Tuesday, November 13, 2007

THE GENIUS OF THE PEOPLE. W. Kiernan points us to a Roger Scruton piece of kulturkampf in the American Spectator. It is another of those bowtie thumbsuckers about how we ain't got good culture no more. Scruton makes the signal mistake of comparing his subject with something about which he clearly knows nothing: humor.
Works of art, like jokes, have a function. They are objects of aesthetic interest. They may fulfill this function in a rewarding way, offering food for thought and spiritual uplift, winning for themselves a loyal public that returns to them to be consoled or inspired. They may fulfill their function in ways that are judged to be offensive or downright demeaning. Or they may fail altogether to prompt the aesthetic interest that they are petitioning for...
If you were thinking of trying the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the armadillo who walked into a bar on Scruton, forget it:
Good taste is as important in aesthetics as it is in humor, and indeed taste is what it is all about. If university courses do not start from that premise, students will finish their studies of art and culture just as ignorant as when they began.
What, to Scruton's mind, is good taste in humor?
Imagine a world in which people laughed only at others' misfortunes. What would that world have in common with the world of Moliere's Tartuffe, of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, of Cervantes' Don Quixote, or Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy? Nothing, save the fact of laughter. It would be a degenerate world, a world in which human kindness no longer found its endorsement in humor, in which one whole aspect of the human spirit would have become stunted and grotesque.
Did this Man of Letters miss that much of the humor in his cited artworks is at "at others' misfortunes"? Cervantes, for example, has kept them rolling in the aisles for centuries by having his senile hero smacked, brained, imprisoned, and humiliated at regular intervals. And Moliere had great fun with bigots, which Scruton may understandably have blocked out.

No; Scruton knows enough to qualify his statement: "people laughed only at others' misfortunes." Okay: so if we insert some "endorsement" of "human kindness" into the otherwise irredeemable laff-fests, I guess we then have works of art. By that standard, your average Adam Sandler movie qualifies, and Catch-22 and The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes do not.

You may think I'm being too flip about Scruton's lofty aspirations. Try reading the rest of his essay. We are, he proposes, living in "a degenerate world, a world in which human aspirations no longer find their artistic expression," because some of us like Warhol and Andres Serrano. Of course, very few people only like stuff like that, to the exclusion of Old Masters and such like, but by this point Scruton is done with qualifiers: to enjoy things he doesn't enjoy is to lack good taste, which is to lack aesthetic judgment: "By espousing what is deliberately unlovely and unlovable, you make judgment ridiculous, my judgment as much as yours."

What Scruton mourns is a critical deck marked in his own favor. There are critics, of course, despite Scruton's assertions -- thousands of them, good and bad. They have been with us for a long while, and many of them in ages past disappovingly Scrutonized works that have nonetheless lasted unto our own time. For one, Samuel Johnson thought Tristram Shandy, being "odd," wouldn't do. The Great Cham spoke; who should dispute? But the book was kept alive, in part by centuries of countervailing criticism, but mainly because people kept reading it, and continue to read it, for pleasure.

That's what good culture has in common with good jokes -- the persistence of their pleasure. Scruton loathes "democratic culture, which is hostile to judgment in any form, and in particular to the judgment of taste," but in the long run democratic culture has been a pretty good bet -- indeed, it's the only bet there is. The merely faddish and temporal tends to wash out; we're not still roaring over Weber and Fields routines, for instance, nor do we mount Sardou Festivals. What persists is mostly fine. And if generations of Scrutons hammered us to appreciate, dammit, the genius of some long-dead, high-minded, but unlovely artist, he might preserve a thin academic niche, but he would not get the approbation we still give to Figaro -- a property which, Scruton must have forgotten, began as the sort of outrage he now disdains.

None of this is to plead against standards -- far from it -- but to inveigh against Scruton's. I'm no goddamn ray of sunshine myself, but I would blow my brains out if I thought things were as bad as he portrays them. I notice that the cultural life of the West has persisted through long and frequently inhospitable centuries, and I cannot believe that all art has now come to a dead end because some people like looking at Brillo boxes. Were my idea of beauty that narrow, I would seek the fault within myself first. I would take some time off, ingest drugs, and maybe turn my hand to making some art myself, before calling it a day for Western Civ.

Oh, hang on -- I have done all those things. In that case, I heartily recommend them!

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