Are most people too stupid, ignorant, and benighted to comprehend truth in the sciences, appreciate beauty in the arts, and embrace wisdom in politics? That question captures the bedrock assumption guiding a sliver of the populace, a self-anointed elite who cover their disdain for everyone else with altruistic professions of humanitarian concern. They’re curiously contradictory posture: we despise common tastes, choices, and beliefs, but we stand four square for the common “folk” (one of President Obama’s favorite words). After over a century of such sententiousness, the “common folk” are beyond irritated. Before the charade blows up completely, however, this claim to intellectual, aesthetic, and moral superiority, its widespread acceptance and its devastating effects, must be dissected, analyzed, and understood.
Walk into any museum of modern art and you’ll soon come upon a work that, if you’re honest with yourself, you have no idea how or why it’s called art. Maybe its a few squiggly lines, or a geometric representation indistinguishable from the floor tiles in a restroom you once visited, or three blank, white canvases (these examples came from a simple Google search: modern art, images), but no matter what “masterpiece” first evokes it, the feeling grows that a fraud is being perpetrated. Visual art is chosen here because it’s the most obvious, but listening to the music from today’s supposed heirs to Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, or reading the precious gems that win contemporary literary prizes and awards will also produce that sinking sensation of intellectual and aesthetic victimization. You have, in fact, been had, and it’s vitally important to unravel this con game and what it accomplishes.
The decoupling of the “artistic” from the popular is a fairly recent development. The Renaissance geniuses were mostly recognized during their lifetimes. Shakespeare’s plays (whoever wrote them) filled the Globe theater. The serialized Crime and Punishment was devoured by Russian readers, the English eagerly awaited each Dickens’ installment, the French lionized Victor Hugo, and Mark Twain won enduring acclaim, notwithstanding some scathing criticism, after the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (for a more contemporary scathing criticism, SLL has weighed in). However, by 1885, when Twain’s classic was published, storm clouds were already on the horizon.
For centuries the hereditary nobility, primarily the landed aristocracy, was the clearly demarcated economic and political elite of Europe. They had no need either to exaggerate their status or to differentiate themselves with incomprehensible artistic, intellectual, and moral standards. Their patronage of religion, education, and the arts was in part to ensure that their standards were promulgated and accepted throughout society, especially among the lower classes. That patronage created a second tier, the priests, scholars, and artists, dependent on their patrons and below them on the social scale, but above the “common folk.”
The Industrial Revolution upended the prevailing order. Fortunes larger than those of even the wealthiest of the European nobility went to the inventive, innovative, and ingenious. Wealth became a shifting, dynamic product of unfettered minds, not a virtually static sum based on land and rentier profits from low risk investments carefully shepherded from generation to generation, protected and augmented through political power. Heredity in the new order counted for next to nothing, except for whatever genetics had bestowed upon those who successfully navigated the ceaselessly roiling competitive landscape.
Undermining the basis of the old aristocracy, capitalism also knocked down the social status of the priests, scholars, and artists. The masses, as they disdainfully became known, certainly didn’t abandon religion, education, and art, but it was Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and Edison, et al., that they admired and wanted to emulate, and some of them did. The devalued classes launched a counterattack that was, ironically enough, funded and supported in large measure by the new millionaires, their heirs, and their foundations.
It takes intellectual back handsprings to condemn as exploitive the first economic system in history that not only propelled countless rags-to-riches stories, but provided opportunity and raised standards of livings for millions of ordinary people who would have been previously consigned to poverty. In Karl Marx the devalued “intellectuals” found their man. Capitalism’s supposed internal contradictions would cause it to fail, replaced by a fully planned economy, and you-know-who would be doing the planning.
Only the resolutely masochistic can plow through Marx’s analytic gobbledygook and wildly errant predictions. What the intellectuals—the vast majority of whom did not actually read him—understood was that his planning and “scientific” socialism offered an avenue to restore them to primacy. They adopted two strategies. The first can only be called “baffle them with bullshit”: develop terminology, “specialized” modes of thought, and standards so abstruse and arcane—in politics, economics, the arts, and education—that the select few initiates would be seen as especially intelligent and expert. The second strategy was faux humanitarianism: the elect were not just exceptionally smart and capable, they were distinguished by their outsize concern for the wellbeing of the rest of humanity.
The presumed “exploited” didn’t have much use for a system where their ability doomed them to providing for the less industrious and competent, Marxist revolution came not from the proletariat in the industrially advanced nations as Marx had predicted, but in agrarian Russia, and demonstrated that the utopia had to be imposed at the point of a gun. Lenin and Stalin’s rivers of blood were bright light warnings of Marxism’s inherent flaws, but Western intellectuals continued to propound collectivism, undeterred, although they often called it something other than communism. The dictators derided the intellectuals as “useful idiots.” The intellectuals embraced the dictators, unveiling their true goal: power.
It is no coincidence that the century of the experts has been the bloodiest in human history. The mental chaos and intellectual abdication that have unleashed this unprecedented carnage are faithfully rendered in today’s awful art, literature, and music. However, an epochal change has begun. A growing number see the pretensions of the rulers and so-called thought leaders, the supposed brilliance, expertise, and humanitarianism, for the shams they are. A squiggly line is not the Mona Lisa, random noise is not Tchaikovsky, ten years from now nobody will be reading books hailed as today’s classics, and the “best and brightest” are just as prone to incompetence and corruption, if not more so, as anyone else; the governments they direct have run their countries into the ground.
One cannot be made to feel stupid without one’s consent. That consent, so long granted, is being withdrawn as common sense (known in some quarters as straight line logic), makes a comeback. The vaulting ambition of those exercising power always “o’erleaps itself” when those it seeks to rule rediscover that they run their own lives far better than the powerful do. The shrieking you hear is from those who have perpetrated fraud, recognizing that without their ill-gotten and undeserved power and status, they are nothing and have nothing to offer that anybody else would want. Don’t expect them to give it all up without a hellacious fight.
LITERATURE YOU CAN’T PUT DOWN