Read For Yourself

Recently I was watching C-Span Book TV ‘s coverage of author Robert Richardson at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.  As I was suffering from a rather potent bout of insomnia, the thought of listening to some old hippies rattle on about how they do not like the mess they have made of our society seemed to be the best way to put me to sleep under the circumstances.  Much of Mr. Richardson’s presentation was what one would expect., in that  we were condemned to a random rattling off of quotations from other writers, with a single adjective attached to each indicating his approval.  This sort of presentation is of course designed not so much to enlighten, as to impress the audience with the amount of books the lecturer has read.

During his presentation, Mr. Richardson recounted the passage in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which one of the brothers justifies his quasi-atheistic views, doubtless as a foil for the author himself or at least some of his thought process, since if you have read other works by Dostoevsky you know that he was something of a mixed bag when it comes to his opinions on religion.  A story is recounted about an 8-year-old boy who is quite literally hounded to death, with a gruesome punishment for a minor misdeed, before the eyes of his own mother.  If God allows such things to happen, the story concludes, then the recounter of the tale was not interested in having anything to do with him.

That attitude, according to Mr. Richardson, aptly reflects his own views on the subject as well.  The rather obvious rejoinder to this of course, at least for the Christian, is that Mr. Richardson’s argument is something of a cop-out, since God Himself was brutally and unjustly killed before the eyes of His Mother on Calvary.  It also assumes that the concept of free will is something which must be imposed or lifted at will, as if God is playing a chess match with human playing pieces.  Be that as it may, such a simplistic and rather narcissistic understanding of the Divine is regrettably not uncommon among the so-called intelligentsia who dominate our universities, publishing houses, and media outlets.

For forty years or so we have witnessed the build-up of an intellectual establishment built not on universal truths, let alone intellect, but rather on relative opinions, and Mr. Richardson is merely one cog in that infernal machine.  We have seen the effect of the worship of Priapus instead of God, for example, in the enormous amount of sexually transmitted disease that runs rampant through our society which, as a very wise theology teacher of my acquaintance pointed out the other evening, no one seems to talk about.  The supposed freedom granted by the Sexual Revolution has in fact enslaved us to, among other things, the pharmaceutical industry.  This chasing after temporary personal pleasure in lieu of preparing for eternity, following millennia of human intellectual endeavors to instill virtues of self-control and self-sacrifice, has had a devastating impact on our world.

Yet there is something to be said for the example of those like Mr. Richardson, who stand at podiums and preach their gospels of nothingness, and that is the fact that they do actually read.  They may largely be reading a lot of garbage bound between two covers and presented as books, but nevertheless they do undertake the effort to continue to work on the exercise of their minds  through the exploration of writing.  Of course, part of the reason many otherwise educated younger people do not read today, is precisely because they had professors like Mr. Richardson in college.  If you are burdened with a teacher who turns you off to the world of literature by insisting that everything is about oppression and sex, there can be no better barrier to raise to the concept of reading as a form of ongoing education and the formation of ideas.

Fortunately, there are remedies to the situation.  I have always found that one of the best ways to critically evaluate a work of fiction, biography, and so on which you cannot bring yourself to agree with, is to always keep in mind the question of whether the author actually understands the truth he is rejecting.  I do not have to agree with a writer’s point of view in order to be able to find merit or even truth in his work.  This is not an easy task, of course, yet if you know what you believe, then you can be at the ready when you perceive that a scrivener or a professor is trying to convince you that they are right, and you are merely ignorant.  (How one establishes what is right and what is wrong when everything is supposedly relative is another matter entirely.)

By no means am I suggesting that you go off and read the collected works of Engels and Marx, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment, or for that matter wish to fully know thy enemy.  After all, without having at least some idea of what the devil looks like, when he tells you there is no such thing as personal accountability for example, you will be hard-pressed to recognize him when he presents himself in one of his countless guises.  Just as the lawyer in the courtroom needs to be able to anticipate his opponent’s argument in order to be able to successfully defeat it, it is insufficient to say that simply because part of what an author believes or concludes is incorrect, that it is therefore impossible to gain anything from his work.’

It is often unpleasant to read the work of those who are still fighting the culture wars that led our society into the morass in which it wallows in at present.  However to back away and give those digging us in, ever deeper, into such muck is not helpful either.  One may be able to refute Mr. Richardson – and indeed Dostoevsky – without having read any of their work, but it would be a difficult endeavor to sustain over a long period.

