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John Lennon and the Madness of Crowds

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Okay, color me stupid, but this confuses me:

>>>Of course, Jane’s description effectively makes the literary novelists government employees, dependent more on taxpayer money (through a cutout or so) than on sales to the general public. >>>

Where is the “government” coming from?  I said nothing about government funding of literary novelists–in fact, government funding for the arts in this country is a drop in the bucket, and doesn’t usually go to novelists anyway.

This system is essentially private–most of the universities inolved in it are private, the publishing companies are private, the foundations are private. 

For all the yelling and screaming about the NEA–the national endowment, not the teachers’ union–it provides very little in the way of money to people who fully expect to clear over a hundred thousand a year in a bad year.  

Its purpose among the writers of literary fiction is largely symbolic–proof that they have the blessing and honor of their society, or at least the upper-end part of it. 

(And a note–of course Nozick meant literary novelists, since he probably does not identify other writers of long fiction as novelists at all.  Nobody from the college I went to would call me a “novelist.”  I write detective novels, or mystery novels, or something–but that’s not the same thing as being a real novelist. My guess is that you’d get the same reaction if you talked to anybody on the Connecticut Gold Coast–the high-end Wall Street brokers and lawyers, the medical specialists with three advanced degrees, etc.

But before you decide that those people are all snobs, I’m here to tell you that the attitude is prevalent with fans, too, and with people who work in the industry in one capacity or another.  The fans of genre writers have a tendency to the attitude of “we made you, you’d better stay in line” (I get into a lot of trouble on that one), and a woman who said she was a copyeditor on one of the forums I contribute to now and again once said that if she were working on a literary novel, of course she deferred to the writer’s judgment about wording, vocabulary and form, but with a genre writer, well, shs expected those to stick to the standard conventions and assumed that any deviation from them was automatically wrong.  Then she told me I  had no right to complain that my “chaise longue” was changed to “change lounge” since the second was now perfectly accepted common usage.  I pointed out that the common usage was wrong, and let it go.)

But let me go back, for a minute, to Bohemia.  The issue of the madness of artists is one thing, but Bohemia is another. 

By Bohemia I meant a determination to live outside normal social conventions–to refuse to marry in those ages when cohabitation was a scandal (or even a crime), to be a “night person,” to refuse to hold down steady jobs or to establish a normal career arc.

And, if ou can believe the reports of their detractors, to dissent from conventional notions of hygene.

The artist as tortured genius is a trope that goes back only to the eighteenth century.  Leonardo would have considered the idea ridiculous.

The intellectual as Bohemian, though, goes all the way back to the Greeks.  It’s there in Aristophanes’ The Clouds where Socrates is portrayed as a sort of smarter-than-average Maynard G. Krebs. 

From what I’ve read, the portrait in Aristophanes was supposed to be a composite of intellectuals in general and not necessarily of  Socrates in particular, but we’ve got documented evidence–in spades–of the Bohemianism of both the British Romantic poets and the writers of Bloonsbury.

Of course, a lot of what was then considered shockingly irregular would  now be considered perfectly normal.  We don’t get all bent out of shape if somebody calls us by our first names before we’ve known them very long, or expect that a ‘well run” house needs at least one maid, if only to serve at dinner.

But a number of the themes are constant across the centuries–the casual disrespect for the authority and persons of parents; the retreat from customary means of earning a living (or even the pursuit of earning a living at all), the endless indulgence in “alternative” forms of family structure and varieties of promiscuous fornication.

And no, of course it’s not the case that artistic excellence requires any of this, or intellectual work, either.   Lytton  Stachey notwithstanding, there were plenty of Victorians alone who managed to live quite conventional lives while dealing with and advocating the most original ideas, in politics and art as well as bioloy and physics.

Sherlock Holmes was a lot of things, but he was not a Bohemian.

But, really, the more I look at this, the more interesting it gets.  George Steiner has a point–the high art tradition has always worked on a patronage basis.  The ordinary peasant in the streets of Florence may or may not have benefited from Michaelangelo’s art, or Leonardo’s–I tend to think he did, but that’s another post–but Florentine artists of the Renaissance weren’t painting or sculpting for the peasant in the street.

The artists of the Renaissance had an audience, but it was made up of the great patrons, Popes, aristocrats, and the first great captains of capitalism.  These were by and large highly educated men and women whose tastes bore no relation to those of ordinary men and women, and they were backed up by a rising middle class that took it upon itself to form its own tastes to be more aristocratic than not.

