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Archive for September, 2012

And the Term has…Started

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Or sort of.  Well, it has in fact started, and this time, for me, with one bollocks after another.  I have no idea if I’ve spelled that word right.

I have been reading–a book called The Fortunes of Permanence, by Roger Kimball.  It’s a strange sort of thing.  Kimball is one of the people who has edited The New Criterion, which is a “conservative” journal of (mostly) high culture.

Kimball is always talking about the “chapters” in this book, but I don’t think the pieces were really written, orginally, as chapters.  The book has the feel of a collection, and as a collection, some of it is very interesting.

One of the things I would recommend here is the chapter/essay on Rudyard Kipling.Kimball  has a lot to say about what is valuable and lasting in Kipling’s work, and also about why he has been for so long persona non grata in academic and high culture circles.

The Kipling piece and several others are obviously book reviews, of the long and discursive kind.  There’s one on The Dangerous Book for Boys that makes me feel a lot happier about it than the reports I’ve heard up to now have made me.

And there are some beautiful pieces on the depredations of “modern” art and architecture–stairs that go nowhere! floating penises!–that are almost impossibly funny.

The problem, for me, comes with the chapters on relativism in modern life that are meant to be the overarching structure of the book. 

There’s nothing wrong with these chapters, exactly, except that they feel a little lost or banal or–I don’t know.

Kimball is a conservative of the T.S. Eliot variety.  He wants a return to the standards of high culture.

On the other hand, he is very much aware that what passes for high culture these days–staircases that go nowhere! floating penises!–is often  not authentically high culture at all.

In fact, some of the best chapters in the book are the ones in which he eviscerates what passes for high art and high literature on the contemporary scene.

The problem, I think, is something that has become endemic among high culture conservatives–how to find a position that will allow you to say that Shakespeare is objectively better than Ann Beattie, but that will not automatically land you in a place where you’re forced to say that Jersey Shore is just as much literature as Shakespeare is.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the question is wrong–that we get sidetracked into questions of what is or isn’t high art, when the real question is what’s wrong with the existence and popularity of both Jersey Shore andAmerican Beauty,about Lady Gaga and all those floating penises.

The issue is not what is “good” art and what is “bad,” or what is “literature” and what is “trash.”

The issue is why so much of the culture–both high and popular, both elite and mass–has come to concentrate so singlemindedly on the ugly and the stupid and  the nihilistic. 

That issue is a lot larger, and more important, than any standards we might want to issue for painting or sculpture or film or books. 

It transcends that discussion, because the ugliness phenomenon exists these days o n every cultural level.  Sometimes I think it has become the defining cultural phenomenon of our age.

Kimball calls it a “return to animality,” and I know what he means–and what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would have meant, because they’d have thought the same thing if they were alive and writing now-

I don’t know if it’s the right term.  But it’s something.

Written by janeh

September 6th, 2012 at 9:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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