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Artists and Philistines, Part 4

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Well.

Okay.  I feel a lot better than I did yesterday.  I’d say I was getting too old to pull all-nighters, or even mostly all-nighters, but the fact is that I never felt anything but awful when I pulled those in college.  It’s the same with exercise.  Exercixe makes you feel great! all those programs yell at you.  Well, I’ll do it, because it’s good for me, but it made me feel like hell even when I was a lot younger than I am now.  I am not, I suppose, a very physical person.

Anyway–Nabokov and the Philistines.  I don’t know whether to capitalize it or not.  But the idea of the Philistine, and the existence of Philistines, and…but we’ll get there.

First, a slight explanation–the book I’m reading is a collection of essays by Nabokov that existed originally as notes for a class on Russian literatre he gave, I think, at Wellesley.  They’re not polished and amended essays as they would be if Nabakov had intended to see them in print in a journal.

That said, these things are remarkable comprehensive–the one on Tolstoy, which must have taken up several classes, is exhaustive–and they are solidly about the literature.  The only word about politics in them are asides having to do with the terrible mess the Soviets, and their social-consciousness forebearers, have made of the Russian novel.

I think my generation was the last to have English courses like this on the college level.  If they still existed, we’d have a lot more English majors, and a lot less discussion of what the point of studying English literature is.
      
That said,  the essay/lecture on Philistines and Philistinism is one of the shortest in the book and one of the least coherent. 

Nabokov starts by giving the following definition, and giving it as the very first sentence:

“A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.”

As a definition of Philistines and Philistinism–okay, he doesn’t capitalize it; for some reason, I always want to, as if I’m talking about one of those groups of people St. Paul wrote epistles to.

Anyway, as a definition,  this is both unusual and a little inadequate.  It’s also highly ahistorical.  Even when he amends that definition a couple of paragraphs later, by saying:

“Philistine implies not only a collection of stock ideas, but also the use of set phrases, cliches, banalities expressed in faded words.  A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists.”

Even with this, which declares that in order to be a Philistine, one must be entirely made up of nothing but the trivial and the conventional, there seems to me to be a sort of mushy mess that misses the reality of the real world.

For one thing, in common usage, “philistine” implies an attitude to the arts that is not just indifferent, or in bad taste, but aggressively false–admiring paintings, for isntance, only for how much money they’ll bring at auction.

There are a great many people in the world who would satisfy Nabokov’s definition–or almost would–who have no such attitude to the arts.  Some of them just don’t care one way or the other, and hardly notice.  Some of them have really bad taste–an admiration for wide-eyed children painted on velvet, for instance–but do in fact approach the arts as arts, as valuable in and of themselves. 

For another thing, the definitions as rendered by Nabokov assuming the univerality, both temporally and geographically, of a high value placed on the unique and the nonconformist.

But it is not only not true that all cultures value originality and individuality–most Asian cultures have no use for them at all–but it isn’t even true that Western Civilization always valued these things. 

My little side book these last couple of weeks–the one I keep on the love seat to read snatches of after it’s gotten late and I’m too tired to make sense of linear exposition–has been a big coffee table volume on symbols and symbolism in Renaissance  painting.

And it doesn’t take long to realize that the Renaissance had only a tenuous connection to the entire idea of originality and individuality in art.  In many ways, it held to the Medieval idea that such things are actually likely to make art bad.  Good art expresses eternal truths, not passing notions..

What’s more, the Renaissance artist wasn’t an artist as we know him, but an artisan.  He had a studio full of apprentice and assistant painters who would fill in the detail work after the Master had painted the main figures.  Many of the most famous of Reniassance paintings are “by” one artist or another only by convention–the Sistine ceiling, for instance, is the work of Michaelangelo in conception, and his own painting in the main figures, but the rest was done by employees in his studio and nobody thought there was anything strange about that.

Part of the problem is also that Nabokov in this essay throws out definiton after definition, often at odds in one way or the other with the ones he’s thrown out before.  For instance, he says:

“The character I have in mind when I say “smug vulgarian” is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity.”

But–again in common English usage–a vulgarian is not any of this.  He’s the guy who insists on talking about the color and consistency of h is shit at the dinner table. 

