Given the wild historicist philosophising to which historians of the old school were inclined, it is small wonder modern-day historians eschew theory-making as such. It is also regrettable because it is an act of over-compensation: an exaggeration in the opposite direction. After all, history is supposed to teach us something about the world: trying to draw conclusions about general mechanisms of how things work really should lie at the heart of its 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.
Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft
Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it. Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting? (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter: the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can). Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth? (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?) Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).
All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.). GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well: starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too: what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?
Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking. In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original: much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:
Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.
But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect. (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel). That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.
System instability will set us free
We have an entrenched art theory which fails to deliver.
This art theory is buttressed by a lot of sunk cost (“investments” in garbage misunderstood as valuable art, “investment” in reputations based on having promoted the said theory of art); and by the way museums, galleries, and state funding operate (they invest money according to this theory); providing in the process funds to recipients who can use those funds in turn to extract even more on the same principles; and to defend those principles: i.e. to suppress any alternative theory of art since that might see the public and gallery money going elsewhere.
As a result, I am afraid, we are never going to have decent art again — as long as the present system exists.
To please Andrew —————-
Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to please write. You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know. [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist, and someone rather famous in her own country — especially when such words are addressed to someone entirely unknown, anonymous, and without credentials].
Ah, yes, well, thank you. I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain… why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the first-hand experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some independent observations… so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which may not have occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them — because there haven’t been there, they haven’t seen what I have seen. So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.
But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain… or even notice that it just might be any way important. Or care. The fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand. Or care.
I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life. I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write — but I have never cared to be published, for some odd reason I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be on a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper or in a book review. (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I trashed them all the moment I received them. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).
It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it. But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains): I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk. In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that: I am not sure I really found any “like” minds… I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds. I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.
If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have been discovering all my life, that I don’t really understand other people. A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation). Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!
I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — as was the way they reasoned about them. I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain myself; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain. I mean… if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory… that it was only a plausibly sounding falsehood… and, if response to all my argument, a light lit up in their heads saying “aha!”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say? Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?
And — why should I worry about that at all?
How success kills the goose!
Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio (the last undumbed-down cultural radio on earth). It was also proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art – in this case, recordings of classical music.
The format was very good: three musicologists with engaging personalities and pleasant voices discussed six different recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best. The program was run on a very high level — this was professionals talking to one another, talking like professionals (“talking shop”) and not minding that someone listening might not know some terms. It’s such a wonderful rarity to hear a program which is not aimed at the 10th grade and below (such programs don’t seem to be produced anymore) — I counted the days between the programs and on occasion cancelled a date in order to hear it.
Unsurprisingly, the speakers’ choices usually coincided with mine. The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised: some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest (Gould, Richter, Abbado, Bernstein); but it was pleasant to discover surprising facts, such as that Dudamel actually can conduct (when he’s not conducting a youth orchestra), that Shostakovich played his 2nd Piano Concerto wrong – but better than the score, etc.); and above all it was a lesson in listening: I have been listening to classical music almost “professionally” for forty years now, so it’s no surprise I can hear most of what the musicologists can; but not all – and to learn what they heard and I did not was fascinating.
For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste: it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but that they too face the barrier of personal taste. Yet, at that level of sophistication, the barrier is not a barrier: one cannot help but respects an educated divergent taste.
Like me, the public probably liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, the musicologists heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not) — and it grew and grew by the week. But the public liking was the program’s undoing: the organizers – classical radio stations are so happy to have a runaway hit – decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and thereby… killed it. The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying, to call a spade a spade — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.
(The aestheticist’s lesson here is that taste and perception can be discussed on a very high level but probably not in groups larger than three).
This — the perversion of the author/performer (in this case, the musicologists) is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another. A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped enjoying the work the moment his ratings went over 5%. “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”. His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited. But as the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, and after some attempts at educating the audience first and then at dumbing-down the content, the host asked us to take him off the air.
Dear Kto słucha nie błądzi : for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in this Sunday.