Dec 142006

Periodically I shall adjudicate blog disputes. There is no appeal.

First on the docket we have Gawain, of Heaven Tree, vs. Conrad Roth, of Varieties of Unreligious Experience. Gawain, upset with the Uffizi museum for neither allowing photographs nor selling reproductions of its collection, is driven to guerrilla tactics. He photographs, presumably illicitly, a bust of Scipio Africanus, and posts it for the world to see.

Conrad defends the Uffizi policy on the paradoxical grounds that it makes the enjoyment of its treasures all the greater for those who can travel there and look at them in person. For they can also delight in thinking of all the poor slobs who can’t make the trip:

For me, elitism is simply the general notion that things are better when fewer people have them, and that the few (whether groups of one member or 500) should be (and are) hostile — snobbish — to the many. There are, of course, an infinity of fews. Everyone belongs to several. And the pleasure of belonging to a few — especially if that few is just oneself — is derived from the fact that it is not a many. Such a pleasure is concurrent with the pain felt by those outside the few who want in; nevertheless, our pleasure outweighs their pain, and I see no reason to deny ourselves the satisfaction. Everyone benefits in the long view.

Conrad means that the pleasure of being in derives from the imagined pain of those who are out, and no amount of shuck and jive about “concurrent with pain” and “not a many” can disguise the fact. It is not enough, for Conrad, to see the treasures of the Uffizi. Others must be prevented from doing so. Or as Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

There are indeed an infinity of elites, or at least a great many, but Conrad has multiplied them beyond necessity. There are two elites in his argument where there ought to be only one.

One elite is the people who visit the Uffizi. This elite imposes no duties of connoisseurship or discrimination: only the time, the money, and the inclination to visit are required. What really interests, or ought to interest, Conrad is the other elite, whose members, instead of filing dully past the Scipio bust, look it over carefully and see some of what Gawain sees. One can belong to the first and not the second — and now, thanks to Gawain and despite the Uffizi’s policy, to the second and not to the first. Virtually all of Emily Dickinson’s best poems can be found on the web. Anyone can join who is willing to invest the time and effort to grasp the poems. This elite will be tiny to begin with. Would Conrad propose to narrow it further by requiring anyone who wants to read Dickinson to travel to Amherst to study the original manuscripts?

The court finds for Gawain. He is, however, directed to pay damages to the Uffizi, for infringing its reproduction rights, in the amount of $0.10 for each blogger who links to his article. That’s 20 cents and counting. Conrad is directed to stop whinging that Gawain doesn’t leave enough comments on his blog.

Next up are A.C. Douglas, of Sounds and Fury, and Campbell Vertesi, of, um, Campbell Vertesi’s blog. A.C. issued one of his clarion calls for “hierarchical sobriety,” by which he means that pop culture is pop and high culture is high, and not only shall the twain never meet, they shall not even be profitably compared:

Metaphorically speaking (and once one gets past technical considerations of craft, one can speak of the core matters of aesthetics in no other way), the singular principal hallmark of all artifacts of the realm of high culture is their perceived aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture within which they were produced, and even of their very selves as works of art. And that singular hallmark is what’s singularly lacking in all the artifacts of the realm of popular culture, their singular principal hallmark being a perceived aspiration to the widely accessible here-and-now entertaining.

Campbell replies that what we call “pop” and “high” is largely an accident of time and place, and that many “high culture” artifacts were written to entertain, or even, God forbid, to make money. As a musician, he adduces Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan; as a literatteur, I would add Homer and Shakespeare. Some of today’s “pop” artifacts will surely belong to the high culture of the next century, although it is precipitous to speculate which. Campbell goes on to argue that “if no aesthetic judgements are permitted between the two musical traditions, it follows that any two representatives of the fields take on equal status.”

Here he puts his case badly, as A.C., who is nothing if not tireless, points out in his inevitable reply. The conclusion does not follow; but it need not either. What Campbell should have said is that a purported defender of high culture ought to be prepared with a convincing answer to a high school student who asks why he must study The Scarlet Letter instead of the latest X-Men comic. I would want to be armed with a little more than “perception of aspiration to transcendence” myself.

These converted verbs disavow their subjects. “Perception” occurs, without a perceptor; “aspiration” without an aspirant. Campbell reasonably asks who or what is doing the aspiring; A.C. does not deign to answer. It’s a metaphor, you see, and there the matter ends. The “aspiration” (by the artist? the work?) to “transcendence” (of quotidian experience? of the culture? of itself?) is cloaked in the “perception” (of the audience? of Campbell Vertesi? of A.C. Douglas?) and the whole business is wrapped in a metaphor. This is, as Woody Allen once remarked, a travesty of a mockery of a sham. Nothing is at the center except the usual because I say so.

