Modern art has done its best to present the bleak obliteration of values as the secular alternative to religion—though John Podhoretz, in the surprisingly insightful article below, incidentally notes the way in which modernism's obsession with the bleakness of life on this earth can be seen as the secularization of a kind of dour Calvinist asceticism.
Podhoretz writes about the modernist filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who recently passed away, whom the caption that accompanies the article describes as the "movie-hater's filmmaker." Podhoretz describes how Bergman entrenched the militant distinction between "art" and "entertainment"—a false alternative built on the premise that art has nothing to do with the affirmation of values and thus has nothing to do with enjoyment.
Meanwhile, Heather Mac Donald makes a similar observation about a grim trend toward nihilistic "re-interpretations" of the great operas in European opera houses—a trend that may be coming to America, too. As Mac Donald observes, this trend is based in a rejection of Enlightenment values.
"Death and the Director," John Podhoretz, New York Post, July 31 Bergman had been the key figure in a painstaking effort, by him and by critics worldwide, to elevate the cinema into an art form equivalent to novels, poetry or classical music.
These were not the kinds of critics who wanted people to believe that westerns or gangster movies or musicals could be great art on the order of Tolstoy and Dickens. These critics wanted the movies instead to mimic the forbidding demands and even more forbidding themes of high modern art—from the difficult poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the assaultive aesthetic of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.
Bergman was their man. In a relentless series of films—one or two a year—made between 1950 and 1982, he punished his audiences with a view of life so dark and foreboding that he made his fellow existentialist artist, Samuel Beckett, seem as upbeat as Oprah.
The darkness of Bergman's vision of the world and his uncompromisingly bleak expression of that vision resonated with those who viewed art not as a form of the most sublime entertainment—entertainment that transcends the merely pleasurable to offer a transformative experience—but rather as the secular version of a stern sermon.
Art, in this view, wasn't supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities….
As for the society of people who needed Ingmar Bergman to stand as the greatest example of what the cinema should do, they too had had their day by 1982. For the basic truth is that the critics who described Bergman as the greatest of film artists were people embarrassed by the movies…. They believed the movies were a low and disreputable art form and that its only salvation lay in offering moral and aesthetic instruction to its audiences about the worthlessness of existence.