Thus while it is certainly inadvisable to take your views on the question of eternal life from those who write novels, or indeed biographies of existentialists, it is important to at least be somewhat familiar with such thinkers, however misguided they may be.  It is through a systematic emphasis on the dumbing down of Western society, paradoxically as access to higher education has never been more widespread, that we have found ourselves in a culture that is rather shallow, materialistic, and interested largely in the seeking of personal pleasure, much like the ancient pagan societies we emerged out of.  The fight to make us into a fat, lazy, and ignorant society which can be easily controlled and placated has very nearly been achieved.

In order to take back this battle then,  you cannot rely solely on your wits: you must work. And by work, I mean you must read.  Read all of the writers you love and admire, yes, but also take the time to read those whom you are suspicious of, and do so with a critical eye as to why you find them so untrustworthy.  It is entirely possible to examine what the world is trying to sell you as truth, without actually buying into its message in the process.  And unlike Mr. Richardson, I would posit that reading someone like Emerson does not require that you actually throw yourself head-first into Walden Pond.

3ages (800x600)
“The Three Ages of Man” by Giorgione (c. 1500-1501)
Pitti, Florence

On Serving Your Audience

Last evening I made what I considered to be a rather witty, pithy comment on social media, which I will not repeat here, and which caused some distress on the left and misinterpretation on the right.  Unfortunately trying to explain the subtleties of language to an audience which did not grasp it was ultimately futile, yet in the end the fault was mine.  For when you have an audience in the first place, it is paradoxically not a position of leadership, but rather one of servitude which you occupy.

While I cannot claim to be any great wordsmith, I will admit that I do have a general facility for language, which has not only served me well professionally and personally, but which also draws me to others who have a similar affection for the joy of language.  That being said, it is important to realize that words are meant to be tools, not means of tawdry manipulation.  Even if you are the one doing the writing or the speaking, as a pundit, or politician, or academic, your audience deserves better than platitudes and pandering, and has the right to your respect.

Unfortunately we are all too well-aware at present of how easy it is to be anointed a lord of public opinion, whether one deserves the title or not.  And here we have yet another opportunity to look into some of the ideas of Castiglione, the patron of this blog, rather than the self-centered and grasping Machiavelli, who seems to have the upper hand these days, with regard to how the public is treated.  Machiavelli may have argued in his “Discourses” that public discussion was a better way of achieving results than relying on the wisdom of princes, but in “The Prince”, he was always more than happy to look down on an audience as being little more than ignorant sheep, to be used for his own personal gain.

In advising how a leader ought to address the public, Machiavelli counseled that he ought to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”  If he does this, Machiavelli argued, “he will be praised by everybody, because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.”  No doubt we can all think of contemporary social, political, and opinion leaders to whom this description might be very readily applied.

In complete contrast, Castiglione recognizes that it is in one’s own genuine good behavior toward himself and toward others that the leader gains esteem.  He despises the kind of unctuous, all-things-to-all-people behavior advocated by Machiavelli, and rather neatly points to how such behavior ultimately leads to things like moral relativism.  “And they cite a certain authority out of their own head, which says ‘si non caste, tamen caute’ [if not chastely, then at least cautiously], and with this they think to cure every great evil, and with good arguments to persuade anyone who is not wary that all sin, however grave it might be, is easily pardoned of God, provided it remain secret and does not give rise to bad example.”

Castiglione criticizes professional sophists (such as Machiavelli) who “from over-loquacity sometimes go beyond bounds and become silly and pointless, because they do not consider the kind of person with whom they are speaking, the place where they are, the occasion, or the soberness and modesty which they ought above all things to maintain.”  Rather than follow their example, Castiglione counsels that a leader not only concern himself with big issues that tend to attract the most attention, but to have the personal humility and sense of service to realize that he ought to be more concerned with helping others than himself:

I would have him take care to heed not only the matters already mentioned, but those which are much smaller, and as far as possible to understand all details affecting his people, nor ever so believe or trust any one of his ministers as to confide to that one alone the bridle and control of his government.  For there is no man who is very apt for all things, and much greater harm arises from the credulity of lords than from their incredulity…

Of course, probably very few of us are going to end up serving in high positions of public office, heading major corporations, or as weekly columnists/commentators in major media outlets.  Yet all of us will find ourselves in situations where others are looking to us for our opinions and guidance.  We need to respect those who are seeking our views, enough to realize what a privilege and a responsibility it is to be sought out in this way.

As Castiglione clearly understood, it is not through the cheap manipulation of human emotions that we build a better society or prove our worth as individuals.  Rather it is in the way which we use such opportunities to encourage others to be and to do better, for the sake of what is good and right, rather than encouraging our audiences to act purely out of selfishness.  Would that more of us would take this advice to heart, on a regular basis, in the choices that we make, in what we write and say, and in how we interact with those who need our assistance.


