17 February 2012

Dionysus and Apollo

IN THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY Nietzsche wrote that in aesthetics there are two great tendencies which correspond to the two Greek art gods: Dionysus and Apollo. These two tendencies run together in parallel, but are antagonistic and in conflict. He argues that it is out of this conflict that art is born. The thesis in Nietzsche's little book is taken up at greater length by Camille Paglia in her tome Sexual Personae which is a very engaging book. However I want to use an observation made by Frank Zappa as my way into the subject.

For Zappa, art is anything that an artist puts a frame around. If John Cage records the sound of himself drinking carrot juice and calls it his composition then "his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so. "Take it or leave it, I now will this to be music." [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p. 140. Emphasis in the original].

I think this insight about the frame is a very important. Creativity is not only about spontaneity. The Romantic movement has convinced us that art emerges from the free expression the soul of the (usually tortured) artist. But it leaves out the frame. Art may well emerge from spontaneity, but without the frame it is meaningless. The frame imposes a kind of order from which meaning derives. Without the Apollonian frame, the Dionysian chaos is destructive not constructive. It is a very interesting feature of art that the most gifted artists often impose severe restrictions on themselves. This goes beyond the choice of a medium for instance, which itself imposes constraints. For example oil painting is a difficult skill to master, as is musical composition. The great artist typically spends many years developing their talent to the point of mastery. According to Dan Pink mastery of a skill is one of the three primary motivating factors in human endeavour (the others being autonomy and making a contribution to something greater than oneself).

But great artists often go beyond the requirements of a medium and impose extra constraints on themselves. One of the most infamous is the idea of 12 tone music. In this approach to composition the composer must use each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale in the same order throughout the piece, and cannot reuse a note until all of the other 11 notes have been used. The results, as one might imagine, are often execrable. However some of the music that results from this highly artificial restraint are intriguing and interesting, if not always emotionally engaging. Another example might be the graffiti artist who choose a forbidden surface to frame their work. Graffiti spray-painted on a store-bought canvas and conventionally framed would be pointless. The medium, in the sense of self-imposed artistic constraints, is the message.

Art seems to emerge from the antagonism between Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in the artist. Sometimes we need to allow more of one or the other. For those who feel constrained by social conditioning or their immediate circumstances a little more of Dionysus can help. Dionysus dominates the art of the early 20th century for instance. Rules were broken, barriers thrown down, boundaries crossed, and frames painted over. But note that there is a chiaroscuro effect here - the frame is still creating the contrast against which the antinomian tendencies stand out. One cannot push the envelope if there is no envelope! One cannot paint over the frame, is there is no frame. Remove the frame and the act loses it's significance.

These kinds of observations can go beyond the world of aesthetics. In times when Apollonian social structures that emphasise rules and conformity are strong, there will be a tendency towards social chaos. The strict Victorian mores of 19th century England also gave rise to the Romantic poets who were often dissolute, hedonistic and broke social rules. The same kind of thing happened in the USA after the rigidity of the 1940s and 50s. Dionysian hippy culture revelled in being free of rules. Though the flip side of the socially progressive hippy movement was politically conservative governments for much of the time. However the conservative governments of the 1980s gutted the state, crushed the unions, and sold public assets to private enterprise and in their own way reduced the order in society. One cannot have Dionysus without Apollo and vice versa.

Politically we are in times of increasing regulation of the individual as a result of the chaos and resulting fear caused by terrorism and economic uncertainty. Once I might have travelled quite freely to the United States, now I would have to have my finger prints taken and my iris scanned if I go there. And as a middle-aged, white, male, New Zealander I do not fit the profile of any known terrorist, nor do I have any criminal record in any country. But because of the general chaos I'm treated as de facto a criminal. Anyone who follows the blog BoingBoing will know that the US police and Homeland Security have been chipping away at US citizen's constitutional rights for freedom of expression especially in the last two years. Peaceful protesters are now routinely arrested or attacked with pepper spray by heavily armed riot police and terrorism squads, or under legislation enacted to deal with terrorism. Collectively we respond to chaos by seeking to impose more order. And actually in the USA this trend was mirrored during Vietnam war protests.

In terms of the history of ideas we can see that the European Enlightenment was an Apollonian movement in that is emphasised universal order and natural laws (though these ideas emerge from Christian thinking in the preceding centuries). The reaction to it in the form of Romanticism emphasised individualism and spontaneity. In some ways we can see history as swings of a pendulum between these two poles. Each has its pros and cons. Perhaps the sexual mores of 1950s Britain and USA were too restrictive and unfair, especially to women. During the 1960s we witnessed the breakdown of those mores. The upside is that sex is less of a taboo, and that women are treated more equally. The downside is that several sexually transmitted diseases (including chlamydia, HIV and anti-biotic resistant gonorrhoea) have reached epidemic proportions. We've also seen a massive growth in the pornography industry - which seems to exploit both the performers and the consumers, and leads to skewed sexual responses (see The Science of Pleasure).

