Posts tagged “CULTURE

How success kills the goose

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.

Literature as a fight against vertical barbarian invasions: Literature in the Polish mind

“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”

Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.


There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.

In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.

The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.


Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.

Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.

Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.

This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.

30 men go in, one man come out, or debating the New(ish) European Identism

The European Union project is spawning its own ideology and intellectuals — as ever — are embracing the ideology-making with gusto.  Partly in order to be relevant — the hunger for political power, the feeling of being marginalized and insignificant has been the mainstay of the class for ever; but partly because it’s all intellectuals can do:  produce ideology with which to bedazzle lesser minds (and each other; and themselves).  I am worried about it:  nothing good has ever come out of this sort of ideology-making.  For now, it seems innocent enough, but so did socialism at first — before guys named Adolf and Vladimir explained it to us a little better.

This new European ideology is, in short, this:  Europe has been a separate well defined entity since its very conception.

Just what it is that makes it Europe/European isn’t clear — people mutter something about Greeks, Bach, and Catholicism.  These are mostly incomprehensible claims. For instance, to say that “Bach is a point of reference for all European music” (I heard precisely this sentence last night) means either that

i) all music made and listened to in Europe is somehow descended from Bach, or informed by Bach, which is an impossible claim; or,

ii) ominously, that every music made in Europe which is not informed by Bach is somehow not European, foreign (and we know where these claims end); or

iii) it means that every musician in Europe has heard the name “Bach”, which is so little of a claim, that one’s hard-pressed to understand why it should be made at all.

More ominously, the claim to European identity is thought to emerge out of contrast with the other (“busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”, says Hank IV to Hank V-to-be).  And, a momentous point, the Other used here is not the United States, about which most European intellectuals at least know something, but about Asia and Africa about which they generally… know nothing.

This is not only terrible on account of its falsity and glaring ignorance; or its possible political dangers down the road (Euroepan Muslims look out); but also on account of the very culture which it claims to defend.  For the discussion then turns to art and culture seeking to identify what is European about Shakespeare, or Bach, while what is needed is identifying what is good about them.  What we need is not more European art, what we need, dear friends, is more good art. Could someone please stand up for that?  There is no need to stand up for the European Union — plenty of people do that already.


So, your correspondent is going to go into this think tank, unarmed, and alone.  A classic western situation:  on the one hand he, on the other 29 participants.  Then, we lock the door.

The Western ending would read:  30 men go in, one man come out.

Not cut out from the Western cloth, I am afraid.  Won’t they club me to death?

The true meaning of Renaissance

A different catalog from the Gulbenkian suggests that the iconography of the Children Playing cycle of tapestries (see previous post) was based on Philostrates’ Imagines: a work describing in poetic prose paintings he had seen in Naples sometime in early 3rd century AD.

Here is the relevant excerpt from Imagines:


See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are the children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love; and they say that it is heavenly love which manages the affairs of the gods in heaven. Do you catch aught of the fragrance hovering over the garden, or are your senses dull? But listen carefully; for along with my description of the garden the fragrance of the apples also will come to you.

Here run straight rows of trees with space left free between them to walk in, and tender grass borders the paths, fit to be a couch for one to lie upon. One the ends of the branches apples golden and red and yellow invite the whole swarm of Cupids to harvest them. The Cupids’ quivers are studded with gold, and golden also are the darts in them; but bare of these and untrammelled the whole band flits about, for they have hung their quivers on the apple trees; and in the grass lie their broidered mantles, and countless are the colours thereof. Neither do the Cupids wear crowns on their heads, for their hair suffices. Their wings, dark blue and purple and in some cases golden, all but beat the very air and make harmonious music. Ah, the baskets15 into which they gather the apples! What abundance of sardonyx, of emeralds, adorns them, and the pearls are true pearls; but he workmanship must be attributed to Hephaestus! But the Cupids need no ladders wrought by him to reach the trees, for aloft they fly even to where the apples hang.

Not to speak of the Cupids that are dancing or running about or sleeping, or how they enjoy eating the apples, let us see what is the meaning of these others. For here are four of them, the most beautiful of all, withdrawn from the rest; two of them are throwing an apple back and forth, and the second pair are engaged in archery, one shooting at his companion and the latter shooting back. Nor is there any trace of hostility in their faces; rather they offer their breasts to each other, in order that the missiles may pierce them there, no doubt. It is a beautiful riddle; come, let us see if perchance I can guess the painter’s meaning. This is friendship, my boy, and yearning of one for the other. For the Cupids who play ball with the apple are beginning to fall in love, and so the one kisses the apple before he throws it, and the other holds out his hands to catch it, evidently intending to kiss it in his turn if he catches it and then to throw it back; but the pair of archers are confirming a love that is already present. In a word, the first pair in their play are intent on falling in love, while the second pair are shooting arrows that they may not cease from desire.

