If someone were to invite me to a poetry gathering today, I would not go

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

“For example in Yangzhou – the once grand lower Yangzi city that had seen brutal devastation during the conquest — local literati in the late seventeenth century were seeking to rebuild their cultural hegemony by a busy process of poetry composition and publication, construction of pavilions, bridges, and other sites of real or invented historical significance, and collective meetings to drink, recite, admire scenery, and generally vet one another’s claims to cultural superiority”.

Or so William T. Rowe, in China’s Last Empire, summarizing Meyer-Fong’s Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou, wherein it is claimed — it would appear — that the culture-building exercise was coached by Qing officials.

Such a process of building culture seems unimaginable today:

Not only (1) because holders of political power today are not cultured; nor much care to acquire the badge of culture — — meaning that governments have little incentive to engage in culture building.

Nor just (2) because art and culture have become ugly (ugly paintings, uncomfortable interiors (square plates!) , disturbing emotions); and, worse, a place for airing political and moral anger (acting up in the name of the queer nation or oppressed subalterns or bulls or whales) rather than a place for agreeable companionship.  Surely, I am not alone among literary types who feel that if someone were to invite me to a poetry gathering today, I would not go:  it is simply not pleasant to participate in culture today.

But also (3) because there isn’t much culture there:  (a) the so-called cultured types are remarkably uncultured:  artists, forever egged on to break with tradition, overthrow the past and be creative (i.e. start from scratch — e.g. “how about triangular plates?”), unsurprisingly don’t know art of the past and writers aren’t familiar with the canon; (b) and absolutely everyone attempts to be politically relevant (meaning has no real interest in aesthetics); and (c) worships at the altar of popular-relevance (meaning reference to general tastes). Being cultured (i.e. possessing an educated taste) is not just perceived as being of no value, but as being an obstacle to relevance.


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