The Futurist Corporation

The ethical (inevitably) invading the aesthetic

The Vatican today released a list of its Top Ten Albums. Before even reading the list, my immediate reaction was, “I hope I don’t own any of those albums.” Music has always been a subject of radicalization. Jazz, the blues, shoegaze–all developed out of the despair and alienation of a demographic group rebelling against traditional society, unable to express itself in rational ways. Music is a rebellion against the rational, against the traditional medium of social communication of discourse. Music happens when words fail. Religion, quite contrarily, sacralizes the Word.

Significantly the albums chosen were not religious. Dark Side of the Moon ranks in at number 2, an album which when it was released was burned in church bonfires, along with Santana and Beatles paraphenalia, the bands which bask in the divine light of number 1 and number 8, respectively.

In neurological terms, the neurochemical that allows us to enjoy music is the pleasure-inducing dopamine, also activated in sexual orgasm and chemical indulgence. Thus music, topically, is inextricably linked with the elements of experience rejected by the ascetic.

The obvious signal to be taken from this is that culture has progressed to the point at which music itself cannot be rejected, as such. The good that music (as a now legitimate mode of human expression) has done in western culture and in cultures globally outweighs the negative of any demon-inspired messages you can here when you play the songs backwards.

On the other hand, this signals more than a public decondemantion of past abominations—by decreeing an opinion on the aesthetic at all, the Vatican signals that the church has fully shifted in to the realm of postmodernity. The traditional sins have all been commented on. Masturbation, child molestion, polygamy, all have been duly categorized and indicted as sins of varying degree. By shifting its divine gave from matters of eternal import into the world of pop culture we see, that, like Nietzsche, Pope Benedict XVI sees nowhere else to go but beyond matters of Good and Evil.

By releasing the list as a decalogue, we not only have an ethicalization of art, but a quantification as well. Sure there is nothing new about top ten lists, but what makes the Vatican’s list more frightening than anything has ever produced is that the historic moral imperative from two thousand years of authority now presses down just as strongly as anything St. Francis of Assisi ever whipped out. What if I disagree? What if I think Fleetwood Mac (number 6) is way overrated and couldn’t perform a listenable guitar solo if his career depended on it? Am I allowed to write angry comments on the Pope’s blog without being excommunicated?

On the other hand, why should the aesthetic be protected from the gaze of the ethical? This press release could be read as the church’s satire on it’s own fundamental ontology. If we choose to abide by the old methods of universalizing experience, then all of the world must fit into the whole of Christianity’s “divinely inspired” context. If the Catholic church does not comment on everything, then we are lost. Just as Heidegger wrote the death warrant for his own ontology when he wrote that if there were any element of experience he had neglected he had failed, so Christian Orthodoxy must extend itself eternally just to keep up with the relentless speed of a digital culture.

Is the Vatican’s music review, like Paul’s account of the meat-packing industry, merely the opinion of one man, to be accepted or discarded at the discretion of the existent (I Corinthians 8 or so)? Or is it now a sin that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (a mere number 3) has more playcounts in my iTunes library than “Yellow Submarine.”

The only clear solution to this dilemma is the idea that, rather than raising the aesthetic to the level of the ethical, the church, as the embodiment of the ethical, has reduced itself to the realm of the aesthetic. Are we to read the words of the Pope like an article in Rolling Stone? To do this would be to acknowledge the words of God merely as more cultural noise in a sea of mortal blatherings. This of course is supremest heresy.

Has the Vatican overstepped its bounds? Impossible. On the contrary it has thrust itself firmly into the world of postmodern discourse. A music review by the highest earthly authority just gives humans another text to be puzzled over and interpreted through the kaleidoscope lens of our destructured cultural structure. The message that Vatican gives us by rating U2 better than Paul Simon is to remain as inscrutable and open to interpretation as the Gospel itself.


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