It is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes

June 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have been planning to write an essay on Jerzy Stempowski — literatus par excellence — the only man whose writing style matches that of Russell – not a single spare, wasted word; a prose so stripped of fluff — so full of meaning — as to appear skeletal (burgeoning); the argument races so fast through the text, one has to read slowly, for fear of falling behind — and meaning to begin the essay with the observation that he was a kind of fruit typical of his climatic zone — Podolia.

Like Korzeniowski (“Conrad”), Szymanowski, Lechon, Iwaszkiewicz, Neuhaus — the A list — the B list is an arm long — he grew up on a largish property whose owners, idle and isolated as they were from the rest of the world, were want to beat the blahs with… culture.  Multilingual (Polish, Russian, French, German), classically trained (Greek and Latin), they read voraciously, wrote extensively (mainly letters and memoirs, but also manuals, chronicles, genealogies, dramas in the Greek style, novels in the French), composed and performed music (piano played well enough to handle Chopin and Beethoven was de rigeur, amateur opera performances with neighbors not an unusual pastime), and spoke and thought of the world in a manner reflecting their deep reading:  off the cuff quotes from Marcialis, or Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy — not meant to impress but a natural turn of mind — the way you might refer to Saturday Night Live.  (They had no television). They were also well traveled — mainly in the Romance South — between which and Podolia they often divided the year; and they imagined themselves a Mediterranean people accidentally cast in the North of the continent (ego Romanus sum, wrote their sixteenth century ancestors).  Sicilia and Podolia are much alike, wrote one of them, meaning great geographical beauty, fabulous fertility, long history, changing political fortunes, layers of historical influences, a baffling (and fertile) mix of languages and religions (in Podolia: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Karaites, Tartars, Germans).

Which is why Wyspa Montresor, a book about Montrésor, a Polish feudal fief in France (Indre-et-Loire) is such a profound surprise:  it is a kind of collage of voices of three-dozen different people — mostly family members — associated with the property, documenting the life of its half-Podolian owners in the 19th and 20th centuries.  That life is colorful (the family was related by marriage to both Hohenzollerns and the House of Savoy, lived east and west, participated in French politics as well as Polish, etc.); tragic (it is hard not to see the twentieth century as a plot to eradicate them — everyone robs them — Russian revolutionaries, Ukraininan freedom fighters, German conquerors, their own domestics, the Soviet regime, the Polish People’s Republic, even Giscard d’Estaing’s farm policies); but above all — shocking:  the family — in the 19th century among the richest in Russia, certainly among the most landed in Europe — appear to have been… cultural idiots:  there is not a single mention of any book, any opera, any museum, any painting.  It’s all about hunting — and mostly of the dumb French variety in which the beaters drive the animals towards stationary shooters who spend the whole day shooting — thousands of animals — without the least expenditure of energy or brain-power (but develop a pretty strong forefinger).

Why is it a shock?

It is a shock because, in my generosity, I have always imagined the present (apparent) decline in cultural interest among the higher echelons to the disappearance of the economic class who in the past embodied cultural life:  by which I meant the economic class with 1) the free time to engage in culture and 2) the financial resources to pay for it — in short, Veblen’s “leisure class”:  land aristocracy, the agrarian rentier class.  (Stempowski himself, in his bibliophilic La Terre Bernoise, makes a similar claim regarding the cultural lives of peasants who used to engage in folk art until, suddenly, cities began to grow thus creating a demand for village products, and thereby robbing the peasant of his free time).

I am now made to realize that for a cultured class to arise a third element must be present:  an interest.  Without it, it turns out, it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes; a free, rich person can remain a cultural idiot all one’s life.


A very short history of ugliness (2)

June 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

Nineteenth-century’s adventure with ugliness may have begun with Goya — not a terribly talented painter (a euphemism), but one who felicitously did in the end find a fit outlet for his “ungifts” — in the Horrors of War.

(Ugly is rather good for horror.  Goya wasn’t exactly inventing its use for the purpose:  Donatello already did that with his Mary Magdalene.  But spare a thought for poor artists:  it is difficult to do something truly original in any field of life:  it’s all mostly been done).

Although one wishes Goya had been more immediately successful in finding an appropriate employment for his skills — and had spared us his Mayas (equally ugly whether dressed or undressed); and all those portraits of frightened little people against threatening, dirty nondescript backgrounds; for all that, one is happy for him to have arrived home in the end.

And even, to a small degree, for himself:  can now walk into a room with the Horrors of War, spend three minutes there shuddering, and then promptly leave relieved that the experience is over.

It is difficult to be happy for Delacroix, however. He seems to have never found a home for his special “gifts” since even when he paints horrors of war (e.g. Chios) they aren’t especially horrific, just ugly. One can only conclude that ugliness suited his psyche; that he was — in terms of our simile — a little perverse. That he actually liked what he painted. And that those who liked his work were perverse also.  And why not.  I am a liberal fellow and people turned on by ugliness do not shock me anymore than gays do. De perversibus non est disputandum.

Incidentally, Delacroix worshiped Goya. (Figures).

He also promoted Courbet.

It was Courbet who raised ugliness to the status of aesthetic principle.  He did so consciously and, I believe, out of calculation. Courbet was a master of the technique of success de scandale; quite possibly its inventor. He realized that nothing scandalized people like ugliness and he painted with the intention to be ugly. There are paintings by him which suggest that the problem was not congenital — that he was in fact capable of perceiving and painting pretty things prettily — only chose not to. There was simply more fame and more money in ugly: this was his aesthetic catechism.

Why there should be money in it is in itself interesting: art historians note correctly that there was a socio-economic dimension to this strategy: the wholesale rise of the nouveaux riches — the Don Calogeros — that’s Don Calogero Sedara to you — who recognized themselves in Courbet’s paintings and who accepted that merely being painted — no matter how — elevated them to equality with Old Money. (“A painting is a painting is a painting.”)

