The Destruction of Legacy
If Nothing is of Timeless Value, then Artistic Creation Loses its Meaning
Note: When I wrote this essay for Tree of Woe, I thought we’d have a low key week with most of the political class caught up in Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. It seemed like a good time to move on from military topics. I didn’t expect that 10 hours before I published it, Russia would declare partial mobilization. Fortunately I have already written extensively on the war, specifically emphasizing the existential nature of the conflict and the likelihood of escalation, so I don’t feel caught off guard so much as annoyed that my predictions came true too soon. I’ll have more to say about the war after I’ve digested the implications; for now please enjoy this essay about Chopin, Tolkien, and the timeless value of great works.
Often, artists sacrifice everything - family, children, the course of their life -- for their art. "I’d give my life to play piano like you," a fan once said to the great Chopin. "I did," he replied.
Why did Chopin give his life to music? Why do any of us who struggle in creative fields do it? Of course many people will claim that “they must create,” “I was born this way,” and so on. And no doubt self-actualization is part of the answer. But it’s not the complete answer.
Many - perhaps most - great artists and geniuses hope to leave a legacy. They wish to be admired and remembered for their great works. "If you wish to leave a legacy, write something worth remembering," said Benjamin Franklin. The appreciation of his work by those who come after he is gone is of paramount importance to the artist. He seeks to create something of timeless value.
And yet in our society today, our values change with astonishing speed. In 2008, President Obama avowed that marriage was a bond between a man and a woman. In 2022, any Democrat making such a statement would be unseated.
Moreover, the change in our social mores is unpredictable in its pace and direction. Could Woodrow Wilson have predicted that his views would one day cause progressives to remove his mention from the school named for him? No, in his day he was the exemplar of progressivism. Could R.E. Howard have known that Conan would become abandoned because of its toxic masculinity? No, in his day Conan was an exemplar of virtuous manhood.
Every generation is convinced that its values are the right, the true, the proper values at which history has finally arrived. But every generation’s values are tossed aside as wrong and wrongheaded within a century, a generation, or — more recently — a decade, or a presidential term, or a year.
Consider the point of view of Gabrielle Bruny of Esquire, who argued that “Game of Thrones treatment of women will tarnish its legacy.” She explained that “Thrones premiered… during a very different era for television… It was a different time, and when Game of Thrones burst onto the scene in a barrage of blood and boobs, the show was an instant hint.” Game of Thrones premiered in 2011. She wrote the article in 2019, before the show was even finished with its eighth season.
America’s social mores changed so fast that Game of Thrones became problematic before it was even finished. It’s not the only one to suffer this fate, just the most notable. The pace of change has become so fast that no author, screenwriter, musician, or artist can hope to keep up with the Current Thing over the course of the time it takes to write a series of novels or produce a TV show.
In the past, things changed more slowly; and that, perhaps, gave us the largeness of mind to accept that great work is great for the skill of its creation, the creativity of its expression, the uniqueness of its form. Our ancestors experienced the great works of the past from the lens of their shared human experience. A Victorian did not need to think that Achilles was a proper Englishman to admire Homer's Iliad. An atheistic French revolutionary could admire the majesty of the Pyramids despite the fact they were constructed by conscript labor in the service of a religious autocrat.
Today we have rejected this stance and we insist on judging art based on whether it "expresses our values." Call of Cthulhu is racist. Lord of the Rings is problematic. Michelangelo's David idealizes impossible body standards. Classical music is white supremacist.
Many conservatives worry that viewing the past through the lens of the present destroys our past legacy. I worry that it will also destroy our future legacy.
What artist will commit his life to creating great works of art, if he knows that in a generation he will be rebuked and scorned for not supporting values that were alien to him? How can an artist create timeless work, when the times are always changing?
Would Tolkien have been as inspired to publish his mythology of England, if he knew that in his own son's lifetime, his legendarium would be deemed racist and problematic, and soon after, rebuked and changed?
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
Perhaps when the outrage mob sets fire to the legacy of the past, they do more than burn it down. Perhaps they extinguish the fire in the soul of those who would have left a legacy to the future before it is ever kindled. Perhaps, as I wrote in The Spoliation of Pop Culture, this is even their goal.
It is up to us, those who want to create, consume, and enjoy timeless art, to ensure that today’s great works get the support they deserve. If you want to do something to resist the dystopian trend in our world, you can start by finding content creators who uphold timeless values and support their work, publicly, forcefully, and often.
Before asking you to subscribe to this amazing Substack, the Contemplator on the Tree of Woe would like to take a moment to remind you that he also writes many other creatives works espousing timeless values.
Let the mobs burn and loot and pillage. Let them cancel and censor and scold. I believe greatness comes not from being free from fear, but from a courage and disagreeabless that are possible only in a world of risks and dangers.
The idiocy and historical illiteracy of the woke movement has inspired me to better understand history. Their arrogance and intolerance have inspired me to better understand other faiths and to find those same seeds of contempt within my soil, and to eradicate them wherever I can find them.
I have become who i am, the best parts of who I am, in large part because of good clear examples, or what to be, or what not to be. The world of full of great examples of both. I think we’ll see increasing acts of artistic greatness who achieve immortality because, not inspite of the rapidly changing values. Only the eternal and timeless can stand proud in an era this tumultuous.
So I say, more mores! More insane academics! More progressive authoritarianism! More vacuous pop art, more thought pieces! Give the people something to wipe their asses with while they shiver in the dark, just like their ancestors, only we shiver because our leaders reflected our own personal failings - not through lack of knowledge or ability, but through abdication.
The best way to wage kulturkampf is to create kultur.