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Coincidences

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So, what can I say?

I’m sleeping in.  I’m not on my home computer.  I don’t have to set the alarm clock for at least the next five weeks–well, except on Christmas morning–and so I find myself almost impossible to get started on the day.

I find it odd sometimes how much routine depends on geography–how much the regular schedule depends on being in the regular place. Maybe I’m about time the way my mother used to be about money.  My father could never trust her with cash when she left the country, because she could never convince herself that foreign money was actually “real” money.  She’d spend it as if she were on a Monopoly board.

At any rate, I’ve been reading my way through a mountain of Agatha Christie novels, which by now should be obvious to everybody.  Last night, I finished Sad Cypress–Christie had some of the worst title on the planet, really–and I didn’t want to go on directly to the next one.

I’m actually trying to think about them this time, which I don’t think I ever have before.  So I read one and then read something else to buffer it, then I read another.

What I found to read in the stacks of the TBR pile was George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoyevski.  It’s the very first book he ever published, issued in 1959, and by odd coincidence has as its basic premise something I’ve thought true for years:  that Tolstoy and Dostoyevski represent the two main currents of thought (aesthetic, religious and political) of the period we call “modernity.”  If you are drawn to one, you will be at least faintly repulsed by the other.  There are Tolstoy people and Dostoyevski people.  Nobody is both.

In the opening chapters, however, Steiner goes back to a theme he would take up later in his essays:  the theme of the alienation of the artist in the modern world.

By “artist,” Steiner most definitely means not only novelists and poets, but also composers (of classical music), painters, and sculptors.  The impression I get is that he does not include filmmakers, never mind the people who make television programs or write and draw comic books.

But this is George Steiner, the man who wrote “Archives of Eden,” whose basic message was that high art could not be produced in a democratic society, and that monarchy, hierarchy and at least a little tyranny would be a price well worth paying to produce high art.

So it’s Steiner, and we’re not going to get from him any paeans to universal suffrage, or even universal literacy. 

What stopped me, though, was this:  at once point near the very beginning of this book, he explains the alienation of artists in the years after the French Revolution as being caused by the rise of the new industrial middle class. 

These are the people that we would call “upper class” in America today, the great founders and builders of industries, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Bill Gateses.

I’ve heard that argument before, from other people in other places, and it’s always confused me.  

The people who  make that argument do not apply it to the rise of the upper middle class in other societies at other times–to the great merchant bankers in Republican Florence, for instance, like the Medicis. 

The Medicis made it up from being “nobodies,” and did so in one of the proto-democratic societies of Europe, and yet they are not castigated for their Philitinism or blamed for the death of art.

Steiner, however, goes on to explain why the rise of the industrial age killed high art and made the artists necessarily alienated from the world around him.  It is not because there was a new ruling sensibility in and of itself, or because this new ruling sensitivity was often made up of people who had not been to the manor born, but because this new ruling sensibility, although happy to snap up works of art like any other commodity, didn’t listen to the artists’ critique of their way of life.

Okay, here’s the thing.  I put that in italics for a reason. 

Steiner is not a stupid man, by a long shot.  And he is more highly literate than better than 99% of the people in the world, with a wide knowledge of several periods of Western history.

And yet the most obvious difference between the new industrialist-led societies and the eras of those same societies that came before, at least as it relates to artists of any sort, is–it fundamentally changed the way in which artists made their livings.

In the middle ages and the Renaissance, artists attached themself to great men, or great rulers, one on one, so to speak.  Michaelangelo’s audience was the Pope who hired him.  Leonardo’s was Catherine di Medici. 

There’s nothing in particular wrong with this.  It got us the Sistine Celing, The Last Supper, the David, and a good deal more.

What I’m pretty sure it didn’t get us, though, was critics of the ruling society that the ruling society took seriously and felt as a spur to personal or social change.

For one thing, rich patrons wanted what they wanted, and if they didn’t get it, they fired the artist and hired another one to paint over what he’d done.   Artists worked “freelance” the way magazine writers do today, and that meant that they worked to specification, not as outside independent critics of anything except their patrons’ enemies.

The  new industrial society meant that artists were free to criticize for the first time, and that they they were free to cobble together an audience from individuals of many different ideas and temperaments.  If their work didn’t suit those new industrialist masters, they could sell it to carpenters and plumbers, or to aesthetes, or to revolutionists, or to any of a number of other groups.

The interesting thing is that they apparently hated it.

Steiner starts from the assumption that all “real” (meaning high) art is anti-democratic in its very nature, so this doesn’t seem very strange to him.

It does seem very strange to me. 

Even given the fact–and it is a fact–that there are people out there who self-label themselves “artists,” or “writers,” or “composers” who do so only because it provide them with a handy rationale for the “alienation” they were already committed to displaying–

And even given the fact that there are a good number of self-labeled artists or writers or composers who are failing at what they do and need an excuse–

Even given those people, there are a fair number of actual artists and writers and composers who take this tack, and it’s hard for me to understand why.

I don’t understand what they think the alternative would be to what we got now.  This is the freest and most open situation artists have ever been in in the history of the world, if they’ve lived in societies at all. 

For one thing, there was never a time before this one when anybody took artists seriously at all.   If you think it was better in Classical Athens, you ought to ask Aeschylus.

I find it really astonishing that somebody like Steiner, who really ought to know better–hell, who almost certainly does know better–could say a thing like this.

It represents a sentimentalization (is that a word?) of history that would have sounded idiotic coming from a college freshman at a fourth-tier university.

And even then it would have had the virtue of being explicable.

Written by janeh

December 18th, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Coincidences'

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  1. I know almost nothing about art history, but it seems to me that if the artists somewhere sometime (post Medici?) got the impression that they were supposed to be connected to and experts in greater and better things than the common run of humanity, they’d naturally be annoyed and alienated when the only people with money said things like ‘I know what I like, and that’s it’ ignoring completely their claim to higher knowledge.

    I mean, it’s much more satisfying and elevating to think of oneself as a superior commentator on society than merely someone who produces decorative objects, like a parlour maid polishing the chandelier.

    Cheryl

    18 Dec 10 at 5:45 pm

  2. And I’ll bet you Steiner doesn’t footnote, and doesn’t give facts or reason supporting his statement. It’s so basic–to Steiner–as not to need any support. It’s something “everyone knows.”

    It’s MUCH easier to change an opinion based on evidence or reason than to change an opinion held at this deeper level.

    As for what actually happened following the Industrial Revolution, I wonder. Cheryl’s got a good point. False pride may be sufficient motivation for the artist, But something else has to be in play. It’s not as though Cellini & Co had low self-esteem. Perhaps it was now possible for an artist to critique society and not starve or be beaten by hired bravos.

    I’d also consider the critical aparatus. There doesn’t seem to be a professional class of critics until fairly recently. Jane would know better, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anything that discusses how and why a story is written in a certain way before the latter half of the 19th Century–and part of the game seems to be that the artist MUST critique society. If he isn’t, he’s not a real artist, no matter how much his paintings sell for, or how many copies his books sell.

    Setting aside poseurs, I would at least consider the posibility that the alienated artist may be a critical construct. As a body, the successful and influential writers in English over the past two centuries don’t look any more “alienated” than the people I see at work, met in the Army or sat at the family dining table with.

    Is there an “alienation scale” they can be measured against?

    robert_piepenbrink

    18 Dec 10 at 7:18 pm

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