Monday, October 27, 2003
Nice to know either Steve Sailer is still reading David Frum or David Frum is still reading Steve Sailer. Or, perhaps it's a coincidence that each issued the Murray Challenge on the same day.
Let me take issue with the Frum list first:
1. Ivan Denisovich is not that great a book. Its importance is its existence; it's a great document.
2. The Guggie at Bilbao is already starting to fall apart. It will not be standing in 100 years, much less 200. It certainly won't "matter" because Gehry's is an anti-architecture that cannot be used for building cities. Mind you, I'm someone who thinks his stuff is kind of cute, when it works; I kind of like it. But it's a dead-end.
3. Assuming the tradition of painting is resumed, there's a real question whether pure abstraction will be anything but a curiosity in 200 years. Once again, I hasten to reassure the reader that I *get* abstraction, and I greatly admire the great abstractionists (the greatest of whom was, in my opinion, Arshile Gorky, by a long mile ahead of Pollack and DeKooning and the rest of that crowd). But Abstract Expressionism - and especially Pollack's Action Painting - was a dead-end. You can't build on it. So *how* will it matter, if new painters can't really learn from it?
4. I'll give him this one, with enthusiasm. The Godfather movies will matter as long as movies do.
5. I'm a great fan of Milosz (I like him a lot better than Solzhenitsyn), so I'm tempted to give him this one as well. But I'm not sure what The Captive Mind is really comparable to. Boethius? Montaigne? It's not on their level; I'm just trying to figure out the genre, figure out who is going to read these essays when the dramas of our era are of historical interest only. Beautiful writer, though, it's true, and a moving poet.
6. West Side Story. The music is fantastic. If you doubt that it ranks with the opera canon, listen to a recording of the show, and then listen to Oscar Peterson's suite based on it. The dances are a pinnacle achievement of the period, but will they last? I'm less sure. They might turn out to be more like a period piece. And the book is *awful.* Almost unbearably so. The show'll definitely last, though, and if you put it together with the other great mid-century musicals, the scope of the artistic achievement of the era becomes clearer.
7. Kundera is an over-rated hack whose understand of women is about as deep as Henry Miller's. There are some good bits in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but they are buried in a lot of manure.
8. The collected "I Love Lucy"? Don't get me wrong; Lucille Ball was a great comedienne. But I've never sought out an old episode of the show. I don't know anyone who has. Will artists in 200 years really look to these shows for inspiration? I think "Lucy" readers will be like people today who read Lazarillo de Tormes or other examples of 16th century Spanish picaresque. Is this stuff historically important? Yes; this is where the novel got its start. Is it still readable and funny? Yes. Does anyone but scholars read it? No.
9. I'll give him Naipaul as well. He's great.
10. I'll decline to opine on Watson and Crick because I don't know enough about the magnitude of their achievement. Sometimes the most important advances aren't great scientific breakthroughs, but merely very good ideas (e.g. Adam Smith, Charles Darwin). Other times, they are the product of singular genius (e.g. Einstein, Newton, Archimedes). Other times, you can have a radical advance in science without a single achievement or genius that dominates it (e.g. the development of Quantum Mechanics). And other times, the headline achievement is not such a huge advance, but it gets the headlines because it's easy to write a headline where the scientific advance that underlies it is more diffuse and hard to define. I think that's the case with the discovery of DNA, but I'm not an expert.
11. I'm a fan of mid-century modern design, as I am generally of middle-class aesthetics (I like Eastlake furniture, too, which is roughly the 19th century equivalent of Atomic Age stuff - affordable Victorian style versus affordable modernist style). But fins on cars just look campy, and the UN building is downright ugly. I'll stick with the chairs.
Now: Sailer. He asks for entries in three categories: painting, the novel, and the song.
Let's get the toughest one out of the way first: paintings.
I'm assuming that Murray believes that our long post-modernist anti-art interlude will not last 200 years; that, in such a span of time, either our civilization will have collapsed (in which case nothing will be remembered) or will have reconnected with our historic traditions and made sense of the modernists' achievements in a way that is lasting.
