Friday, May 6, 2016

Idea and Representation in Art: Satanic Black Metal and the Christian Listener

The other day I encountered an interesting topic during my daily facebook scouting. It involved the question of a Christian being able to listen to bands who produce music with visually and morally questionable lyrical content, namely metal music with satanic and otherwise blasphemous themes. It is a discussion that I am well familiar with, given my history as both a Christian and someone very intimate with the metal underground. That it is a question of such burning relevance to what we have posted on this blog is what prompts me to recreate that conversation here, editing my thoughts on the matter to produce a more coherent result. 

Now, to the charge that the Christian cannot in good moral standing attend the works of blasphemous artists it will be answered that, insofar as the work is experienced in a purely aesthetic way, he can indeed do so, and our argument will involve three principal points: that (1) a work can represent an ugly thing beautifully; that (2) there is an artistic standard for all things made and an ethical standard, and that only the former is mandatory for something to be well-made; and (3) that the conscience of the individual is crucial, that the listening to such artists depends both on the listener's reasons for doing so and the degree to which his conscience will allow him to do so. 

It will be remembered that anything that is made is art as such. It is not merely the 'useless' arts, painting, poetry, film, etc., that are art, but also the crafts of textiles, cabinetry, infrastructure, ship-building, etc; there is traditionally no difference between the artist and the craftsman, between the 'fine' and 'rougher' arts, because this concept of art refers to everything that was made by human hands. Plato said that there is an idea, and the artisan, by a process called mimesis, imitated that idea through his work; the idea of a fireplace, for example, is subsequently represented by the building of an actual fireplace. That is what is called art.

The degree to which a thing is beautiful is the degree to which it is well-made, and the degree to which a thing is well-made is the degree to which it accurately represents its idea. This is the basic standard of art, its first judgment.  It follows from this that even ideas of ethically repugnant things, such as the Devil, can be represented beautifully, because it is not the thing represented that is being judged as good or bad, but its representation instead. This is exactly what St. Bonaventure argued, that an accurate representation of something ugly is infact beautiful:
'[St. Bonaventure] distinguished two reasons for the beauty of an image, even when the object imitated was not beautiful in itself. An image, he said, was beautiful if it was well-constructed, and if it faithfully represented its object. "An image of the devil can be called 'beautiful' if it is a good representation of his foulness and thus foul itself." The image of something ugly is beautiful when it is "ugly" in a persuasive manner....' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages)

It is therefore easy to imagine how black metal, the best of black metal, that is, fulfills such requirements. The foulness of demons is wonderfully represented in the cold, vicious, dissonant, sad, and destructive tones of black metal; the tremolo guitars, the blast beat percussion, the shrieking vocals, the insane and vulgar blasphemies against Our Lord, all of this is conducive to creating in our minds the foulness of demons. The aspect of ugliness is effected, but it is founded on a solid artistic basis, on well-crafted songs written according to objective musical laws that accord with what is aesthetically pleasant and intellectually sound. The ugly idea is therefore shown as something ugly by strong, imaginative virtues of artistic creation; it is well-made, 
therefore it is beautiful. 

There is the question, however, of whether a piece of art is still beautiful if the artist represents the ugly idea, i.e., Satan, as something which is actually beautiful, that it is worth subscribing to, to indeed worshiping. If a Satanist band proclaims the glories of Satan, describes his great beauty and wisdom, and asks us to devote ourselves utterly to him, is their work still a beautiful work of art? If Satan is no longer professed as something foul and dark, but as something wondrous and enlightening to behold, is it no longer something that accurately represents its subject, and is therefore no longer a beautiful work of art?

It can firstly be answered that, in black metal, the musical ambiance remains the same: dark, screeching, violent, and tempestuous. The words might change, but the music remains truthful, loyal to the right representation. It is for this reason that Christian black metal, or 'unblack metal', is almost never successful; it is using a highly inappropriate medium for its content, namely the love and peace of Jesus Christ, which of course is highly misplaced in the swirling venom and uncompromising malice of black metal songwriting. It is only when exploring darker, more mystical themes that 'Christian black metal' can be salvaged, as these ideas are more consistent with the music which carries them (see: Reverorum Ib Malacht). Nevertheless, this answer being too easy, we shall use this as an excuse to endeavour to answer this interesting question by explaining the distinction between the artistic and the ethical standards of things made. 

The artistic standard has already been explained. To use Coomaraswamy's example, the atom bomb that demolished Hiroshima is something beautiful because it did what it was designed to do; its representation perfectly matched its idea. The ethical standard, however, is whether that idea is good, and more critically of whether the thing made is good, in the sense of whether it is worth making at all. The nuclear bomb that demolished Hiroshima is infact something ethically monstrous, whatever its artistic qualities. In this case, the ethical negates the artistic, because there is no use for the artistic beauty of the nuclear weapon besides fulfilling its incredibly destructive telos.

In the modern aesthetic realm, however, where beauty has become its own end, a work of art does not necessarily have to be good in the ethical sense, as long as it is good in the artistic sense. This is because beauty, while principally dwelling in the ultimate Good, also extends to the beauty of this world. Part of that beauty is possessed by musical creation, so an artist may share in that beauty by composing something artistically good. The representation of demons, then, even as something positive, may ethically be written off as bad, but insofar as the music used to represent the subject is well-made and appropriately constructed for that subject, so that representation is good. The truly bad is something ugly, and something that is poorly made is ugly, and therefore bad, and therefore more truly of the Devil than a beautiful imitation of the Devil. 

