James Madison, the new world’s great political mind, appeared coincident in history with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the old world’s great artistic mind. Of the entire founding class, it is Madison, born three months after the declared start of music’s high classical period, who lived most contemporaneously alongside mankind’s greatest artistic achievements.
Not entirely unreasonable then, that Madison would come to develop a taste for fine art and culture — a taste which developed then flourished not least by way of his enduring relationship with his political ally and predecessor in office, Thomas Jefferson.
Fitting too, that the Madison household remains renowned for perhaps the greatest artistic rescue mission in American history: On August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison coordinated the urgent removal of the White House copy of Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait, on the same day that British forces bore down upon the Capitol, eventually setting fire to the executive mansion.
Ordering the iconic painting of George Washington to be smashed out of its frame as British troops approached, the first lady later had the canvas stored incognito in a friend’s farmhouse, before safely returning it to a rebuilt 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
An exhilarating vignette for sure, but the Madisons’ love for art was no fickle adventure.
Like so many ill-understood aspects of life in centuries past, the Madisonian-Jeffersonian preference for elegance, restraint, balance, and formal structure (in a word: Beauty), reflects not the petty indulgences of a haughty elite, but rather, a patriotic aspiration to civilizational excellence.
Civilizational Excellence in Decline
That ambition stands in stark juxtaposition to the crude morass into which our fourth president’s antique crystal flute was thrust as a stage prop at Lizzo’s Washington D.C. show, Tuesday night.
“It’s like playing out of a wine glass b-tch, so be patient”, she remonstrated, flippantly hauling the priceless antique onto the stage, clad in a leotard, and clawing at the ancient keys with inch-long alienesque nails.
But of course, there was no music to it. Just a solitary farted-out “C#,” a trill from “B,” and of course, the accompanying twerking.
In the twerking, it seems, we always find the very antithesis of that aforementioned civilizational excellence. Not just the act itself, which to be sure, is a special variety of 21st-century personal vulgarity, but in the collective response it provokes.
It is the twerk that seems to evince in any crowd a manifest succumbing to the worst angels of our natures. The brainless shrieks of approval, the demented adulation for an unveiled sexuality not content with mere liberality, but further possessed of a flippant, aggressive, and unapologetically performative disposition.
And all the more to applaud you see, because James Madison – James Madison! – bore symbolic witness to the madness.
Can she really do that in the presence of the founding fathers?
Of course she can. And the prepossessed audacity to exhibit that behavior — the banality, the crudity, the do-what-I-wantity — whilst in that hallowed presence, is the whole point of the exercise.
For this is the culture that delights in the desecration of the sacred. The desecration that is sometimes unthinkingly casual, but often deliberately profane.
Lizzo’s may have been one or the other. It was hard to tell. But in either case, shame finds no home in the heart of the exponent. To be a celebrity, it seems, is to be one who must exploit their own fame in the ironic usurpation of the consecrated past.
A friend asked me last night: “I wonder what would have happened if she smashed that priceless founding-era antique on stage? Would the audience have cared?”
Well, some would have. But the answer in respect of the aggregate is a firm “No.” It is a firm “no” because a crowd that would recognize the tragedy of such a loss is a crowd that would never have tolerated the irreverence of the spectacle in the first place. And that is a much larger problem than whatever Lizzo spat into a microphone Tuesday night.
We Must Rediscover Reverence
So the work must start with the crowd. It must start with finding amongst the masses. First, a reverence for something, then building that into reverence for many things. Reverence for things like real art, real music, and real culture. Reverence for the fine things that serve as inoculations against the crude things. Reverence for civilizational excellence, over civilizational depravity.
Lizzo’s real name is Melissa Vivianne Jefferson. The flute she played was a gift to Madison from acclaimed 19th-century Parisian manufacturer Claude Laurent, on the occasion of the fourth president’s second inauguration. Its custodian is the Library of Congress. And of course, her concert took place in the nation’s capital.
So Jefferson played Madison’s flute, from Adams’ library, in Washington’s city. There’s an undeniable poetry to it, it was of the tragic variety.
Our first four presidents would surely stand in horrified witness at how their almighty cultural ambitions today stand poisoned by the grotty burlesque of modern celebrity.
The antidote to that poison lies in the rediscovery of cultural reverence – in the re-consecration of the sacred.