Friday, December 14, 2007

Summary of Lecture Fourteen

At the outset we revisited the case of Marcel Proust. A seeming paradox is that, with all of his admiration for John Ruskin, he disregarded the central insight of the English thinker, that is, that societies and their art/architecture are organically linked. According to Ruskin good societies will produce good art and architecture; bad societies bad work. By most people's lights, the beau monde of turn-of-the-century France was a decadent society. From this supposedly repellent material, however, Proust wrested what many regard as the finest novel of the 20th century.

In fact, we have grounds for thinking that Ruskin's organic linkage is not valid, for ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire produced remarkable works, yet both were ruled by despots. Another counterexample, a contemporary one, is that New Zealand and Norway are generally accounted very fine places to live, but they do not seem to be producing notable art and architecture. Perhaps, we may hazard, a certain complexity--a mixture of good and bad--is required for happy creative results.

We also reexamined Proust's architectural metaphor (cathedral or church) for the structure of his great work. It would seem the height of hubris to challenge his testimony, but the comparisons of this kind take us only a little way. The reason is that the organizing principles of the arts of time (music, poetry, novels) are different from those of the arts of space (architecture, sculpture, and painting).

By way of a footnote, we examined Proust's enthusiasm for the "greatest painting in the world," Vermeer's "View of Delft." To Bergotte, his ideal writer, Proust ascribes a terminal illumination provoked by the little patch of yellow. We may assume that this tiny passage in Vermeer's painting played the role of a talisman for Proust also.

We turned then to the issue of primitivism. In art history we are familiar with one definition of this concept (though it has become controversial in recent years). "Primitivism" means, it seems, the inspiration that Picasso, Modigliani, and some German expressionists derived from tribal art (African and Oceanic).

However, the idea of primitivism has an older, and perhaps more interesting pedigree. The historians of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas have identified many passages from ancient Greek and Roman society, arguing that human history is not a record of progress but, instead, of devolution. According to one common scheme, we progress from the age of gold, to that of silver, then bronze, and finally iron (in which we now live). In these nostalgic evocations of past splendor, Lovejoy and Boas
distinguished between "soft primitivism" (an age of leisure based on abundance) and "hard primitivism" (in which scarcity shaped human endeavors, at the same time blocking the effects of luxury and decadence).

Such concepts underly the emergence, some 200 years ago, of the admiration for the Italian and French "primitive" artists. Artists such as Duccio, Cimabue, and the Van Eycks came to be seen with a new sympathy. It was felt that the design elements achieved in their works made them the equal, if not the superior of later artists.

Hence, at some point perhaps around 1520, art and culture "went off the rails." Our task is to return to those exemplary models, including those of the Middle Ages.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Summary of Lecture Thirteen

The fact that the troubadours wrote in an obscure tongue (one that is now to all intents and purposes dying) means that their accomplishment is easily underrated. In fact they constitute the second (and last) instance of a major cultural revolution. In ancient Greece we are familiar with the achievements of such lyric poets as Sappho and Alcaeus, who revolutionized the art of poetry by creating works with an intensely personal stamp. Distinctive qualities of imagery, rhythm, and diction make their works, as it were, copyright. With every word each poem of Sappho says "I belong to Sappho; I am just on loan to you the reader." This personalism is the diametrical opposite of the collective approach of the singers of epics (Homer preeminent among them). A similar revolution occurred in Provence at the end of the eleventh century.
As far as I can see, these are the only two instances in Western civilization.

As in ancient Greece, the troubadours included women poets (the trobairitz). The poems of the Countess of Dia reveal a realistic, almost postmodern concept of love, breaking with the courtly love tradition.

The "Nothing Song" of William IX is often taken as an anticipation of the claim that certain modern works, notably nonobjective paintings, are "about nothing." Whatever the merits of this overall claim, it does not seem to apply to the main part of William's poem (see the appendix to the last lecture). It looks to me as if it constitutes a challenge, a testing of the limits, as it were of the triumphant new reign of subjectivity. Instead, William posits (if only as a thought experiment) a contrasting concept of the fluid indeterminacy of personality. As Pound suggested (though in different terms), the troubadours were, among other things, analysts of psychology.

Pound raises several issues that call for revisiting. First is the critical ploy of separating the "good Pound" from the "bad Pound." It seems that we can do this by sticking to the work prior to 1920. However, this body of poetry leads almost seamlessly to The Cantos, with their intermittent advocacy of crackpot economic theories and enthusiasm for Mussolini and his surrogates.

How could Pound, an intelligent person, have fallen for Mussolini's fascism? Nowadays scholars have reopened the issue of fascist culture, as there were indeed progressive aspects. One occurred in architecture. Terragni's Casa del Fascio in Como is not only a perfect specimen of the International style inaugurated by Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, it may be the finest building built anywhere in the 1930s. The alliance between fascism and Futurism bore fruit in the Second Futurism of Fortunato Depero and others. Some have even detected "green" elements in fascism, as in the draining of the Pontine Marshes. A medieval feature is his revival of the idea of guilds (corporazioni).

In due course the regime was done in by its weaknesses. Mussolini lacked the economic resources to raise Italy into the status of a major power. His predatory militarism alienated those who had been formally his admirers. And his insulation from criticism ("Mussolini is always right.") was an open invitation to folly.

We mentioned some human foibles of Ezra Pound, as seen in his treatment of women and his children. Unfortunately, his residence in the mental asylum tended to reinforce, rather than cure his delusions.

The second hour discussed an entirely different case of catalytic medievalism, that of Marcel Proust. At the end of his life, Proust stated that his great novel had the structure of a cathedral.

For five years of his life, beginning in 1900, Proust devoted himself to the writings of John Ruskin (he published two translated books). Ruskin's immense influence (both Tolstoy and Gandhi were admirers) reflected in part his hypnotic prose style. In the Dickensian squalor occasioned by the Industrial Revolution many subscribed to Ruskin's equation of architecture and morality. Put bluntly, a good society produces good architecture; a bad society produces bad architecture. We Victorians, he held, are in the latter situation.

Ruskin then was a kind of latter-day prophet, excoriating the glaring faults of society. Here we see, I think, a divergence from Proust, who recorded, but did not condemn, the "decadent" society of France in his day.