Quotulatiousness

August 12, 2017

QotD: The decline and fall of art

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It also turns out that when that sort of revolutionary who believes in tearing down for its own sake, gets power, all they can do is keep tearing down, until the product manages to be, objectively, both repulsive and boring to any sane person. […] In painting this is very obvious. The shock that doesn’t shock anyone does manage, nonetheless, to turn the normal, sane human being off the “art” being displayed. (Though even there most of it is just boring. Really, the Denver museum of art paid millions for a bunch of twisted together kitchen implements? Without the little card explaining what it is and how it relates to domestic dissatisfaction, that “art” evokes “my drawer got stuck again.”)

So this avant garde of the past aged without doing more than throwing continuous artistic tantrums at the world that refused to conform to their visions. Some of the early ones, when they still weren’t the establishment were magnificent and are probably art, just because, well, art includes tantrums too. BUT after they became the establishment all they could do was chase the thrill and shock that no longer existed ever further, off the plank of sanity and into the ocean of irrelevance.

When they realized this — when the museums emptied of the middle-brow and the print runs fell — they chased relevance by erecting ever more exacting rules saying “this you shall not do, that you shall not say, this thing you shall not even think.” This ranges from political correctness to the sort of stultifying mandates on style and manner that are the last gasp of any dying artistic movement. (I’m still sticking my middle finger up at the minimalists and the idiots who think first person is always bad. )

Which brings us to science fiction. Since science fiction in its heyday was not considered art or literature, it was just… what people wrote for fun. (Kind of like Shakespeare in his day.) There would be some reflexive classical references, which were the equivalent of Kit Marlowe putting his stage directions in Latin, just to prove his education wasn’t wasted. However, they weren’t exactly following any school.

Then came… the deluge. Or at least the “if we destroy all the rules and shock everyone, it will be literature and amazing.” And when they took over the establishment, the same thing followed as in the rest of the art.

Now… Now they — even those marginally younger than I — are the establishment. They are the authorities still vainly rebelling against an establishment that doesn’t exist, that probably never existed except in their heads. Which is probably why they attract so many people with issues with daddy or teacher or other authority figures who didn’t let them have their bugs and eat them too in childhood. (It also explains a certain fascination with the contents of their metaphorical diaper, now I think about it.) They must be FOREVER the first woman to write non-binary sex, even if it has been done for decades before they were born. They must be forever the most shocking thing Evah! even if what they’re doing was done better and more apropos by their grandparents’ generation. It’s all they have.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Avant-Garde”, According to Hoyt, 2015-09-26.

July 24, 2017

QotD: Salvador Dali, in his own words

Filed under: Books, Europe, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Here, then, are some of the episodes in Dali’s life, from his earliest years onward. Which of them are true and which are imaginary hardly matters: the point is that this is the kind of thing that Dali would have liked to do.
When he is six years old there is some excitement over the appearance of Halley’s comet:

    Suddenly one of my father’s office clerks appeared in the drawing-room doorway and announced that the comet could be seen from the terrace… While crossing the hall I caught sight of my little three-year-old sister crawling unobtrusively through a doorway. I stopped, hesitated a second, then gave her a terrible kick in the head as though it had been a ball, and continued running, carried away with a ‘delirious joy’ induced by this savage act. But my father, who was behind me, caught me and led me down in to his office, where I remained as a punishment till dinner-time.

A year earlier than this Dali had ‘suddenly, as most of my ideas occur,’ flung another little boy off a suspension bridge. Several other incidents of the same kind are recorded, including (this was when he was twenty-nine years old) knocking down and trampling on a girl ‘until they had to tear her, bleeding, out of my reach.’

When he is about five he gets hold of a wounded bat which he puts into a tin pail. Next morning he finds that the bat is almost dead and is covered with ants which are devouring it. He puts it in his mouth, ants and all, and bites it almost in half.

When he is an adolescent a girl falls desperately in love with him. He kisses and caresses her so as to excite her as much as possible, but refuses to go further. He resolves to keep this up for five years (he calls it his ‘five-year plan’), enjoying her humiliation and the sense of power it gives him. He frequently tells her that at the end of the five years he will desert her, and when the time comes he does so.

Till well into adult life he keeps up the practice of masturbation, and likes to do this, apparently, in front of a looking-glass. For ordinary purposes he is impotent, it appears, till the age of thirty or so. When he first meets his future wife, Gala, he is greatly tempted to push her off a precipice. He is aware that there is something that she wants him to do to her, and after their first kiss the confession is made:

    I threw back Gala’s head, pulling it by the hair, and trembling with complete hysteria, I commanded:
    ‘Now tell me what you want me to do with you! But tell me slowly, looking me in the eye, with the crudest, the most ferociously erotic words that can make both of us feel the greatest shame!’
    Then Gala, transforming the last glimmer of her expression of pleasure into the hard light of her own tyranny, answered:
    ‘I want you to kill me!’

