Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).
One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.
In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.
When this newsblog attacked a critical female journalist by inviting its readers to submit rape fantasies (a call promptly answered), 130 of her colleagues responded with a manifesto that was printed in two national newspapers, calling upon the site’s advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship.
A sensible and fair action. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. It’s just a pity that the action should be female-only, since that tends to confirm the opponent’s stereotypes (‘broom riders’).
Among the (sometimes unwitting) advertisers are McDonald’s, Rabobank, the Dutch Tax Authority and Ministry of Defence, De Efteling, and bol.com webshop. De Efteling is a fairytale theme park designed in a kind of neo-Biedermeier style. It is curious that its spokesman should find no major discrepancy between the site’s rapist hooliganism and De Efteling’s own ‘range of ideas’ (gedachtegoed). The Ministry of Defence initially saw no way of recruiting 4000 young males per annum without addressing the site’s typically male young adult audience (arming rapists with Brownings?), but has fortunately revised its position.
My personal dealings are limited to bol.com as a book supplier. So I let them know that I intended to suspend my patronage. Their answer: that they had one campaign running, and would reconsider only afterwards. Not good enough.
Bad style, bad taste, bad morals. The scary thing is that with its nearly 2 million unique visitors per month the site is not an obscure and negligible fringe phenomenon. As a branch of media company TMG it is firmly embedded in the right-wing commercial mainstream, which indirectly receives such encouraging support from the White House.
Is the fight against bad morals a fight against bad taste? Is there some common ground of shared — preferably, permanent — values between morality and aesthetics, some kind of ethical-aesthetic imperative? Does the Enlightenment idea of a morally uplifting cultural education, of improvement-through-art still have any validity?
If a pathological lack of shame is the clue to Trumpian politics, general behaviour, and aesthetics, maybe we should recommend a healthy sense of shame and good-natured modesty as ethic-aesthetic counter-attitudes. An old-fashioned virtue that is hard to cultivate in a society which constantly urges individuals to engage in bloated self-promotion.