachers and parents, who always praise them for smarts or talent and never for their hard work, they learn to disdain craft, and effort… and get addicted to that empty praise.

    Eventually, these children hit a wall as they grow up. Somewhere along the line, they reach a point in their lives where raw smarts and naive talent just doesn’t cut it. Then what? Well, that first taste of failure is a bitter brew indeed. If our ‘gifted’ not-quite-a-child-anymore is lucky enough to have a wise mentor, they’ll be forced to drink it to the lees and learn from it… but more often, no such mentor is available, and our once oh-so-promising savant recoils from craft, and effort, and any possibility of failure. They call it the ‘curse of the gifted’, but it could just as easily be called a flight from failure. (In some fields, it means disappearing completely. In others I suppose it leads to meaningless abstraction.)

    I think, collectively, our culture is going through something similar.
    (For a collective example outside of art, look at our space programs: obsessively talking about going to Mars or the Moon while playacting on a low-risk, already-invented space station)

  104. “Shizen, if you aren’t learning anything from the discussion, why, I’m sure you can find something more interesting elsewhere on the internet. ”

    I don’t really spend much time online. My learning, or lack thereof, wasn’t mentioned in my comment? “much to do about nothing” was in relation to people getting all frothy over nothing. The examples I used was of abstract Christmas and thousands being spent on a crumpled piece of paper, or the example you used about the $$$ being spend on modern art.

    My original question was about given the myriad and endless examples of sheer nonsense and/or blatant cons, at what point does one move away from cataloging and noticing it, and using that as time spent elsewhere? Do you not find it draining? Perhaps cathartic? Was interest in hearing your thoughts. CHeers 🙂

  105. To your point that public failure can be a bad teacher because it gets mixed up with conformity and peer pressure. Yes.

    But that is exactly why learning to manage and grow from public failure as a child is so important. Separating the learning aspects of failure from the shame and pressure aspects Is one of the hardest parts and the most important part to learn young.

    Parents and peers have always been important for this. Most ‘traditional’ ways to practice and learn from failure cushion the pain by making failure a team affair (eg Friday night football) or by making the failure in front of a group that’s mostly sympathetic (eg the childhood music recital).

    Of course I agree that objective measure is essential. But unless you also learn to manage shame and resist conformity as a child, you will still fear failure as an adult, when the odds are higher and the support of peers and parents is likely scarce.

  106. i to remember the book the eagle of the ninth. i must have read about 45 years ago. it has always stayed with me. “where it that dou and i were free we should be forever free. but now, fates of death stand over us, 10,000 of them which mortal man can not escape or avoid. come let us go that we will yield honour to another, or he to us” i can not remember my phone number but i have remember this translated latin poem. it has really helped me live my life. long live the eagle of the ninth!

  107. “Therefore they should receive unconditional praise for their creative work, irrespective of its quality, …”
    As in the fashionable habit (just a little after I was in school) of giving every child a gold star or a ribbon merely for participation, regardless of outcome. The pedagogy of the day claimed it encourages participation.
    It does not: it does the exact opposite.
    If everyone gets something, then what’s the point of striving for better? What is the point of striving at all?
    I wonder if the adults of today are simply acting out adult versions of the childish behaviour that earned them worthless praise as childern? Perhaps that is one of the contributing factors to the childish culture that demands immediate gratification without regard for the effect on anyone else.
    What I mean is, if there are no positive consequences for effort, it follows there are no negative consequences for lack of effort, either.

  108. John—

    Re dinergy versus Taumiel

    Is the greater harmony a factor of intent or merely outcome? I could see, for example, in a healthy democracy how two opposing factions could produce a coherent national policy—much like the wind opposed by the blade of grass produces the graceful curve. But I’d argue that the two opposing factions each intend to have their own way, much like the wind intends to blow unhindered and the grass intends to remain unmoved, yet the outcome of the interaction is harmony and form. By the same token, in an unhealthy democracy, one might have two opposing factions, now as the Contending Forces of Taumiel, also with each intending to have its own way, yet producing disharmony and the destruction of form. So, I guess what I’m asking is: if the intentions of the factions/forces in each case are the same (to have their own way), why the difference in outcome? Why is one a productive dinergy and the other a destructive Qliphah?

  109. @Shane W, While I don’t disagree wth your basic premise that the occasional reversal is probably a good thing on some level, the fact that capitalism, as a system, needs this as part of its regular operating mode, is arguably highly problematic, since as you put no-one would intentionally create the necessary preconditions to nuke the economy.

  110. Shane, I expect to see the cryptocurrency industry crash and burn in a big way, and some big names in the tech sector follow it down. If the broader economy starts to suffer, my guess is they’ll cave and go for a bailout.

    Methylethyl, understood; still, you have to pay your bills.

    Greg, fair enough. Do people who haven’t studied your kind of art find it moving at all, or do they give you blank stares?

    Vincelamb, marching bands are underrated as performance art. In one of the fraternal lodges I belonged to, we did old-fashioned military-style marching drill, complete with swords at various positions; it’s a similar art, and has some interesting subtleties.

    Kfish, accordions have kind of a reputation, you know! As for art museums, exactly.

    Vincelamb, yes, exactly.

    Millicently, one of the things that makes the current situation with art so painful is exactly that so many artists put so much energy into producing these bland, vacuous collectibles. As for the esoteric side of abstraction, I see it as a mistake but an understandable one — a lot of avant-garde artists in the Theosophical era got into that, convinced that they could get people to experience nonphysical realities through abstraction. It didn’t work, though it was an interesting experiment.

    Prizm, I wish. My take is that what we’re seeing in modern art is the product of peer pressure and anxious conformity, under a veneer of faux iconoclasm.

    Rita, funny! I recall a story about Salvador Dali; he used to sign blank sheets of paper and then pass them out to the local forgers, just because he was Salvador Dali. I’ll have to look for The Stuffed Owl.

    Patricia M, funny. I like that.

    Kevin, thank you for this! That’s very encouraging.

  111. @Luna,
    what I meant was that people’s judgments changed, not that people became “nonjudgmental”, which is, again, not possible. IE: that acceptance of and appreciation of gay people went from a “negative” to “positive” judgment while homophobia and ostracism of gay people went from a “positive” to “negative” judgment

  112. Really, JMG, you don’t think Trump, of all people, would balk @ a bailout to protect the “economy”? Wouldn’t the GOP, most of all, let blue Silicon Valley fail?

  113. @Triong,
    one of the basic premises of modern society is that no one should ever suffer, and that suffering is unnecessary. Yet that doesn’t take into account just how nasty people collectively become when they don’t suffer. The decline in society since the last Depression is proof enough of that.

  114. Thank you for the rather gnomic compliment, JMG! It took me a little while to parse it out, am I correct in understanding in it you imply that the traditional way of looking at the Muses, Mysticism and art seems to be correct?

    My last comment was rather theoretical, now I wish to offer one a bit more anecdotal: for the past few weeks I’ve been involved with a community theatre production of a musical. Doing so I’ve been impressed with the quality of the performers, the old school nature of the script, and the fact that more than half of the eleven shows were sold out. That and with the fact that in my neck of the woods community theaters are spaced about every 6 miles, many of which also had shows in the same time slot.

    What’s more all of the actors and pretty much everyone else participated in the process for free. For the first time in quite awhile I had some guarded optimism that some of the Faustian theatrical tradition might make it through the ongoing bottleneck of cultural survival. If there is such a supply of serious amateur enthusiasts, well, anything is possible. I can now much more easily imagine that in one thousand years the Presden of Meriga may be reclining to enjoy the outdoor, and moonlit, production of the newly translated A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  115. @Dusk Shine: I agree with you about “gifted” children and the brick walls they often hit the instant they are truly challenged. I’ve seen it happen many times. Some people are just innately better suited to the kinds of tasks privileged by our school system. I was one of those kids; fortunately my parents were strong believers in the formative powers of purposeful hard work, so I got plenty of out-of-school experiences which kept me the right size for my britches. I was in grad school before I hit an academic assignment which I really just didn’t grasp. My first attempt at the task was objectively not good. Very fortunately, I had a professor who, while encouraging, insisted that I needed to get this task right, and gave me an incomplete in the class until I could do it. I spent the entire summer quarter grinding on the same assignment, and was more pleased by her eventual passing grade on my successful effort than by any of the academic accolades I’d ‘earned’ without really breaking a sweat earlier in my school career.

    Now I’m homeschooling my own kids. Both are pretty sharp, if I do say so, but my son in particular would be labeled ‘gifted’ if he were in a public school classroom. One reason I insist that he take, and faithfully practice, piano lessons is that he has to work at them. He has to drill and memorize and pick pieces apart and then put them back together and polish them. He has to face the discomfort of stinking at something, every time he begins a new piece. He has to experience backsliding, when some days bits that he knew yesterday seem to have flown out the window. And he gets to regularly experience that high of actually mastering something through hard work, rather than innate talent. And while he doesn’t always enjoy these discomforts, he does connect with the music. I hope the process will be valuable to him too.

    –Heather in CA

  116. Hi John,
    The people who haven’t studied my version of “abstract art” aka combinatorics have found it intriguing.