He is somewhat disappointed by this demand, since it is merely what he wanted to do already. He contemplates throwing her off the bell-tower of the Cathedral of Toledo, but refrains from doing so.

During the Spanish Civil War he astutely avoids taking sides, and makes a trip to Italy. He feels himself more and more drawn towards the aristocracy, frequents smart salons, finds himself wealthy patrons, and is photographed with the plump Vicomte de Noailles, whom he describes as his ‘Maecenas.’ When the European War approaches he has one preoccupation only: how to find a place which has good cookery and from which he can make a quick bolt if danger comes too near. He fixes on Bordeaux, and duly flees to Spain during the Battle of France. He stays in Spain long enough to pick up a few anti-red atrocity stories, then makes for America. The story ends in a blaze of respectability. Dali, at thirty-seven, has become a devoted husband, is cured of his aberrations, or some of them, and is completely reconciled to the Catholic Church. He is also, one gathers, making a good deal of money.

George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”, Saturday Book for 1944, 1944.

May 18, 2017

If you subsidize art, you’ll get more [bad] art

Filed under: Europe, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I missed this when it got posted initially … Theodore Dalrymple on an Irish government initiative to actually audit the art they’re busy subsidizing:

Like most governments these days, the Irish government is a patron of the arts. The problem is that most governments know as much about the arts as I know about how to select camels for a camel race.

Naturally, therefore, governments rely on advisers to advise them on artistic matters, in effect delegating to them the disbursement of funds. Here the problem is that the art world is now so corrupt morally, intellectually, and aesthetically that the advice it gives is more likely to resemble Mr. Madoff’s advice to investors than Lord Duveen’s to Henry Clay Frick. There has always been bad art, of course, but rarely has it been so heavily subsidized; and when we see work of which we are inclined to ask, “But is it art?” we should perhaps be asking instead, “Is it government-funded?”

The Irish Arts Council, however, recently came up with a novel, even transgressive idea (“transgressive” is the highest term of praise in current art criticism, incidentally), namely that the artists they subsidize should show some sign of artistic endeavor. It is true that the council’s choice of word, audit, was an unfortunate one, as if artists were accountants having their accuracy checked; and the eminent Irish writer Colm Toibin said that the council’s terminology — for example, “working artists engaged in productive practice” — had a North Korean ring about it; an exaggeration, no doubt, given that the North Korean regime subjects its artists to something more severe than mere audit, but one knows what he means. These days it is increasingly difficult to distinguish, stylistically, between an official circular and a page from The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung. (The only one of those communist leaders worth reading, by the way, is Enver Hoxha, who had a wonderful natural gift for poisonous invective and insult. As by the end of his life he had fallen out with everyone, he also had a lot of practice at it; his principle was never to speak well of the dead, especially if he had killed them himself.)

But Mr. Toibin was exercised about the very idea of demanding of artists that they actually produce something in return for the money they receive. After all, many a great artist in the past has had a fallow patch in his life, sometimes lasting decades; you can’t just go to an artist and insist that he be inspired, any more than a photographer can insist that his subjects be natural in front of the lens. His logic appears to be:

Great artists a and b had fallow patches

Artist c is having a shallow patch

Therefore artist c is great and indefinitely worth subsidy

Now, I’m not against patronage as such; sometimes I even wish I had had a patron who had relieved me of the necessity to earn my daily bread (and jam). Then, surely, I would have written an imperishable masterpiece; I would have had time for le mot juste instead of having to make do with the le mot approximatif that mere journalism, as against literature, requires. But the government doesn’t have the taste or discrimination to act as patron. It can’t even choose its advisers well.

April 21, 2017

The oddly appropriate subtext to New York’s “Fearless Girl” statue

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the New York Post, Nicole Gelinas points out that Mayor De Blasio has set a precedent that might well come back to bite the city (the example she cites would be “Black Lives Matter protesters want a statue of police brutalizing a black man in front of One Police Plaza”. She also explains why the statue highlights an uncomfortable detail about the role of women on Wall Street:

The “Fearless Girl” statue faces the Arturo Di Modica “Charging Bull” on Wall Street (Wikipedia)

But the bigger problem with Fearless Girl is that it casts stereotypes in bronze: Men do important things, and women get in the way.

The bull is the primary actor: He is charging. The girl’s job is to impede him. This is how Wall Street has long worked — and it’s changing, but slowly.