As for the Cupids further away, surrounded by many spectators, they have come at each other with spirit and are engaged in a sort of wrestling-match.16 I will describe the wrestling also, since you earnestly desire it. One has caught his opponent by lighting on his back, and seizes his throat to choke him, and grips him with his legs; the other does not yield, but struggles upright and tries to loosen the hand that chokes him by bending back one of the fingers till the other no longer hold or keep their grip. In pain the Cupid whose finger is being bent back bites the ear of the opponent. The Cupids who are spectators are angry with him for this as unfair and contrary to the rules of wrestling, and pelt him with apples.

And let not the hare yonder escape us, but let us join the Cupids in hunting it down. The creature was sitting under the trees and feeding on the apples that fell to the ground but leaving many half-eaten; but the Cupids hunt it from place to place and make it dash headlong, one by clapping his hands, another by screaming, another by waving his cloak; some fly above it with shouts, others on foot press hard after it, and one of these makes a rush in order to hurl himself upon it. The creature changes its course and another Cupid schemes to catch it by the leg, but it slips away from him just as it is caught. So the Cupids, laughing, have thrown themselves on the ground, one on his side, one on his face, others on their backs, all in attitudes of disappointment. But there is no shooting of arrows at the hare, since they are trying to catch it alive as an offering most pleasing to Aphrodite. For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree.17 At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young. As for the male, he not only begets offspring in the way natural to males, but also himself bears young, contrary to nature. And perverted lovers have found in the hare a certain power to produce love, attempting to secure the objects of their affection by a compelling magic art.

But let us leave these matters to men who are wicked and do not deserve to have their love returned, and do you look, please, at Aphrodite. But where is she and in what part of the orchard yonder? Do you see the overarching rock from beneath which springs water of the deepest blue, fresh and good to drink, which is distributed in channels to irrigate the apple trees? Be sure that Aphrodite is there, where the Nymphs, I doubt not, have established a shrine to her, because she has made them mothers of Cupids and therefore blest in their children. The silver mirror, that gilded sandal, the golden brooches, all these have been hung there not without purpose. They proclaim that they belong to Aphrodite, and her name is inscribed on them, and they are said to be gifts of the Nymphs. And the Cupids bring first-fruits of the apples, and gathering around they pray to her that their orchard may prosper.



And gives in my eyes — a new, previously unsuspected — meaning to the term RenaissanceChildren Playing was a conscious recreation of a lost classical work; the genre of natura morta began as a recreation of a work of Apelles; groteschi were recreated Roman wall decorations; Gregorius Agricola’s De re metallica (1556) was an effort to recreate a lost work by Theophrastus of Eresos. 

Re-creation rather than Rebirth.

(“We had all these works of art and we lost them.  Let’s bring them back to life now”).

Not unlike, in its spirit, the modern historical instruments movement.

Autumn Leaves, or some thoughts on artistic tradition

(completely revised)

The very clever Taiwanese have invented a way to reproduce National Palace Museum scrolls in very high resolution  on paper with high silk-fiber content; with the result that the product feels like the real thing.  And though it does not quite look it up close (no reproduction ever does), it has its own very special beauty.

The reproductions are almost unreasonably expensive:  for that kind of money one may as well order a hand-painted copy.  But there was a special reason to acquire this.

I think this picture size is big enough to show that Zhao Meng-fu’s Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua mountains (painted in A.D. 1295) does not — by a long shot — rank among the best paintings painted in China; nor even the best work by Zhao Mengfu himself;  yet, for all that, it is the example par excellence of all extant Chinese literati art.

For one thing, it was painted in what was at the time considered an archaic manner:  parts of the painting are executed in brushwork and colored in colors intentionally designed to reproduce the techniques of great masters of the past.  Yet, other parts — much of the texture of the landscape — are in a new kind of brushwork, which was Zhao’s own invention.  This would have been readily understandable to Zhao’s audience — all of whom were professional brush-users — the brush being used as much for writing as it was for painting.  Thus, one could say that the work was a conscious — and consciously transparent — transformation of the ancient tradition:  the creation of a new work within the time-honored genre.  A work not designed to break the boundaries, overthrow, break away — which is generally — and rather unreflectedly — considered a true hall-mark of greatness in the west since the romantic era — but to comment on and add to what has gone before.

Which is, of course, a mark of the Chinese approach to their cultural tradition.  Unlike western Europe, China has suffered several foreign — worse: barbarian — conquests, both devastating and long-lasting, and yet her artistic tradition has not experienced the sort of artistic revolutions we have experienced in the west.  Not until the break out of the Cultural Revolution (1966) has a Chinese artist ever raised the slogan to reject the old and to start afresh from scratch; and even that was only short lived phenomenon, long since abandoned (and with considerable embarrassment).  One is tempted to theorize that nations threatened by foreign conquest are more likely to hang fast onto their cultural tradition.  But the Chinese approach to art is also conditioned by the formative reading of Confucius, who held that the only thing that differentiated humans from animals (and barbarians) was siwen (斯文) — the cultural tradition.  Thus, a Chinese academician’s response to the Salon des Refusés would not have been what some of the French critics have said — (more…)