    Friends who know I’m seriously into math asked me what I’m doing. I explained that I’m playing a game: Take a positive number, like 5, and list the ways you can add other positive numbers to make 5. The number 5 itself is one way and so is 1+1+1+1+1. In between you have sums like 3+2, 4+1+1 and so forth. You can play a version of the game where the order of the numbers matter, so that 3+2 and 2+3 count separately. In that case, the sums are called “compositions.”

    Then I tell them that there are a lot of beautiful patterns that result from the way you carve up these compositions. The game is like a blank canvas on which you select the various patterns you wish to draw upon it. For example, there are beautiful formulas (and proofs) that allow you to quickly find the number of compositions of 20 with at least one instance of 6 in or the number of compositions with exactly three 3’s.

    Those who have studied combinatorics seem to find many of the results aesthetically pleasing, including the professor I’m working with at present. Consider this analogy: To fully appreciate Greek poetry of the Illiad and the Odyssey, you need to know ancient Greek. You can get some appreciation from a good and sensitive translation. What might serve as a “translation” for those who don’t know much about a particular branch of mathematics? Visual representations can be one answer. You’ve probably seen visual representations of the Mandelbroit set. If you found them to be moving in some way, then perhaps they deserve to be regarded as genuine visual abstract art.

    One benefit I’ve gained from a love for math for its own sake is that I see its tentative relationship to the real world. (And nowhere is the relationship more precarious than in matters of wealth and the economy.) Numbers have their own realm of truth and beauty, and people who misuse them in the physical world to deceive are committing a kind of sacrilege. And by appreciating numbers for what they are, I’ve better appreciated what they are not. They do not capture the redness of red or the youness of you…and they don’t have to.

  117. “Think of a grass blade bending in the wind”

    Force of wind -> resistance of blade -> graceful curve. A physical manifestation of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis.

    On the other hand, and maybe I am pushing the analogy too far, think of a flag flapping in the wind.

    Force of wind -> resistance of flag -> force of wind -> resistance of flag -> ….

    There is no graceful curve or synthesis. Only a dynamic pattern or repetitive situation. Possibly more applicable to human affairs.

  118. @Luna,
    my guess as to the acceptance, as the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, have collapsed in the US, so to has the sexual prudery that is part-and-parcel of Abrahamic morality. Most recently, that has been caused by the ongoing collapse of Victorian sexual mores.

  119. Greg Simay, that sounds very interesting! What you’re describing reminds me strongly of the ‘Glass Bead Game’. If you’ve never read the novel, I would describe it as a vision of the future where academics spent most of their time synthesizing knowledge instead of publishing ever more specialized leaflets as they did in Hesse’s (and our) time. The titular game involved the sort of representations you mentioned.

    I’d be interested to see what you’ve been doing if you’d care to share it here! I’ve recently developed an interest in angular representations of finite sets, it would be neat to see what other people are up to!

  120. Shane,
    I agree. Two (half-remembered) quotes come to mind. Jung: “All neurosis is caused by the avoidance of legitimate suffering.” Forget the author: “We have to suffer ourselves into existence.” With regard to that last quote, just think of the suffering involved in mastering a difficult craft, particularly if you’re always trying to take your mastery to the next level.

  121. I recognized immediately the relationship between your dinergy and the golden mean or golden ratio. Neat!

  122. Well, since you brought up politics and the elections again, I recall that in the comments to your post right after the election, you seemed to dismiss the results of this election by pointing out that slightly less than half (about 47% according to Real Clear Politics) the electorate voted. I think it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a mid-term election turnout that high since 1970. Also, I am not so quick to dismiss the gains made by the Democrats in the House of Representatives on account of the intense Republican gerrymandering of House districts in so many states.

    Things didn’t really change very much in Wisconsin, thanks in part to the same kind of gerrymandering on the state level but also because the political disposition of the population is about the same as it was in 2010. The only reason Scott Walker lost the governorship is because he gave a Chinese company known as Foxconn an awful lot of money to open a plant here that will provide rather fewer new jobs here than it was originally supposed to provide. Without that rookie mistake that Walker clearly made with his political career in mind, he would still be governor, there’s no doubt in my mind.

    Going back to the national level, I remain unenthusiastic about the Democrats as industrial collapse proceeds slowly but still apace, but the armchair sociologist in me is glad to see the swing to right in recent years somewhat checked by the coming of age of the Millennial Generation. (The Democrats can pretty much thank Millennials for their gains this election, which I’m pretty sure means the Democrats will waste little precious little time turning around and kicking the Millennials squarely in the teeth!)

  123. Mr. Greer and all,

    I hardly know what I may add to this excellent and ongoing conversation, since many of the thoughts that came to mind while reading the post have already been touched on by other commentators. Here are a few more that I haven’t seen yet:

    As for the necessity of good poetry (and good art in general) for religious experiences, I couldn’t agree more; I recommend Calvert Watkins’ book “How to Kill a Dragon” as a guide to the religious aspect of poetry (especially the attitudes of the composers of the Vedic hymns to their art), followed by M. L. West’s “Indo-European Poetry & Myth”.

    I might add that the same tendencies you note in bad poetry seem to be true of ritual as well; the same strains of Paganism that tend to produce execrable poetry and music also tend towards treating ritual as some kind of group therapy. In these rituals, there is little room for the Not You that one would assume is the actual aim of religious practice.

    I think these are connected; as both a poet and ritual specialist in the religious tradition I belong to, I treat any ritual as a work of art composed of other works of art – including my poetry – that is emphatically aimed at something beyond myself and the people gathered.

    Here’s where doubt creeps in: the rituals seem to be well-received, and my poetry receives complements, but my poetry is obscure. I compose mainly in archaic languages in a style that hasn’t been used since the middle ages, meaning that clumsy verses could easily be hidden from those unfamiliar with the style. I have no teachers to criticize me other than my own conscience and comparisons with the extant poetry in those old languages. I’m more-or-less flying blind, here.

    I feel like there is a difference between what I’m doing and intentional avant-garde obscurantism, but it probably looks the same from outside. Some of the difference might be in that the style I compose in has hard-and-fast rules that cannot be deviated from. The professor I learned from (we were learning the poetic structure of Beowulf while translating it) mentioned that the nature of both Germanic poetry and visual arts seemed to be in finding opportunity for creativity within the constraints of the form. I think this is a pretty good statement of dinergy in art.

  124. OT, but can someone tell me why Trump doesn’t just have the military escort the caravan to Roxham Rd on the US/Canada border the same way Poland and other Eastern European countries do?

  125. From Hilary Clinton’s interview with The Guardian:

    “The whole American system was designed so that you would eliminate the threat from a strong, authoritarian king or other leader and maybe people are just tired of it. They don’t want that much responsibility and freedom. They want to be told what to do and where to go and how to live … and only given one version of reality.”

    I find this almost as offensive as being dismissed as “a Deplorable”. I don’t find freedom and responsibility to be nearly the burden that I imagine oppression to be.

  126. Archdruid,

    So is the fear of success also a symptom of this culture? People are afraid of the back lash from their peers if they actually succeed at something?



  127. Escher, Dusk Shine, Heather in Ca and others thinking about “giftedness” Yes, I totally identify with this sense of being trapped in the “essentiality” of my early “gifted” diagnosis. That is to say, in my family, I was the “smart” one, my sister was the “beautiful” one (which among other things, resulted in her never thinking “smart” was within her reach, and I never thinking “beauty” was within mine). In school, my “A’s” never seemed to require any particular effort, while my sister’s B’s were hard-won. It took me until my late 30’s before I realised that I needed to introduce some discipline and effort into my life if I wanted to derive personal satisfaction from it. There really is no personal satisfaction available from being congratulated for being what you are (through no power of your own). I am still the classical “underachiever” (and I like it), but have acquired a few habits of discipline that I had to win for myself over the past 30 years, and which, now and again, give personal satisfaction.

    My own sons also, received early diagnoses (or judgments, in Shane’s terms) from their schools that they were gifted, and so I sought to show them the way out of the trap that I had discovered hidden in this seeming description of their essence (which lies outside our power to alter or change), by responding to their accomplishments, and encouraging their grapplings with various challenges. It was for this reason I particularly appreciated the older son’s teacher, described above, who skillfully drew from him more effort than all his academic courses combined. That is the kind of thing which gives a *personal* satisfaction that you can never get from any amount of being praised for what you ARE.

  128. Bogatyr,

    Re: Societal value structures which allow people to deal with being told that they aren’t special –

    What is Russia doing to reestablish these structures?


  129. Heather in CA, I was also a gifted kid in school, and my parents made me take piano for exactly the same reason – because I needed to be bad at something and learn to be better through sheer practice.

  130. Hello JMG

    “…they should receive unconditional praise for their creative work, irrespective of its quality…”

    Would you say that this is the fundamental premise of Postmodernism? Or at least, that this is what happens when Postmodernism is applied in the real world?


  131. “and it’s one of the great ironies of our age that from the perspective of the far future, the historical trajectory of Faustian culture will likely be regarded as one of our species’ supreme failures.”

    I’d be amazed if Faustian humanity was even remembered in the far future….

