. A Call for Secession by Adam Sedia The fine arts currently lie atrophied in utter decline and degradation. Poetry is no exception. Ever since the advent of modernism in the decades leading up to the First World War, traditional aesthetic, which features realism in narrative and depiction and adherence to form, structure, and harmony, yielded completely to the modernist aesthetic, characterized by noncontextual imagery and avoidance of any structural formalities. In poetry, modernism took the form of “free verse”---the abandonment of rhyme, meter, and form---and the abandonment of narrative in favor of pure description. In adopting this style, early modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot consciously followed the path blazed by Cubism in the visual arts, which deconstructed the visual image by presenting it from different perspectives at once, leaving it up to the viewer to conceive the full image. Using language instead of images, modernist poets presented series of images, leaving ultimate interpretation to each individual reader. Classical music, too, experienced a parallel revolution at the same time, with the adoption of the twelve-tone technique that consciously avoided any tonal center. Despite some notable exceptions---Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Richard Wilbur in the United States and Walter de la Mare and John Betjeman in the United Kingdom, among others---modernism remained the overwhelmingly dominant aesthetic in poetry. And so it has remained with the other arts, as well. The modernist aesthetic is at its core nihilistic. It denies objective reality, and therefore meaning. Without meaning, no objective standard for beauty exists---hence form and harmony become meaningless, or “tools of oppression.” And without meaning, art becomes less an expression than an elicitation of a reaction; the artist’s task is to throw something out and let each individual in the audience try to make sense of it. And none of them will necessarily have the wrong answer. Thus, art devolves into the realm of radical subjectivity. With such nihilism at its core, the modernist aesthetic had as its chief virtue only the shock of its novelty. It broke all the traditional rules. It was revolutionary, and like every revolution, it had to maintain its momentum lest its energy flag and it perish from inertia. Rushing feverishly to “break new ground,” modernist art embarked on a perpetual quest for the new. Inevitably, this led to pushing boundaries of taste and even decency. Almost immediately, modernism devolved into “found art” such as Duchamp’s famous urinal and in a few decades it would result in Basquiat’s street graffiti and Serrano’s bodily fluids being exhibited as high art. Poetry devolved in a similar fashion, though not quite as spectacularly. A century after modernism’s first stirrings as Imagism, poetry devolved into lifeless lists such as Elizabeth Alexander’s 2009 inaugural poem or casual prose chats split into lines as in the works of Billy Collins. But poetry has mostly followed academic trends, fetishizing racial, gender, and sexual identities as the essence of being. Nearly every contemporary mainstream poet has fallen into this vice, and the identity-pushing has only accelerated with the ascendance of critical theory. Thus the current state of the arts---a state of decades-long atrophy. What poses as avant-garde is actually reactionary. The aesthetic ideals that first materialized around the First World War remain unchanged: abstraction in the visual arts, atonality in music, free verse in poetry. Stylistic details may vary, but the language remains unchanging and monolithic. For the past six decades, dominance of the modernist aesthetic over the art world has been unquestioned. Only those artists, poets, and composers who operate within its framework receive the prestigious prizes, the lucrative commissions, the media attention. And woe to the artist who dares deviate from this orthodoxy! At best, he will be condemned to work “outside the mainstream,” with only a “cult” following. Those who do garner attention are labeled as some form of reactionary, likely compared with the Nazis---a favorite label of the mainstream left, as that smear discredits instantly (although with diminishing effectiveness due to overuse). The reaction to traditional art is an aversion that smacks suspiciously of fear. Revolutionaries challenge the dominant hegemony. Reactionaries perpetuate it. The artistic mainstream, preserved in the aspic of its century-old aesthetic and lavished with funds and commission from private foundations and government agencies, clearly fall into the latter category. But accusing another of that of which the accuser himself is guilty---“gaslighting”---is classic psychopathic behavior. This is not to brand all mainstream artists as psychopaths, but a certain paranoia cannot but underlie an establishment that so zealously labels those who question its orthodoxies as “reactionaries.” But what, after all, is wrong with this state of affairs? Should classical artists not, as the establishment would urge, “get with the times.” As it turns out, the fixation of the artistic establishment in modernist aesthetics has led to a massive retreat of the fine arts from the public sphere. The public, increasingly mystified or even offended at the excesses of what is called high art, write it off as incomprehensible and retreat to the more familiar and comforting world of popular art. Poetry once played a central role in public life; no major event occurred without a celebratory poem. The very office of poet laureate was created to satisfy the need for public poetry. Yes, the poet laureate was political, tasked with glorifying the king, but that a succession of kings saw a need to have their deeds glorified to the public through poetry testifies to the great value once placed on the art. And outside the royal court, poems were written for and recited at any public occasion. Poems were inscribed on monuments. None of that happens anymore. Poetry has receded into the background, relegated only to the small circles of those who write it, and they write it primarily for each other. It becomes an echo chamber, detached from the wider world and wielding no influence there. The same can be said of all other fine arts. The utter esotericism of contemporary styles leave only its most fervid devotees interested in it, and venues to showcase it little more than vanity projects to allow for mutual preening among elite circles. And as the public retreats from the fine arts, its gravitation towards popular art coarsens the culture. Popular art, consciously or not, imitates high art. