September 25, 2018
artway into The Fiery Angel, Michael Walsh formulates what might seem to be an improbable Gedankenexperiment, given that he had, until that point, dealt almost exclusively with the world of high culture and the fine arts:
Quick: would you rather read a think-tank white paper from around the time of the Reagan—Gorbachev Reykjavik summit in 1986…or watch Rocky IV, released in 1985?
More pointedly, he asks, “Which better predicted the events of November 1989?” There’s no need to analyze the finer points of Rocky Balboa’s victory over Ivan Drago and his conquest of the hearts of the Russian crowd, much less compare that tale with Strobe Talbott’s Deadly Gambits, since Walsh does it to great effect. But his observation is a keen one: respectable Sovietologists of the 1980s didn’t see the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, but Sylvester Stallone’s artistic intuition did. Let those last five words sink in.
Walsh, best-known today as a popular columnist for PJ Media and American Greatness, has life experience that allows him to take this deep dive into the nexus between art, culture, and politics without putting one too much above the others. During his years as Time magazine’s classical music critic, he traveled the world to cover cultural events while at times doing double-duty as a traditional foreign correspondent. In the process, he found that his exposure to the world of art was at least as likely to shed light on long-term political trends as was the reverse. An example he cites is the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s 1986 return to the Soviet Union for a brief series of recitals. Ticketless Muscovites desperately wanting to hear him play rushed the doors and crowded into the concert hall, ignoring all contrary instructions. Walsh doesn’t make any sort of outlandish claim about this being a turning-point in the Cold War, but does say that “what the Horowitz concerts demonstrated to the Communists was that they could not succeed even in something as simple as controlling the entrances to the Tchaikovsky Hall in the heart of Moscow.”
The Fiery Angel’s title is drawn from an infrequently performed Prokofiev opera, and Walsh gives a masterful explication of that work’s layers of historical and artistic references. He makes a case that it is, for all of its dissonant and disturbing strangeness, a quintessentially Western piece of art:
[It is] not necessary to know any of these [cultural] references in order to enjoy, if that is the right word, the opera…yet how much richer and fulfilling is the experience when you do. To know these things…is, in fact, to be civilized in one of the principal senses of the word. And it is precisely this civilizational literacy that we are in such danger of losing, perhaps have already lost, today.
Walsh intends The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the West to be a companion volume to The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, which concentrated on the New Criticism promulgated by the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School is periodically singled out in The Fiery Angel as well, since decoupling the Western artistic tradition from the culture that produced it was part and parcel of their project:
In short, [these Marxist historians] wish to steal our history from us—the primary purpose of Critical Theory—and replace the same set of facts with a different, comprehensive interpretation. This they do in the most intellectually dishonest way possible, by reducing complex tales to a simple anti-narrative, in which our heroes are their villains, in which our accomplishments are history’s schandes, and in which our future is headed for the dustbin.
While cultural Marxism is Walsh’s primary concern, he devotes a great deal of attention to the resurgence of Islam, a much older threat to Christendom. Here in America, the threat from Islam seems, at present, posterior to the vivid immediacy of cultural Marxism taking over our educational institutions, and by extension, most of our media and HR departments. Still, Western Europe is our civilization’s homeland, and Europe is failing to deal with a looming crisis. One comes away from Walsh's treatment of the subject sensing that the rise of Islam on the European continent is the result of two factors: a self-inflicted cultural Marxist injury to the West’s immune system and a self-confident Islam with deep hostility to Western culture.
Most “decline of the West” books tend to concentrate on the written word, since the writings of politicians, philosophers, historians, political thinkers, and even novelists are easily appropriated. As a result, wordsmiths can take up more of the stage than their relative importance might warrant. Walsh’s emphasis on the visual and performing arts, especially classical music, offers a welcome change of pace. The examples he cites are powerful because music is a direct emotional conduit, largely unmediated by explicit narrative. This is true even with opera and ballet, which do have narratives--but not ones designed to pack much of a punch without music.