Then there’s that word “bourgeois,” which Nabokov uses as–well, let’s just say not as the rest of us do.  For instance:

“Philistinism is international.  An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen.   Then mentality of a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler in regard to the arts and the sciences was utterly bourgeois.  A laborer or a coal miner can be just as bourgeois as a banker or a housewife or a Hollywood star.”

What?

This takes “bourgeois” and cuts lit loose from any definition it’s ever had before.  It means neither the rich commoners of French history (the American equivalents would be the Rockefellers, say, or the Roosevelts) nor the solid middle class of American history.  It’s apparently a word for an approach to humane learning, as the phrase used to go–or maybe not, it’s hard to tell.

The odd thing, though, is this–I do think I know what Nabokov is talking about.

One of the problems I’ve been having recently is finding a school for my younger son–not so young now–that both teaches what I want taught (Herodotus, Sophocles, Aristotle, Pliny, etc, etc, etc) and yet is neither run by nor filled with what I’ve come to think of as “those people.”

That “those people” are by and large the people I grew up with, and the people I’ve worked with, for most of my life–well, that’s the kind of thing I moved out of Fairfield County to avoid, and then I failed.

But I did finally come up with what it was that bothered me.  And that is that this is a group of people who cares passionately for the Humanities, for the Great Tradition, for classical education–but as an accessory, like houses built before the Revolutionary War and that little wince of pain when they’re forced to drink ordinary table wine.

In a way, the Great Tradition is for those people what cowboy hats and Southern accents are for country music singers–a badge of identity which it is unnecessary to examine or even to understand.

Those people will quote Shakespeare to you, or Sappho, or Plato–and have absolutely no idea what it is it means. 

My sixteen year old son, reading through an introductory text on the history of philosophy, came to me and announced with absolute glee, “I”ve got it–Bill Clinton is a Sophist.  It all depends on what the meaning of is is.”

Those people will never make that connection, because they don’t bother to actually hear or understand what they’re reading, or seeing, or hearing.   They have season tickets to the ballet, season tickets to the opera, they fill up the front seats at every chamber music concert–but they don’t actually hear music. 

At one point, Nabokov says, of the Philistine:

“He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh’s or Whistler’s respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.”

But this is wrong.

Those people don’t secretly prefer Norman Rockwell.  They don’t secretly prefer anybody.  If they did, they’d have some relationship with painting. 

Instead, they don’t actually see painting at all.  They are drawn to that kind of painting that works as their badge of identity.  Otherwise than that, paintings have no meaning for them. They can’t even see a painting when it’s right in front of them.  That’s why museums of contemporary art can exhibit dead sharks in urine and draw crowds of paying customers. 

Any half-drunk frat boy at an Aquapaloozza concert, any Biloxi trailer park mama who owns every record Kenny Chesney has ever put out, knows more about music than those people do–because they can hear the music, and do hear it.  Those people attend concerts, which is not the same thing.

I have no idea how people get to be like this.  For me, most of the arts are compelling on their own, so that I have to pay attention to them.  But if you find an art compelling, the chances are that you will not have easily categorizable “taste.”  If you’re really hearing the music you’ll find you like classical and jazz and rock and country and bluegrass and opera and…  If you’re really seeing the painting, you’ll find yourself drawn to Vermeer and Michaelangelo and Hopper and Byzantine icons and….   If you’re really understanding what you read, you’ll like Sophocles and Shakespeare and Stephen King and Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen and the Hitchhiker’s guides and…

I think, maybe, what Nabokov was talking about was those people, and that he had a problem expressing it because the categories for talking about that phenomenon were hemmed in by the conventions of the Forties and the Fifties, conventions that made it impossible for him to conceive of the real difference between people being not that one likes Vermeer and the other likes Rockwell, but that one like Vermeer AND Rockwell and the other doesn’t see the painting at all, but chooses on the basis of what will make him feel like he belongs to the “right” set of people. 

And with any luck, that made sense.

Written by janeh

June 5th, 2010 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Artists and Philistines, Part 4'

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  1. [I think the capitalization comes from Arnold. I’m sticking with it.]

    I could easily be wrong here. As you point out, Nabokov’s definitions are not themselves consistent. But while I know Those People–and have been taught, or at least lectured at, by a few–I think they’re distinct from Philistines.