Since the opinions of ordinary men and omen did not matter in these societies–the upper classes would have been unlikely to  know what those opinions were–there was no need to “epater” anybody.  There was no conflict between the artists’ judgment of what made good (or great) art and society’s, because both the artist and his audience came from the same intellectual tradition with the same tastes and values.

This was true even in cases–like Michaelangelo’s–where the artist’s socioeconomic history was significantly different from that of his patrons.  If there ever was a brilliant example of class not being primarily about money, Michaelanelo might be it. 

I’m going somewhere with this, I thihk.  I just don’t know where yet.

Written by janeh

July 23rd, 2009 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'John Lennon and the Madness of Crowds'

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  1. But not everyone who opts out of ‘normal’ social conventions is a genius, and a lot of them aren’t even artists. I was reminded of one of my father’s old friends recently. He’d be the sort of non-artistic bohemian I’m be thinking about. He did manage to do enough work to keep a roof over his head, but that roof was in a shed in the woods, where he could drink and party to his heart’s content – and that was in a place and time in which the local social climate probably made Victorian London appear risque. The only writing he and his buddies did as far as I can recall was the time they painted insults about various local authorities on the walls of some buildings.

    Every town has them, although they don’t usually go so far as to live in the woods like a hermit, and they aren’t always gainfully employed. They don’t dress or act like most people around them. They don’t actually belong to much of a subculture, either, although they may be part of a small group of friends who party together. They might have some residual marriage or birth family connections, but they’ve tended to wear out their welcome with these groups over the years. They may have casual or nodding acquaintances with others in their area, although they don’t see the need to actually participate in any usual or commonplace form of social interaction, whether it’s going to the opera or drinking in a country bar or, well, bathing or visiting laundromats. Once in a while they might do a little hell-raising, particularly in their younger years, but they usually aren’t criminal masterminds although they may engage in minor criminal acts to get by. They’ve generally got no respect or regard at all for people in authority.

    What they aren’t, as a general rule, is artistic or intellectual in any public sense. Some may be very well-read, or at least well-read in whatever area interests them, but they don’t *do* anything with it. They aren’t public speakers or teachers. They aren’t the Socrates type. They may well have existed back into antiquity, but they aren’t and weren’t of much interest to anyone except the occasional busybody who thinks they are ‘weird’ and therefore dangerous and should be locked up on general principles.

    A small percentage of this group may well have had enough interest in the wider society to become influential in it, but assuming that because some geniuses led ‘irregular’ lives, irregular lives must be a sign of genius is surely illogical.


    23 Jul 09 at 9:53 am

  2. Maybe the Renaissance has a perfect agreement in taste between patron and artist. I’d also keep in mind that Renaissance princes were not likely to be good sports about such matters and kept bravos with clubs on retainer instead of lawyers. There isn’t much mockery of the Establishment among the artists on Stalin’s payroll, either.

    Bohemian. You’ve got me. As for Holmes, I’d have said anyone who fired a revolver in his own rented rooms to spell out “V. R.” on the wall rated at least some points for Bohemianism. Not to mention drugs and music. (Was Holmes any good with a violin? Poor Mrs. Hudson.)

    The limits of government and higher education: No, I wasn’t talking about the NEA, nor the publishing houses. (I was a little surprised to hear that still went on. I thought merging into media conglomerates would eventually get rid of pet writers who don’t earn back advances.) But I understood a number of “first tier” universities to be taxpayer funded, and more taxpayer money goes to some of the larger private universities than they really want to discuss. Apart from outright grants, there are papers, legal opinions, studies of one sort or another, and some actual scholarship or scientific research. I don’t know how you’d check it, but I suspect the Ivy League will receive more of the recent “stimulus” money than some of the smaller state governments–but it will come in so many different forms it would take a small army of accountants to keep track.

    Does anyone else remember how quickly the private schools all folded on restrictions on recruiting when the Federal government threatened to take them off the list for contracts if they persisted? And I think that may only have been DoD contracts. It certainly didn’t include students loans, government scholarships. or the GI Bill.

    I may be wrong, but the value these institutions place on federal money seems to me to indicate that it’s more of their budget than they’d like to discuss in public. Of course, that’s also true of the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood. As Jefferson could have told you, a government spending money on this scale can corrupt a lot of individuals and institutions.

    (Incidentally, since the universities involved all insisted it was a matter of principle until the feds mentioned money, it is now possible to set an upper limit on the financial value of their principles to many American universities.)

    When every freshman congressman goes to the Kennedy School of Government at taxpayer expense for “orientation,” I think it’s fair to say any malcontents in residence at Harvard are at least partially government-funded–and that they’re quite happy with THAT function of the establishment.


    23 Jul 09 at 5:02 pm

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