Good music produces beauty, regardless of its content. Therefore, where there is no healthy use for the atom bomb, there is a use for satanic black metal, because we get to experience its beauty in a way we never could with a nuclear weapon; we get to experience black metal sensually and intellectually, aesthetically delighting in it as an authentic portion of this world's beauty.  The existence of black metal is therefore justified on artistic grounds.

As another challenge to our main thesis, it might be argued that pop music is a good representation of promiscuity and depraved antisocial behaviors and general moral degeneracy - does that mean that pop music is artistically beautiful? Moreover, it portrays such things as worthwhile pursuits, exhorting the listener to follow the artist's lead and dive into a feast of corruption and vice - does that not mean that pop music is ethically bad? This charge can be answered by simply stating that it is, with few exceptions, not good music; it may represent ugly things, but it does so with ugliness, and therefore cannot share in the beauty respective to the artistic standard.  It thus fails both the artistic and the ethical judgments because it is bad music representing bad things. It is artistically ugly because bad music is never a good representation of anything other than the artist's own impotence, and it is ethically bad because of the moral dangers of creating that sort of popular music to negatively influence the masses who hear it. 

Now it must be mentioned that it is true that ideally the artistically beautiful and the
ethically beautiful are one and the same, that they cannot be separated - the works of Palestrina, the Gregorian liturgical chants of the Middle Ages, the masses of Haydn, the fugues of Bach all exceed the highest expectations of artistic and ethical judgments. These things are perfect inasmuch as they represent that which is most truly beautiful, and more importantly represent them beautifully. The contemporary gospel song claims to worship God, to portray him beautifully; the artists behind such a song allegedly have the highest ethical aims. Yet they fall flat on their face in the end, because they fail to represent God meaningfully, with power, with beauty, because they have no artistic quality. In this example we see that the thing which worships God is ugly, and the thing which worships Satan is beautiful, as long as we remember that it is purely the aesthetic portrayal of satanic worship, and not the real thing. 

This does not mean that the devout Catholic may be able to share in the appreciation of that beauty; it is more than understandable for him to be repulsed by such representations, for they offend his faith and his notion of goodness. That is all well and good; beauty is subjective to an extent, and for that person his taste is unable to comprehend the beauty of a foul thing. Yet this does not preclude the beauty of the thing in itself, nor does it preclude the possibility that we may delight in such a work of art. 

As long as the music is listened to in the right light, with the right mentality, the dangers are mitigated; the influence of such dark themes is limited if we bear in mind only the beauty of the creation, and not the ugliness of the creation's subject, that we do not suppose that they are both beautiful. For the listener doing this will indeed be effected by it, because he has lost the idea of what is good. We see this most typically in the dissociated, confused youths who reach out to forlorn subcultures, desperate to attain some kind of meaning for themselves when the meaning of their education has failed them; the music becomes a superficial crutch for them, because they have supposed Satan for something he is not, namely a helper of Man. This is essentially nihilism, for in voiding the values of Christian society and adopting those of the Devil, the estranged soul betrays meaning altogether, because Satan is pure privation, lacking in all reality; he is the absence of the real. 

It is a fact that in the truly Christian city such music would be censored altogether, as it would play a disruptive influence upon an otherwise rightly ordered society, and would moreover have no use as a symbolic reflection of society's diabolical undertones. Nevertheless, given that our society is far from ideal, and certainly not Christian in any meaningful way, such music may indeed have a use to reflect those 'diabolical undertones' to the listener conscious of this significance.

In order to listen to ethically questionable material, it is necessary to do a thorough search of one's conscience, to determine how deeply it affects him, and to aspire to listen to such music for the right reasons, which are purely aesthetic in the case of Satanic black metal. It is music that we listen to not for our edification, but for how it pleases our aesthetic faculties; it is music that we listen to not for the celebration of its subject, but for the contemplation of how that subject might be related to us and our world, to reality as a whole. Milton's Satan, for instance, is obviously an evil figure in his rejection of God and for the corruption of his fellow angels and especially of man. He is nevertheless a tragic figure, and says a great deal about the human character and the Christian narrative, so he should be contemplated in that light. The final word on this matter, however, is that if the conscience in any way feels burdened, it is the surest sign for the listener to put the music away - it is clearly not for him. 

That the vast majority of good art emerges from the secular world today should not be a prohibitive factor for us; it is simply our reality that the good, the true, and the beautiful are divorced, that the 'aesthetic' standard of the Middle Ages which marries all three is no longer upheld. It is an irony of some significance that beautiful music today is more often of dark things than of good things, for our age is itself dark; yet that does not negate a beautiful thing. We might listen to works that recreate darkness because that is what our present age is - an enslavement to the flesh, an engorgement of the self, the worship of demons. Such works do not have to be an encouragement to follow suit; they also have the potential to be contemplated indifferently, in a different way, namely to view them as the ethos of our age essentialized and purified into artistic form. Satanic, antichristian music possesses an extra power and relevance for modern man because modernity is satanic. Black metal music epitomizes and reflects the chaos of the zeitgeist, and insofar as that is true it truthfully represents its subject, and insofar as that is true it is beautiful.