This idea was furthered by Richard Wagner is his wonderful autobiography, My Life:
I insisted upon attaching an importance to the artistic destiny of mankind which far transcended the mere aims of citizenship.
We need this perspective. For a nation to be great, it needs more than economic success. It needs more than technological advancement. And it needs more than sensual passion.
It needs an art form that elevates humanity – one that expresses a universal life essence. It could be a three-act play that brings a grown man to tears. It could be an overture that inspires a young man to rise up and chase his dream with relentless fervor. Or it could be an epic poem, filling the classrooms of a nation with ethereal bliss.
Art is culture. And without a wonderful display of human expression, no nation can every call itself an EMPIRE.
Richard Wagner has a fantastic essay called “Art and Revolution” (1849). The very idea is ahead of its time, for we now understand that modern art (as well as postmodern) were used to undermine the foundations of Western civilization. For the essay however, Wagner writes about the artwork of two great civilizations: Greek and Roman. He champions the Greek approach to art, while ridiculing the Roman expression.
He begins by praising the drama of ancient Greece:
“The deeds of gods and men, their sufferings, their delights…here they became actual and true. For all that in them moved and lived, as it moved and lived in the beholders, here found its perfected expression…such was the Grecian people in its highest truth and beauty.”
Well put. The complexity of Grecian drama is readily apparent. While other cultures were throwing mud at one another, the Greeks were performing elaborate plays: music, costumes, and brilliant prose! It’s little wonder that they are held in such high esteem.
He then mocks the debased entertainment of ancient Rome; in particular, the bloodthirsty events of the Colosseum:
“…they opened not to the gods and heroes of the ancient myths, nor to the free dancers and singers of the sacred choirs! No! Wild beasts, lions, panthers and elephants, must tear themselves to pieces in their amphitheatres, to glut the Roman eye; and gladiators, slaves trained up to the due pitch of strength and agility, must satiate the Roman ear with the hoarse gulp of death.”
Wagner is forcing me rethink my opinions on history. Truth be told, I’ve always had a preference for Roman culture over Greek. I love the stoic philosophies, the sordid plays, and the iconic architecture. Perhaps I’ve been influenced (in a subtle or direct way) by the historical fictions of Hollywood.
Wagner makes a valid argument; Greek drama was on a superior level and it should never be compared to a degenerate display of entertainment. Remember that art is a high expression of humanity; the display of a great mind and spirit. We should always revere its power…to hold it in high regard! For art is what separates the Prince from a plebeian and the great civilization from a forgotten one.
Once a culture begins to celebrate degenerate art, it soon becomes degenerate as well.