Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pretentious? Moi? Or why romantic self-regard has made of me a philistine

I have once or twice in the past alluded to my pretensions to wanting to be ‘a writer’. I have also confessed that for someone with such pretensions, I have produced remarkably little and, more to the point, have very little justification for having them (which rather begs the question as to whether anyone having pretensions is particularly concerned about how legitimate it is to have them. ‘Pretensions’ and ‘legitimacy’ are surely rarely contented bedfellows). I have read many interviews with living writers in which they reveal that they ‘have’ to write, that they have no choice but ‘to write’, and the obvious implication being that if they didn’t write, they would surely go off their heads. When, in the past, I read such claims, I always felt very guilty, because, to put it bluntly, I don’t have a clue as to what they are talking about.
It isn’t just writers who say such a thing: the sheer compulsive necessity to produce ‘art’ is seen as the essential component of the ‘artistic nature’. Composers, actors, poets, painters and sculptors are apt to make similar claims, and who am I to say that they are not being sincere when they do so? It is always possible, and, not to be too cynical, rather probable that one or two (or three or four) rather pretentious individuals will make the same claim in the hope that they sound impressive. But it is also possible that many of those who say these things are being completely sincere. Possibly a little neurotic, perhaps, but sincere: that for whatever reason buried in the complexities of their psyche, they only really feel alive when they write.
(Incidentally, at some point — although not here and not now because that would merely confuse matters — it would be useful to try to establish what ‘to write’ means. I am undoubtedly, at the moment, ‘writing’ but I am also undoubtedly at the moment not doing what people mean by ‘writing’ when they avow that they ‘have to write’.)
I must say that I enjoy writing much as I enjoy talking, but I can’t honestly claim to have a compulsion to write, and would not die in misery if I could never write again. On the other hand I do feel an itch to write which cannot be ignored, which is one reason why I post an entry in this blog every few days or so. Furthermore, where some writers — or artists generally — insist that the need to write (or compose, or paint, or sculpt or versify) comes from a definite need to ‘express themselves’, I can safely say that I belong in the opposite camp: I like the kind of art in which the artist is thoroughly concealed and, ideally, utterly forgotten. I don’t give a flying fuck whether or not the world ‘understands me’. But I do hope that, in some way or other, I am, at least, entertaining and engaging.
That is not the modern view, but then the modern view is to treat ‘the artist’ as something akin to a god, rather than as someone who happens to be rather good at entertaining and engaging using as his or her medium words, sounds, paint, stone, wood or whatever else takes his or her fancy, just as others are rather good at kicking a football, or selling insurance, or teaching or cooking or even organising. I know that makes me sound like a philistine, but, I’m afraid, that’s what I feel.
I think it all started with Beethoven. I would like to call him a genius, but these days that word is bandied about so much that it has been thoroughly devalued. For centuries musicians, as both performers and composers, were regarded as little more than hired help. If they were employed in court — which was almost always the case — they were often required to wear a uniform of some kind (as was, for example, J.S.Bach), eat with the servants and were treated as nothing more than staff. Beethoven,
who apart from being a genius was also a very difficult man with, I should imagine, a pronounced and well-defined ego, would have none of it. When, metaphorically, he was required to eat with the servants, he refused point-blank and insisted that a man of his talents should be treated with far more respect, as something greater than others. Well, in his case that was fair enough, but with his insistence that he, as ‘an artist’, was not as other mortals, the rot set in and, if you follow my drift, here in the Western world it has still not set out again.
As the ‘classical era’ developed — some might say degenerated — into the ‘romantic’ era, the rise of ‘the artist’ as a kind of higher being gathered pace.
Beethoven’s music could not be described as ‘romantic’, but one can hear in it the transition from the classicism of Mozart and Haydn to the music of the subsequent ‘romantic’ composers. The true romantics, the Schumans and the Wagners and the Mendelssohns, produced some great music but for me a little goes a long way. (For the record, I now dislike Chopin quite a bit, and find that listening to romantic classical music is like gorging yourself on cheap chocolate.) Feeling, sensation and sentiment seemed to lie at the centre of their music, but what marked out the ‘romantic’ guys, and to a certain extent gals, was that they were regarded and regarded themselves as ‘artists’ and as ‘artists’ as something rather special. And that attitude is still with unfortunately largely with us. These days we have reached the point where once the arts establishment has sanctified someone as ‘an artist’, everything they produce is, by definition, ‘art’ and must this be revered and held sacred, irrespective of whether or not it is any good. (I am, by the way, supremely conscious of the irony that this is being written by chap who not in a million years would be regarded as ‘an artist’ and who all too often feels distinctly uncomfortable in the company of the art establishment on those very few occasions when I am.) So we are in the ridiculous situation where Gilbert and George can use faeces (or so they claim) in the manufacture of their ‘art’ and we are obliged to take it and them seriously. It’s art, after all.
There has been a development which is related to this: over these past 40 years and in something of an extreme reaction to a world in which too many people were nothing but drones and serfs and were treated accordingly badly, today’s orthodoxy is that everyone is ‘special’ and deserves to be treated as such. Well yes and no. To our families and friends we are possibly more ‘special’ than we are to the anonymous crowd I share a railway carriage with on those occasions when I travel by rail. And surely it depends on context: and if that context is ‘art’, ‘talent’ and ‘ability’, the answer to the question as to whether everyone and his or her work should be treated as ‘special’, the answer can only be ‘no’.
It is a fiction, although a very popular fiction in some quarters, that if you dig a little, you will find that ‘everyone’ is talented in some way. In fact, we now go further and insist that everyone has a right — some would even insist it is a duty — to ‘express themselves’. A consequence of that liberal fiction is today’s orthodoxy that everyone has a right to be taken seriously by everyone else when they express themselves. Now everyone can, of course, attempt to express themselves if they so wish and do so in whatever form they choose, and they should never be discouraged from doing so. For one thing they might get a great deal of personal enjoyment and satisfaction from indulging themselves in one or other of the arts. But whether in expressing themselves the ‘art’ they produce entertains or engages or is otherwise of interest to others is by no means guaranteed. And more to the point, I am in no way obliged to accept as good everything so produced merely because it is the fruit of someone ‘expressing themselves’, although to say so is these days tantamount to heresy. I am to be shot at dawn tomorrow.

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