Why mass education is a disservice to art and literature

September 12, 2012 § 4 Comments

The beach was supposed to be a change of air, a lifting of spirits.  It very nearly was the opposite:  what struck me most about seeing so many people all at once, all of them near-naked, was how badly they were all made:  everyone, it seemed, had something seriously wrong with him:  I don’t just mean the usual city flab and sag, but serious, fundamental, congenital design flaws:  the legs too short, the torso too long, bad skin, cellulite, steatopygia, rounded shoulders, hunch, scoliosis, one arm longer than the other, eczema, an occasional extra thumb.  And faces… faces seemed to come in two categories: people who looked like they stepped out of a cartoon (literally:  if you disguised the photo as a line drawing using fancy software, anyone looking at it would declare it a malicious caricature); or at best — perfectly indifferent. I did not seen one decently made body (not beautiful, just not wrong) or one wholesome face the entire evening.

If the ubiquity of congenital flaws in our bodies is any indication of the ubiquity of congenital flaws in brain wiring, two thoughts come to mind: 1) that for most of us merely coping — merely surviving from day to day — is a struggle and — pretty much — the best we can hope for.  And 2) never mind being able to aspire to, understand, appreciate, and critique high brow art: most of us simply don’t have the wherewithal to tackle it.

How very much art and literature therefore must be elite pursuits — or risk not being what they can be!

Mass education (50% of the population attending college!?) can therefore be seen as a disservice to art and literature, putting in very many people’s heads the preposterous expectation that they can “do” art and philosophy — e.g. that they can and should have opinion/comment on Monteverdi or Cervantes — and the very false ambition to actually do these things.

Somehow the system does not convince them that they can do high energy particle physics — for which vast majority are just as qualified ( = not); but art and philosophy, yeah, we can do!  [How exactly does that work?]  But just imagine what useless pile of rubbish high energy particle physics would be if all those Joes who insist on participating in art and literature insisted on mucking about with boson theory instead?  Why can only some people contribute meaningfully to the discussion of quantum mechanics but everyone feels entitled to tell us what they think about a painting by Del Piombo?



January 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

A discussion of Wymyk, an acclaimed (and promising) new Polish film, on PR2 sports an interesting exchange; one commentator, a woman, comments about a hero’s cowardly behavior:  “Honor does not grow back.”  She then recalls a quote from Lord Jim:  “Honor really does exist.”

With this, another commentator, a man, disagrees; it is not clear what the nature of his disagreement is — I suspect that if one probed him, he would, like the readers of my other blog, avoid the issue; but we are put on notice that in his view honor is not above dispute.

It is not surprising:  a woman, especially a woman of some age and authority, can speak openly about qualitative aspects of manhood: for a woman to speak about manhood is a kind of daydream, a love-wish, it is like men speaking of their ideal female beauty.  But men do not speak lightly of manhood:  if they do, they open themselves to a challenge, and not many are prepared to meet it.  Better object.

The honor-blind will tell you that honor is a relic of the past; that it is not modern.  But another explanation is that honor is a mutation:  those born with it have it, sense it, value it, and defend it; those without it are blind to it like the color-blind are to red or the deaf to high C.  This notion gives another meaning to the term “to be honorably born”.

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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