Take the management committee of State Street’s parent company. Of its 14 members, two are women. One, the chief administrative officer, is a top regulatory official. The other is the human-resources chief and “citizenship officer.”

On Goldman Sachs’ 33-member management committee, five of our women — at least four of whom are in similar, growth-restraining positions.

Yes, growth-restraining: These are great jobs and require deep skill. But they’re bureaucratic rather than entrepreneurial. If a department head — a man — wants to start up a new unit, it’s the regulatory experts who will say, no, you can’t.

Similarly, a trading head may want to hire someone — but the human-resources chief nixes it.

Indeed, the area of “compliance” — which sounds like an S&M activity but has to do with ensuring that the bank and its employees don’t launder money, steal or do other bad things — is where women have done well.

[…]

This work is necessary. A company can’t grow if it’s convicted of money-laundering or if its employees are thieves (in theory).

But it’s also the depressing age-old relationship: A man wants to do something fun and cool, like take the children paragliding before they’ve had a proper breakfast. His wife says, “But honey, the kids have band practice today, and maybe we should save the money for the mortgage.”

Fearless Girl fails in another way. It’s terrific to have courage and fight important battles. But it’s not a good idea — for men, women or children — to be recklessly fearless.

Fear is a good thing. If a bull is charging you, according to the farming manuals, the best thing to do is what you instinctively do: get out of the way. If you don’t pick your battles, you’ll lose them.

March 30, 2017

Words & Numbers: The Arts Will Survive Without Your Taxes

Filed under: Economics, Government, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 29 Mar 2017

This week, James & Antony experiment with a slightly longer format, and get into the issue of government funding for the arts.

March 27, 2017

QotD: The nursery school campus

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I wanted to ask you about that. If Emma Sulkowicz were a student of yours, in an art class you were teaching, how would you grade her work?

[laughs] I’d give her a D! I call it “mattress feminism.” Perpetually lugging around your bad memories – never evolving or moving on! It’s like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism. I called my feminism “Amazon feminism” or “street-smart feminism,” where you remain vigilant, learn how to defend yourself, and take responsibility for the choices you make. If something bad happens, you learn from it. You become stronger and move on. But hauling a mattress around on campus? Columbia, one of the great Ivy League schools with a tremendous history of scholarship, utterly disgraced itself in how it handled that case. It enabled this protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever. This isn’t feminism – which should empower women, not cripple them.

It’s yet more evidence of the current absence of psychology. To go around exhibiting and foregrounding your wounds is a classic neurotic symptom. But people are so lacking now in basic Freudian consciousness – because Freud got thrown out of mainstream feminism by Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem and company. So no one sees the pathology in all this. And for Columbia to permit this girl to carry her mattress onstage and disrupt the commencement ceremony was absolutely ludicrous. It demonstrates the total degradation of once eminent and admirable educational institutions to caretaking nursery schools. I prophesied this in a piece I wrote in 1992 for the Times Literary Supplement called “The Nursery-School Campus”. At the time, nobody understood what I was saying. But I was arguing that the obsessive focus by American academe with students’ emotional well-being was not what European universities have ever been concerned with. European universities don’t have this consumer-oriented view that they have to make their students enjoy themselves and feel good about themselves, with everything driven by self-esteem. Now we have people emerging with Ivy League degrees who have no idea how little they know about history or literature. Their minds are shockingly untrained. They’ve been treated as fragile emotional beings throughout their schooling. The situation is worsening year by year, as teachers have to watch what they say and give trigger warnings, because God forbid that American students should have to confront the brutal realities of human life.

Meanwhile, while all of this nursery-school enabling is going on, we have the entire world veering towards ISIS – with barbaric decapitations and gay guys being thrown off roofs and stoned to death. All the harsh realities of human history are erupting, and this young generation is going to be utterly unprepared to deal with it. The nation is eventually going to be endangered by the inability of several generations of young people to make political decisions about a real world that they do not understand. The primitive realities of human life are exploding out there!

Camille Paglia, interviewed by David Daley in “Camille Paglia: How Bill Clinton is like Bill Cosby”, Salon, 2015-07-28.

March 13, 2017

QotD: The legacy of nineteenth century intellectualism

Filed under: Economics, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In the Nineteenth Century, intellectuals raised the argument that Western Civilization was wrong about all its major conclusions, from Christianity to Democracy to Capitalism, and that a rational system of scientific socialism should and would correct these errors and replace them.

This, over the next hundred years, was attempted, with the result that in a single generation the socialists and communists and national socialists of various stripes had killed more people and wrought more ruin than all world religions combined during all the previous generations of history.

