Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Islamist and an Atheist Walk Into an Art Museum...

Said Qutb was the intellectual godfather of today’s Jihadists, articulating anti-American animus as no Islamist had before. He spent time studying in America in the 1950s and gave people an earful when he returned home. The excerpts provided in The New Republic’s consistently great The Book make for fascinating reading.

Some of his opinions are offensive to the point of being funny—he makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise his anti-black racism:

“Jazz” music is his music of choice. This is that music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other.

Would that he had lived to experience Lil Wayne.

His criticism on ‘higher’ culture later on is, shall we say, more measured, and I daresay many would agree with him. It boils down to Americans taking everything they have for granted. To begin with, interpersonal relationships are devalued to the point of, ‘who have you met?’:
As for friends, it is enough that one be invited to get-acquainted parties. There he encounters their faces for the first time, and the host acquaints him with the attendees one by one (men as well as women)[5], and he asks whoever of them wish to do so to write down their names and addresses, and so they in turn do with him. After some time, his notebook is full of names and addresses. And see! he has a great number of friends (men and women)[6], and perhaps he is even victorious in the competition undertaken in pursuit of this goal. How great, how strange are the competitions here!

This is almost verbatim the case against Facebook. And he applies it to American notions of travel—reduced to brief and shallow sightseeing—and especially its wealth of art. This term is meant literally, as fortunes are spent procuring rare, often foreign works for American museums. And all of it, to him, is a waste, as Americans only patronize museums to say that they were there, with no special consideration given to the art contained therein:
Again I arrived at the point where [I could say that], out of the great mass of visitors comprised in my enumerations, only a rare minority comprehended anything of these tremendous artistic riches that the dollar has gathered from all the places on earth; all that remained for the dollar to do was to create artistic sensation, but apparently that does not respond to the dollar’s charms!

The cinema, to him, is the most egregious exemplar of American vulgarity, in that it is the one medium in which they lead over any other nation, but it too is squandered. Yet instead of producing riches of creation that the multitude ignores, it directly panders to masses and only occasionally bothers to produce something of artistic merit:
In the great majority of American films, one sees manifestly primitive subjects and primitive excitement; this is true of police/crime films and cowboy films. As for high, skillful films, such as “Gone with the Wind,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Song of Bernadette,” and such, they are few in comparison with what America produces.

Not only are these observations true, they are still true today. But they are not the whole truth. For to find common ground with this man is to be in very uncomfortable territory, with very unpleasant implications. Dinesh D’Souza thought Qutb was onto something in his criticism of loose American morals and sexual depravity (and conveniently neglected to mention that the licentious Americans of which he speaks were of at least a decade before the sexual revolution), and he too betrayed a fundamental misconception of America and American freedom of culture.

The American polity was not founded on the stringent ideals of the Puritan colonies, but on the Enlightenment values of the Founding Fathers, which emphasized among other things egalitarianism. Qutb and other such snobs—for condemning an entire people to death and damnation is snobbery taken to homicidal extremes—fail to understand that at the time of America’s founding was an extreme cultural stratification and aristocratic tradition. The multitude did not have the time or the money, probably not even the right, to patronize the symphony, the ballet, the museums. They probably do not in many Muslim countries today. Western Enlightenment egalitarianism as applied to culture ensures that more than just the extremely wealthy few will be able to partake of high culture. Naturally, in trying to appeal to the masses, there is considerable dumbing-down (Shakespeare is the greatest victim of this by far), and much of it is taken for granted. But this is not restricted to Americans by any means.

As I said in my take on the Facebook criticism, it will always be the case that only a dedicated few will ever fully explore the depths of what life has to offer, be it friendship or high culture. Additionally, hit-and-run sightseeing is not a simply American phenomenon; I spent 45 minutes in London last year with a Nigerian woman who was hell-bent on being photographed in front of the London Eye and double-decker tour buses). And I will go even further and add that what disinterested museum-goers lack in sufficient appreciation of the arts is compensated by an intimate knowledge in some other field, often a given person’s career: an art critic can no better rebuild his car’s engine than the mechanic can identify a Francis Bacon. We can argue the validity of prizing one over the other, but rare is the person who is so completely moronic as to have no expertise to offer. Sarah Palin would have made an excellent sports journalist, I hear (it’s what she went to school for, after all).

I hate lowest-common denominator crudity just as the next art snob. But given the nature of people, and the alternative of an even more artistically impoverished mass culture, we should rejoice at the kitsch, the commercial appropriation, the gaudy Broadway musical, the museum drifters. It's not like the original work is harmed (at least, not usually). Their many dollars help make important work possible, and the egalitarian attitude that affords them their disinterested patronage are afforded to those who would make the most of their opportunity to stand with the classics.

And besides:

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