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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

2 Responses to 'And the Term has…Started'

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  1. Oh, dear. High Culture and High Art again. I’m going to just do the outline and topic sentences, because I’m pretty sure everyone already read the essay.
    History may be true or not, but High Culture really is a lie agreed upon. It’s a mutual-recognition game much like the “in” crowd in high school agreeing on shoelace colors. No one else is obliged to take such a system seriously. High Art is another matter, but only potentially. Mostly it exists to give the High Cultists a way to say “Folk Art! Popular Culture! Masscult! Midcult! YUCK!!” since it’s not dignified for an Ivy League or Oxbridge PhD to refer to cooties.
    Which is not to say some art isn’t really better than other art, and some art isn’t more serious than other art. There seem to be five approaches:
    Aesthetics, in the sense of completely arbitrary, and the old Latin saw about taste being not disputable covers it nicely. Some people may prefer Danish Modern to Gothic, but if all it is is a preference, there’s no reason to defer to anyone else, no matter how well-bred. One man’s “educated” or “sophisticated” taste is another man’s “effete” or “degenerate” taste.
    Motivation. This was McDonald’s contribution, and a sillier notion I’ve rarely heard. If you took it seriously, you’d have to say “we can’t tell you whether Shakespeare or Homer were High Art, because we don’t know how they were paid or how they felt about payment.” It might get even worse for the modern era when we really can tell what Austen, Dickens and Melville thought about money–not to mention Dr. Johnson.
    Influence. This game is mostly rigged. It doesn’t mean how many artists our man has influenced. It means how many artists our man has influenced that MOMA likes. Call it the Frazetta/Howard Problem.
    Construction. How is the art put together? Are the descriptions consistent? Are there loose ends to the plot? Does he REALLY look like that? There really is bad art on that level. The problem is (a) there isn’t much art that’s poorly constructed as opposed to not being to one’s taste, and (b) some of what there is are favorite pieces of the High Cultists. So they don’t use that one much.
    Subject. Does the art deal with important things and does it have something to say about them? This is a perfectly valid way to look at art. But if you do it honestly, then you have to say that by that standard, certain comic books outrank some of Shakespeare, and that you have no way to rank instrumental music or abstract art at all. So this standard may be mentioned, but isn’t actually used at all
    Since I never see the believers in High Art approaching it by either of the two standards I can take seriously, I don’t take the believers themselves seriously. Mind you, I’ll listen to anyone who wants to wants to discuss an individual work of art I find interesting. I when people ask, in effect, “is it really art?” I tend to start reciting Kipling‘s “In the Neolithic Age.” (“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”)

    Please note Kimball or anyone else could use either or both of the last two standards to good effect, but they’d have to live with the consequences.

    Animality. Oh, yes, certainly. But that’s only part of it. Don‘t forget the number of “artists“ who take a little boy‘s pleasure in writing dirty words on every wall in sight. To call that animality is to wrong the chimpanzee. Indulging the bodily appetites is animality. Much of what we see as establishment art these days is a perversion of language and intelligence. And when the “betters” are obviously unworthy of respect and emulation, the floodgates are open and the authentic lower class vulgarians come pouring in. You should see some catalogs that show up regularly in my mail box.

    But why should anyone be surprised? If someone believes that we differ from animals primarily in shape, just how long do you think you have before that belief is reflected in art? One long generation between Thomas Arnold and Dada, or maybe a short generation between Thomas Arnold and Klimt. Call it the Matthew Arnold Interval–or the Oscar Wilde Gap. Either way, it’s long past among our cultural gatekeepers. So long as they see themselves primarily as animals they are defenseless against the stupid and ugly. And a population which sees itself as animals just bright enough to know that they’re fated to die is surely a suitable audience for nihilist chic.

    This too will pass–but the transition is likely to be rough.


    6 Sep 12 at 7:43 pm

  2. I had the book on my Kindle but didn’t get around to reading it until Jane posted. It seems to be a collection of essays only vaguely connected.

    The essays on Art and Architecture were over my head. But there are some good essays on liberals, Marxists, and why socialism and communism don’t work.


    8 Sep 12 at 2:14 am

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