The Abstract Arts, Framing Reality

Published 10/28/22 at billschmitt.substack.com, reprinted here with some modifications.

Previously on Substack … We talked about the “Brights” as a movement of liberal atheists who introduced themselves in New York Times commentary in 2003 and continued promoting their doctrines of illumination. Those ideas helped to set progressive agendas in societies around the world.

Today, I focus on a different group, no less influential but more informal, and in need of a name. Let’s call them the Abstractionists. Strax for short. Catchy? Yes, that’s the whole idea.

In pursuit of phronesis, or virtuous wisdom that serves the common good, we need to examine not only what we think about, but also how we think. Beyond categories like right vs. left, capitalist vs. socialist, or spiritual vs. secular, here is a way to analyze the “how” behind today’s polarization.

My thesis: Broadly speaking, human beings think about the world in two alternative ways—based on abstractions, or based on cold, hard facts. There is plenty of “intersectionality” between these options. Neither is perfect, both are needed. Critiques of either can go to extremes, and I hereby apologize if my critique does just that.

Consider these yin-and-yang scenarios.

Think of abstract art, in contrast to Renaissance art.

Think of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, some of which might favor abstract understanding, some favoring the concrete.

Or think of the Catholic Church’s contextual protocols for judging sins “mortal” and behaviors “sinful,” while declining to condemn people as “evil.” In other circles, talk of sinful actions is broad-brush, but people can be slapped with hellish, demoralizing labels.

Think of teachers who praise their most avid students as diligent future scholars. They also identify a different group as unfocused, or falsely focused–namely, the party-goers, the kids who ask, “Will this be on the test?”

Or think of narcissists who see the world orbiting around them, in contrast to altruists who focus on others as neighbors in a literally wonder-full world.

Now consider the cognitive hodgepodge complicating American culture: relativism and moralism, atomized individualism and groupthink, indifference and activism, compassion and apathy, atheism and dogmatic fervor, entertaining distractions and paralyzing anxiety, demands for true information alongside blithe, blatant assertions of misinformation. This multidimensional pattern is such a perfect storm, or patchwork brainstorm, we might guess our meteorological charts have been melded with astrological charts.

People are simply more complex than superficial analysis can explain. The process of thinking can become chaotic unless we build our intellectual house on rock. We shouldn’t settle for a makeshift shack. While some minds are soaring through 5-G internet, some are watching cat videos. Our ideal brain food is a healthy balance of abstract and detailed diets; we need to watch what we’re eating–and to be honest about what we are serving up for others.

British writer G.K. Chesterton said thinking is a hard job that humans often try to avoid and must develop a skill for. We need to work at it, he warned in the Illustrated London News in 1914: “If you think wrong, you go wrong.”

Chesterton suffered from depression as a young man. In his darkest moments, nothing made sense, but he realized his intellect (and faith) could function so long as he started with a first principle. This had to be an assumption, with some degree of abstraction, but he could use that as the launch pad for a constant flow of well-grounded reasoning—purposeful thinking which made him one of the 20th century’s great truth-seekers.

According to Dale Ahlquist, a scholar of Chesterton, this nascent Abstractionist rebooted by making one initial, confident statement, namely that existence is better than non-existence. He then found renewal on a pilgrimage toward meaningful existence, radiating curiosity about the essence of nearly every subject. He also became a Catholic, relishing the paradoxes and connections he discovered in the world’s fine points.

One dictionary meaning of abstract is “existent in thought or theory but having no physical existence or concrete examples.” The word often implies the lack of a purpose, direction, or sense of completion. An idea, motivation, or action described as abstract has little inherent value. It can be redefined, or even made up. It imposes few demands on a person if the person so desires.

Today’s culture encourages abstract thinking of all kinds. It immerses leaders and audiences in mixed messages, seriocomic situations, emotional theatrics, hybrids of fear and frolic, artificial or virtual reality, dopamine hits, a marketplace of ideas and idiocy. As discussed in a previous Substack, politics currently has less to do with policy issues and problem-solving than with imagery and propaganda designed to make voters say, “That’s the candidate for me!”

The fire hose of information pushes constructively creative individuals to connect to, add to, contextualize, and utilize every fact they can acquire, embracing existence and uncovering value-added meanings. But others fear the fire hose; its stream of content causes “information inflation” (to coin a phrase), prompting Abstractionists to devalue and discard “irrelevant” data, along with opportunities to link and hyperlink with other people and ideas. For these one-track minds, ignorance—and indifference—are bliss.

In secular American politics, and other institutions, the dark side of the abstract arts is not only convenient, but a source of false empowerment. All-in (or nothing-in) Abstractionists will still start out with a guiding assumption, but it may be a self-serving, righteous-sounding slogan, scheme, or strategy. It seems to offer self-aggrandizement and reputational gain, but it has no ambition for the common good.

