Morality in art and ignorance in journalism

One doesn’t really expect erudition or, God forbid, depth from a professional journalist.

This doesn’t mean that hacks never possess such fine properties – only that they are incidental to their day job.

The very nature of writing short pieces to order and under the pressure of deadlines runs contrary to serious contemplation. Coming to the fore instead is the ability to encapsulate any issue, no matter how involved, within a paragraph or two.

This requires much aptitude, perhaps even talent, and God speed to those who possess it. But, belying the pedantic definition of ‘gift’, this one comes with a price tag.

The price, usually if not universally exacted, is relinquishing any chance of acquiring the depth of thought and knowledge required to tackle issues that won’t be squeezed into the capsule of a paragraph or two.

Fortunately for the hacks, few readers demand profundity, and fewer still know how to deal with it if they do get it.

Hence many pundits slide along the surface all the way to popularity, which in our fast-moving world has become a synonym for excellence.

Specifically British journalists, especially political commentators, join politicians in forming our ruling elite, an arrangement that has any number of consequences.

One is that they forget, if they ever realised it, how shallow their knowledge is, how superficial their thought. As a result, they feel entitled to enlarge on issues that manifestly take them out of their depth.

Take Dominic Lawson’s article on the British Museum’s loan of Elgin marbles to Russia. He makes a valid point, in fact quite a few of them, along the lines that this outrageous act won’t turn Putin into an Anglophile.

So far so good – the writer stays within his level of competence, making accurate observations, reaching correct conclusions, writing with pace and verve.

But being a member of the ruling elite, one of the Masters of the Universe to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase (he applied it to financiers), Mr Lawson feels qualified to broach subjects that are beyond his level of competence.

The result is as unfortunate as it is predictable.

Here Mr Lawson describes his conversation with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum: “I put it to him that, with the exception of literature, high art had no intrinsic connection with morality. …Unsurprisingly, MacGregor did not share my opinion, although… he allowed it was ‘interesting’.”

Now, say anything you wish about Mr MacGregor, and there is a lot to be said about him. But he has three redeeming characteristics: he is civilised, cultured and British.

As such, he expresses himself with polite understatement. His ‘interesting’ in this context really meant ‘ignorant’, but that word wouldn’t have crossed Mr MacGregor’s lips.

Nor would it cross mine if I were talking to Mr Lawson face to face. But, strictly between you and me, that’s exactly what the opinion, of which he sounds so proud, was.

To say that aesthetics in general, and art in particular, have nothing to do with morality unless they preach a moral message overtly, as in some literature, betokens an infra-zero understanding.

Properly considered, this subject would take us to the nature of beauty and therefrom to moral philosophy.

One of the first and greatest moral philosophers, Plato, knew this: “Music,” he wrote, “is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Plato’s disciple Aristotle even went so far as to warn against the moral damage music could do to society: “Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited… when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”    

Both Greeks regarded what Aristotle called ‘transcendentals’ and what Plato specifically identified as Truth, Beauty and Goodness as the inseparable ontological properties of being.

Leaving theologians to decide whether or how this prefigured the Holy Trinity, one can still infer that a deficit in any element of the inseparable triad would automatically produce a failure in the other two.

Hence that intrinsic link to morality that Mr Lawson claims ‘high’ art doesn’t have. (Must one infer that ‘low’ art has such a link?)

The Greeks conveyed a moral message in art, specifically in their sculpture, such as the River God currently on display in Petersburg. To them, the perfection of form conveyed spiritual and moral perfection.

The Romans shared that view, hence Juvenal’s “Mens sana in corpore sano” – we should all pray for a sound body housing a sound mind impervious to the fear of death.

In other words, a sound form can contain a sound content – and communicate a moral message. The Greeks and the Romans thus established the link of which Mr Lawson is so woefully ignorant.

What was already known in Hellenic antiquity became an indisputable fact in Christendom.

Only an ignoramus can fail to discern a moral message in the icons of Byzantium, the paintings of Giotto, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, the music of Gregorian chant and later Palestrina, Bach and Mozart – all the way to our own James MacMillan.

The moral message there is conveyed not just in the subject-matter, but also in the form used – in fact it’s the symbiosis of content and form that achieves this artistic and therefore moral purpose.

One suspects Mr Lawson hasn’t pondered such things as deeply as they require. If he had, he wouldn’t have come up with the utter vulgarity of the second part of his statement:

“German pride in its culture – especially musical – enhanced the notions of racial superiority that informed Nazism.”

If he is hinting at German Romanticism as one of the streams feeding the putrid swamp of Nazism, then this topic is worth discussing – but at a much higher level than that.

But it’s simply ignorant to suggest that the Germans welcomed Hitler because they felt that Bach was a better composer than Couperin. The French, after all, are second to none when it comes to pride in their cultural attainments, yet they didn’t become Nazis, at least not en masse.

German musical culture is superior to anyone else’s, and the Germans were perfectly justified in feeling proud about it. After all, the English are proud of Elgar, who, by German standards, is strictly third-rate.

What produced Nazism is… Well, I was about to commit the same sin of which I accuse journalists: that of trying to cover a multitude of subtleties in a sentence or two.

Still, though I can’t cover the problem here, at least I can point at it. The Germans betrayed the Christian roots of their culture and reverted to their pagan, sylvan past. Because of that they made three transitions they otherwise wouldn’t have made:

First, from the feeling of legitimate pride in their attainments (not just cultural ones) to the feeling of racial superiority; second, from that to the feeling of natural entitlement to institutional superiority; third, from that to the certainty they must do something about it.

That’s what’s to blame for Auschwitz, Mr Lawson, not the widespread appreciation of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Still, the rest of the article wasn’t bad at all, and nowadays we must thank God for even such small favours.


My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, is available from Amazon and the more discerning bookshops. However, my publisher would rather you ordered it from or, in the USA,


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