I will assume, for the sake of argument, that appreciation for pure abstraction is a casualty of that precess of re-connection with tradition, so that what survives, and is of interest to artists of two-centuries hence, is art which is recognizably figurative. The only portraitist of stature I can think of is Chuck Close, and he's very hard to approach, and derivative of photography (particularly that of cruel photographers like Robert Frank). One of the more interesting practitioners of the still life is William Bailey; he's sort of the exact opposite of Cezanne, whom I admire a great deal. I'm racking my brains trying to think of someone doing landscape of any stature. There are a couple of Hockney paintings that I think are quite good, but most of his stuff is crap, and he's technically very deficient. Will these people survive? Let's put it this way: I think it's a better bet than Jasper Johns, or Cindy Sherman, or the rest of that crowd. And if you assume great mid-century abstractionists survive 200 years, then the challenge is too easy (and I note that Frum picked *the* abstractionist icon, and the only one whom *no one* is trying to emulate - see what I mean by a dead-end?). If you allowed sculpture into the mix, I think it would be a little easier to come up with names; Giacometti was still doing fine work in the 1950s, though his masterpieces are from the 1940s. It is conceivable to me that no meaningful number of painters since 1950 will be remembered in 200 years. It's also conceivable to me that the painting tradition will not be knit up; since the advent of photography the social function of painting has changed fundamentally, and it's not obvious to me that a restoration will be as easy as it might be for some of the other arts (e.g. poetry) nor as urgent as for yet others (e.g. architecture).
I do want to stress, though, that Modernism per se is not to be blamed for the death of painting. Expressionism and abstraction are not the same thing, and abstraction and post-modernism are very nearly opposites. So long as you teach drawing the figure, the tradition isn't dead, and for a very long time into the Modernist revolution there were painters who could draw. New Yorkers, head to the Neue Galerie and check out Egon Schiele's work if you doubt.
To start, I'm going to make the same assumption as for painting: that in 200 years we will have reconnected with broken traditions and that the present period will appear as something of a anomaly. But this is a much harder case to make for the novel than for painting, because there has been no hiatus in the writing of novels that read like novels. Tom Wolfe thinks that no one else is doing realism, but that isn't true at all. It may be that for a while the high-culture mandarins disdained the traditional novel, but the novel is not supposed to be a high-culture form, and the popular novel remains realistic, basically. I'm surprised the challenge isn't to find *poetry* that will survive; that would be much harder.
Let's take Wolfe's A Man in Full. That's one book that might survive as a good example of late-20th-century realism. But it's not a Great Book, just a good book. I could as easily choose the best work of Robertson Davies, or The Book of Ebenezer Lepage (whoever wrote *that*), or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. None of these are Great Books, but they are all good books, and could conceivably survive, though the odds are against any one of them. Greater books, and still recognizably in the realist tradition, were written by V. S. Naipaul (see above), Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Saul Bellow. Odds are better on these guys surviving. I'd be willing to bet on Primo Levi and Italo Calvino as well. We're assuming the likes of Thomas Pynchon (some of whose stuff I like) are headed for the dustbin; if he goes, the Don Delillos and the rest of the wannabes all go with him. But, of the books the cognocenti love, Lolita will definitely survive. It is a Great Book, not just a good one, and it is not an anti-novel in the mode of Gravity's Rainbow. Does it compare with the work of Tolstoy or Dickens or Cervantes? No. But does it compare with Fielding or Sterne or Richardson? I don't see why not. And if you allowed in drama, Beckett's End Game was written in the 1950s, and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (his only good play) was written in the 1960s, and both of these will survive if any of our drama does. They are neither of them as good as a master like Chekhov. But they are miles better than anything written during the Restoration, and people are still putting on Congreve now and again. He's not, in any event, forgotten.
No post-1950 songs? Has he been living in a cave?
Just to pick two great popular groups post-1950 who wrote their own songs, much of the oeuvres of The Beatles and The Band will survive essentially indefinitely. They wrote great popular songs, certainly comparable to anything in the 200 years that preceded them. Next, the American musical theater reached its apogee in the 1950s with shows like Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. Do you think they'll still be doing Pirates of Penzance in another 100 years? Then they'll still be doing Guys and Dolls in 200. But the best case for post-war music is also the most obvious. I am confident that the jazz classics of the 1950s will outlast much of the modernist classical music of the early 20th century. I mean, which do you think is more accomplished: Kind of Blue or The Rite of Spring? I'm not even going to bother to list the great artists of the era; there are too many to name. It's inconceivable to me that the period will not be remembered for its extraordinary musical fecundity. It certainly won't be forgotten. Whether there's anyone remotely comparable composing and performing today is another matter, but that's not the challenge.
If, perhaps, Murray would disqualify all of the foregoing by saying that orchestral music had undergone a precipitous decline by then, I would make two comments. First, if modernist music is to be deplored, he needs to reach back further than 1950 for his quality cutoff. Second, if orchestral music is all that qualifies then the era of musical accomplishment in the West is itself terribly short - three centuries long, no more. And that seems to me to be extraordinarily myopic. There are moments and places of extraordinary intellectual or artistic achievement that are never really equalled. There will probably never be another Shakespeare, or another Beethoven, or another Aristotle. But that doesn't mean that a Richard Sheridan, or a Scott Joplin, or a William James is worthless and doomed to be forgotten.