Accordingly, the court finds for Campbell Vertesi, who is nonetheless directed to learn how to spell “transcendence.” A.C. Douglas, for his part, is enjoined from using the word for a period of six months. He is also enjoined, permanently, from employing “bourgeois” as a term of abuse. (“Bourgeois” does not appear in the current case, but this court is acquainted with his past torts.) Come to think of it, this injunction is general. Dismissed.

  9 Responses to “Oyez”

  1. By way of answer, I’ll let Herman Melville speak in my defense.

    To analyze it, would seem impossible. Can we, then, by the citation of some of those instances wherein this thing [under consideration] though for the time either wholly or in great part stripped of all direct associations calculated to import to it [its characteristic quality], but nevertheless, is found to exert over us the same sorcery, however modified — can we thus hope to light upon some chance clue to conduct us to the hidden cause we seek?

    Let us try. But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man can follow another into these halls.

    Adjudicators of legal or quasi-legal turn of mind are therefore forever debarred from adjudicating such matters.


  2. Re: Roth vs. Lac, this strikes me as sort of a Whistler vs. Ruskin ruling. I might add that I am all in favour of Gawain’s sort of elite, of course… those filing dully past the Scipio do not perceive themselves to be in any sort of elite, and hence are not in an elite. As regards Dickinson, (as Lessing might have put it) non ut pictura poesis. The elitification of poetry has to work in different ways, due to the nature of the form.

  3. In Gargantua and Pantagruel there is a scene in which the roaster of some meat sues a poor man who uses the smoke of the roast to flavor his bread. The court in that case compensates the roaster by making the poor man ding a coin, the sound being the roaster’s recompense. Using this as precedent, Gawain should send a picture of some money to the Uffizi.

    BTW, last time I was at the Uffizi, most of the collection was unavailable for viewing. In which group would Mr. Roth include me?

  4. No one, I trust, will mistake A.C.’s lofty remarks for an argument.

    A.C. often analyzes particular works of art shrewdly and with attention to detail, and I profit when he does. But always, in these cases, he forgets his general theory and drops the transcendence-talk. My own analyses, unsubtle and unimaginative though they may be, are rooted in my general theory. A general theory that contributes nothing to the understanding of a particular instance is a general theory that we are better off without.

    Conrad makes an argument, but not a very good one. The people filing past the Scipio do indeed perceive themselves to be in an elite: the elite of those who can afford to visit the Uffizi. It is true, per Conrad and contra Horace, that poems aren’t pictures. But they are artifacts, and so the question remains: by Conrad’s logic, why reproduce and distribute them?

  5. Transcendence, like pornography, may be impossible to define meaningfully with any precision, but we all know it when confronted by it — unless, that is, one has been schooled in the postmodern Joe Friday Academy of Aesthetics, in which case there’s no help for it, and no hope of attaining even a modest degree of comprehension.


  6. what it reminds me of is listening to all the so called “green” politicians who have their own SUVs and private jets but get upset at us for doing the same.
    Let us not forget guns for self defense i.e. ms rosie and her phony ilk
    These may not provide so called aesthetic pleasures like your art examples but there are those of us who think feeling safe is a warm and fuzzy feeling.

  7. A.C. often analyzes particular works of art shrewdly and with attention to detail, and I profit when he does. But always, in these cases, he forgets his general theory and drops the transcendence-talk. My own analyses, unsubtle and unimaginative though they may be, are rooted in my general theory. A general theory that contributes nothing to the understanding of a particular instance is a general theory that we are better off without.

    No AC means this: seeing the world that way gives him a feeling about reality. this quote is your mistake: A general theory that contributes nothing to the understanding of a particular instance is a general theory that we are better off without.

    because how you understand art is also rooted in your feelings. I can put it to you another way: if you were to take LSD, would many of your general theories hold the same captivating relevance to your brain, or would they somehow peel off and unravel at times given the new perspective?

    In the same way, AC approaches his reality with a looseness that is bounded and made more pleasant by his ideas of transcendence, ideas that, to a more conservative consciousness (and not, in this case meaning narrow minded) seem to contribute little.

  8. i’m told that Thomas Aquinas said one of the pleasures of the blessed in Heaven would be contemplating the torments of the damned in Hell (i seem to recall Tertullian saying something of the sort about Roman Emperors being horribly tortured for the delight of the saved), that seems Conrad’s kind of elitism, not all that pleasant on the whole.

  9. Though I abjure from defining high art versus pop…

    Transcendence is actually pretty easy to outline. You know how sometimes it seems there must be more to life? You know how sometimes you catch a glimpse of it? Yeah, that’s it.

    One of the things an artist can do is to reach out towards that glimpse. It would appear that Douglas want to define non-pop art by this.

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