The Next Renaissance
We know how to revive industry, but what about art and culture?
The economic turn happening in America and elsewhere has been called an “industrial policy renaissance.” So much intellectual activity going on today is perpetually fretting and debating about the right strategy for the economy. The game that is being played globally right now is a development race, so I totally understand why industrial policy and technological advancement trump all other concerns. We used to think of a renaissance as a more holistic flourishing of prosperity and culture, but today it is easy to imagine collectively just giving up on culture as an unnecessary indulgence and drifting into high-tech philistinism. The profit models of the culture industries of the 20th century have been disrupted, and now the pure entertainment of addictive online media requires no expensive artistic aspect.
If I was a national leader and I wanted a guide to reviving industry, I would know where to look, but if I wanted to bring about a renaissance in art and culture, where would I turn? Political economists spent several hundred years devoted to the question of what causes the wealth of nations, but if you need to know the causes of periods of great artistic flourishing in the hope of recreating them, you will typically get these mystified, vague explanations, too macro or too abstract to be actionable or replicable in any way.
I’ve been going through a long fallow period. It has been six years since my last book and several weeks since my last post. (Forgive me, and thank you, my loyal, patient patrons). I’ve been struggling for years now to fall in love again with a big inspirational project. Crushing political disappointments and the unhappy experience of becoming an online hate figure left me very pessimistic and paralyzed. I’ve been trying to rethink and rebuild everything from scratch ever since. What was the point of any of that? Why am I doing any of this? What really matters? What is really worth writing about or caring about, and why?
One of the things that has always mattered a lot to me is art and culture. I feel bereft if I can’t get access to manmade beauty, and I feel a sense of relief and freedom when I do. The uglification of the public space upsets me. The general decline in originality, even in pop culture, also drains the sense of excitement and optimism from life and likewise, a great rare gem can increase your optimism and sense of the joy of life. Some friends have encouraged me to write about beauty, but here’s the problem. We know that the prestige institutions are full of anti-beauty ideologues trained to grill anyone who uses the B-word. But to write a defense or explanation of beauty as Scruton did is a bit like being forced to write a treatise on the rational reasons why someone should be in love with you. Nobody has ever changed their mind about the existence of beauty through word-based reasoning. So why would the world need yet another such book? They never really make any difference. If you have to explain that beauty exists and is good, you’re already playing on your enemy’s terms.
I knew that I wanted my next book and my next big project in writing to contribute something of value to those who come after me. I need to know when I die that I left behind something that did that. Many of my writer friends say things like, “What I do is just entertainment to pay the bills.” To hell with that. I still want to change the world. I just needed to figure out something that was important enough to inspire devotion in me.
One day, when I was out walking, I had a eureka moment and I realized what I have to do. After years of paralysis and agonizing, I suddenly found the big idea, the cause, the thing worth writing about.
Since I started this Substack, I’ve been following two main threads with no real goal other than intellectual curiosity and a vague hunch that they would eventually lead somewhere interesting. The first has been a deep study of the real history of political economy, from the Renaissance to the German Historical School to today, using Erik Reinert’s “other canon” as a guide. The second theme has been on the rise and fall of aesthetic flourishing, on why we seem to go through periods of intense creativity, of devotion to style and art and then through periods that are deadeningly uncreative or even characterized by resentful iconoclasm and hostility to aestheticism.
Many of the great works of political economy and the whole German Historical School were innovations of necessity. The mysterious and cruel forces of decline, poverty, and laggard status focused the best minds of the time on one question: what creates the wealth and poverty of nations? And with that knowledge, what can the wit and will of man do to reverse your nation’s fortunes? They didn’t have the luxury of vague abstractions, so instead, their methodology was to study history and how those who successfully created wealth through industry actually did it in the most practical terms possible. Their implicit motto became do as the rich nations do, not as they say. With that seemingly simple methodology, they changed the world.
So then it occurred to me. These two threads I’ve been pursuing are related. There are plenty of books about art and culture and civilization, why it rises and declines, and so on. But there is no mission-oriented and action-oriented equivalent to the work done on political economy that teaches us and demystifies how to revive culture and the arts. What if I tried to do for art and culture what people like Antonio Serra and Friedrich List and Henry Carey and Erik Reinert, and Marianna Mazzucatto did for political economy? I want to discover the real historical causes of the greatest periods of artistic and cultural flourishing throughout world history with a focus on the how - the things that can be recreated through conscious human will. To be succinct, I want to write a book on how to start a Renaissance in the arts. Based on all of my own observations so far, I believe it’s a lot less mysterious and magical than people think. For example, visionary patrons are often the cause of why a great art period begins and ends with a particular regime.
Imagine you live under a tyrannical art-loving monarch, and you are tasked with writing a set of guidelines that will make art explode with creativity. She wants to see elegance and magnificence and style in new forms emerging all around her. If you fail, you will lose your head. What would those guidelines be, and how would you figure them out? Like the great political economists of the German Historical School, you would begin by looking at how people have achieved it in the past. You would ignore vague sentimentalism about spontaneous eruptions of the human soul or how everything is universal human “creativity” and how everything can be art. You would ignore miserablist tomes about how the West has fallen, which have no useful practical guidance that you need. You would ignore explanations that are totally beyond human control. You need to find out how to do everything possible to increase artistic flourishing in the present.
You would examine the history of success. Who patronized the great works and why? What institutions nurtured the artists? What inventions and innovations were happening around them that led to the materials getting into their hands? What forces influenced them? Are there any identifiable universal elements throughout time or are they all specific to their time and place? Then you would adapt these things from history to the new technological context of today. What could replicate the effect of the Medicci or Renaissance Popes in our time? What about leisure? Why couldn’t we realize Oscar Wilde’s dream of aristocratic conditions of leisure and time for aestheticism in the modern age through robotics? Anti-aestheticism and iconoclasm certainly aren’t new, so such values among the elites have come and gone before.
The most exciting thing for me is that I’m starting without the answer. There are, of course, many scholarly theories on things like “the causes of the Renaissance,” but these are not written for action, just idle musing about things mostly outside human will. (Remember, if I come up with an answer like “warm weather,” my hypothetical art-loving monarch will send me to the gallows. She needs to see results!)
Why does any of this matter?
We have all wondered at some point about the meaning of our existence. What is the point or meaning of the existence of a collective of people? To me, the answer must be art. Camille Paglia used to often say that we judge all the civilizations of the past by their art. They beautified the world therefore, their existence was something meaningful and precious. But what if we’re not capable of it anymore? What does the art and culture of today say about us? If we uglify the world, is it reasonable to wonder if we should exist at all? Art is the most meaningful justification for our existence, to me, because we have to earn it.
In our time, we have the wealth and the means to bring about the most dazzlingly beautiful age ever seen on earth. Every day we measure every kind of progress you can think of, except this. Why?
You, my loyal patrons, are the only reason I’ve had the time and space to indulge myself in this way and pursue my intuitions. I feel like I was born to figure this out. I will use Substack as my experimental notes while I work my way through the theme, while I also work on a book on the same question. I’m going to begin, I think, with case studies. I want to take individual great works and figure out how they each came to be or what their causes were. Recommendations and leads are always welcome, as this will be an open-minded and ongoing investigation.