How sure they are about the past

December 19, 2012 Comments Off on How sure they are about the past

The past, whatever it was, was very different.  It — and the people in it – were so different form us that we have no way of understanding just how different they are!  (Precluding, of course, any ability to make this statement!)

How the middle class committed suicide

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

The old villas of Lido, like all old villas everywhere, illustrate the fall of the middle class.  Beautiful 2 or 3 story houses with gardens and terraces opening upon the sea testify by their design — and often by surviving inscriptions — to their single family past.  They were all built a century ago to house Venice’s doctors and engineers.  Today each has been subdivided into multiple apartments, each apartment occupied by its own family, each family of the same, only much poorer, doctoro-engineerial middle class.  It is the story of my grandparents and parents:  both my grandfathers — one was a merchant the other a judge — went to work at 10, knocked off for the day at 3, and each lived with an unemployed trophy wife in a 10 room apartment downtown, with 3+ servants.  Both my parents have worked all their life, each more that 40 hours a week, not counting the commute.  They had no servants.  They lived in a single family homes in distant suburbs, each of which was smaller than the apartments they had grown up in.

The Le-Corbusierian horrors of Benfica testify to a similar story, in reverse:  the dramatic improvement in the standards of living of the poor.  To you and me Benfica might seem a horror, a completely unlivable factory for living; but compare that to the hovels from which the residents’ parents and grandparents had come – cramped, low ceilinged, with beaten earth floor, and, often with the door doubling as the only window, and, boy, life is good, isn’t it?

Looking at the two, one could say, the middle class… lost.

One source of the loss is dumb mismanagement.  The middle class allowed the poor to breed; then (in 1914 and 1939 again) it put guns in their hands.  By second half of the twentieth century, the poor had the numbers AND the guns.

But there is another cause for the loss, a more pernicious cause.  Empress Elisabeth of Austria illustrates the point:  she was an Empress but she believed in democracy based on merit.  Royalty and aristocracy were to her a ridiculous relic, destined sooner or later for the dump-heap of history.  Similarly, somewhere in early 20th century, the middle class lost belief in its own right to be what it was.  Middle class elders began to found schools and hospitals for the poor and push for social-democratic reforms through parliaments; middle class youth embraced Marxism and revolutionary politics.

In effect, the middle class… committed suicide.

In the last 50 years or so, economic development has meant that the fields of artistic production by and large have failed to attract top talent

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Given the wild historicist philosophising to which historians of the old school were inclined, it’s small wonder modern-day historians eschew theory-making in general.  It is also regrettable because to do so is to overcompensate:  exaggerate in the opposite direction.  After all, history is supposed to teach us something about the way the world works: trying to draw conclusions about general mechanisms of history really should lie at the heart of historical inquiry.

C. V. Wedgwood does this rather well.  Her way of interpreting some mechanisms of history is ambitious and thought provoking, without being wild — perhaps because it is couched in economic and psychological terms rather then the vague “civilization” or “progress” or “gender construction” or “Orientalism”.  The author’s seemingly “sweeping” observations strike us with their profoundly common sense.  Such as her observation that the cause of the decline of the Catholic church in the Netherlands in the 15th century was… a brain-drain from the church to the professions,  a brain-drain caused by… the rapidly improving opportunities in trade and industry.  She thus suggests the existence of a fascinating cultural/economic mechanism (also proposed by someone else to explain America’s cultural decline during the Gilded Age):  that a society’s economic success can be bad for its art.

One can see the mechanism at work in our own time:  the last 50 years in the “first world” have seen fantastic opportunities in banking, finance, technology, real estate and marketing and that’s where all talent went; by contrast, the fields of artistic production (painting, sculpture, literature) and art management (museum directors, theater directors, critics, scholars) have failed to attract the best talent; which has resulted in the sort of production we have seen:  uninspired, shallow, derivative, technically poor, gimmicky.  In culturally more successful periods (such as the Renaissance) artistic production attracted talent which may equally well have been deployed in science or engineering (and often was:  Leonardo was a anatomist, Michelangelo a builder, Cellini an engineer).  By contrast, twentieth century art looks like something produced by people whose alternative economic options were on the scale of selling pimple remedies via mail order in small town newspapers.

Perhaps when at last the true (economic) “decline of the West” finally sets in, talent will begin trickling back to art.

Embrace the crisis.

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