In the coming weeks I am going to take a new approach to this blog. There are several topics I will be dealing with that require multiple posts; however, I am impatient and want to talk about each of them all at once. Therefore, I have decided to treat each topic a bit at a time. Expect me to introduce a discussion in one post and then write a review of an album, book, or movie in another. And then introduce yet another topic in a third post. It will be many months before each of these subjects are completely treated on here, but I believe this format will let me tackle the various issues that currently plague me while presenting a variety that will interest different people.
In a recent interview, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame (perhaps one of my favorite bands) talked about the ideology of the early-mid-nineties, specifically the Grunge movement. Corgan remarks that as the years wore on, he felt defeated as their dreams of changing the world fell flat. As proof of this, he points to the current American culture which is based on “right-wing" value. This to Corgan is evidentially contrary to whatever “they” were working towards.
This post is not really about Billy Corgan or the Grunge era- they are merely specifics that allow me to speak about a more wide spread belief that conservative values are somehow counter-artistic or anti-humane; an ideology that works against peace and love and justice/equality. The reason such a belief exists at all is in part due to a lack of spiritual maturity in many Christians who simply fail to be loving, peaceful, and just. There are many other causes for this belief but to do into them would be to stumble into a monstrous digression. Instead, I intend to examine how ironically misguided this rejection of conservative values is philosophically and practically. In order to do this I am going to take some liberties with Corgan's quote. Corgan did not specifically identify Christian values as against the Grunge revolution, but by saying “right-wing” the implication is there. And I intend to grab hold of this implication despite what his intentions were so that I might deal with the broader issue.
If Christian values were contrary to the Grunge ideology, what exactly was this ideology? Well, if we generalize (always dangerous yet necessary for communication in any sense of the word) and conflate the themes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, we find that they seemed to be fighting for equality (specifically for women in a patriarchal society, but also for sexual preferences. They were against gender roles too. To say that men or women had to act in a certain way was to be unjust.), for love (Although this love took on a very dark countenance for a reason that is at the very core of my ost.), and for justice. They were against consumerism, commodification, oppression of the weak, any sense of being judgmental. And what was the basis for these various positions? Essentially it was an evolutionary utilitarianism. In other words, the only argument they could produce (however, I don't believe any of them articulated this argument even though it was underlying in their lyrics and themes) was that it was the best idea, the most practical. Why was it “right” to be anti-violence and wrong to be hateful? Because violence is not good for humanity. Because love is good for humanity. Ultimately that had nothing better than “the most good for the most people” to appeal to for values. And utilitarianism has never been a strong foundation for anything simply because it requires a dangerous assumption that happiness and suffering can be statistically analyzed. Now before I get emails informing me that so-and-so from whatever band was actually a Buddhist or he believed in “some god” or something along those lines let me again state that I am generalizing here quite self-consciously. And I believe that if you look at the overall worldview of this movement you will find that what I am suggesting is more or less true. The Grunge movement boils down to a restatement and expansion upon the 60's Hippie ideology (which, interestingly enough Corgan himself points out in the same interview). The hopefulness had been lost by this time, but the themes and concerns were essentially the same. Additionally, the 60's appealed to a more mystical foundation where as the 90's dealt with a less mystical and more utilitarian base.
Perhaps someone would suggest that it is not necessary to have a foundation in order to have a moral or ethical stance: “why should I defend loving someone? Must I have a philosophical theory to justify equality or peace?” Yes. But why? Because without a foundation the structure will collapse. Ironically enough, this animosity towards a foundationalism is in itself a philosophical ideal: pragmatism, the brother of utilitarianism. The reason that foundations are important is simply that people actually live by them. To ignore worldviews is to be in denial. Everyone, everywhere has a belief system as a foundation for moral and ethical values, a filter to judge the world and events and emotions and thoughts and desires. In the case of the Grunge movement the foundation was a mystical, existential utilitarianism founded on near nihilism and a Darwinist view of humanity. In this system right and wrong was determined relatively in accordance with the most good for the most people. In the end however, this was insufficient. Corgan himself recounts playing Lollapalooza in 94' and watching as the crowds were filled with unthinking macho alcoholics: “They're not really getting it. They're there with their khakis and their beer, and they want to hear the hit—that's really not about changing things.” But here Corgan has no real way to judge his fans, they are merely doing what seems best for them. If Corgan had confronted one of these fans the encounter could have happened like this:
Corgan: You fool, don't you see that your latching on to the rage of our music and ignoring the message? I'm singing about how wrong it is to be macho and sexist and unthinking!
Fan: Why should I care? Thats not what I get out of your songs.
Corgan: Because if we don't work together and fight against hatred and sexism and commercialism we'll never be free!
Fan: Why is that my problem?
Corgan: Because you're a human!
Fan: Why does that matter? Why should we stop hatred and all that stuff?
Corgan: Because people are suffering and we can help them!
Fan: Why is that my problem? I'm happy and content being who I am why should I lose that to help others?
Corgan: Because you should.
Fan: Why should I not be sexist? It pleases me!
Corgan: Because we are all human and therefore deserve to be treated equally with respect and love.
Fan: Why should we all be treated equally?
Corgan: Because we all share the same experiences and because its right.
Fan: Why is it right? Who said so? Prove to me it is!
Of course I'm straw-manning Corgan here. I'm sure he would have a lot more intelligent things to say that what I've put in his mouth. However, in the end he wouldn't be much better off than what I've proposed because the Grunge ideology had nothing to appeal to. It's foundation was on the idea that we should do our best to help the most people because it was a good idea. Any justification that they could offer would be founded on statistics which in themselves were relative to time, place, culture, people, and a million other variables-variables which are really impossible to calculate. How do you establish the value of a human life when all you have is statistics or a vague notion that love is better than hate? Perhaps part of the reason the Grunge movement failed was that it had no foundation by which to demand others change their lives. All they could say was that it was a good to love because it was good to love or because the world would be a better place, but for who? And in whose opinion? If the value of the individual is based on the premise that “because we exist, we have value” or “because it is in the best interest of everyone to give equal value to everyone” then there is no true basis for value just some ideas why we should believe in the value of the individual. Thus, Corgan and his cohorts had no true reason to urge revolution from their fans.
Now let us look at Corgan's assertion that “right-wing” values were/are the antithesis of the Grunge ideal. First off, in a very fundamental way I agree with him. For them, man was hopeless and the best he could do in life was to try to be humane and to enjoy it while it lasted. This certainly is not in following with Christian values. But in another way, Christian values actually speaks to the same issues that he was fighting for and in a more significant manner as well. Christianity specifically stresses the tremendous importance of Love, justice, equality, peace, while condemning oppression, commercialism, commodification. The great difference is that with Christianity there is a basis. Here, the individual has value because they are made in the image of God, by God. There is something outside humanity that establishes value. In the same way, there is a real reason to pursue peace and love and fight against injustices. The very things that Corgan and others were so adamant to work for are also concerns except there is a real foundation rather than a utilitarian hopelessness; there is no sense of loving only because it is the best thing for humanity (which can only be supported by questionable statistics), instead there is love founded on an eternal and absolute standard.
Therefore, in Art, it should not be that Christian values are rejected, rather the Christian artist, armed with a foundation that is unchanging, that gives profound value to individual people, should be at the forefront of art. This art can be full of compassion and love that at the same time demands justice and equality. Billy Corgan should be, if anything, excited to see a time when at least some people hold a belief that has the foundation necessary to bring about the change he envisioned.