Meanwhile, the visual arts were reduced to aberrant rubbish not merely ugly and untalented, but objectively indistinguishable from the work of schizophrenics; literature reduced to porn and tales of failure and decay; science was reduced from an honest and objective pursuit of truth to a whorish tool servicing political ends, particularly the ends of environmentalist hysterics, but creeping into other areas; universities degenerated from bastions of learning protected by traditions of academic freedom to the foremost partisans in favor of speech codes and political correctness; family life was and continues to be assaulted; abortion continues to carry out a slow and silent genocide of negro babies, girl babies, and other unwanted humanoids; law enforcement has been redirected from protecting the innocent because they are innocent to protecting the guilty because they are guilty; the Fair Deal and New Deal of the socialist philosophy at its height of intellectual respectability did nothing but prolong what should have been a ten month market correction into a Great Depression that lasted ten years; Welfare programs encouraged, exacerbated, and created a permanent and unelevatable underclass in America, ruining the very lives the programs were alleged to help; Affirmative Action has made race-hatred, accusations of racism, and race-baiting a permanent part of American life, despite that no less racist nation ever has nor ever could exist.

So the Left has not only failed in everything they attempted, and failed at every promise they made, they failed in an immense, astonishing, unparalleled, and horrifying way, a way so deep and so vast and so gross as to never have been seen before in history nor ever imagined before, not even by science fiction writers. Even Orwell did not foretell of a time when men would voluntarily adopt Newspeak and Doublethink and all the apparatus of oppression, freely and without coercion. Even he, the most famous writers of dystopia of all time, could not imagine the modern day. The failure of the Left is indescribable: one can only grope for words like ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘astronomical’ to express the magnitude. If Lot’s wife were to look steadily at what the Left has done, she would turn to a pillar of salt, so horrifying, so overwhelming, so dazzling is the hugeness of failure.

Now, when your prediction and worldview and way of life and philosophy turns out to be an utter failure of epic, nay, apocalyptic proportions, you have one of two choices. The honest choice is to return to the drawing board of your mind, and recalculate your ideas from their assumptions, changing any assumptions that prove false to facts.

Pardon me. I have to stop typing for a moment. The idea of a Leftwinger actually doing this honest mental act is so outrageous, that I am overcome by a paroxysm of epileptic laughter, and must steady myself ere I faint.

John C. Wright, “Unreality and Conformity of the Left”, Everyjoe, 2015-07-05.

January 27, 2017

Monty Python – Coal Miner Son

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on Apr 23, 2014

World renowned blue-collar play-wright at odds with his elitist coal-mining son.

H/T to Megan McArdle for the link.

January 12, 2017

How we experience art

Filed under: Media — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Terry Teachout posted a link to this older column about “blockbuster” art exhibitions and he offered a few suggestions:

(1) Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour – and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything.

That one’s easy. This one’s harder:

(2) Every “civilian” who goes to a given museum at least six times a year should be allowed to attend a press or private view of a major exhibition. The experience of seeing a blockbuster show under such conditions is eye-opening in every sense of the word. If more ordinary museumgoers were to have such experiences, it might change their feelings about the ways in which museums present such exhibitions.

Lastly, I’ll take a flying leap into the cesspool of arrant idealism:

(3) No museum show should contain more than 75 pieces, and no museum should be allowed to present more than one 75-piece show per year. Tyler Green […] wrote the other day to tell me that Washington’s Phillips Collection, our favorite museum, is putting on a Milton Avery retrospective in February that will contain just 42 pieces. I can’t wait to see it, not only because I love Avery but because that is exactly the right size for an exhibit of that kind – big enough to cover all the bases, but not too big to swamp the viewer and dull his responses.

I’ll close with a memory. A few years ago, I gave a speech in Kansas City, and as part of my fee I was given a completely private tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. I went there after hours and was escorted by one of the curators, who switched on the lights in each gallery as we entered and switched them off as we left. I can’t begin to tell you what an astonishing and unforgettable impression that visit made on me. To see masterpieces of Western art in perfect circumstances is to realize for the first time how imperfectly we experience them in our everyday lives. It changes the way you feel about museums – and about art itself. I didn’t realize it then, but that private view undoubtedly helped to put me on the road to buying art.

Perhaps one of our great museums might consider raffling off a dozen such tours each year. I’m not one for lotteries, but I’d definitely pony up for a ticket.

December 18, 2016

QotD: The new Whitney Museum in New York City

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On a recent visit to New York City, I had the opportunity to walk around the exterior of the new Whitney Museum, built at a cost of $442 million. It is a monument of a kind: to the vanity, egotism, and aesthetic incompetence of celebrity architects such as Renzo Piano, and to the complete loss of judgment and taste of modern patrons.