The closer we get to our own time the more difficult it is to accurately see the forces of history at work. Once art might have given us some perspective, but it seems to me that contemporary art lacks any kind of consensus. If anything the overall impression is one of chaos as each person becomes their own art movement, but almost every artist simply recycles the past. I've lost track of the times recently when some quite ordinary pop/rock outfit (as banal as, say, The Stone Roses) has been described as "changing music for ever". Not only are there no apparent rules - though note that popular culture churns out generic entertainment in conformity with consumer expectations - but there are no objective criteria either.

Economically the push has been towards more freedom for markets, which has quite predictably given us the chaos of the global financial crisis. Trying to impose order on profligate European government spending is creating social chaos. In the USA only the federal system keeps states such as California from being insolvent. Politically the UK seems to be caught in a stampede to occupy the centre ground, but this has meant the abandonment of principles and ideologies and rule by popularism which is producing incoherent policies and economic stagnation, with rising inflation and unemployment, and a slide back into recession. The US seems similarly caught between conservative and progressive urges and stagnating as a result.

For what it is worth I think we are generally too much under the sway of Romanticism and the Dionysian tendency. Our societies lack coherence and unity, we lack a clear sense of shared values. Part of the problem with Romanticism is that it resists analysis and reason, and promotes individualist hedonism. It does not allow us to reach an understanding of our situation and act accordingly. We are left with our impulses and seeking out intense emotional stimulation in a state of confusion. We don't even have to seek it now, it is piped into our homes, and into our ears constantly! In Freudian terms we are in a time of the irrational id. The free market is not backed by intelligence or reason, only by the impulses of the participants, and on the whole the greed of producers and capitalists seems to be the dominant force. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the middle are working longer and harder for about the same.

This is not to say that some people are not thinking about our situation and speaking out. Merely that the world is not listening. George Bush, who seemed like an incompetent idiot from where I was sitting, was none-the-less a popular president perhaps because he played to American sentimentality and presented himself as an heroic individual in the Romantic mode, rather than a Platonic (or Apollonian) wise king. Barack Obama is unpopular because he is taking the opposite route. Wisdom counts for nothing in our society at present.

With the world's financial systems in melt-down, population burgeoning out of control, and ecosystems collapsing, and incoherent artistic traditions what we need is a new (and lengthy) Apollonian era, a new puritanism. By which I do not mean the external imposition of rules from fear of chaos, but a more spontaneous internal ordering. The kind of order that emerges from widely shared values. The kind of order that is an emergent property of complex systems; a self ordering. United we stand, divided we fall. And we are very much divided at present. It occurs to me that my thinking here might well be influenced by Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series which contains the same kinds of themes.

There is no doubt that every society needs artists, agitators, and devils advocates of all kinds. But the Romantic vision of us all being artists only creates havoc and chaos. Most of us don't thrive without clear boundaries, and most of us feel better if we live in groups with clear values. We want a society which has a benevolent and tolerant attitude to eccentricity and difference, but not one in which all sense of order is lost to relativism. I'm sure that this is why, when finally given the freedom to vote after years of oppressive regimes, the people of Egypt voted for Islamist parties with agendas of imposing law and order based on shared Islamic values. I think Westerners, still largely in the grip of Romanticism, find this desire for order difficult to understand. We have this strange notion that freedom is freedom to do whatever we like whatever the cost or consequences, and without reference to anyone else. And we resent anyone that places limits on us. Indeed a feature of comments on this blog has been violent reactions to any suggestion of a prescriptive statement on my part (though since I started writing at greater length and more complexity this is less of a problem).

Part of the problem in the west is that we have affluenza - the social disease in which people define themselves and their worth in terms of money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and celebrity. We want the life that we see people living on TV. These values have replaced our traditional, more human centred, values, and lead the majority into lives of virtual meaninglessness. These are certainly not the kind of values on which to build a healthy community. The moral collapse of societies into a condition of affluenza must surely be connected to the collapse of religion as a guide to morality - leaving us confused about what morality is. Anyone who has listened to an public commentator on morality will know that intellectuals are extremely confused about morality and tend base their moral judgements purely on subjective criteria. Here again we see the baleful influence of Romanticism which says that just as we are all artists, we are all naturally moral. But we aren't, and we aren't.

One of the great confusions of our time is that politicians see themselves as moral leaders, and try to convince us that moral oversight is an important role of government. Politicians have sought to supplant religious leaders as experts on how we should live and conduct ourselves. And at the same time we consistently see politicians rated as the least trustworthy people in our societies - that is to say that we consider our self-appointed moral leaders and amongst the least moral of all members of our society. Such a paradox can only harm our society.

I see my desire for a more Apollonian society as entirely consistent with Buddhism. We need to once again see restraint as a virtue, and greed as a vice. Unmoderated desires are destructive. We also need to emphasise the importance of social connections, morality, and positive emotions. We need to see our lives in the context of our family and peers, our society and increasingly in the global context. But above all we need to pay attention to what is going on right now in our sensorium, and how we are responding to what is going on.

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