November 07, 2007

Mark Steyn and Culture

Mark Steyn has a way of shocking me by producing some really good articles at times- I think he does this out of spite, he knows that I don't like some of his work and he wants me to be spinning in confusion unsure whether to like or dislike him. Sorry my sense of humour got the better of me tonight!

Anyway today Steyn has produced I think an excellent article about popular music and the need for a canon. It is really a wonderful defence of learning for the sake of appreciation. Basically Steyn's point is that you can't understand why the Beatles are great unless you understand why Bach is great. The two go together- to understand the one is to understand the other. He makes a point about the way that in order to understand something's greatness, you have to be able to see it in its context, to see what developed around it, why that move was important. Its crucial that Picasso could paint landscapes and had been trained because then his other paintings developed a meaning, its vital that Duke Ellington could play the classic solos because then he could use them in his own work. I agree completely with him: one of the wonders of artistic knowledge is the way that it supports itself. Every time I watch a new film, or read a new book (those being the two art forms I know) they tell me something about all those previous artworks I've seen and watched. And there is a strict heirarchy of knowledge in art- I would listen to Martin Scorsese for hours on film if I could because he has watched everything, and has interesting ideas about all of what he has seen.

Music is something sadly on which I'm not able to comment. One of the most illuminating moments of my life was sitting with a friend who understood music in a jazz bar in Prague. He described to me the way that what I saw as a cool sound, was actually the product of a complex interweaving of notes, a lattice of harmonies. Suddenly I saw music for a moment as this beautiful structure, which people played with, understood and manipulated- suddenly it became more than a simple nice tune, it became art, something I cared for and might grow to love. I think that appreciation is to be valued. It isn't easy to get to- appreciation of the arts is a real cost. Its something that takes time and effort, its something that you have to struggle to get to and it is something that relies on context. To take writing, its because I understand the history of English poetry that I can appreciate the opening line of the Wasteland, that April is the cruellest month- in that opening line Elliot tells us that everything that has gone before resting on Chaucer is wrong. That April is not the month of gentle showers but the month of cruelty. Poetry and novels are echoing always with previous works- the anxiety of influence was a disease that Harold Bloom diagnosed flowing through each and every author.

The great writers though manage to combine that with accessibility. I learnt to read novels- and I have to say watch films (the great twentieth century entertainment) because I began through enjoying them, I ended appreciating the same books. Most of the early readers started the same way, Jonathan Rose writes illuminatingly about the way that the first Labour MPs for example read Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin and others and thought about them in their own way. There is a wonderful novel which really describes this process which unfortunately I can't lay my hands on right now- as soon as I find my copy I'll review it- but what shines through that book is the importance of embibing cultural classics to discovering the world of culture. The route to Austen is the route through Austen, the same goes for all the great writers and indeed for filmmakers from Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz to David Cronenberg. Its when you are bitten with the bug that you know that you have fallen in love and through falling in love you learn to appreciate and to link everything together and understand this lattice of things which all have been created partly for your pleasure.

Steyn is entirely right- you can enjoy the arts (I enjoy Music in this sense) without knowing much, but you enjoy them a hell of a lot more when you have exposed yourself to even more. Part of life is a continual adventure in self improvement- I definitely think that there are 'miles to go before I sleep' and probably will be when I'm dead- and I think that goes for art as well as anything else. There is always something 'further up and further in' to look at, there is always something which can prompt you to understand more or to reevaluate what was once familiar and now is strange. Sometimes I think in modern life we are too comfortable, the truth is that life is an adventure of understanding. For us who lag, it is worth looking up to those who are scaling the heights, but if they are worth looking up to then they are looking in admiration at the next climber. Nobody arrives at the summit, but the effort is what makes everything worth while- because by mastering that interesting novel you suddenly have another angle on human experience. Sitting down and saying no further is surrendering that knowledge and beauty that you might acquire by going up another notch- the world is limitless and its beauties are vast.

Steyn is right. To step back is folly, to stop is folly, and in this quest the canon (the works judged before by others as good) is a useful if not flawless guide. Relaxing in a comfort zone of the works written in your own culture or your own time is a waste- there is more to see and life is too short not to read that Egyptian novelist, see that Iranian film, find out about that twelfth century monk's poetry and listen to some Beethoven before going to watch Belle and Sebastien.


edmund said...

intereins post not sure about Said and isreal though see middle of this rather long post

Gracchi said...

Edmund I think you've posted a comment on the wrong post :) I'm not sure I mentioned Said here but I did in the Clive James post further down. As to Said though I'd prefer to discuss this on the lower thread. I think that Said's thesis was wrong- might have been neccessary but was wrong. Some of his life's work- denouncing Hamas at every turn- deserves respect though.

Eamonn said...

hmmm... Iranian movies... maybe I've been unlucky but I have never seen a halfway decent one

Gracchi said...

You might have been unlucky- I saw Bashu recently and that was really good- I think there is a distinct aesthetic there though as well.