  132. So an important question is why there is this “flight from failure”. Possibly, too many people too much in debt (as suggested) in a world with finite resources meaning that competition for resources is fierce and risk taking is too dangerous (lest one lose resource access altogether)? Or some other reason? Can JMG take a stab at that question?

  133. Thirty-five years ago, I earned my bachelor’s degree in art education. I never did anything with it for various reasons, including my lack of drawing skill. This was mainly due to my indifference to practicing. I took the art history classes and had a skilled drawing instructors who had real careers as commercial artists drawing department store adverts.

    I’ve thought about the decline of visual art ever since.

    I think that one of the plagues affecting the visual arts was the development of photography. Once your grandmother could take an accurate picture of a relative (portraiture), a vase of flowers (still-life), or a mountain meadow (landscape), then why should you, the artist, spend thousands of hours practicing your drafting skills?
    All the visual arts, including sculpture, are still struggling with this development, just as we’re still, as a culture, working out the ramifications of the industrial revolution.

    Photography also killed a lot of ‘commercial art’ since the local newspaper or department store or magazine no longer needed a staff of artists to draw the new spring line. One photographer and a few models could photograph a collection in a day; something that would take several artists weeks to draw by hand. Another skilled job gone, so schools don’t necessarily need to teach new artists this kind of technical craftsmanship.

    Teresa from Hershey

  134. @Shane,
    I think you may have something there. People who have never suffered have a hard time empathizing with those suffering. My husband calls it “the rich girl syndrome.”
    Aside from a few isolated events during the last 140 years, America has not experienced war on its own soil. (My father directly witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack at 14. It was terrifying, but Japan was attacking only military facilities.) I am ashamed to admit that at one point I thought that if we bombed Afghanistan, at least we would help all those poor women we kept hearing about. A friend quickly set me straight on that, but I’m obviously not the only one. How many resource-rich countries has America attacked for “humanitarian” purposes? You even see people circulating petitions calling for that sort of thing. In this way, the left is very easily deceived and manipulated.
    Also, people who have never suffered don’t know how they will cope if forced to. Rather than try to learn resilience, they tend to evade the issue. I think traditions that require young people to undertake some form of difficulty or suffering are very important, cultivating confidence. Deliberate austerities, such as religions offer, can help an adult who has missed out on that..

  135. @Martin Back,
    I think that is a beautiful analogy! Even the lovely ripples you see in clouds when there are strong winds aloft are caused by that kind of alternating resistance. Interesting to think of the same thing applied to human affairs. I’ve considered “humanity” collectively as a “dragon,” i.e., the spiritual representation of a natural force shaping the world along with all the rest. Perhaps I can learn to see beauty in it in addition to real fear.

  136. Just two points.

    Firstly, I have spoken to many people over the years who are involved in the modern art and Jazz scenes. Some of the more awakened folk in that field do have the thought in the back of their heads and occasionally mention it – “Is this art really art or just something my 6 year old could have made?”. Some are aware of it but it is rarely mentioned.

    Secondly with dinergy, it is funny that as we managed to use more energy we could over come (bludgeon) nature into our will; that is when we started to make everything into 90 degree angles and boxes. You can always tell when people have touched a land because you see straigh lines nd boxes. Almost like we have such a nervous complex to prove that we are “beyond nature” that we try to scrub away every sign of it even in design.

  137. @Shane W re: suffering

    I don’t think there is any lack of suffering in modern society (at least in the lower classes), but it is a most unhelpful type. The old-fashioned suffering that has been eliminated from most people’s lives is that wrought by coming face to face with a formidable force: an enemy in battle, a drought-induced famine, a pandemic, a natural disaster. This type of suffering – where there is a clear impersonal destructive force at work – tends to bring out the best in people and bring communities together. Just witness the local and nationwide outpouring of support in the wake of the ongoing California wildfires.

    There is no shortage of suffering in the US, but as much of it cannot be attributed to a specific actor we are socialized to view it as something of a shameful personal failing, whether it is a chronic illness, a lack of satisfying career opportunities, financial or food insecurity, loneliness or grief. When we get together with family at Thanksgiving, we tell everyone that we are just fine thank you, though many of us are suffering to some degree.

  138. This essay reminds me of the only artistic critical touchstone I’ve needed over the years:

    “There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium.”

    —Raymond Chandler, Playback, 1958.

  139. I can’t speak much to the visual arts, but I wonder if you’re familiar with the West African equivalent of a bard, the Griot. A Griot is traditionally a historian, poet, musician and storyteller all rolled into one. They are descended from a family which has a long tradition of acting in this role in their societies. They train rigorously for years to learn the traditional songs and stories, and in many cases learn instrument building as well. By the time they have reached adulthood they have mastered a library of pieces and can perform with great skill and inspiration. These days many Griots tend more towards being performers, somewhat foregoing their role as historians, but the years of training in their craft are still very present. (An example of this in modern times would be Toumani Diabate, a kora player from Mali who comes from a very long line of musicians. His skill can only be appreciated by listening to his live performances). I figure there must be an aspect of initiation in these Griot families, in which a very real power is passed on from one generation to the next. I think in the west where we are lacking in this sort of tradition, we in most cases lack the opportunities to develop the level of craft which is more accessible in a society which has preserved it. Most people I know are not descended from a line of 70 generations of musicians, like Toumani Diabate!

    Your essay got me thinking of my own creative journey as a drummer. I have never really considered myself as a musician; for me, drumming slowly evolved into something of a mystical path. When I first started playing, I was pretty bad and struggled just to keep a steady rhythm. I also met face-first with mountains of self-doubt and fear of failure, which only compounded when I went to West Africa a couple of times to study, as the level of skill there is astounding. Despite that, it was somehow simultaneously fun and compelling, so I kept at it. Gradually I got drawn into the world of performance, though still not being all that good. Before each performance I felt like I was going to forget how to play, or somehow lose my sense of rhythm. I remember the sheer terror I felt the first time I led a group on stage, or played the solos for a dance class. There was definitely the risk of some glaringly obvious, very public failure! I had to learn to ignore the stage fright and self-doubt and just try anyway. My approach to dealing with that risk evolved into ‘leap and the net will appear’. As you pointed out, if you don’t take the risk, you’re safe – you can’t get hurt. You can’t fail, but you can’t succeed either. I had to learn how to get myself out of the way and trust that by doing so, there would be an inflow of that ‘something else’ which would inform (and improve!) my playing, as there did often seem to be. Holding on to the lower self’s inner criticism, self-doubt and the fear of failure is precisely the thing that blocks this process. These days, the best performances are when I feel that it’s barely me that’s playing, or that there’s a different aspect of myself that has come into being – something else that feels like it’s drumming though me.

    I suppose different people have different motivations for their various creative works. I tend to think many people involved in any kind of a scene are mainly seeking social status, a sense of belonging to something or rebelling from something, or a self-image. Not to judge this, since we are definitely social creatures and having a place in a social hierarchy helps to form a sense of self. But there can be other motivations, and I do think that there are many artists who are on a mystical path in that they are informed by something which goes beyond than their own sense of self or identity. If one can learn to trust in their relationship with the gods or the divine presence, that connection to the divine will pour forth and spill over, which is what becomes the inspiration for creative works. The difficulty lies in the fact that in seeking to develop our relationship with something beyond ourselves, we must come face to face with our own shortcomings – all the things we don’t like about ourselves that we’ve tried to hide away in mediocrity, in not-doing, in not-being. Some people may choose to avoid the risk of failure and settle for a different approach to their creative work, with one result being the kind of non-representational abstract art you described. For me, the beauty of, perhaps even the whole purpose of a creative path, despite the inherent risk of failure, is that it allows all my inner doubts to be brought to my awareness and put publicly on the line, where I can then choose what to do with them. I think at some point, we must face ourselves and our fears and ultimately choose not to let them define our actions, so we can allow that something which is not ourselves to come forth and manifest through our creative works on earth.

  140. One of my nephews has the exact job described by the illustrator you spoke to. He lives in New York City, works in the studio of a Big Name Artist, and executes his share of the manual craft work to create the artist’s pieces. The only differences are, this artist is a sculptor known for installation art rather than a painter, and therefore much of the craft work (which my nephew excels at) is of a technical nature, including electronic control systems, small-scale structural engineering, and the typography of the affiliated printed materials for exhibitions (“zines,” books, catalogs). The printed items, sold for a few tens or hundreds of dollars apiece, I suspect account for a significant share of the studio’s income, and hence fit your description of “collectibles” even more literally than you intended. This kind of stuff.

    Meanwhile, my wife and I can spend a few hours scouring a community craft fair to find, sometimes, one truly worthwhile item that, maybe once every year or two, we actually purchase. (Usually the pearl in the oyster turns out to be a piece of jewelry when we’re looking for a painting, or a serving dish when we’re looking for a piece of jewelry, and so forth). Failure remains close at hand in that milieu, and the applicable Law is not Gresham’s but Sturgeon’s. Indeed, your thesis here suggests reading Sturgeon’s Law as prescriptive rather than just descriptive. That transcendent Sun Buddha carving exists not despite but because of nine others that are trite, formulaic, etc.

