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Friday, September 01, 2017

What survives

Ramesses II
The only thing that ever survives from a culture is its arts. Political power is transient. Political power is nothing. It will vanish.  The most powerful man in the world is nobody. The only way we remember any of the powerful men of the world is the way they were captured by artists, often anonymous artists in ancient Egypt and Rome. The bequest of any civilization and the test of its quality is its arts. I feel that the left and the right, everyone across the political spectrum is guilty of offenses against the arts, and I hope that you will now go forth and be ambassadors for the arts. 
           --Camille Paglia, minus a few okays and may be a so or two


  1. Political power will vanish, but as an actuary will tell you, any one of us has something between a small chance and nearly certain one of vanishing before any given regime or administration. Or, as Randall Jarrell somewhere wrote "It is we, not the state that withers away."

    But I can't help quoting from Democracy:

    “But after all,” said she, “why should politicians be expected to love you literary gentlemen who write history. Other criminal classes are not expected to love their judges.”

    “No, but they have sense enough to fear them,” replied Gore vindictively; “not one politician living has the brains or the art to defend his own cause. The ocean of history is foul with the carcases of such statesmen, dead and forgotten except when some historian fishes one
    of them up to gibbet it.”

    Anyway, heaven help the arts if I am to be their ambassador. Or just heaven help the arts.

    1. Yes, heaven help! Culture is always a body in need of restoration, I suppose.

      And yes, we fade like the grass and are gone, while states maunder on much longer. That's a rather disgusting version of a metaphorical ocean, isn't it? I used such a metaphor in a recent essay, but all the big and little fishes were alive... None were dead politicians. Surely few politicians are actually statesmen!

  2. Rather optimistic, I'd say. The signs and the effects of political vandalism may survive years. In fact the French have made use of this at Oradur-sur-Glane, a village in the Limousin. As a reprisal against an incursion by the RĂ©sistance the Nazis herded the villagers into the local church and burned them alive. Together with the rest of the village. After the war the French decided to leave Oradur exactly as it was after the Nazis departed. One may walk round and see a sewing machine through the window of one cottage, the wreck of a car in a ruined garage elsewhere. But might Oradur now be a gruesome variant of conceptual art? I hope not.

    Religions have survived as has local tradition, both the results of human endeavour.

    And does Paglia distinguish between good and bad art? An ancient artefact may only be of value to an academic studying a particular period.

    However, I note your caveat and will withold further platitudes.

  3. I have not read her book, "Glittering Images," but I expect that would answer your question of whether Paglia distinguishes between good and bad art. It's addressed not to scholars but to a public audience, I believe.

    Perhaps Oradur is more like Pompeii, testament to volcanic eruption--testament to volcanic human evil and to the fact that, as Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, even mine and yours. Oradur asks what we will and won't do, given an ill-shaping context. Pompeii says that nature doesn't love us. Neither do ordinary men always love one another, despite two thousand years of injunction.

    Is Oradur like conceptual art? It is quite curious to compare what happened at Oradur to conceptual art. If you think of installations as following a set of instructions in order to construct (often leaving out traditional aesthetic concerns), then I suppose you could--in some perverse way--think of the event and its aftermath as following a set of instructions (orders) to produce an effect. You might even say that the event, like conceptual art, questions the nature of art itself. It certainly questions the value of human beings and religious life--here church-going and other Westerners seen as made in the image of God--by destroying them in the house of God. To do so also obliterates all their works and abilities, including artistic gifts. So perhaps you could argue that it is also akin to conceptual art, which is devoted to questioning art (although it has been a long time since R. Mutt / Marcel Duchamp presented his first readymade. More than a century might suffice, I would think, for that questioning. The law of diminishing returns is upon us.)

    On the other hand, perhaps you could turn the comparison around and argue that conceptual art is like Oradur! After all, it attempts to destroy tradition, passed-down meaning, the idea of human value, Christianity, archetypes, and all human gifts, including art.

  4. Paglia is so funny. She utters more than her fair share of bonkers pronouncements that she repeats but rarely revisits—really, I can't read another word from her extolling Madonna, for heaven's sake—but often she hits the mark with unsettling accuracy. I love her exuberance, which shows by contrast how little fun most people in academia will let themselves have. She's the patron saint of the un-pigeonholed, and every humanities department should have at least one such character who's prone to unorthodox pronouncements.

    1. Exuberance, yes! It is always wonderful and enlivening to be around people who have a little extra life spilling over, and I expect she must make her friends feel that way. I wonder if she talks so quickly when she's with family and friends?

      And yes, we need the unorthodox...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.