Monday, January 4, 2016

American Disdain

A friend in New York sent me the following links to pieces from the New York Times and Foreign Affairs. Here is my reply.
As often seems to happen with pieces about the UK or Europe written from the superb aspect of a New York skyscraper, it is a silly piece that could just as easily have been written about the UK’s or Europe’s ecclesiastical heritage - all those marvellous gothic cathedrals paid for by contributions from the common people and built by artisans many of whom couldn’t read or write and certainly wouldn’t have been able to follow the Latin liturgy.
 Now let’s look at the great masterpieces of European painting: where would Michelangelo have been without the Medici family? How many of Titian’s masterpieces would never have seen the light of day without the Habsburgs, or Goya’s without the Dukes of Osuna, or Van Dyke’s without Charles 1 etc. etc. etc.? Where would the history of European art be without the great patrons - monarchs and aristocrats, symbols of inequality, many of whom, if they are remembered at all, it is for their cruelty and corruption (Dante meets more than a few of them in ‘Inferno’)?
The UK’s aristocratic houses - from the medieval castles to the Palladian palaces and “Gothic Revival” extravagances of Pugin and contemporaries - all embody the duality of great art and great inequity. Where Charles Lambert is not simply wrong but - even worse - shows himself to be little more than a simpleton - is his inability to separate the art from the finance. It is a curiously American failing, a kind of pseudo demotic ideology - in which Americans fondly imagine that they have no aristocracy and can thereby pride themselves on having no stately homes or medieval castles. Of course, the Americans do have an artistocracy as anyone knows who has read Henry James; and what there is of significant artistic endeavour in the US is heavily dependent on the patronage of the wealthy (take a look at the Board of Directors of the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic).
What the Americans don’t have is a great artistic heritage. In the UK (and the rest of Europe for that matter) we have largely dispensed with the aristocrats - they are no longer important - but we have kept the masterpieces they paid for - not in hommage to them (Noel Coward was already behind the times) but because they are masterpieces. Lambert mocks the idea that National Trust “heritage buildings” could ever be thought to be “ours’. But he is wrong. The National Trust is ours. We the people have taken over those buildings from the original owners - most of whom over the centuries fell on hard times and couldn’t afford to keep them. Some remain in private hands, but they are run as businesses entirely dependent on the public for their survival, and since many of them are full of spectacular works of art and furniture, we don’t want them to follow the fate of so much great European art which is that of being sold to callow, super-rich Americans for their personal delectation and that of their wealthy friends. Here, these works are enjoyed by the public (and no they are not too high to be seen even by Lambert provided he is of reasonably normal adult height). In the US they hang in private homes. The US - in its mindless immaturity - is at a stage of socio-cultural development that Europe superceded in the wake of the First World War. And the patrician disadain with which some American writers depict Europe is regarded on this side of the Atlantic as the ridiculous prejudice of the ignorant, and the stupidity engendered by a surfeit of cash and a deficit of culture.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, of course, that the Americans are a little jealous of what they manifestly don’t have. Because what they don’t have most of all is cultural discernment. I well remember my first and only visit some years ago to the Getty museum(s) in Los Angeles (reportedly the wealthiest on the planet). My reaction? Among the genuine works were - it seemed to me - innumberable fakes. What bothered me was either that I was wrong or that the curators had no idea what they had bought and had a great deal more money than sense. Only much later did I learn that a newly-appointed British curator had bought himself a load of trouble by questioning the authenticity of some of the Getty drawings. My own reaction was less about the drawings (some of which were horribly crude) than about the “ancient” Greek sculptures at the "Getty Villa" which itself is a tasteless pastiche of an imaginary graeco-roman original. Conclusion? Americans think you can buy culture; Europeans know you can be a patron of the arts and of artists, but you can’t buy the sensitivity and discernment required to distinguished art from kitsch. That requires education, knowlege, and a degree of humility.
The other article - The Failure of Mutliculturalism - suffers from similar problems: a distant, patrician disdain whose occasional aperçus are vitiated by a wholesale lack of understanding of the immense - and I mean immense - advances that have taken place here in race relations and the enormous absorptive capacity of this small island to take in upwards of half a million immigrants a year of whom over half are not from the EU . Personally, I don’t think we have anything to learn about race relations from a country whose entire history is one of exploitation and discrimination against non-whites (including native American “Indians”); nor about immigration from a country that fences off its southern border against migrants from Latin America, and whose wealthy citizens hide themselves from the vulgar herd in gated communities in case they should be contaminated by contact with common humanity.

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