Ed Driscoll notes in his post Decline of the West, that City Journal writer Claire Berlinski writes about Weimar Cities being particularly fertile for lasting contributions to world culture, not the least because they are doomed. While the main part of Driscoll’s post concerns Joel Kotkin’s piece on why West is doomed to lose to China and India, not the least of which is the West no longer believes in much of anything (that works). This latter point is worthy of another post, but one of the most annoying cliches is the doomed city creating great art.
This just isn’t so. Besides, no one ever died for a Target Ad. Multiculturalism and PC may be status climbing tools, but no one really loves it. Weimar Cities produce edgy art that no one really loves or even remembers much. Even if the art is PC and multicultural (i.e. denigrates the West).
In order to create lasting art that moves people, across time and cultures, artists need both stability (it is hard to create art when survival takes precedence) and the ability to get paid (and earn a living). This is why great art, art that still moves people (as opposed to stirring snobbery tendencies in edgy and hip trendoids) is associated with stable societies, that had a means of paying artists.
The extraordinary outburst of creativity in the Italian Renaissance cities in the 1400’s, is due to their relative stability (for the time) coupled with the ability to actually pay artists. Other places had perhaps greater stability, but not the patronage network (and various strong men eager to display their positive attributes by commissioning works). Later, power, stability, and patronage shifted north, to places like Amsterdam, or London, with artists from Vermeer to Rembrandt to Turner creating lasting works of art.
But it is in the 19th and 20th Centuries that the hypothesis of the Weimar City, doomed and knowing it, creating great art as it dies, is proven wrong. Consider art people have actually heard of, and loved. Throughout the ages. From Sherlock Holmes, to Peter Pan, to Charles Dickens, to Beatrix Potter, to Winnie the Pooh, to Harry Potter, to Narnia, to Lord of the Rings, to Mr Toad and “Wind in the Willows,” a certain type of Englishness still holds the world’s imagination. Perhaps no more powerful (and tragically sad) statement can be made than a young girl at Beslan, who reported that she prayed that Harry Potter would come with his invisible cloak to rescue them all. She didn’t want an Angel to rescue her. Or a hip, gay, trendy and uber-PC Multicultural spokesman. Nor a combination of Michael Moore, Sean Penn, and Alec Baldwin. She wanted Harry Potter. The very model of a young English boy filled with magical goodness.
All of this, created by Englishmen, in and around London’s metropolitan area, or Oxford, with the work they did either paid for by publishers, in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens, often serialized first in newspapers and magazines, or subsidized by University professorships (Tolkein and Lewis). That power, so evident that people of a foreign language and culture, turn to it for comfort facing near certain death and horror, of a fundamentally decent Englishness, has greater pull than anything done by Bertolt Brecht or Kurt Weill. No one in great distress turned to the songs of “Threepenny Opera” for comfort and fantasy. The doomed children of Beslan did not dream that Mack the Knife would come rescue them (the whole point of Mack is that he doesn’t rescue anyone, he’s just a thug). Threepenny Opera perhaps being the most accessible and well known piece of art from Weimar. No matter how edgy, hip, and despairing, the work of Weimar artists from F.W. Murnau and Georg Grosz and Brecht and Weill, pale before the power, emotionally and intellectually, of the comfort of the “English Vision.”
Sherlock Holmes offers the prospect of hyper-rationality coupled with artistic instinct and moderated by solid English heroism (Watson), the ability to uncover and punish wickedness, no matter how bizarre and sordid and hidden. Winnie the Pooh, the Wind in the Willows, and Beatrix Potter offer a stylized and comforting version of the English countryside, for children and adults. Peter Pan, a vision of one last childhood adventure on the verge of adulthood, and the fantasists of Tolkein, Lewis, and Rowling, offer a particularly English assurance that decency can still win out over depravity no matter how powerful. This fundamental decency and optimism has power still, even as the worlds its creators lived in no longer exists (and modern Britain slides into Dalrympian levels of depravity and post-Christian post-Nationalism).
Who was it that the UN turned to, in order to produce a pamphlet to warn children in former war zones of the dangers of discarded land mines? Why, Superman and Wonder Woman! Not Mack the Knife or Dr. Caligari, nor Dr. Mabuse.
And that leads to the other problem with the doomed city hypothesis: the extraordinary output of first London and England, from around the late 1700’s through the early 20th Century, followed by the pulp and pop energy of America, offer in both volume and emotional power, so much art and culture that both in sum dwarf everything ever produced by “doomed cities” facing a Weimar future. It’s like the Sun itself versus a candle. No contest.
Consider the extraordinary burst of heroes created, in just a few years, by supremely talented writers and artists when it became clear that the youth of America loved weird and strange heroes. From 1938 (and the first publication of Superman) through the early 1940’s, Batman, Captain America, Hawkman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and more were created. Characters famous, and loved still. In the 1960’s, a similar short burst created the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and more. Again, still loved today. All from a city, New York, that was among the more stable, and safe, in the Western World. A city still mostly middle and working class (and majority White). Monocultural, and not buffeted by the “diversity” that Berlinski champions in her piece.
