I admit that a teeny part of the risk is that often people don’t like being told that they should suffer. Which is different from saying that people don’t like to read about suffering in general, which would be a lie. Fiction would be lifeless without suffering. Art would loose it’s teeth, for the most part anyway. I argue that even landscape painting would suffer by the lack… for all those sharp rocky crests, raging white water, and sheer plummets into deep rocky ravines would have less meaning, if they were not also metaphors for our experiences in tough places. It is in those places where we learn about ourselves. Those truths, while the flaws we see in ourselves are ugly, the truths with which we build ourselves better are indeed beautiful.
Which is not to say that we like doing it. This is a good and healthy thing. BUT. It does mean that there are some perverse incentives for a decadent culture. And being a decadent culture is bad, because we are vulnerable to all sorts of things an austere culture would just expect as a side effect of life. And one of those things that decadent culture is very vulnerable to, is change.
Hear me out. Change is painful, and if even psychic pain is too much to bear, then people become lazy and static. This means that things like human rights, freedom, and love of neighbor go out the window because we are too comfortable to disturb the peace– even to stand for justice. It means that great acts of art, fiction, poetry and music just don’t happen because who’d bother putting up with hardship to get it done? Art is hard!
And that is lethal in a condition of life, because life is change. We may not like it, but you have to use some insane sub-logical gymnastics to prove that change never happens. Because in order to do that, reality has to not be real. Now, there are plenty of people who believe that… but ultimately they don’t matter. Because if reality isn’t real, there’s no reason to do anything of note at all, except to please yourself. And how much would you honestly do, just to please you? If comfort is a higher goal than being pleased by something– then not much. Unfortunately, that’s what a decadent culture promulgates. It is, in fact, the definition of a decadent culture. That is, where comfort is more important than the values that uphold the civilization in the first place.
And people will only go so far to please themselves, before comforts are threatened. And when change is afoot, comfort is negotiable, and sometimes unavailable. When comfort is unavailable, we tend to think of art as being disposable– especially if you can get more comfort in exchange.
This is why art suffers when the culture suffers. This is why art historians often have very cogent view on the facts of history. Because often the art suffers even before it becomes clear that the culture itself is faltering. This is because people, in a decadent culture, will flee to comfort before even indulging in their desire to create. But most importantly, what they will create will not be art, but a hazy and feel good sort of nonsense that does not stand the test of time. Because the culture at large is searching for what they want to hear, not the truth made beautiful. Therefore, the art becomes empty before it becomes untenable. And this is because they think they have the luxury to ignore reality for the sake of keeping comfort alive in their hearts.
It is easy to ignore troublesome signs when you are comfortable. If you have never known true trouble before, it can be hard to recognize what is just the vagaries of life, and what is the sign that the foundations of what hold up your whole way of life are crumbling beneath you. It becomes tricky, and frankly, it’s more comfortable to remain where you are, then to check those foundations. And it’s by leaving the foundations to rot that civilizations end.
That’s right– art is not only an indicator of high civilization, but it is a medicine for what ails it. It is more than palliative care. True, we do look at it and feel wonderful, but it actually means more when comforts are less. Because we can tolerate any old trash as an aesthetic exercise just so long as we feel no pain. But when life HURTS, beauty matters more than you can believe possible when the comforts abound.
Now, do I only speak for myself, here? Have you ever been on a long hike up a mountain– and felt like you were going to die about six or seven times, only to make it to the top and discover– that it was the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen– and somehow, that view brings you back to life? It’s not just that you’ve stopped hiking and exerting yourself. It’s not even that you have accomplished something great. Even if all you see is a vast sprawling city around you from that great height, it still takes your breath away, as if expressing a great truth. And what you accomplished is only a small part of what pleases you.
You feel greater than yourself. You feel as if you have been let in on some great secret– made a part of a greater truth than you ever had, just putting one foot in front of another. That there is a goal, that there is meaning to the journey, and that the destination is more gorgeous than you can possibly imagine. And someone, for just a second, tipped up the curtain, and let you see what it might be like, in a small dose– for just a moment. But it is enough to change you from a dead numb heart to feeling fully alive.
That is what art does– even for one who has never suffered for it, but merely looks, sees, and understands. For the artist– once you have accomplished a great work of art– to know that you have done this thing, and that it is greater than you. Knowing that it ultimately it is not yours but beyond the sum of it’s parts and is a thing unto itself– is the pinnacle of the act of creation. It is our teeny glimpse of Heaven. But we won’t ever see it if what we labored so hard to create is not True.