Whatever they build or promise, the skills of the Strax create in a deconstructive way, manipulating words, ideas, truths, and people. They can level hyperbolic charges against opponents, without concern for those whom they demonize or injure.

Abstractionists, after all, tend to see their words and actions as performative tactics bringing them closer to their short-term goals, not as concrete realities with serious, long-term impacts. Casually taking one step at a time, focused on the ephemeral, they might easily forgive their allies’ errors and cheer for fleeting causes while watching opponents suffer for their enduring principles.

The Strax game is thriving in a post-truth marketplace where the “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Muzak reminds us that “nothing really matters.” Orchestrators in this bazaar—including politicians, advocacy groups, elite donors, communicators, and other influencers—supply their minions with marching orders, talking points, and timely strategic tips, which must be adhered to, but not necessarily understood or believed. The orchestrators may be ideological. Many of their followers are more idea-illogical.

Of course, cold, hard facts will occasionally contradict and interrupt Strax plans, endangering their short-term gains. But those addicted to this method of dealing with reality will try to stay the course, instead tweaking their strategies and meanings. They will rely on others’ limited attention span, forgetfulness, distraction, denial, and confirmation bias.

What of those concrete thinkers in the population who prefer deeper inquiry, purpose, and connection-making to the maximum level their skills allow? The Strax strategy allows for their pre-emptory embarrassment, intimidation, and cancellation.

Abstractionists enjoy another advantage—the ease of measuring their own success. Ironically, they use tools that resemble cold, hard facts—namely scorecards of accomplishments. The checking of boxes is a high priority. They concoct simple metrics which look objective, indeed fundamental, but are applied subjectively.

Leaders atop the Abstractionist pyramid will ask their loyal loiterers: How many of our strategic goals did you achieve? Did you stay well-aligned with the prescribed group-think, reverse-projection, and virtue signals? Those responding will say yes, or “guilty with an explanation.” Asked if they have encountered opposition, they will boast, “Never is heard a discouraging word.”

This false brand of “management thinking” flourishes in many corners of a post-truth society, far beyond the political scene we observe through pundits’ eyes. By the way, it is not limited to those who hold “progressive” values. Indeed, some of those values have real merit; they should be part of commonplace, wide-ranging conversations about “what we think” in the public arena. But many prospective interlocutors have been intimidated or neutered.

Again, the bigger stumbling block is “how we think.” At this moment in America’s political history, it seems Abstractionists hold many of the cards and are playing them in favor of progressivism. One might argue progressive approaches are an all-too-easy fit with vague Strax argumentation. As Chesterton wrote, “Progress is a useless word, for progress takes for granted an already defined direction, and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree.”” 

The grading system which doyens of detail apply to themselves is much tougher. They look at quality as well as quantity of outcomes, plus various impacts across a whole integrated, interactive spectrum of people, principles, values, and purposes to be accomplished. They insist on asking, “Are we progressing toward a more rational existence?”

The pursuit of meaning is the key; we try to think well in order to enhance our existence, to exist for a good purpose. It is vital for those who measure success through reason and faith, using cold, hard facts tied to reality and a greater good, to pursue ongoing, charitable dialogue with Abstractionists.

We who crave a renaissance must continue conducting, explaining, and promoting our alternative approach to the Strax world. Ironically, those who employ pragmatic, utilitarian reasons rather than intellectual reasoning will decry our goals—informed by faith, hope, love, and truth—as utterly abstract and impractical, even extremist or supremacist, while we see their “practicalities” as tragically blind to the richness of reality.

The Catholic Church, with its embrace of natural law as a guide for what is seen and unseen, with its insight into the panorama of grace, beauty, truth, and goodness perduring in the created world, is the best response to the Strax manifesto of “progress” through autonomous self-creation.

The Church’s not-so-secret weapon is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, consecrated in the hands of a priest at the altar. Even though many Catholics tell pollsters the bread and wine, transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood according to 2,000 years of teaching, can be described as symbols, deep down we know that empty ritual and performance art would not have kept our families coming back on our knees for millennia. We acknowledge our weakness in the face of a mindblowing, transcendent reality, and we ask God to “help our unbelief” because we know we need to share truth as a blessing in our lives.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is undertaking a three-year initiative to renew appreciation of the Real Presence dogma grounded in the Word becoming flesh, saying “This is my body,” and bestowing unique, unquenchable dignity on human life.

Why? This Catholic sacrament of resilient communion and community reminds doyens of detail how to think rightly so that things might not go horrendously wrong for us—in this life and the next. We hold on to Christ, and Christ holds on to us.

We are all potential Abstractionists, but we have the Eucharist as a bulwark. As those disinclined toward substantial reality and unitive insight try to slow or stop our pilgrimage, the Host in our churches, in our hearts, and in our communities of faith and reason can be the rock-solid resource allowing us to say to the Strax, “This far and no further.”

Please think about it.

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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