The Vonnegut-Lewis Theory of Modern Art

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.

10 thoughts on “The Vonnegut-Lewis Theory of Modern Art”

  1. The lesson intended is destruction. Beauty, truth, proportion, development – these do not exist. They are illusions, and these artists seek to express that.

    I suppose they are successful in that aim. They do indeed express nihilism wonderfully. Which, ironically, is the “truth” they wished to convey, and thus have done so in a logical, illustrative way.

    There really isn’t any escape from reality down that path, but they take joy in destroying your ideas, at least.

  2. Lewis had a lot more to say on the matter. In That Hideous Strength the main protagonist Mark Studdock is selected by demonic forces for training in “Objectivity”. One of the first things they did was make him sit and study works of perverse art. Some of them utterly and openly repulsive but more of them just……a little off. A Last Supper with an extra apostle and with everyone’s hands just a bit deformed for instance…….

  3. David

    2014. I believe that was before I wandered into this particular saloon.

    I understand his friend Tolkien did not care for the book but it has held up extremely well over time.

    The chapter titled, as I recall, The Descent of the gods might have the best ten pages of writing I’ve ever encountered…


  4. “Public art” has always been mostly bad, what can you expect from a committee. The selection of something so grotesquely ugly has to be an assertion of power by those who did it. How exhilarating to think about the thousands of nameless shlubs forced to look at that and shudder every day, and it’s all your doing.

  5. @ Tacitus – I have also reviewed the book (sort of) twice and referred to it many times.

    David commented thinking it would make a good movie and after a bit of thought, I agreed.

    Tolkien called it “rather tripish” because he thought it was “a Charles Williams novel written by CS Lewis” and that Williams was a witch. That turned out to be true, BTW.

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