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the aesthetic pathologies plaguing high art have their parallels in popular art. High art became incomprehensible; popular art became crude. Both are nihilistic at their core. A revival in an aesthetic of the fine arts that speaks to human imagination rather than cynical denial of reality, therefore, is necessary as a public service. In increasingly turbulent times, art will become necessary to reorient humanity towards meaning and towards the good that must exist in opposition to so much evil. Thus, the arts---all arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music---need a secession. “Secession,” of course, to American ears resounds with the echo of the Confederacy, and is therefore tinged with the air of reaction. But artists, even in the United States, should not shy away from the term. If anything, its connotation with the events of 1860-61 are wonderfully attention-grabbing, and a marvelous way to troll the morally preening. An artistic secession has nothing to do with armies, or with America, for that matter. It is an artistic term with a storied history. Several artistic secessions have sought to elevate artistic standards and freedom. The first such secession was the 1890 Salon du Champs-de-Mars, founded by the painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the sculptor Auguste Rodin as a rebellion against what they saw as declining standards in the visual arts. Secession movements caught on, particularly in the German-speaking world. The Munich Secession of 1892 and the Berlin Secession of 1898 formed to operate free from establishment oversight. But most famous was the Vienna Secession of 1897, led by Gustav Klimt, which sought to achieve a “total art” that combined painting, architecture, and the decorative arts. This group included the painters Alphonse Mucha and Max Kurzweil, the architects Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, and Joseph Maria Olbrich, and the designer Koloman Moser. Of a slightly different stripe was the Dresden Secession of 1919, which was an Expressionist reaction to the turmoil following World War I. The time has come for artists---poets included---to build on this tradition. What, though, does a present-day artistic secession look like? In fact, it resembles very much a political secession. First and foremost, its members must forswear any participation in or glorification of establishment honors. What commands the adulation of the establishment, especially the establishment media, they must hold in contempt. Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, Academy and Tony Awards, laureateships, endowed chairs---these must no longer be mentioned with any air of awe or praise. These are nothing more than the stamp of approval of a cultural mainstream that has unquestioningly accepted---and in most cases fostered---the degradation of the fine arts. Far from advocating for high artistic standards, these awards and positions have become indicators of cultural degeneracy to the point where they can no longer be taken seriously by artists with high aesthetic standards. They have become contemptible, and should merit the contempt of serious artists. Second, the secession must set up its own parallel structures: publishers for poets, authors, and composers (self-publishing is not enough; our publishing must be free from the whims of Amazon); galleries for the visual arts; concert venues and ensembles for musicians; theaters and troupes for actors; studios for filmmakers. All of these organizations must be allied. The establishment will ignore them at first, but any degree of success will draw an attack. Strength lies in unity and numbers; only a united form will withstand the full fury of establishment wrath. These organization should cultivate a parallel system of awards and honors---secession equivalents for the Pulitzer Prizes and the poet laureateships. Monetary prizes, grants, and scholarships should also advance poets, artists, and composers working in a traditional aesthetic. Funding is the lifeblood of any organized effort and will be key to establishing a parallel system of venues and prizes. And finally, and most basically, individual creators---poets, authors, artists, composers, performers---should work together in mutual support. Minor differences in artistic visions, political ideologies, and individual styles, as well as basic personality conflicts are only natural and are bound to occur. Seceding artists must navigate these as in all human relationships, but they must never let them interfere with either the vision or mission of the secession. Without a united front and a network of mutual friendship and both moral and financial support, there is no movement, and any effort by individuals in its direction will be doomed. Remember the leviathan of entrenched, well-financed, mass media-supported interests arrayed ready to crush any opposition to the official narrative. An individual confronting it can hope only for martyrdom; a united front alone can achieve victory. Great things have small beginnings, and every one of the most prestigious establishment awards once started as a first-time experiment, without the dust of age or the halo of prestige to distinguish it. So this movement must start, but with dedication and perseverance it, too, will one day achieve a level of prestige on par with establishment awards. Indeed, they may one day supplant the establishment altogether. If we, not just classical poets, but all artists who work in a traditional aesthetic, truly believe in our ideals, we must put our beliefs into action, stand up for our ideals and against those who despise them, and---most importantly---be willing to sacrifice acceptance of the mainstream to build something. The artistic mainstream---as with the political and academic mainstream---is utterly bankrupt. What satisfaction could any serious artist have from its acceptance? None. Our solution is to build---to create where our detractors would only destroy. So let us build! . .