    All that said, this essay didn’t go where I expected it to. Right about where you turned to politics, I was all ready for a turn to spiritual matters instead. It’s not hard to find examples of an analogous flight from failure, in forms of watered-down or over-abstracted spirituality and religion that obviate the possibility of failure by not really engaging with entities other than ourselves. One simple obvious example, a deity whose entire nature is “the love in your heart” or “your guardian angel” or “the oneness of everything” could hardly be expected to differ with you or urge you to reconsider your choices, unlike an actual divine being who is not (some reflection of) you, who might have expectations, likes and dislikes. Who might even be, to pick up a very useful motif from this comment thread, judgmental.

    What sorts of dinergy might be lacking in people’s lives or in our world as a result, and how deep might the consequences of that lack run? That’s something to meditate on. (Along with: what, in that hypothetical extended metaphor between failure-proof art and failure-proof spirituality, corresponds to the high-priced collectibles the BNA’s studios are putting out?)

  141. I’m not an artist, but I can relate to this mindset way too much. I don’t even want to think about how many hours, days, weeks, months, and years I’ve wasted procrastinating because I was too anxious to do something. Can’t fail if you never try in the first place, right? And I realize how self-destructive it is, and I’m just slowly starting to pull myself out of that mindset, but it’s hard to break the habit, so to speak. It’s an especially vicious cycle because when you haven’t been doing anything, you become acutely aware that you’ll be starting from zero, that you’ll be competing with a lot less experience than all the other people of your age and class and education level. Hell, I’m still terrified of the idea of starting a blog, because I know I’d be bound to get some things wrong, or display ignorance of things that someone with my education shouldn’t be ignorant of, or take stances that I’d be ashamed of in a decade from now. And I just wonder, how can people expose themselves like that? How do you submit yourself to the absolute judgment of the world? I shy from both intense cold and bright light, and that’s what judgment feels like to me, a cold light that penetrates all the way to the core of your soul.

    You talk a lot about how Faustian culture makes people too complacent and comfortable, how it doesn’t have any real consequences, and in a purely material sense that’s very true, there aren’t a lot of people in the modern U.S. who have to worry about starving to death because of any bad decisions they make. And obviously that’s a vastly more serious concern than something as trivial as embarrassment or reputation. But there’s still a sense in which Faustian culture is quite harsh and unforgiving, perhaps uniquely so: socially speaking, it doesn’t tolerate mistakes, it doesn’t tolerate failure, it doesn’t tolerate deviations from the norm unless they can be justified with extreme rigor. If you can stand out from the crowd and prove that you were right all along, the rewards are great, but only one in a thousand can accomplish that. Better to stay in line, keep your head down, and say nothing than risk being wrong and wind up condemned for it. As the old Apollonian philosophers used to say, there are many ways to be mistaken, but only one way to be correct. But Apollonian philosophy was more about the journey than the destination, it encouraged one to strive for Truth even knowing it was unreachable. Even Magian philosophy, which both condemned the shortcomings of men and considered them inevitable, offered salvation through divine providence. Faustian culture seems reluctant to offer either of those ways out.

  142. Since photography was mentioned, I would like to add that it has its own curious limits: You can only photograph what exists in the real world; a limit which doesn’t exist with music, literature or representational art. The history of photography is rather short; despite this, a part of photography has already drifted into post-modern, non-representational, abstract art, which is an interesting fact, since the cause of this change cannot be the difficulty to photograph real scenes.

    There are two interesting aspects of photography: that is in principle quite easy to do, except maybe for composing the scene, and that it is an rather technical craft, especially with digital cameras.

    And a third observation about photography: in the last few years, there has been a tendency by digital camera manufacturers to neglect the lower-end cameras, especially appropriate fixed focal length lenses, and concentrate on full-frame cameras (with a 24 x 36 mm sensor size), which are quite expensive. That may be an attempt to push the market toward higher-priced cameras.

  143. I agree with every word you have written here. There are two issues, the first being non-attention to craft, which is really about not having the discipline and internal power to struggle for long periods of time (at least 10,000 hours some say) to master your art. The other is the collective narcissism of our culture, which filters down so easily to the individual level. It reminds me of a saying I once read, whose author I cannot recall: “In order to truly see, you have to remove yourself from the center of the picture.” I would add that in order to truly create, you have to truly see.

  144. @JMG,
    by the same token as “nonjudgmental” people, if you find someone who says, “I think people are basically good,” or some such, back away slowly, as you are probably dealing w/a very dark soul, indeed…

  145. Highly interesting piece JMG. Calls to (my) mind some readings and discussions from the 1970s and 80s … and still worth discussing. Back then, I made some personal observations in the form of notes (introuvables aujourd’hui) which I’ll try to summarize here. Abstraction, in art, essentially means abstracting the subject – we used the term ‘reification’ then. Reversing the subject-object relation rigs the game as the ‘creative’ abstractor can deal itself all the aces. It is then free to impose upon upon a gullible public whatever pseudo-social-political-psycho-philosophical gibberish it chooses. The narcissistic ‘creator,’ with its ego bloated by the disappearance of any real subject (ie now a mere pretext), thus occupies not only the entire subjective role but the objective role too, insofar as it is seen by the culture-starved masses. There’s much more to say but I’ll end with this thought: Perhaps this has something to do with why Jean Baudrillard called Andy Warhol “A mutant.”

  146. Ryan, thank you! That’s very encouraging to hear.

    Chris, dear gods. What an effective way to guarantee that employers just stop hiring people under a certain age!

    B3rndhard, hmm! That analysis makes a good deal of sense.

    Yoyo, exactly. An ordinarily enterprising sixth-grader could make that — though I’d be surprised to see a sixth grader doing anything as clumsy as the cartoonish trees on the lower left. On the other hand, if the color palette were toned down a bit, it would make fairly good wallpaper for a department store restroom or something.

    Jessi, thanks for this. The thing I get from your description is that art school as currently taught is brilliantly designed to eradicate every last trace of independent creative vision from its inmates. Subjecting every artwork to public peer review by fellow students all but guarantees that the relentless peer pressure will force students either to quit or to submit to the consensus view. No wonder the people who come out of this process churn out works that are so obviously fearful of contradicting the conventional wisdom of the art world!

    Eric, true enough. I just hope that somebody or other gets around to making art again…

    BB, that’s an important point, and it’s one of the things I meant to address by talking about how real art is about something that is not you.

    Conrad, thanks for this! I’ll have to read that.

    Drhooves, that’s also relevant, of course. In most societies, a great deal of creative talent gets applied to folk arts and crafts, and of course most of those have been replaced by manufactured product (often with a veneer of faux folksiness, these days).

    Robert, two good points!

    Bamdadi, I wondered if anyone would ask that. The difference, of course, is that the theory of dialectic normally portrays the two sides as more or less equal, so that the result is a creative fusion of the two. Dinergy, by contrast, works with two forces that are unequal, so that the weaker offers resistance to the other, and the process by which force relates to resistance produces the dinergy.

    Booklover, very much so. Are you at all familiar with Egyptian art of the 18th dynasty, culminating in the time of Akhenaten?
    That was the pop-art of the Egyptian great culture. We don’t have a lot of pompous gobbledygook from the Amarna period, as so much was destroyed during the reaction under Horemheb and the pharaohs who followed him, but I’m willing to bet it was there.

  147. Further notes: Abstract art is not really my thing, but it was my parents’ for a while in the seventies (or they got given a bunch and kept it for sentimental reasons), so there were always a few pieces in the house when I was growing up. The ones I actually like (and the ones they kept, because they have good taste IMO), are abstracted *but* you can see what the subject really was, and they do really neat things with color and shape: there’s a picture of a city done in weird blocky forms with neat colors, and a “deconstructed moose” with red and green tones that I’ve always been fond of.

    In both cases, I at least get a sense of what the artist was going for, and there was a standard to measure his (I think) success against. And I think that’s a really important thing in art–the other end of the stick is that you should measure success against what the art is trying to do, I say with a hard look at college creative writing classes who mark down any work of fantasy or sf–and quite possibly in personal/political/professional life as well. There are an awful lot of ways to succeed, it’s just that each and every one of them comes with its own way to fail.

    (Which is tying into some meditations I’ve been doing on Tarot, actually, or maybe I’ve eaten too many holiday cookies.)

    @Shane W: Or an all-day sucker, yeah. I have a friend who genuinely believes in universal forgiveness and tries to love all God’s children*, and I think he’s a really good person at heart–but dear Lord is he misguided,I think, and dear Lord have people taken advantage of that tendency. In particular, any girl who sniffles a bit and says that she’s rilly rilly sorry but she couldn’t help it she has proooooblems can play that sort of straight guy like a two-dollar harmonica. (Oh, paladin boys. So cute. So hopeless.)

    Me, I think most people are basically decent in most situations, but the exceptions in either direction are Amazingly Bad News, and one should be prepared for that.

