Moral relativism is a failed social experiment. So is moral fundamentalism. I blame modern psychotherapy–partly–for the degradation of a culture that can not tolerate accountability and discernment. It’s why so many TV shows and movies are about serial killers: we can not conceive of a bad guy anymore. The only “bad guy” we can all agree on is a mass murderer. Even that is in danger of being OKified by the shrinked up zeitgeist: ergo Dexter, the lovable serial killer who kills serial killers. We want to rehabilitate everyone in this sophomoric, brainless insistence that there is no evil.
But somewhere between the rocks and the hard place of relativism and fundamentalism is a unitive philosophy that embraces what Teilhard de Chardin called humanism, but still leaves room for shame and discernment. Yes, shame has an important place in social interaction. So does spirituality. I am playing around with the middle way in my head, and I call it coherence theory.
I got to hear some comments about Teilhard de Chardin at a dinner last night that honors classicism. The art critic Donald Kuspit received an award for excellence in the arts, and he spoke about the failure of the avant-guard, which has turned into an empty “frantic trendiness.” It was a great relief to hear someone state outright that the emperor has no clothes. My husband Sabin Howard, being a sculptor, drags me to a lot of art shows, and I have seen a lot of twelfth rate crap. In fact, as soon as anyone says they are an “abstract expressionist,” I know they suck.
Speaking of art that sucks: I was seated at dinner next to some stuffed shirts who run an arts club, and on hearing I was a novelist, they told me with much self-importance that they were honoring Chinua Achebe. I groaned. “For what? His novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ is so badly written! It’s boring and unreadable! He gets attention just because he’s the only one out of Nigeria.”
Immediately, the stuffed shirts wanted to prove that I was rascist and asked me if Obama was just getting votes because he was black.
“That’s not why I voted for him,” I answered. “I voted for him because he’s smart and inspiring, I think he can truly bring change, and I want change!” That shut them up long enough for me to carry on for a while about what a piece of cockroach manure “Things Fall Apart” is. The stuffed shirts managed to save themselves by turning away to talk to other people, and I seized the opportunity to make vomiting motions in their direction. It got a laugh out of my husband but probably didn’t endear me to the artsy fartsy shirts.
Later, in the cab ride home, the great Burt Silverman, a realist portrait painter who actually has a foundation in craftsmanship and tradition, twitted me about my oration on the indignity of art. “You were networking?” he asked wryly. Probably not.
Update from a few years later: The stuffed shirt who insulted me embezzled money from the arts club–a LOT of money. Sometimes my instincts hit the bull’s eye.