If it were not a tragic lost opportunity (how often do architects have the chance to build an art gallery at such cost?), it would be comic. I asked the person with whom I was walking what he would think the building was for if he didn’t know. The façade — practically without windows — looked as if it could be the central torture chambers of the secret police, from which one half expects the screams of the tortured to emerge. Certainly, it was a façade for those with something to hide: perhaps appropriately so, given the state of so much modern art.

The building was a perfect place from which to commit suicide, with what looked like large diving boards emerging from the top of the building, leading straight to the ground far below. Looking up at them, one could almost hear in one’s mind’s ear the terrible sound of the bodies as they landed on the ground below. There were also some (for now) silvery industrial chimneys, leading presumably from the incinerators so necessary for the disposal of rubbishy art. The whole building lacked harmony, as if struck already by an earthquake and in a half-collapsed state; it’s a tribute to the imagination of the architect that something so expensive should be made to look so cheap. It is certain to be shabby within a decade.

Theodore Dalrymple, “A Monument to Tastelessness: The new Whitney Museum looks like a torture chamber”, City Journal, 2015-04-22.

November 23, 2016

When is an American Indian artist not American Indian?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Answer: when federal bureaucratic rules interact unhappily with state-level bureaucratic rules. Eric Boehm explains why an artist is not legally allowed to market her beadwork as “American Indian-made”:

Peggy Fontenot is an American Indian artist, of that there can be no doubt.

She’s a member of the Patawomeck tribe. She’s taught traditional American Indian beading classes in Native American schools and cultural centers in several states. Her work has been featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the Native American.

In Oklahoma, though, she’s forbidden from calling her art what it plainly is: American Indian-made.

A state law, passed earlier this year, forbids artists from marketing their products in Oklahoma as being “American Indian-made” unless the artist is a member of a tribe recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Patawomeck tribe is recognized by the state of Virginia, but not by the federal government. Fontenot says she can trace her Native American heritage back to the 16th Century, when the tribe was one of the first to welcome settlers from Europe who landed on the east coast of Virginia. She’s been working as an artist since 1983, doing photography, beading, and making jewelry.

[…]

According to PLF [Pacific Legal Foundation], Oklahoma’s law could affect as many as two-thirds of all artists who are defined American Indians under federal law. The state law also violates the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by restricting the interstate American Indian art market, the lawsuit contends.

August 17, 2016

Cover art and outtakes from Tom Waits’ Small Change, 1976

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I didn’t know that the “go-go dancer” in the background of the photos from Tom Waits’ album Small Change was Cassandra Peterson (better known for her portrayal of “Elvira” to most of us):

Tom Waits - Small Change 1

Tom Waits - Small Change 2

A couple of outtakes at the link.

August 3, 2016

QotD: The lure of “new” old art

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What is it about stories like these [the discovery of “lost” artistic masterworks] that we find so unfailingly seductive? No doubt the Antiques Roadshow mentality is part of it. All of us love to suppose that the dusty canvas that Aunt Tillie left to us in her will is in fact an old master whose sale will make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And I’m sure that the fast-growing doubts surrounding Go Set a Watchman (which were well summarized in a Feb. 16 Washington Post story bearing the biting title of “To Shill a Mockingbird”) have pumped up its news value considerably.

But I smell something else in play. I suspect that for all its seeming popularity — as measured by such indexes as museum attendance — there is a continuing and pervasive unease with modern art among the public at large, a sinking feeling that no matter how much time they spend looking, reading or listening, they’ll never quite get the hang of it. As a result, they feel a powerful longing for “new” work by artists of the past.

To be sure, most ordinary folks like at least some modern art, but they gravitate more willingly to traditional fare. Just as “Our Town” (whose form, lest we forget, was ultramodern in 1938) is more popular than “Waiting for Godot,” so, too, are virtually all of our successful “modern” novels essentially traditional in style and subject matter. In some fields, domestic architecture in particular, midcentury modernism is still a source of widespread disquiet, while in others, like classical music and dance, the average audience member does little more than tolerate it.

Terry Teachout, “The lure of ‘new’ old art”, About Last Night, 2015-02-27.

May 26, 2016

Terry Teachout on silent movies

Filed under: History, Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Ten years ago, Terry Teachout finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and found (to his relief) that it was just as offensively racist as everyone had always said. He also discovered that silent movies are becoming terra incognita even to those who love old movies:

None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective – it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.

Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film – not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it – is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).

As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently – and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience.

[…] Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring — and thank God for that.

April 21, 2016

QotD: The amazing (ancient) Greeks

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.

When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.

Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.

The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

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