The Necessity of/for High Art in a Recession

As to the voice of the nightingale herself in Keats’ famed Ode: it can be taken to have a plethora of significations. For the purpose of what I want to say here, I will take the voice of Keats’ Nightingale to represent, as a synecdoche, the voice of oblivious humanity, especially of the oblivious masses, as they subsist from era to era. The “ecstasy” of the nightingale, and of her generic resemblance to all other nightingales (which has already been discussed), is that she sings from a surface-level relationship to reality. She is not emitting “de profundis,” so to speak, but from the blithe sense of both the realness and the generally satisfactory nature of the surface of her consciousness. Thus do the oblivious masses tend to live: on the surface, without introspection, aping satisfaction with their lives even when the specters of sickness, old age, and physical mortality hover over them. Like Keats, who is beleaguered very much in this sublime masterpiece, I also choose not to dwell on the surface, both to have and to embrace introspective tendencies, and to value my own cognitive capacities. The political repercussions of a group of us in Aughts Philly who chose to live this way has many complex interstitial relations to the rest of American history and society, but my basic motivation is and will likely remain the same: just to clear some space for people like us in America; just to make it so that those of us who choose not to live on the surface are allowed to do so, and not discouraged in our endeavors; and just to make clear that the emphasis in America need not dwell at all times on ephemeral matters and babyish peccadilloes.

It is no accident that these issues are coming to light in a steep recession. When material matters on the surface become shaky, people, Americans or not, need rocks to lean on if any peace of mind is to develop, against confounding tides. What American popular and media culture offers— fatuous, fallacious representations of a reality which is as gossamer as silk, or (more often) entirely unreal, arrayed in the illusory appearance of profundity and thoughtfulness— is not something to be leaned on as an aid to serious human consciousness in a recession at all. It is, as Brits might say, a load of rubbish. There is some evidence to suggest that what we accomplished in Aughts Philly has gained the beginnings of a solid foundation in the world, and if this is not surprising, it is because recessions turn the minds and hearts of the affected inwards, against the blithe squawking of Keats’ Nightingale, and there is no ecstatic surface for anyone to plug into. Keats’ “I” in the Nightingale is all of ours, now, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, and now becomes as ripe a time as any to plant the seeds of a new sector in American life— public scientists, philosophers, high artists, architects. This sector must, itself, be beleaguered from the beginning— too many other human sectors hate the idea of advanced cognition coming to the fore— but, in a way, and on a profound level, that doesn’t matter much. What does matter is that the soul of America, which is sick onto starving, be replenished by an infusion of energy which engenders new social conditions, in which the intelligent need not feel alienated; and the emergence of a group of serious artists in a steep recession is a wholesome step towards realizing that goal, of the emergence of depth and profundity in American life.