    * He’s Christian. I sometimes get snarky with him and either say it depends on which god or actively say that, sure, all *God’s* children, but That Guy Over There is clearly the spawn of Jubilex, Abyssal Lord of Slimes and Oozes, and doesn’t count. Nerd buddies, y’know. 🙂

  148. I attended a couple years at a state college back in the 80’s, and was fishing around for a major (I was encouraged to start college because of my good grades, unfortunately the high school counselor didn’t encourage me to have some goals lined up or any idea of what I might aim for) so having had some success in art classes and competitions in high school, I started taking some drawing courses, graphic arts, and art history (which I enjoyed very much). One day, my professor for drawing stated that Norman Rockwell was a good illustrator but he was not an artist. I was shocked; I liked Norman Rockwell and thought he was good at presenting meaningful scenes that told a story. I couldn’t understand why illustration couldn’t be art. I liked drawings and paintings that actually looked something like the subjects being drawn or painted. They don’t have to be photo perfect of course; for example, I do like Impressionist works, I just didn’t care for abstract art so much. I did learn the basics of drawing; we had figure drawing, and exercises in perception. But I felt the aim was to point the student away from what was considered boring and mundane into the edgy and (to me) confusing art of what I called “blobs and smears on a canvas”. I suppose it was best that I eventually left college to find work. It kind of soured me toward the educational experience, so I didn’t continue pursuing an art career. Maybe I should have looked into becoming an illustrator.

    I also remember, back in my evangelical days, how many Christians loved the work of Thomas Kinkade, who was reviled by art critics and had his work referred to as kitschy. From Wikipedia: “To his detractors, he represents the triumph of sub-mediocrity and the commercialization and homogenization of painting […] perhaps no other painter has been as shameless or as successful at transforming himself into a corporation as Kinkade.” Among these circles, he is known more today as a “mall artist” or a chocolate box artist than as a merited painter. Rabin went on to collectively describe Kinkade’s paintings as “a maudlin, sickeningly sentimental vision of a world where everything is as soothing as a warm cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold December day.” Wikipedia also reports that he used studio assistants to assist in producing multiple prints, so I guess even more “common” artists take advantage of that system, especially for mass production.

    So, it’s not just a case of people not being good at a particular medium, but maybe only being good enough so that a certain group can enjoy what they produce. The muckety-mucks of the art world and the elites they serve look down their noses at anything considered provincial or popular. (And I’m sure we can guess who many of those Kinkade loving evangelicals voted for, and who the muckety-mucks voted for.)

    One more thing to say about abstract art (and it may be enough): Animals can do it.

    Joy Marie

  149. Nastarana:

    You have touched one of my peeves.

    My great-grandmother was a magnificent quilter, she made hundreds entirely by hand while raising nine children and managing a household in the manner required of women in the 19th century. All of her quilts were made of cast-off clothing, she did not buy new fabric and she wasted nothing; many of her quilts are still in (gentle) use more than 70 years after her death. I have inherited a photo of her in her later years in which she is quilting by the light of a kerosene lamp.

    At least a part of the issue in my humble opinion is that nobody wants to spend time doing anything anymore, everything has to be instantaneous. We’re in a hurry, we don’t have time – even though we have more leisure time than most of our ancestors. No one creates the beautiful moldings and woodwork that were ordinary in old homes, because, according to a carpenter friend, it takes lots of time and lots of skill and there’s no interest in learning; besides, the machine made stuff is adequate for the job and wood putty covers your mistakes. I learned to sew clothing, really good clothing, from my grandmothers, both expert dressmakers, and my sons just hate to show me the clothes they’ve bought, because I see the uneven grain, the poorly sewn seams, unmatched patterns, the messy buttonholes and all the shortcuts that mean these shirts/pants/jackets won’t last a dozen washings. (They wore mom-made clothes as kids so store-bought had a certain allure; at some point they may ask me to make their shirts again.)

    I hope that the pendulum will swing back to an interest in developing the kind of craftsmanship that used to be commonplace, but the time needed to attain any level of skill seems to be dedicated to screens these days and it’s going to be awfully hard to break that habit.

  150. @Booklover
    Re: Cameras

    The neglect of the low end is very easy to account for: nearly everyone has a cell phone with a perfectly adequate camera. Why should one buy a low end camera when one already has one in one’s pocket? After all, the proper camera to use is the one that one has at hand (or in pocket).

    Re: Art and craft.

    Some years ago I discovered the phrase: “Art is built on a foundation of craft.” I have no idea where it comes from (it might be original, but I doubt it). It’s served as a touchstone ever since.

  151. Sorry, I should have made it clear that Curtis makes documentaries rather than writes. He trawls through the BBCs archives and builds up his films from all kinds of odd little pieces of footage taken almost incidentally. He dies it quite brilliantly in my opinion.

  152. JMG, interesting to know about the Egyptian art! The picture you showed looks quite strange. In late Roman times, art itself underwent a change from skillfully executed realistic art to something more placative, flat, which lead to early Byzantine and Medieval art. But I don’t know if it has anything to do with something like our modern art world.

    There is something else which came to my mind a while ago. The mordern art world is politically implicit left-leaning in the strange way the Democrats are; an unspoken consensus exists about values like open borders, the unimportance of regional cultural differences and so on. The biggest scandal, which chould happen in the modern art world, maybe even bigger than with Duchamp and his pissoir, would be if someone produces art with right-wing connotations (xenophobia, hierarchy, closed borders, warnings about the mingling of incompatiobvle cultures and such the like).

    About dinergy, it occurred to me that early in the Cosmic Doctrine this subject comes up as movement and resistance of unequal strength, at the creation of the Ring-Cosmos.

  153. Phil Knight,
    A great article on mental masturbation indeed! Literally. And I believe I saw a Peter Van Erp comment in the comments section? (Which was collectively far more rational than the article itself…) Thanks for that!

  154. JMG
    This week caused me to think, and I guess I am not the only one, about the command “to sell yourself”, which seems a wonderful version of the old Faustian notion “to sell your soul”. That’s modern marketing for you.
    ‘Art’ must follow the demands of the conventions of the culture. I am impressed by the wooden Buddha. If I understand correctly Japan has traditionally expressed itself in a great multiplicity of interlocked conventions: to embody them in the stillness of one work of art is indeed wonderful.
    Perhaps our modern tendency in the West in contrast is to have severely narrowed our range by demanding novelty and explicitly to require ‘originality’? ‘Follow that’!
    So the rule is crudely applied to all ‘selling points’. We must have more extreme public portrayals for example, to name but a few, in pornography, visual violence, and ‘fine art’?
    And in the Church of Business I see the constant celebration of ‘disruptive innovation’ and the beckoning lure of the future. So it goes.
    Phil H

  155. @ Shane, et alia

    Re free speech versus respect

    It appears that the brouhaha in Baraboo has come to a tentative resolution, with the school district concluding (rightly, in my view) that the actions of the students in the prom photo are protected under the auspices of free speech and the district cannot punish them. Social media was promptly outraged.

    Freedom includes the freedom to be a bone-headed idiot. And to be rude, disrespectful, and disregarding of others. Now I’d suggest that the parents of said students have a serious talk with them about history and respect and not-being-an-idiot generally, but that is the role of the parents and NOT the school district. A school district should not be punishing this sort of silent speech any more than they should have been suspending students for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war (a case which went to SCOTUS, if I recall correctly).

    Freedom of speech is not only for speech with which I agree, but most importantly for speech with which I vehemently disagree. The role of respect is in the finding of that middle ground where people of radically differing views can disagree while still being part of the same society.

  156. Abstraction versus representation

    It is interesting that a number of folks have commented about abstract art not being “their thing,” which I can appreciate, though from the reverse perspective. For me, abstract art which moves me—swirls of color, the delineation of angles, superimposed images via collage—is far more interesting. It is the still lives of vases and ducks and landscapes which leave me flat. But I’m also an abstract kind of thinker, so I suppose that all makes sense.

    Our county art exhibition at the local art museum is replete with landscapes and hunting scenes and whatnot; only on occasional years do I find a piece (suitably abstract) which moves me in any real way.

  157. @isabel,
    I think most people are 50/50 good/bad on any given day, which is why you need a highly structured society full of ostracism for bad actors to prevent the kind of permissive dystopia we have nowadays, which allows everyone’s worst tendencies to flourish.

  158. YCS, thank you for this, and thank you also for investing the time and hard work in helping to preserve one of the world’s great classical music traditions.

    Richard, many thanks for this also. As a writer in a different genre, I’ve had many of these same experiences.

    David, one of the tools our society uses most efficiently to keep people in an obedient rut is that of insisting that they measure their own lives and achievements against standards no one can meet. Sprezzatura in Castiglione’s time was something you practiced by the hour to achieve, not something you had naturally!

    Christopher, it’s a challenge to balance the conflicting needs for openness and creative solitude, certainly — but like every other example of the kind, the solution isn’t found by going to one extreme or the other.

    Escher, I was lucky enough to avoid going as far down the wrong path as you did, but it was a narrow scrape at times. The result is the same, though: what I do for a living is what I want to do, and being willing to fail — and to be dismissed by others as a failure — was a crucial step along that road.

