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Neon sentiment in Margate: “I Never Stopped Loving You”, 2010, by Tracey Emin (photo: Katie Hunt, via Flickr)

If last year’s debates about Britishness demonstrated anything, it’s that a culture cannot be reduced to a checklist of its most popular dishes and landmarks. Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ou rselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.

Throughout history, civilisations have compensated for this loss by stowing their shared memories in communal institutions. But today, for perhaps the first time in history, large chunks of our culture appear indifferent, even hostile, to their own past.

Look, for instance, at the art world. For many centuries, the West’s artistic traditions were held among its most precious assets, for they conveyed — by melody and brushstroke — so many things otherwise inexpressible about who we are. But at the beginning of the 20th century, culture suddenly took a different turn: artists, no longer content simply to loosen the ties and top buttons of convention, stripped themselves completely, doused their clothes in petrol, and set them alight.

Swept by the modernism surging through Europe’s veins, they sought to overturn and recreate everything anew. Declaring their own traditions irrelevant, they butchered them. Schoenberg irrevocably scrambled tonality. Duchamp scribbled a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

The great oaks of Western art were burned to the ground. Today, radical artists are left scouring through the embers, still looking for last traces of life. Their primary target is now the taboo — the unspoken memory of a once-communal system of values. Tracey Emin shows us her unmade bed, strewn with used condoms and bloodied underwear. Damien Hirst suggests that the 9/11 hijackers “need congratulating”. Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.

But by trying so hard to wipe its own memory, art comes perilously close to losing its sense of self altogether. Once the shocks no longer shock, what does it stand for? A few generations after the narcotic highs of modernism, the art world has left itself largely brain-dead.

This tragedy acts as a miniature simulation of just how easily — and quickly — cultures can wither away. And it ought to alarm us to see the same pattern emerging right across Western society.

Consider the main philosophical movements of the 20th century. The majority followed the fearsome footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche — the man who killed God and buried good and evil at His side. And though they grappled with his legacy in a variety of ways, they shared, more or less, the same key assumption: that the traditional pursuits of thought — truth, beauty, meaning — were fundamentally misguided. Philosophy, unable to comment on the world, turned instead to — and on — itself. “Having broken its pledge to be at one with reality,” Theodor Adorno wrote, “philosophy is obliged to ruthlessly criticise itself.”

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October 12th, 2015
1:10 PM
The very height of civilisation,surpassing even New Order, is Sia`s `Chandelier`. The triumph of pagan modernism in culture . I bought it an hour ago.

October 8th, 2015
3:10 PM
The new Bond film song `The Writing`s on The Wall` is the worst song in the entire history of world music. It sounds like Mick Hucknall being put through a mincer. Have Tory Party voters made it Number One In The Charts? The imitation of an imitation has reached it`s nadir. However the new New Order album (free on Youtube) is the genius and joy (division) of British/Mancunian Enlightenment Values in music. Or simply universal excellence.

September 26th, 2015
2:09 PM
The police/London Mall Gallery censorship of Mimsy`s artwork criticizing Islamic State is cowardly and sinister (as the Guardian 26 september reports.) Pussy Riot popping up in a metal cage at Banksy`s `Dismaland` is also brave and witty. For free mp3 music/artists solidarity emailed to you send your request to XFACTORY RECORDS at Once upon a time in the olden days when people lived in the`s a new genre.

July 4th, 2015
3:07 PM
The review in the Art Newspaper online by Matthew Collings of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition actually proves my proposition true. As does Glastonbury in a much livelier way. Melody lovers shouldn't miss Future Islands - their set is still available on the BBC Glastonbury site.

July 2nd, 2015
7:07 PM
The writer asks a serious, deep question and unfortunately researches it on the surface only (google as a nonsense baby word) and then, as an answer, falls back on the usual binary paths of modernism versus an imaginary golden past.

July 2nd, 2015
3:07 PM
The Bank of England wants nominations for a dead artist to feature on the new £20 note (see its website). Oscar Wilde. Zizek is alive and is todays Ken `Civilisation` Clark. The public is being a total failure about all this. All our political,religious and cultural `leaders` included. Soft on Islam- Soft on its Causes Cameron etc want the BBC to start calling `Islamic State` the `Daesh`. Why not `sadistic gobshite scum of the earth`? The English language not good enough for the Tories anymore ? The Tories are weak`Neville Chamberlains` not `Winston Churchills`. Same problem on the Left. Kit Wilson starts off barbarously flippant. Zizek advocates creating our own higher leading culture that regulates the interactions between the subcultures. If art is the star commodity that helps sell all the others how perfect for capitalism that Damien Hirst (the Chris Evans of postmodern uk)exists. The Royal Academy being it`s Top Gear. It`s glitzy passive nihilism. Not a Zizek of an idea between them.

The Sanity Inspector
July 1st, 2015
4:07 PM
As for art, the pants-droppers who call themselves artists nowadays ought to watch Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation", and then enlist in the military. If they want to shock me, that would do it.

July 1st, 2015
6:07 AM
But moderan art is capitalism writ large. After all, we see meaningless daubs and lumps of indefinable shape sold everyday for millions of dollars, all on the say so of the art establishment which has somehow convinced that these things have intrinsic value. Isn't that what capitalism has done for so many goods and services throughout history. I do not say this as an attack on capitalism, but as a encomium. Capitalism allows man to soar free and ascribe value to anything. it does not of itself cause us the veer away from high culture. That is usually something that has been encouraged by those who loathe capitalism.

Susan Rononymous
July 1st, 2015
12:07 AM
A bracing, provocative piece. Sentimental nihilism, yes. Creeping infantilism I call it. American/British pop culture was, not so long ago, egalitarian and joyful-now sarcastic and brain-dead. Not sure how capitalism is a positive here--wealth inequality is edging towards a new feudalism.

June 30th, 2015
4:06 PM
What a pessimistic, ill-thought out article. As one of the 20-somethings that Wilson chooses to vilify with tired blanket insults, I can attest to the fact that this rubbish lacks veracity (I know plenty of young people who spend no time on social media, preferring to work, volunteer and travel). Moreover, this piece lacks historical perspective. Like so many recent articles, this one willfully chooses to ignore that commentators have always viewed their reality as the time when all society crumbles away and culture dissolves. The cultural apocalypse has been coming, it seems, since the very beginning of culture, and we have yet to see anything to prove articles like this right. After every major conflict, art has emerged triumphantly, fortified by adversity. Modernism came from WWI, when Western culture was completely shattered. It was rescued by the likes of Eliot, who writes, "these fragments I have shored against my ruins," as he collects the detritus left by the war. WWII brought us post-modernism and a literature influenced by quantum physics. My point is this: maybe we should all spend less time writing articles that bemoan the decimation of culture and instead focus on constructing cultural bulwarks against the disaster.

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