Like the art that gives the book its dense substrate, Walsh’s points are often obliquely intimated. Even when he does set out his ideas in a more linear fashion, they can have an enigmatic “left brain/right brain” character, as when he says that The Fiery Angel “is not a book about politics per se, but a book about the arts, and how they adumbrate, influence, and reflect, politics”—and then goes on to say “neither is it a book about the arts per se, but a book about politics, and how they are the mirror and instigator and disciple of what is written, printed, sung, filmed, danced, and orchestrated.” Describing politics and the arts as (sometimes evil) twins, he notes that Aristotle wrote both the Politics and the Poetics, suggesting that somewhere therein lies an important lesson.
Another unexpected but resonant idea Walsh conveys is that the ideological Left hates art and, truth be told, would rather it be ignored. This insight might come as a surprise to regular patrons of art museums and concert halls or readers of Manhattan’s august publications of artistic record. Conservatives who make bold to explore the world of the arts would be forgiven for thinking that there are few things about which the Left is more gung-ho than art and that artists return the favor in spades. It is certainly true that creative sorts have, at least since the medieval order morphed into the Renaissance, been likely to lean temperamentally toward disruption. The lockstep leftist ideology so commonly encountered in artistic circles today may often, however, be no more than the equivalent of a 17th century painter or composer waxing eloquent about the patron who controls his purse-strings. Modern sources of patronage are no longer personal but are rather found in waters where a certain kind of bureaucratic leftism seems to thrive swimmingly: committees, commissions, foundations, boards, and hierarchies—both public and private.
The result is that art of the leftist kind focuses not on its putative subject, but on the political points that can be scored. Calling this approach “fundamentally heartless,” Walsh continues:
[To the Left], a piece of art under consideration or in performance functions not as a unique work in itself, but as a commentary—a political commentary—upon a historical event…. [I]t uses people as fodder…and implicitly calls out for more violence to avenge the violence it portrays.
And then the artists go home to their comfortable villas in Italy, their apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, their homes in Beverly Hills, crack open the Calvados, and toast themselves for a job well done.
The Left all too often sees art as a tool to advance their agenda. Since "progress" is central to all of the Left’s modern manifestations, even the idea that certain great artistic works are "timeless" can fall under suspicion. Walsh argues, however, that the Western artistic canon contains remarkable continuities: on right and wrong, on the proper relations between the sexes, on the importance of children in healthy societies, on nature, and on the need for heroism. In the face of this, “the entire Marxist-Leftist venture crumbles into dust.”
Even modernism’s foundational works, such as T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring can only be fully appreciated and loved as works of art from within Western Christendom’s fold. To see these works as little more than an undermining of the tradition from which they sprang is to see them not as art, but as propaganda, which they are not. In order to use old art as new propaganda, the culture that produced it must itself first be destroyed—the culture with which Western art has its natural harmonics and resonances. But since the destruction is coming from within the West, more insight from Walsh would have been welcome regarding the flaws that laid the groundwork, some of which originate long before the 19th century.
There are notes of deep pessimism to be found in these pages. Walsh asserts that the protection of civilization is a rear-guard action that arises when the dark forces seem already to have won. “During a time of cultural muscularity,” he says, “there is no need for it.” He correctly notes that history is littered with cultures that lost their nerve, cultures that “turned certainties to questions, morals to ‘values,’ and vanished.” He sarcastically observes that modern-day Italians and Germans are “intent upon visiting the Disney versions of each other before each disappears” but are doing little to address the forces that will cause their traditional cultures to fade over the coming century.
It would be hard to read The Fiery Angel and not be motivated to attend an opera or read a classic novel or visit an art museum. Walsh’s infectious enthusiasm for the West’s cultural patrimony makes for compelling reading, and the extensive bibliography of works discussed in its pages is as good a place as any to engage with the tradition. Walsh says that his book is about finding our way back home, “deep in our past, near the origin of species.” He notes that cultural Marxism’s many forms fetishize a fickle and unknowable future that “has no artifacts… no poems, no symphonies, no paintings, no soaring architecture to both house and inspire.” Rather than futilely pursuing this unknowable lover, he suggests we look to “the past… lying seductively right beside us, whispering in our ears, if only we will listen.”
By the end of The Fiery Angel, the reader will realize that going to a local production of a Shakespeare play, rereading (or finally reading for the first time) The Divine Comedy or The Brothers Karamazov, attending an orchestral or chamber music performance, pulling that dusty volume of Milton off the shelf, and visiting art museums are not momentary or frivolous diversions. They are, rather, vital and intentional acts of self-preservation.