    DFC, indeed I am, and we’ll be discussing that in an upcoming post. The thing to keep in mind is that the triumph of plutocracy, according to Spengler, is temporary; the rise of Caesarism — I’m sure all of us could name a few examples! — takes its strength from the blowback against plutocracy, and provides the framework within which the final settling down into the forms of civilization can take place. As that happens, the fixation on originality goes away, and the arts become a matter of performance, in which mastery is displayed by the skill in which the artist enacts one of a body of standard creative gestures, the way (for example) that a classical musician today shows her skill by playing a standard piece of music exquisitely.

    Will, good! It’s precisely the fact that we’re so stunningly mediocre that makes so many of us insist in such shrill voices that we’re better than anyone who’s ever been.

    KKA, that’s a very good point. When culture becomes a chore, it’s going to be neglected.

    Jeanne, and yet the invention of writing also launched a cascade of other arts — including, of course, the one I practice most. Meaning’s a slippery thing, and it’s very often possible to reconnect to it from the oddest angles and innovations.

  159. John Roth, I know about smartphone cameras; I meant that the camera industry now concentrates more on full-frame cameras and their lenses to the expense of DSLR cameras with APS-C sensors and their lenses. In realty, the whole matter is a bit more complex, as Thom Hogan wrote on his website.

  160. @David BTL

    re: free speech versus respect

    That’s a very good point. Freedom of speech is meaningless if it does not include the freedom to be ignorant and repulsive. People need to have faith that bad ideas will be exposed as such and do not need to be censored or otherwise suppressed. I think flag burning is a classic example of the importance of free speech. It is a protected activity (so long as other people and property are not at risk) but isn’t common because it’s a bad idea that does little to garner support for the flag burner’s cause. It certainly has shock value, but no lasting impact. Restricting speech, on the other hand, will have a lasting impact as people try to shut down opposing viewpoints and debates on sensitive topics are truncated by speech restrictions.

    I agree punishment by the school district is not appropriate and parents should play a lead role in discussing this conduct with their children. However, I wouldn’t oppose teachers holding a class discussion talking about why this sort of silent speech is offensive to so many people.

  161. Phil K., economists love that kind of thinking. It’s one of the many reasons why their predictions about the real world fail so consistently.

    Dusk Shine, you’ve just described the first twenty-odd years of my life. Having been labeled “gifted,” I discovered that what that meant in practice was that when I worked hard and excelled, it was treated by everyone else as what I should be doing all the time; when I didn’t happen to live up to that standard, I got dumped on. I ended up coasting through my high school and my first pass through university, doing the absolute bare minimum I could to get by, and relying on tricks like a good working knowledge of how to fake out the designers of multiple choice tests rather than really making an effort; if I made the effort, the emotional cost of failure was too high. I finally worked my way out of that, but it was a long road and has left me somewhat brittle about certain kinds of criticism.

    Shizen, no, I didn’t think you’d get it. This isn’t about cataloging or catharsis; it’s about understanding certain common patterns of thought, in order to learn how to think some other way.

    Yves, fair enough. One of the reasons why I think it’s crucial to experience failure as a matter of being unable to meet objective criteria, rather than as a matter of being unable to get a desired reaction from other people, is precisely that it makes dealing with shame easier. If you and the other kids in your class all have to fail repeatedly at some task before you achieve it, you share the experience of failing, and any shame you feel is shared by others and thus easier. It’s when failure is defined as not pleasing other people — as happens so often — that things get ugly.

    Renaissance, ding! We have a winner. Exactly.

    Simo, let’s see if other mainstream Democrats start jumping on that same bandwagon. If so, they’ve noticed that Trump’s immigration policies are succeeding, and are trying to distance themselves from a losing stance.

    David, I think that’s a great theme for meditation! 😉

    Shane, I said I thought they’d let the tech industry crash and burn, and bring hot dogs and marshmallows to roast over the flame. It’s if the carnage spreads in a way that could impact the expansion of jobs that I’d expect to see a bailout in short order.

    Violet, certainly it’s one very effective way to look at such things. As for the survival of theater, that’s very good to hear.

    Greg, fair enough. I find most abstract art opaque and therefore uninteresting, but my tastes aren’t the be-all and end-all of art, of course — and the fact that your work is about numbers, not about you, removes it from the range of the critique I leveled in this week’s post.

    Martin, a useful metaphor! To get classic dinergic curves, there has to be a certain proportion between the force and the resistance; if the wind’s strong enough, the grass blade whips around as wildly as a flag in a stiff breeze. It would be interesting to see a flag in the wind using high-speed photography to slow it down and see if it makes the classic curves when seen at speeds we can follow.

    Chris, glad someone got it! I’m quite convinced that some of the Pagon poets I’ve heard could give Grunthos the Flatulent a run for his money.

    JEHR, ding! We have another winner.

    Mister N, no, I didn’t dismiss the results of the election; I challenged the claim by a commenter who was insisting that the Democrats spoke for the majority of Americans. Given our current voting numbers, nobody speaks for more than a midsized minority.

    Nick, you’re right, of course — I didn’t go into a discussion of what passes for ritual in an embarrassingly large number of Neopagan settings, but it tolerably often makes the poetry look good. (I’ve sometimes wondered if the reason so many eclectic Neopagans seem to be losing their faith is that the rituals are so awful the gods and goddesses winced and decided not to show up any more.) As for your verse, the difference I see is that what you’re doing is understandable by anyone who learns the form, while a great deal of modern art has no meaning to be understood.

    Lathechuck, watching the Democrats try to come up with reasons why many people don’t accept their policies, while not acknowledging that the policies don’t work, is one of the more enticing spectacles of our age.

    Varun, depends very much on context. A lot of people fear small successes, but a big success — defined as a success that will enable you to ignore the jealousy of your peers — is quite another matter.

    SMJ, I don’t think that it’s the fundamental premise, but it’s one straightforward deduction from the fundamental premise of postmodernism, which is that all value judgments are wrong unless they’re based on politics.

    Will, good heavens, of course we’ll be remembered in the far future. We’ll be the Nazgul and orcs of their legends, the ancient people who were so consumed by arrogance and greed that we ravaged the entire planet and left our own descendants to starve in the ruins. Parents will frighten children into good behavior by telling them lurid stories about our pride and our downfall.

    Michael L, good. That’s a subject for a post all its own, though.

    Teresa, hmm! Yes, I suspect that also had something to do with it.

    Michael, they’re two good points. Your second point is of crucial importance; straight lines and right angles happen when there is no resistance to a force, or (which is not quite the same thing) when it’s ideologically important to claim that there’s no resistance to a force.

    Jim, fascinating! I wasn’t familiar with the quote, but it’s spot on, of course.

    Stefania, many thanks for your narrative. That encapsulates a lot of the points I hoped to make here.

    Walt F, and that’s also a direction in which the conversation could go, of course. I made the political reference because so many people are thinking about politics right now.

    Ashara, you’ve raised a very important point here, which is that the Faustian vision is always oriented toward the talented/privileged/gifted few. Think of the difference between the phrases “the evolution of Man” and “the evolution of people,” or of the way that cultural history is taught as a succession of great names, or — well, I could go on for a long time. Apollonian mathematics, as Spengler points out, reached its zenith in forms of math that anyone can understand — think of the dialogue of Plato in which Socrates teaches what was then cutting-edge geometry to an illiterate child — while our mathematics reaches its zenith in forms that almost nobody understands. I suspect that will give Faustian civilization a very short shelf life, since everyone outside the elite can be counted on to turn away to some other set of cultural forms once the Faustian world loses what’s left of its temporary global hegemony.

    Ruth, I like that saying! It’s precisely when we insist on putting ourselves at the center of the creative process that you stop getting art.

    Shane, it depends. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who’s repressing their own nastiness, sometimes you’re dealing with a clueless innocent who’s been sheltered from all the ugly parts of the real world. I’ve seen plenty of the latter!

    Jim, that works. Any chance you’d been reading the Situationists before or during those discussions?

    Isabel, the only deconstructed moose I’ve ever seen had been hit by a semi. 😉

    Joy Marie, I’m no fan of Kinkade’s work, but the man was a good deal more technically competent than many of the people his critics lionized. As for Norman Rockwell, there’s a man who could paint. Yes, he did a lot of schmaltzy magazine covers, but then there’s this:
    The Problem We All Live With
    Strictly, almost photographically representational, “The Problem We All Live With” — that’s the name of this painting — ranks to my mind as a major American painting of its epoch, and worth a dumptruck load of the allegedly fine art of that period.

    Conrad, duly noted.

    Booklover, Spengler talks about the way that Roman art became stereotyped and crude in the last centuries of the empire. Consider this sculpture group from around 300:
    Four Tetrarchs
    Look at the way that the classical sense of proportion and physical rhythm has been discarded, and smooth marble replaced by coarse porphyry; you’re looking at a work by the Roman equivalent of Jasper Johns or Roy Lichtenstein.

    Phil H., got it in one. I think one of the core mistakes of our culture is the insistence that novelty is more important than quality.

