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The mentality surrounding culture after the horrors of the 20th century--thoughts of two masters

Reader comment on item: Beauty and Nausea in Venice
in response to reader comment: Sadly provincial

Submitted by Rizhulka (Lithuania), Jan 1, 2018 at 11:53

Those interested in explanations for the mentality underlying modern art might appreciate two works, one almost 50 and the other nearly 40 years old, which to my knowledge have not been surpassed as analysis of the modern mindset. They are In Bluebeard's Castle—Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture, by George Steiner (1971); and The Witness of Poetry—The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1981-82, by Czeslaw Milosz (book, 1983). They are about poetry and literature rather than the visual arts, but their analysis holds in that realm too. Neither is a long work, but each is dense with insights and examples, and repays many re-readings. Excerpts cannot do justice to the subtlety and flow of each author's argument, but they might pique the interest of some readers of this site. Each in its own way examines the fragility of culture, the diminished stature of the arts and the calling of the artist after the grim toll of the 20th century. Each notes that the perpetrators of the Holocaust and other horrors were the products of European civilization, that an executioner might come home and read Goethe or listen to Wagner, that the achievements of culture were no barrier in the final analysis to inhumanity. Thus, in his chapter "In a Post-Culture," Steiner wrote:

"Why labor to elaborate and transmit culture if it did so little to stem the inhuman, if there were in it deep-set ambiguities which, at times, even solicited barbarism? Secondly: granted that culture was a medium of human excellence and intellectual vantage, was the price paid for it too high" in terms of social inequality?
. . . What good did high humanism do the oppressed mass of the community? What use was it when barbarism came?" He contrasts the historic vision of the poet's (or artist's) work--the achievement of a gifted individual giving expression to lasting values--with the modern disdain for an elitist canon and the accompanying popularity of spontaneous, ephemeral, collectivist or anonymous artistic expressions, a trend summarized as, "Away with the presumptions of permanence in a classic oeuvre, away with masters." "If this reevaluation of the criterion of 'lastingness,' of individual mastery . . . is as radical and far-reaching as it now seems, the core of the very concept of culture will have been broken." I appreciated the comment of a reviewer of one of Steiner's books on Amazon.com who wrote that if you want to understand what's happening around you today, read what George Steiner wrote about it forty years ago.

In his chapter "Ruins and Poetry," Milosz writes of Polish poets who on the eve of WWII "perceived Europe sinking in consecutive stages into inhumanity," to the disgrace of all European culture. "The main reproach made to culture, a reproach at first too difficult to be formulated, then finally formulated, was that it maintained a network of meanings and symbols as a façade to hide the genocide under way. By the same token, religion, philosophy, and art became suspect as accomplices in deceiving man with lofty ideas . . . . [Consequently] mistrust and mockery were directed against the whole heritage of European culture." And by the early 1980s, he wrote, "Citizens in a modern state, no longer mere dwellers in their village and district, know how to read and write but are unprepared to receive nourishment of a higher intellectual order. They are sustained artificially on a lower level by television, films, and illustrated magazines—media that are for the mind what too small slippers were for women's feet in old China." What analogy would he have found for Facebook and Twitter?
The above fragments only hint at some of the arguments that Steiner and Milosz make about culture and values.

Perhaps there are newer and more insightful sources from which to gain insight into what may be at play in modern art, but if so, they have not been called to my attention.


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