Why Do Traditionalists Want to Destroy Art?
Their ahistorical, factually incorrect fearmongering betrays a cynical politics and a desire to return to tribalistic power politics. It must be rejected.
The power to create > the power to destroy
The trailer for the new DUNE movie was recently released. In it, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) states: “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”
I disagree with this statement. The power to destroy a thing certainly creates some control, but that control doesn’t come close to measuring up to the control that comes with the power to create a thing.
Sure, you can destroy something I made and exercise control over it, but I can always make another. And in the process, while you are doing nothing but tearing down what you don’t wish to see, I am creating a positive vision for what I do wish to see. My preferences and views are more likely to disseminate and have lasting impact than yours, because I have actually created something that will remain after you and I are gone, while you have created nothing.
Some people don’t understand this reality.
One Twitter account that has gained significant traction over the last few months is that of “Culture Critic”, a man who laments the fall of western society and the decay of the arts. He points to works of centuries past and cherry-picks comparisons to modern art he doesn’t like.
Rather than creating or sponsoring the creation of art that he does like, Culture Critic creates a false reality in which the art of today is not beautiful or meaningful. Simply put, he is trying to control modern art by destroying it rather than creating it.
The issue here is that Culture Critic is not only misguided in his tactics, he’s factually incorrect.
We never stopped building beautiful buildings.
Culture Critic complains about the rise in modern and post-modern architecture, stating that we’ve stopped erecting beautiful buildings and have replaced them with droll, drab skyscrapers. Interior and exterior alike, he argues, we’ve gone from beautifully crafted works to slabs of grey meaninglessness.
But he’s simply incorrect. For example, his beliefs about what is and isn’t beautiful are flawed & incomplete. He worships neoclassical and gothic artistry as superbly creative and interesting, while ignoring the existence of incredibly designed buildings like the Bosjes Chapel in South Africa:
Or the Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan:
Or even the Longaberger building in Ohio:
But let’s set that aside, and let’s only focus on those buildings and styles from centuries that Culture Critic venerates in contrast to the ostensibly drab modern buildings. Spend some time on Google and it becomes abundantly clear that we do not suffer from a lack of beautiful modern structures, but we are fortunate enough to suffer from an abundance of them.
The Tashkent Metro Stations, Completed in 1994
La Sagrada Familia, Completion TBD
Abraj Al Bait, Completed in 2011
Swaminarayan Akshardham (India), Completed in 2005
Swaminarayan Akshardham (United States), Completion TBD
Washington National Cathedral, Completed in 1988
We also never stopped sculpting beautifully
Culture critic also levies this complaint at the modern art establishment, bemoaning the death of beauty and claiming that we as a society have stopped creating beautiful sculptures that resemble real life people, textures, and stories.
He points to famous sculptures of eras past and asks: “Why did we stop"?”
To be clear: we never stopped. Just take a look at all of these active sculptors creating the very type of art that Culture Critic claims we no longer make:
Joan Coderch & Javier Malavia
Hsu Tung Han
At some point you do have to consider motives
In almost every argument or debate I try to avoid ascribing motive to others, but Culture Critic makes this almost impossible.
When we are surrounded by so much art and beauty, yet you seemingly intentionally decide to pretend that said art and beauty doesn’t exist in yearning for days gone by, one has to consider whether you yearn less for the art and more for the social norms of the time.
Like the norms where women and minorities were property. Or the norms where beautiful works were built not by highly paid skilled laborers but by slaves who often died making the temples and monuments you love to stare at.
The rest of Culture Critic’s tweets help paint a picture of his actual priorities.
He’s a fan of Elon Musk, who despite contributing to protecting humanity’s future via space travel & electric vehicles seems to wish that our culture would return to “the good old days” and supports reactionary political figures who aim to bring about that reality:
He seems to embrace the “beliefs of the old world,” whatever they are:
You can read the last tweet as one of two things:
An endorsement of the beliefs that society has rightly rejected: geocentrism, legal inequality between races/sexes, the justification of slavery, etc, or:
An ahistorical expression of fear that modern society despises things like faith, community, and a positive view of the human condition.
In either case, Culture Critic is wrong. But he also betrays something about his wider beliefs: that he holds a deeply cynical worldview, and that his approach to cultural criticism isn’t based on art & architecture, but on a yearning for an imagined politics of a past that doesn’t exist.
Traditionalists like Culture Critic often have priors (stated or unstated) that the world now is worse than it was 100, 200, or 500 years ago. And they often (directly, or indirectly like Culture Critic does) argue for a return to the politics, governance, and social mores of those times.
These priors must be unequivocally rejected. We live in the most prosperous time in human history. Across the globe, the average human is freer, healthier, and wealthier. And our art & architecture is flourishing to a level that is unmatched by any era of the past.
We live in a time of abundance. And rather than hold up this abundance as a success of the human spirit & of the liberal foundations that enable this creativity, traditionalists often cynically highlight the few occasions that this abundance has created things they don’t like. And rather than seek to create more of what they do like, they seek to tear down everything else.
Their yearning is not for better days, but for days where their tribe held more power. And no better place can the knock-on effects of traditionalists’ desire to destroy the things that keep them out of power be seen than in the the Twitter feed of a random would-be “culture critic”.