  162. @ Ryan S

    Re free speech and respect

    No disagreement here! I’d go a step further, however, and suggest that the classroom discussions should not focus on why this or that group would be offended by this or that speech, but rather how the respecting of cultural differences–even while disagreeing–is vital for a coherent republic such as the one we are trying to preserve. Yes, free speech is vital and necessary, but one ought to be aware of the dangers it poses and the social costs it can incur. Our own long term interests are best served by a stable society and interacting with the Other in a reasoned and respectful manner best supports that goal.

  163. “Parents will frighten children into good behavior by telling them lurid stories about our pride and our downfall.”

    So you’re conceding memories of the Faustian great culture will serve a useful purpose in the far future? 😉

    Thank you for the post and all of the commenters for a very interesting discussion.

  164. “Will, good heavens, of course we’ll be remembered in the far future. We’ll be the Nazgul and orcs of their legends, the ancient people who were so consumed by arrogance and greed that we ravaged the entire planet and left our own descendants to starve in the ruins. Parents will frighten children into good behavior by telling them lurid stories about our pride and our downfall.”
    Sounds like judgment will come back w/a vengeance amongst our descendants.

  165. @JMG: Ha! I like it!

    And Dad has corrected me–the city is abstract, but the moose is actually Inuit work, from his trip to Greenland (which means “deconstructed” was probably my or Emi’s description of it from youth). It’s a very different style from what I’m used to in Western art, thus the confusion on my part. Now that I think about it, though, that gets at what (for me) is the difference between good and bad abstract art: the good stuff is in the same spirit as the moose, where it’s not what I’m used to seeing as representation but still is referencing and attempting to portray an object that a fairly wide, non-inner-critic-circle audience can recognize. Which, of course, gets back to the dinergy principle.

  166. It’s occurred to me we might have different ideas of “far future”. I find it hard to believe people will remember us at all a hundred thousand years from now, but ten thousand, I could see it.

  167. John Roth – Some years ago I discovered the phrase: “Art is built on a foundation of craft.”

    “By hammer and hand do all arts stand.” is my favorite related phrase.


  168. @JMG: That’s what seems likely to happen, unfortunately. In fact, that’s already what we’re seeing now, in the form of both anti-Western movements all across the world and anti-intellectual movements within the West.

    Some may view that as a good thing, but I’m skeptical. I keep thinking back to Asimov’s statement about the fundamental problem with democracy, namely that people think it means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Of course, I don’t believe that establishment dogma is right about everything; there’s plenty the establishment has deliberately lied about, and vastly more that they’re simply wrong about. But when people stop trusting the establishment, they generally turn to even less reliable sources. I don’t always trust CNN, but I trust it a hell of a lot more than InfoWars. And regarding complex math, the fact that advanced formulas require an extensive baseline of mathematical knowledge to understand doesn’t change the fact that they’re right, as proven by the fact that engineering based on those formulas is functional. The more advanced any field of study grows, the more specific knowledge will be required to have a comprehensive understanding of that field.

    That Faustian mentality is not inherently bad, in my view. It’s bad when Faustians try applying it to everything, like when they start saying there’s only one right way to make art or to express yourself creatively, or when they start thinking they can run a city better than the people who actually live there. But going to the opposite extreme and saying there’s no “one right way” for anything could lead to a lot of bad outcomes too, as people increasingly decide that they can ignore any facts that they personally happen to dislike.

  169. John Roth, I totally forgot to mention that I wrote about digital cameras because the situation of cameras getting ever cheaper seems to have hit the bottom; now they rise again in the somewhat roundabout way which I described.

    JMG, thanks for the pictures! The description of this kind of art in art history is of course different; the artistic development in Late Antiquity are often described as progress from Pagan to Christian art, with the point made that is inadmissible to judge the respective quality of Late Antiquity art and their earlier forerunners, because that would be biasedness.

    Regarding Faustian culture, I have come to the conclusion that the Faustian culture will be comparatively short-lived due to its innate properties, that it cannot easily handle limits and due to its “esotericism”. The latter will make it more difficult for Faustian art, literature, mathematics etc. to survive, because people in the future might not see anything in them which would be interesting, because it is too specialized and, in the case of music, the music instruments are a bit too complex for the average Dark Age Society.

  170. Beekeeper, the article that you mentioned, is interesting, but keep in mind, that Rod Dreher cites writings from religious fundamentalists who tend to view the matters, about which the article is, in a quite apocalyptical manner. In reality, I presume, that the movement towards eugenics and creating designer babies will not get very far, because many people, especially in Thire World countries, will not be able to afford such technologies. Furthermore, the idea to produce genetically manipulated designer babies is anything but new. The problem with this all is firstly, that the fact that a baby is genetically manipulated doesn’t guarantee that these humans will behave as designed, because humans are complex beings; and secondly, writers about this subject often assume that this will be history’s endpoint, instead of a stadium during the decline and fall of a civilization, in the course of which, finally, the external proletariat and the internal proletariat take over the remnants of the civilization, as described by Arnold Toynbee.

    That all doesn’t mean that the prospect of genetically engineering babies isn’t scary; and furthermore, I can’t imagine that this and other recent movements in Chinese culture will end well.

  171. There are other ways the fear of failure rears its ugly head. A lot of the opposition to secession is based on fear of failure–if the various regions were left to their own devices w/out a federal government to stop them, the idea of a bankrupt California or a Mississippi w/out federal civil rights protections is unconscionable. The idea that the various separate regions would be free to try their own policies, and fail and feel the full repercussions of that failure is anathema.Same thing with people’s unwillingness to even contemplate a Depression w/out imagining Armageddon.

  172. @Will J,
    yeah, once an ecotechnic high society has occurred, it may put paid to the Faustian society. Depends on how long the dark age.

  173. John–

    Re the contending forces of dinergy versus the Contending Forces of Taumiel

    What I have come up with (so far) is the following:

    To extend the metaphor of the healthy and unhealthy democracy, the difference between the two sets of contending forces is the ability to “compromise.”

    In the first case, one has two forces, unequal in strength, each seeking to have its own way. The lesser force is able to resist the greater force to a limited extent, but not absolutely. The greater force is able to overpower the lesser force to a limited extent, but not absolutely. In the end, they reach a compromise. To flip metaphors, the wind blows and the grass bends, but only to a point and no further, producing form in the nature of the curve. The two democratic forces reach a deal which favors one side, but the lesser side gets some elements it desires as well, while the stronger side gets less than everything it sought.

    In the second case, however, these two forces are contending in an absolute battle, seeking not the overpowering of the opponent, but rather that opponent’s annihilation. It is an all-or-nothing conflict of total war, no quarter, no compromise. No form can be constructed as there is no equilibrium accepted other than complete victory. The stronger force will not stop short of the absolute destruction of the lesser force; the lesser force cannot accept absolute destruction.

  174. Throwing in an off-topic towards the end of the comment cycle…..

    I did it! Complete the NaNoWriMo writing challenge and wrote a 50,000 word book, well 51,215 to be exact. It’s about education and schooling in America – the current state of things, the constant push to a utopia, and then what you can do right now to break free of the system.

    Got it all out of my brain and collected notes and it feels soooooo freakin great.

    Part of the reason I finished is knowing you had written so many books over the years and clearly hadn’t died from doing so, so that meant I could push through and do it too.

    Going to take the rest of the week off away from it and clear my mind and then start editing and publishing to my blog. Hoping to get some comments there so I can further edit/update and then publish it.

  175. Have to leave a comment on the post too –

    We made a visit to RISD and got to see under the hood a bit of probably the top art and design school in the country. What I think is at the center of their success is the time they spend in each course and the critique focus. For the first two years, each student take 5 courses a semester, one class per day. The one class is 8 hours morning until evening with a half hour break for lunch. In class you are given an assignment, you do it, you post it around the room, then everyone critiques everyone’s work. Then you do it again, incorporating the critique. Post again and critique. Then do it again. Sometimes that means working it that evening and bringing something back next week.

    In this model there is no where to hide. No playing small and just throwing something out to satisfy the teacher. You are exposed and your class mates expect you to do your best. You get to see everything everyone is doing and how they do. It’s all out there. Your professor knows you can dig deeper and so you do. You develop a vocabulary for describing the art. You know what it is like to feel pain, tired, blah, and push through it anyway.

    I’m not 100% sure that is why RISD produces such significant contributors to art, but I think that is a large part of it. What’s weird is no other school I can find does it. It’s as if they like hiding behind their short class periods and ever switching focus through out the day. No one can ask much of you if you aren’t there.

  176. I think that Dusk Shine’s comment applied to me. I had some natural talent for certain subjects and thus did not have to study hard or really apply myself to gain a good grade. Naïve was definitely the word to describe me, and I soon found that out in college. Discipline was something that came later in life, and I admit I’m still working on it.

    Joy Marie

  177. Booklover:

    I would certainly hope that the effort to produce babies-to-order is short lived. I am concerned that in the time between when the technology to do this becomes available and the realization that it doesn’t work as hoped a great deal of damage can be done, first and foremost to the children whose DNA is manipulated.

    I would add that Rod Dreher is most certainly not a fundamentalist Christian. He is a practicing Orthodox Christian and there is a great deal of difference between the two. It has become something of a short cut to refer to all conservative Christians as fundamentalists, particularly among those on the American Left, who use the ‘f’ word to describe anyone who follows any demanding form of Christianity with which the Left disagrees.