    A coule of things to note: first, I don’t think the term has its common usage in English much before Matthew Arnold. (Knowing Arnold, I’d look for an origin on the Continent, about a generation prior.) Second, it’s ALWAYS a perjorative. No one says that Philistinism is one of four or five valid approaches to the arts, or says there’s a Philistine method of approaching this novel. People who will find a neutral word for “child-molester” won’t look for one for “Philistine.” And what I think of as “artistic types”–as opposed to actual artists, who have more variety–will use “Philistine” pretty well interchangeably with “bourgeois.”

    Yes, there are people with no “feel” for an art or for the arts generally, and social climbers who will mimic the taste of the class to which they aspire, but the slam at Rockwell and the references to the commonplace and the conventional are the giveaways. The consistent part of artistic useage of Philistine is that it refers to people who refuse to give the artistic avant-garde the deference they feel is due them.

    The Arnolds and Nabokovs of this world never use “bourgeoise” or “Philistine” to refer to people lining up to see rotten sharks or crucifixes dumped in urine, even though the motives of such people may be exactly what they ascribe to Philistines. One reason is because the Arnolds and the Nabokovs will be having dinner with the maker of the dung Madonna, and they’ll spend that dinner denouncing the “bourgeoise” editors, publishers and gallery owners, who want a return on their investment, and the “Philistine” readers and concert-goers who fail to see the wonderfulness of their new art. (Of course, if you want a real lesson on the bourgeoise mentality and mammon-worship, stiff an artist on a contract, and see how fast he sues. It’s the people financing him who aren’t supposed to worry about money, not the Great Artist.)

    Break the thing into two parts. One is identified as a Philistine because one reads Kipling instead of e e cummings or Maya Angelou. The motivation ascribed to the Philistine is, and must be speculative. And since the word is pretty well the exclusive property of the artistic types, the motivation must be negative. The Philistines must be fearful, stupid or ignorant. They couldn’t possibly have weighed the New Artists in the balance and found them wanting.

    Could they?

    robert_piepenbrink

    5 Jun 10 at 10:51 am

  2. I typed that thing with Rockwell, and I KNEW what was going to come of it.

    Okay. Robert says:

    “One is identified as a Philistine because one reads Kipling instead of e e cummings or Maya Angelou. The motivation ascribed to the Philistine is, and must be speculative. And since the word is pretty well the exclusive property of the artistic types, the motivation must be negative. The Philistines must be fearful, stupid or ignorant. They couldn’t possibly have weighed the New Artists in the balance and found them wanting. ”

    But I’d be willing to bet the house that this is NOT what Nabokov is saying.

    For one thing, virtually every reference to contemporary art in the piece is NEGATIVE–and not just popular art like Rockwell, but pretty much the entire art scene contemporary to his time, in both literature and painting.

    Second, the artists he references are all…old. Van Gogh. Whistler. Shakespeare. Tolstoy.

    Third, even in the paragraph referencing Rockwell, what makes the man a Philistine is NOT that he likes Rockwell, but that he lies and says he likes Van Gogh instead.

    It’s the dishonesty that makes the Philistine even in Nabokov’s formulation.

    “Doesn’t really like it” is the essence of the definition here, not “what one likes.”

    Which doesn’t mean that Nabokov didn’t have that attitude, too.

    But it’s not in anything I quoted.

    janeh

    5 Jun 10 at 11:02 am

  3. OK, but again, behavior is easy to agree on, and motivation is pretty well always speculative. (Of course, if someone has Mondrain on his living room walls, but a collection of Frazetta prints by his bedside, that IS behavior.)

    Nor is accepting the value of art even when you can’t see it yourself necessarily a bad thing. Please note I’ve never heard a “patron of the arts” called a Philistine by a client, though surely some of them are doing just that. It’s when the patron DOES have an opinon on art and insists on it that things tend to get sticky, though that would keep him from being a Philistine under at least one of Nabokov’s definitions.

    Is the sincere and open admirer of the conventional in art a Philistine?

    “A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.”

    So yes. But

    “He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh’s or Whistler’s respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.”

    So no. But of course, this is not a published work.

    robert_piepenbrink

    5 Jun 10 at 9:07 pm

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