Then of course, there is music. While Rock music was not created in Memphis, Tennessee, the Sun Records songs recorded by Elvis Presley in July 1954 certainly helped popularize it, and led to an explosion, again in the US and Britain, of Rock styles and music. Musicians came from all sorts of cities, from Liverpool, or Memphis, or London, or Los Angeles (the Doors and X), or Minneapolis (Prince and the Replacements), larger cities like New York and London. None fit the description of dying Weimar cities. While the decaying remnants of Imperial British Liverpool are long gone, we can hear the echoes of what it was, in the songs of the early Beatles. Just like you can hear Memphis in the early songs of Elvis Presley, or what 1980’s Los Angeles was like in the early songs from X, or what New York was like at the same time from the Ramones. All have an emotional pull and staying power that simply obliterates that of even the most accessible Weimar stuff (and Threepenny Opera is stunning in its craftsmanship, it just isn’t very fun to listen to much). After all, the Music, and “Dream Police” (to steal from Cheap Trick) won’t arrest you if you choose to listen to Brecht and Weill, instead of say, Presley and McCartney. Just very few people do.
In movies, of course, it is not even close. Weimar cities produce horror and other films that film geeks know and love, but don’t come close to satisfying people the way, say, “Toy Story” did, or a film about a guy trapped in skyscraper filled with terrorists, as he cuts them down one by one. And that is the key difference between Weimar Cities and those that actually produce great and lasting art of meaning.
Weimar Cities are filled with despair (naturally) and what little is produced, shows the despair. Few artists can produce anything meaningful, and powerful, to most people’s lives, in such situations, lacking any regular patron in any realistic manner, and without much prospect of long-term stability. Meanwhile stable cities, and not necessarily even great ones, can produce art that moves people throughout time. Elvis Presley will be loved and remembered by billions of people, as long as his recordings survive. F W Murnau, is a mere footnote, an in joke for art-movies that few see. And it is the optimism, the sunny spirit, be it of the fundamentally fair-play, decent English variety, or the brasher, mix-up Southern version of Elvis, or the weird pulp vision of comic books, or the brash can-do attitude even when there is little to do, of the 1970’s “Rockford Files.” Even the downbeat Jim Rockford had something to look forward to. He may have lived in a trailer, but it was his, it was at the beach, and at the end of the day, fishing with your Dad beat pretty much everything else.
And that points to the flaw in the idea that Weimar Cities create great art. No one is inspired by, much less willing to die for, a Target Ad of carefully multicultural, multi-racial, multi-confessional people playing about in John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Long after everything but the melody is forgotten, people will still love the old heroes. King Arthur, or Beowulf, at the dawn of European civilization, trying to keep order as the Roman Empire fell and the monsters rushed in. Huns, and Goths, and Angles, Saxons, Jutes, pagans all, practicing bloody sacrifice. Or Robin Hood, El Cid, Roland, and Ivanhoe, slightly after, fending off Vikings, or marauding Muslims, or the tyranny of the feudal princes, in reclaiming ancient liberties lost but not forgotten.
This is why JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis still have power, they evoke the Dark Ages or Medieval past, and show up over and over again. The scene where the Fellowship of the Ring glide past giant, broken statues of ancient kings, would have been familiar to Dark Ages warlords passing by the ruins of Roman Aqueducts, things they could no longer build, much less maintain. So too, the obsession with the fall of the Roman Empire, which shows up in such various forms as the films of John Carpenter (“Ghosts of Mars,” “Assault on Precinct 13”), the Road Warrior/Mad Max films, and many others, the images of civilization being overwhelmed by illiterate barbarians who can create nothing, only destroy. The desire to preserve what was left, resonates still (Tolkein’s “White City” in the Lord of the Rings is oh so obviously Constantinople).
Thus King Arthur is always the same, the once and future king who preserves the last, best of the West and the Roman Empire against the Darkness. Robin Hood is always the same, a rogue fighter for freedom and ancient liberty lost to a tyrant. The character might have a light saber (and be called either Luke Skywalker or Obi Wan Kenobi) instead of an old fashioned sword, but he’s still the same in essence. The Count of Monte Christo might be Charlie Crews (in NBC’s late series “Life”) or he might be “the Cape” coming this Sunday on NBC. He is still the same.
Because the West is still the same. People fundamentally don’t believe in PC, or Multiculturalism, or diversity. Shiva is not more popular than Superman, in the West. People read Harry Potter, not magical realist novels like “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” And there is a reason for that. People want heroes. Heroes who share their fundamental concerns: will there be something I did that lives after me? Will I matter? Did I change anything? Will the language I speak, the beliefs my people hold, my people themselves, live on or will they be subsumed by alien peoples and beliefs and languages?
This is why Sherlock Holmes is always a proper Victorian Gentlemen at 221 B, Baker Street. And why people love him far more, in the West, than say, “Super Barrio.” People want and need heroes. Neither Weimar Cities, nor the tragic hipsters of TV and movie multiculturalism who emulate the Weimar crowd, can create them. Much less heroes about both ordinary Westerners and Western civilization.
Yes, Captain America can in his current owners be turned into a raving hyper-liberal. And more waify ass-kickers “sticking it to the man” be put on TV. But sales figures and ratings don’t lie: the audience for it is marginal, compared to straight out heroism, from say the latest Batman films to Iron Man to “Taken.” Because no one will die for a Target Ad of multiculturalism. Kotkin is right that something is wrong in the West. It is at least in part, its entertainment, which derides Western heritage and culture and tradition, in order to rectify past wrongs of Segregation and Slavery (both paid in full, in blood, a long time ago). The culture on offer, of endless debasement and cringing apologies in service of the Target Ad that never ends, is not of any real interest to anyone. No matter how much it copies the form of Max Schreck.