  178. Re genetically designed babies,

    Within the paradigm JMG outlined this week, eugenics holds enduring appeal in Faustian society due to the (false) promise of absolute control and avoidance of failure. However, like most post-peak Faustian science – the reality of genetic engineering of babies is an unnecessarily complex technology with little clear benefit, clear potential to contribute to the overall crudification of society and wreck individual lives, but apocalypse is unlikely.

    The twin apocalypses of ubermensch enslaving the world or the pervasive spread of massively destructive genes seems … alarmist. The traits eugenicists target (personality traits, ‘intelligence’, aspects of health, physical ‘strength’) are poorly defined, strongly mediated by environment directly and through epigenetics, and arise from a vast number of genetic interactions. The whole thing is an unimaginably complex system and Faustian science is notoriously poor at understanding let alone working with those.

    I doubt actual quantifiable benefits are achievable and the normal detriments of genetic mutation will be immediately obvious: high levels of miscarriage, premature and complicated births, and pervasive developmental issues. These detriments mean individual tragedy but I can’t see that hugely problematic genes will spread widely in society, as the decrease in reproductive fitness will be very obvious. By contrast, existing selective IVF technology using screened donors will remain as a much cheaper and less risky eugenics method for those with that inclination. At worst, I can see potential for minor ‘sleeper’ additions to all the other mutagenic and other pollutants of industrial society.

    On the other hand, given discoveries that the microbiome frequently and proactively exchanges genetic information across species and even kingdom, I try not to think about the bacterial and viral ‘tools’ enhanced to facilitate all this widespread cutting and pasting of genomes.

  179. Have to respond to the idea that “when culture becomes a chore, it’s going to be neglected.” This ties in with @Varun’s question about the fear of success. I’m probably going to be a writer of romantic comedies as far as screenplays go. Though I bristled at my mother’s observation when younger, that people need to laugh, I know this to be the case in my bones. I also understand Charles Ludlam’s dictum “if you’re going to make them mad, you BETTER make them laugh.” And as such, trying to find laugh lines can be a chore. Sometimes they come easily, and I praise Cerridwen and Thespis when it does! But sometimes? It’s just a slog, and I can’t help that.

    In terms of fear of success, a part of me is afraid of “succeeding” by the terms of our culture for several reasons. In no specific order:

    * I’ll be expected to duplicate said success.
    * If I venture into an unknown territory and have dumb beginner’s luck, I might get stuck in that. (Happens to a lot of people who think “Let me see how I’ll do with horror!” Famous last words.)
    * I’ll become an industry, and lordy–have to hire people? SHEEZ!

    I guess the real kicker though is that I’ll have to be more responsible, and let go of my amateurishness. That is actually more of a sticking point than I would like to admit, but there’s always that great prospect of being forever a dreamer, rather than someone who’s tried and either succeeded or failed. I also have to say that I might be in a better place to embrace my failures than my successes for a lot of different reasons.

    Recently, a respected organ of screenwriting news and articles had a piece called “10 Signs You’re a Great Screenwriter.” One of those signs was that you produce something new every 3 months. So add on to this the fear of turning into a factory, churning stuff out. I had that fear when I was working at law firms in my 30s and 40s, that all I am is a bipedal cost center on someone else’s spreadshits. ([Sic] LOL–a Grand Discovery if ever there was one!) I have been able to let that cynical idea go… somewhat. But I know that in this world of Technic, on its way into a much-needed forever-nap, that all of us are a lot more than that.

    Still, there’s that pesky task of having to grow up, which often feels like a whole bunch of chores. But you know what? It’s fun to treat it a bit like a game if one can.

  180. Richard, I’m glad someone mentioned ‘The War of Art’ in this context! I recently reread it, quite the book. I wonder whether Pressfield read ‘The Power of Limits’ given the focus on Resistance in his own work. I haven’t read ‘The Power of Limits’ myself, so I couldn’t judge, but if Pressfield’s Resistance is the fear of making bad art, and his Muse is the energy of divine inspiration… I could see how there would be space for Dinergy in every Artist’s soul, and why that fear would have to remain even after the artist has reasonable mastery over the medium…

    I just had a disturbing thought – might whatever brainstormer came up with the #Resistance slogan have read The Power of Limits? What dinergy might that produce?

  181. Re: Those designer babies

    The criticism from within the academic community has been swift and loud. Partly that’s because we simply don’t know enough to do much of anything safely, and partly because what he changed may very well have functions we’re not aware of – the gene he deleted is pretty close to universal in human populations. Sure, not having it will protect against HIV, but what else will not having it affect?

  182. Beekeeper, thanks for your comment! I know that Rod Dreher isn’t a religious fundamentalist, but he cited someone who is, which is the cause of the alarmist tone of said citations. I have read some essays of Rod Dreher, and quite a few, but not all, of his ideas make sense.

  183. That picture of Akhenaten may not have been bad art, but a highly realistic picture of the man. Other people, like Nefertiti, were not so depicted. But there is a theory I’ve heard of, that the Pharaoh had some sort of hormonal disorder that produces the enlarged belly and slumping shoulders etc.


  184. @Varun – in my experience in being around other talking about their fear of success……with questioning them it wasn’t success they were afraid of, but having other people rely on them for something. Being successful in their mind came with responsibility and professionalism.

    Most humans shudder if they have to be 100% responsible. The ones we call responsible probably tally in at 80% responsible, but still reserve blame for the economy, the president, their boss, their spouse, their kids, etc etc for why they are unhappy or things are wrong in their life.

    The more a person pushes it closer to 100% responsibility, the more success they have. Of course depends on your definition of success. For me it means deep satisfaction and contentment, peace, feeling the love that is present.

    So when I don’t feel content, then I know to look for something I am avoiding responsibility for – something I promised to someone or to myself usually. Or something I am making have huge meaning when in the perspective of space time is really really trivial.

  185. Re: CRISPR babies – I can see it now. “Tech geniuses make tons of money. I want a son with just like that only more so.”

    “Hey! Lab? One more order for a super-Sheldon!” (from Big Bang Theory)

    Yeah. Right. Some of those who read this blog know all about the downsides thereof.

  186. @Patriacis Matthews, an Egyptian Pharoah being depicted in a realistic manner, in and of itself is highly unusual by the standards of ancient Egyptian art. The Egyptians developed their art style very early in their history and didn’t change it at all for the entire exisitence of Pharonic Egypt. The art of the Armana Period is unusual becuase its the only time that the Egyptians seriously attempted realistic representational art.

    @Will J, it might also depend on exactly what gets remembered. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that, for example, Apollo 11, is remembered by some deep future post-petroleum society as the time that the Doctor and his companions, Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker flew to the moon to save the world from Voldemort and his army of Daleks.

  187. “Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum …. ”

    I just copied your blog post on the polytheist ceremonial magic onto Word (with your name and the date typed in under the title) to go in my rituals book.

    Pat, raising the Jolly Roger and sailing off into the sunset, chortling “my precious…my precious…”

    THANKS! And the Lord and Lady bless you.

    (“Are you a good witch? Or a bad witch?” “Uh, let’s say, a fair-to-middling witch.”)

  188. @Patricia Matthews
    Re: Designer Babies

    We don’t know how to do that. In fact, we most likely won’t know how to do that within the natural lifetime of anyone reading this.

    I’m absolutely serious. The state of the art today has not the least clue of how to connect genetics with any normal personality trait, including intelligence. The best use anyone can make of the whole “designer babies” thing is as an intellectual Rosarch test.

  189. Booklover:

    This may or may not alleviate your concerns: I was raised in a very, very conservative Catholic home and later, for well over a decade, I was a member of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the US. There are differences between true Fundamentalists and Pentecostals, but they aren’t huge – speaking in tongues is the one that caused the most angst as I recall, but that’s hardly central to either creed.

    Anyway, outside of some obvious examples (Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk) there wasn’t any organized effort to make illegal – except for abortion – most of the rights and privileges that the Left fears would be affected by fundamentalist Christian political power. There isn’t an organized push to make alcohol illegal or put an end to high school proms (Fundamentalists and Pentecostals believe both drinking and dancing are sinful) and even though homosexuality runs counter to their interpretation of the Bible, there is an increasing, sometimes reluctant, acceptance of homosexuals themselves. Sure, there were nutty individuals, every group has them, but in my experience most pastors do a reasonably good job of reining those people in. On the other hand, the overwhelming feeling among believers is that actions by the Left/Liberals/Progressives and the great indifference of the so-called ‘Nones’ will negatively impact their ability to freely practice their religion. Given recent efforts to criminalize non-compliance with social justice ideas (see: Masterpiece Cakeshop, Arlene’s Flowers) I’d say that the Christians’ fears are grounded in reality more so than the fears of the Left.

    I am no longer a Pentecostal nor even a Christian, but I’m not afraid of them and I don’t worry that they’d be able to institute some sort of theocracy either. My husband is still a Pentecostal so I regularly have interactions with his church friends; despite the obvious differences in our worldviews, I find them, as individuals, to be among the most trustworthy, generous, helpful folks I know.

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