Sacred and profane values in the postmodern world

Currently it is possible to say that there are two sorts of Argentine tango. One is the milongas in Buenos Aires that maintain the traditions of tango. The other are the milongas outside of Buenos Aires that are primarily commercial outfits. Whether or not they promote themselves as traditional and are operated by Argentines, the latter are fundamentally oriented to commercialising cultural product and seem to inevitably downgrade the value of the tango experience. Traditionalists insist that tango cannot be commodified and commercialised.

In the modern world traditional values are being replaced by instrumental values. These two sorts of values are fundamentally different. Instrumental values are concerned with means to ends. I have a goal and see something as a means to an end. When I learn to dance I must view learning and dancing as a means, as instrumental, to some further ends. Ultimate values, on the other hand, are concerned with the ends that we are ultimately aiming for. There must therefore be a disagreement about the ends of dancing tango between the traditionalists and the consumers of tango outside of Argentina.

When one looks at much of the marketing for tango on the internet the images resemble that of ballroom and club dances. The dancers are cool, fit and sexy, wearing cool and sexy outfits, engaging in a fun and exciting activity. These images reflect contemporary culture which has dispensed with ultimate values in favour of short-term hedonistic gratification. There is no attempt to achieve the sort of experience of transcendent beauty that was the end of art until about a hundred years ago. Instead, music and dance aim only to provide entertainment.

There is, however, a difference between art and entertainment. The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton tells us that the goal of art is beauty and that we need beauty to make life worth living. If we only ever experience mood lifting entertainment we will in the end feel spiritually depleted. Therefore, people came to the view that art has a spiritual function to put us in touch with beauty that transcends ordinary reality and is thus redeeming.

Commodifying a form like tango must therefore inevitably involve corrupting it in one way or another. It requires appealing to our lower instincts. It requires the product of kitsch art which provides immediate gratification but only by producing feelings and experiences that are inauthentic. The problem is that, because beauty is no longer valued in culture generally, we have lost the ability to evaluate critically the products of the mass culture industry. The education system no longer teaches the history of art other than in order to contrast it with the achievements of modern and post-modern art that no longer aims at beauty, but merely at novelty, creativity and being interesting, at ‘deconstructing’ ordinary reality in order to desecrate it.

Because so much of contemporary culture is oriented towards this sort of desecration, those who have been immersed in postmodern education, that is, the mainstream, government education, have no way of understanding what traditionalists are talking about when they insist that there are certain ultimate values. It is extremely difficult to critically unpack the aesthetic values in cultural products like music, painting, architecture or dancing. Modern architecture is invariably ugly and dehumanising, and yet it’s not obvious why. Contemporary music is dumbed down and degenerate and yet we have lost the ability to explain why we should prefer something else.

The traditional practitioners of Argentine tango are therefore not alone but share this difficulty with conservatives in the other spheres of culture, in music, art and architecture. All of modern (or postmodern) culture is set against tradition, viewing it as an expression of an oppressive patriarchal system that needs to be abolished in favour of a new utopia that dispenses with beauty and instead is constantly creative. It views the function of art to desecrate, to show what is ultimate and beautiful as being really kitsch and ugly, and instead to elevate what is ugly or ordinary to the status of art and culture. In such a culture insisting on traditional values and pointing to the beauty of a practice that ought to be preserved will variably draw derision and contempt. In short, contemporary postmodern culture is an inversion of culture as it was even up to the early 20th century, and therefore it is no longer possible for people immersed in it to comprehend those earlier values because postmodern education has transformed and inversed language and the values.