Some philosophers today like to argue that this new aesthetic was not ugly, just differently-beautiful, and that the support given Courbet in effect an aesthetic claim that “we find this beautiful, no matter what you old snobs think”. I think the view is mistaken: a practical race, unaffected by useless notions of ought, the nouvris didn’t mind to be painted as they were.  Why, there probably was a pride in that: :I have made my way in the world by virtue of what I am; what I am therefore must be worth admiring. So what if I have short legs, bad breath, and my wife’s hands are red?”

There is a pride in the ugly body parts despite their ugliness; indeed, because of it. (“I have made it despite my disadvantages”).  This attitude denies neither the existence nor nature of ugliness, but takes pride, why, glories in it.

Next:  After Courbet, deluge

A brief outline of the history of ugliness (1)

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ugliness as an uncontrolled experiment

One possible interpretation of the history of European Art in the nineteenth century forces itself upon you as you read its various histories (and look at the illustrations):  that it was an experiment with the aesthetic of ugliness; and that the experiment has gone horribly wrong.

The simile might be to an innocent child learning to stimulate its anus for sexual pleasure.  Just as gentle stroking of the anus can indeed be pleasurable, so limited use of mild ugliness can be effective in art, not perhaps so much for the shudder it gives, but for the way it makes following beauty stand out even more. Some things — like mountain-climbing, or being mercilessly scrubbed down in a Turkish hamam — feel best when they stop; and sometimes, the experience of having them stop is worth having them in the first place:  spending half an hour with Goya’s Horrors of War becomes deeply rewarding the instant we walk out of the room.

But, unchecked, daring experiments develop according to their own dynamic; and some uncontrolled dynamics, like the dynamic of a speeding driverless car on a winding mountain road, can only end one way.  In our metaphor:  gentle stroking leads to probing, probing to penetration, and, before you know it we’re into incontinence, piles, and colonic cancer.  (I.e. start out with a little ugliness in Goya and end up with nothing but in Schiele and Munch).

To guard against the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled experiments, the divine Pythius Lycegenes gave us the commandment μηδέν άγαν:  nothing in excess.  Alas, the nineteenth century, like a bunch of high-schoolers going on strike, embraced Rousseau flattering dicta, and refused to read the classics for instruction.  They went for self-discovery instead.

And there’s the rub:  any discovery is only as valuable as the thing it throws up.  Given the nature of human nature, self-discovery throws up mostly nastiness.  It is perhaps not ignorant but self-knowing of the human race to avoid any closer brush with… self-knowledge.

Next:  The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

When a documentary unwittingly documents itself

May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The BBC documentary on Chopin’s women is a telling document.  It is studiously lower-middle-class brow:  its heroes are ugly, fat, tattoed, badly dressed, and seriously underskilled (respectively) pianist and soprano:  they are intended to be “folks like us”, I suppose, an indication of where the program is aimed.

(Anyone absent a decade — perhaps returning from a trip to Mars — would also judge, by the general unkempt appearance of all — the bum clothes, the unwashed hair, that the program was aimed at…  clochards.  Something very sick is happening to the general European dress code).

The program’s central message is that the two heroes of the program love Chopin’s music (subtext:  and therefore you, bums, too, can love Chopin).  Unfortunately, the awful performances served by the heroes fail to show why anyone should:  therefore, an explanation is necessary.  The one offered is the usual:  Chopin’s music expresses deep feelings – as if it were not Chopin’s music but his feelings that mattered.

(Folks, these are not tears; these are notes).

The overarching theme (and the theme of the title) concerns itself with Chopin’s sex-life, and, principally the question whether or not Chopin had, in his last year, a fling with a Scots soprano.  (Great!  He did one of us!)  Some Scandinavian couple has devoted their retirement to proving that he did.

(How academic of them!  Why not try to prove, while we’re at it, that he suffered from a corn in 1847, too?)

In any case, their arguments are based on a misunderstanding:  in Polish (and French) to say “I fall upon my knees before you” is gallant, not sexual.

Incidentally, the question did they have sex dominates much biographical writing, from Wittgenstein to Gould:  but what can possibly be the attraction of the topic?  It ought to be self-evident (if you think about it) that the great have sex just as the humble do.  And therefore this is precisely not what makes them great.  And therefore:  are we interested in their greatness, or — something else?

(“That was a nice concert”.  “Yes.  I especially liked the composer’s socks.”)

Besides, can the greatness of Chopin really lie in his ability to stir the emotions of people like the heroes of the program?  Surely, the greatness of music must in some way relate to its interactions with our minds — so perhaps yes, but if so, then — gasp — what a paradox, Bertie!

An embarrassingly bad program, then, but deserves attention for two reasons:

First, because it instances the direction public broadcasting is taking everywhere in the world: downhill, quarter-brow.  Far from educating tastes, from setting a higher bar, from challenging its audience by doing harder, more demanding programs than are otherwise available, it is — courting it by trying to make itself more broadly accessible:  dumbifying, falling in down.  The NPR has ever been quarter-brow.  The CBC now is.  The BBC, too.  The Polish and French Radio still stand, but — how much longer? Is it not obvious to the decision-makers that this sort of public broadcasting needs not exist; and that the course is therefore suicidal?

Second, because it illustrates the point I have argued for years:  the high and the vulgar do not mix.  Any attempt to bring the high low, to the people, as the phrase has it, ends up diluting it:  precisely that which makes the high high is lost and the vulgar still don’t like it anyway. And not surprisingly:  vulgarized high-brow is counterfeit and the plebs, though it may be poor, is not dumb.

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