I looked on with horror at this news story about a fountain recently unveiled in Vienna, Austria. A city that for centuries has been associated with some of the highest works of art paid actual money for an amateurish sculpture that ranks with that ruined fresco in Borja, Spain.
I immediately thought of Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story Harrison Bergeron. (Probably a coincidence, but her initials spell “damage” without the vowels.) In this tale, the year is 2081, and recent amendments to the constitution have empowered the Federal government to artificially “handicap” the more intelligent, attractive, and athletic citizens such that these advantages are brought brown to a lower common denominator. This paragraph describes a few applications of this policy:
“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
One wonders if Vonnegut had read C. S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” published by the Saturday Evening Post only two years earlier.
You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of corn, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, ‘democracy’. But now ‘democracy’ can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.
That seems to be the intention of modern art, at least a great deal of it. Bring new art down to the lowest common denominator, so that none of it is any better than that sad episode in Borja, Spain. Hopefully the art world will not seek to cut the classics down to size.