The impulse toward rebellion and conformity is an immature one, part of an early and unavoidable stage of thinking. It is a youthful reaction, and an important one of drowning in mere exposure to so many new things you think you should take sides on, but really don’t have to. And, being a reaction couched in the confusions of youth, where one feels weak and beset on all sides, it’s necessarily an egotistical reaction—it’s me against everybody.
Granted that a good way to find or jumpstart ideas may be to intentionally fall back on tradition or intentionally look for something new or radical, but if whatever is being created is going to go beyond the surface, rebellion or conformity is only a starting point. The problem is that our cultural moment is stuck in this starting point, and so it is disproportionately childish and frightened, and therefore egotistical. The combination of artistic sensibilities, and the sensibilities of the public at large, has combined with the prevailing modes of communication and cultural expression—which promise the possibility of almost instant fame to anyone—to create a childish and selfish place, and one where to merely rebel or merely conform, to be a liberal or a conservative, is all there is time for.
Many of us first encountered this in gradeschool. There was the need to have the right brand of shoes, or whatever kind of jacket. I had a Yankees Starter jacket because other people had Starter jackets, and when I realized once that I’d bought imitation Air Jordans, I tried to ruin them so I could take them back. I felt embarrassed.
It wasn’t until high school that I saw people who looked and dressed differently. This was “rebelling.” But it didn’t take long to see that despite their desire to be different, these people were still tied to what was popular, and were only reacting against whatever that was. Those who didn’t rebel were thought to be mindlessly following fads, or thoughtlessly aping their parents, their religion, or some perceived civic tradition of what someone “should do”—go to prom, get good grades, go to college. Their reactions were considered kneejerk, but almost always, rebellion was just as kneejerk.
A writer said as much, remarking that a poet should have other poets as models when young, in part because it “may be valuable to the young writer simply as something definite to rebel against.”[i] For those who aren’t young, another statement of his says more: “It’s no more use trying to be traditional than it is trying to be original.”[ii]
And as I’m convinced that one of the great values of art—as of religion—is to free us of our egos, to open ourselves to empathy and identification with others, to alleviate loneliness—or at least make it meaningful—and to free us from the fear which certainty and dogma fill us with, the impulse towards rebellion or conformity folds art in on itself, and destroys it. It makes of art a mean, petty, selfish, and childish thing—like our culture. It makes of art not an organic thing born of the interplay of instinct and reflection and experience, but a ruthless thing, a machine, and one born only of fear, efficiency, and reason—again, like our culture.
[i] Beginning 8:08 here.
[ii] Beginning 23:20 here.