Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fame By Scholarly Acclamation

At some point in my younger years—it must have been when (still in the Army) I became interested in Gothic cathedrals—I discovered with mild surprise that the word “Gothic” had once been used, and not all that long ago, as a word of deprecation and dismissal. That meaning is still preserved in my Webster’s, where meaning 1 c: (2) is uncouth, barbarous. This was my first encounter with a process that seems always active in culture, namely the elevation of something new to a status worthy of high praise—and the demotion of the once famed and valued to the nether regions of the barbarous. This process tends to be in the hands of scholars—thus not those who are predominantly creators or doers, although their subjects always are in the those categories. An interesting example of this process is Camille Paglia’s labor to promote pop culture to the higher dimensions of cultural achievement. Now, mind you, Brigitte and I like Camille Paglia even when we don’t agree with her. I’m using her as an example. Other examples will occur to the culturally literate. These efforts also collide and compete—small groups, for instance, labor to reinstate Wagner in Olympus while others battle to keep him locked up in the nasty compound where the rise of Nazism managed to confine him.

I was reminded of this by a story in the New York Times this morning which begins:

By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial 500-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio, who somehow found time to paint when he wasn’t brawling, scandalizing pooh-bahs, chasing women (and men), murdering a tennis opponent with a dagger to the groin, fleeing police assassins or getting his face mutilated by one of his many enemies, has bumped him from his perch. [Michael Kimmelman, “Caravaggio in Ascendance: A Bad Boy Artist’s Time to Shine,” front page]
The last him and his, of course, refer to Michelangelo. The metric referred to is the work of the scholar,Philip Sohm, who has undertaken to do statistical studies of scholarly papers about both artists. Counting papers, a nice scholarly activity, produces the conclusion that more of them deal with Caravaggio. The question then arises: “So what?”

To be quite frank about it, I haven’t got a horse in this race. In the quite wondrous series by Lord Kenneth Clark, Civilisation—it came out in 1969 and we saw it on Public TV—I had had a fairly comprehensive view of the Renaissance and, watching that and other segments once again about a year ago, I came to the conclusion that I was no longer (if ever I had been) a great fan of that period’s art—with some exceptions like Fra Lippo Lippi. No. This is not that kind of rant.

Rather, it strikes me as interesting how the climate of opinion shifts with cultural change. I’d encountered a similar article five, six, seven years ago already, the first time I’d noted that Caravaggio even existed. Then, as today, the reason for the focus was not his art so much but something that seems to appeal to modern pundits and scholars. He was the bad boy. How very, very exciting indeed!


  1. Whenever I overhear discussions about Art, I am put in mind of the conversation in "Brideshead Revisited" between Charles Ryder and Lord Marchmain:

    " Charles is very keen on painting,.’ said Sebastian.

    ‘Yes?’ I noticed the hint of deep boredom which I knew so well in my own father. ‘Yes? Any particular Venetian painter?’

    ‘Bellini,’ I answered rather wildly.

    ‘Yes? Which?’

    ‘I’m afraid that I didn’t know there were two of them.’

    ‘Three to be precise. You will find that in the great ages painting was very much a family business. "

    Thus, I am wary. I often get the impression that various sections of Academe are late to popular culture's picnic, and jump into the pool at surprising times - long after everyone else has eaten their hot dogs and gone home: AWA, or Artists With Attitude, is a way of looking at Art that makes me smile one of those Lord Clark smiles.

  2. Went and looked. The AWA site is here. Rather liked Glenys Van Dorssen’s triptych, especially as it’s shown mounted as part of a modest brick house.

  3. Well I'll be! I thought I made up AWA, following the format of the name of the old rap group NWA!

    The "attitude" of the online AWA is not at all like that of NWA. The triptych is very nice, except for the fact that the Eve panel covers the "mezuzah" by the front door......
    I looked at the Van Dorssen "Legend Chicks" and discovered the antithesis of eros. They remind me of something David Lynch would have used to hang on the apartment walls in his movie "Eraserhead".

  4. The 1c definition comes, of course, from the Goths who invaded the Roman empire. Invaders are usually considered uncouth and barbaric. Barbarians, as you well know, were merely foreigners to the Greeks. As a matter of fact, that definition : "a rude person, barbarian" still holds for the word "Goth" and for "gothic", in the Big Red Webster's Monique gave me for my birthday, definition 6 is : "pertaining to the Middle Ages; barbarous; rude." That dictionary dates from 1989.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.