Detail of “The Speech of Alfonso d’Avalos” by Titian (c. 1540)
The Prado, Madrid

Out with the Old: Berlin Evicts Its Collection of Old Master Paintings

The ongoing evolution of the art museum took a new turn recently, when it was announced that the venerable Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and its hundreds of Old Master paintings would have to find a new home. In order to acquire the Pietzch Collection, a group of works from Modern artists like Mark Rothko and Max Ernst collected by a German industrialist and his wife over the past few decades, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie had to promise the Pietzches that their collection be displayed in its entirety. The only way to do this was to expand the Neue Nationalgalerie’s space at Berlin’s Kulturforum, by taking over the space occupied by the Gemäldegalerie.

Assurances have been issued that the Gemäldegalerie’s encyclopedic holdings covering the history of Western art – including paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Vermeer – will not disappear into some basement. Rather, they will go on temporary display at the Bode Museum, a sculpture gallery on Berlin’s historic Museumsinsel. At present there is no word on when a new home for the Gemäldegalerie building will be built, for there are neither plans nor funds available for undertaking such a project.

The art world expressed shock this summer at the decision to evict the Gemäldegalerie, in order to obtain a collection of 20th century art. However it should not really surprise any of us that this could happen. After all, many of those voices expressing shock over this decision are the same voices who laud the work of certain modern and contemporary artists who demonstrate no artistic merit whatsoever. It was only a matter of time before institutions began to value such art more highly than the work of artists living centuries ago, many of whom worked in Christian themes.

Anyone who follows the art trade knows that for some time now, the market has shifted away from the Old Masters, thanks to several factors. The most obvious factor in this shift is scarcity. There simply are not enough high-quality Old Master paintings left in private hands coming onto the market, to be able to sustain the demand of would-be art collectors. New collectors are thus directed to collect in other areas, in order to drive up prices. This is one reason why the market for Impressionists and Post-Impressionists went through the roof twenty years ago, and why the same has been happening in Modern and Contemporary Art in recent years.

This is turn is tied to the practice of viewing art largely or even primarily as an investment. If in the past an aristocrat or magnate would purchase a Titian or a Poussin with no intention of ever selling it, unless involuntarily forced to do so, today’s collector is more likely to be of a mind to purchase a work to enjoy for today, and then sell it for a profit tomorrow. This explains the sense that one is watching a real-life version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in the art world, as we see prices for untested, contemporary art of questionable merit going beyond the point of reason.

However another factor in this shift is secularization. There is a greater market today for art whose subject matter is utterly incomprehensible, than for art depicting virtues or universal truths, let alone scenes from the life of Christ or the saints. Evocations of eternal beauty or Christian morality were gradually eliminated, as a godless civilization realized that without Faith, there was little it could celebrate in art. It is no accident that denigration and ugliness are more prominent features of our supposedly more sophisticated output of art over the past century. If there is so little hope or joy in modern and contemporary art, it is because those who create and promote it find so little to be hopeful or joyful about.

Though by no means a museum of Christian art per se, a substantial portion of the Gemäldegalerie’s holdings includes paintings of religious subjects. Like other museums of its type, such as the Louvre or the Prado, chronologically speaking the Gemäldegalerie starts out as an expression of the Christian Faith, and ends as an expression of personal ego. And while I enjoy seeing insightful portraits, still life studies, and sweeping landscapes at a great secular museum, I always find Old Master religious art in such a place to be a bit forlorn and devoid of meaning removed from their context. Try going to The Metropolitan Museum and kneeling down to pray the rosary in front of an altarpiece dedicated to Our Lady, and you will dealt with rather swiftly by security, or mocked by your fellow museum patrons.

The offer of the Pietzch Collection was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In one go, a substantial collection of Modern art became available which today would be cost-prohibitive for any museum to attempt to assemble. If that meant the Gemäldegalerie would have to go into exile for a time, then that was viewed as a non-unreasonable price to be paid. This is not a bonfire of the vanities, but rather a reflection of the fact that in the art world as in European society at large, values have changed. More’s the pity, those of us who care about such things might reasonably say to ourselves.

Unlike a private collection, a public art museum has to reflect the needs of the people whom it serves. If the people in question are increasingly secular and relativist, being unpersuaded of universal truths and standards, then institutions like art museums will naturally come to reflect that outlook, as old ways of looking at the world are put to one side. It should therefore not come as so great a shock that an ever-more secular Europe would value the beauties of its Christian past less than it does the ugliness of its secular present.

Visitors in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin