Friday, May 28, 2010

Tanning and Pastoral

We are often told that ideas of beauty have changed over the years (the figures of Rubens are of course the classic example), but our modern taste for tanned skin is an especially peculiar deviation from the western norm. There is, to start with, Homer's "white armed Hera," and I recently ran across this passage in Mantuan's First Eclogue:

Farra legens ibat mea per vestigia virgo
Nuda pedem, discincta sinum, spoliata lacertos,
Ut decet aestatem quae solibus ardet iniquis
Tecta caput fronde intorta, quia sole perusta
Fusca fit et voto facies non servit amantum.

She came upon my steps plucking the grain,
With naked feet, a bosom loosely robed,
And arms uncovered. For the summer sun
She clothed her head, for by the sun once burnt
She darkens, and no lover’s prayer obliges.

There is also the testimony of sacred pastoral that this is not merely a phenomenon of the Hellenistic tradition:

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black,
because the sun hath looked upon me:
My mother's children were angry with me;
they made me the keeper of the vineyards;
but mine own vineyard have I not kept. (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

It would be interesting to hear some speculation as to why we began to prefer tanned to fair skin. I would throw my lot in with changing views towards work and class, but I would probably be liable to speculate in that direction on most social phenomena; perhaps it has something to do with tanned skin being now more rare, with more people working inside, whereas earlier only a few would spent most of their days indoors. Whatever its causes, it is a trend, vampires notwithstanding, which shows no signs of passing out of fashion, however at odds it may be with historical tastes.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Adorno and Cultural Elites

I have fallen into the habit with this blog of either posting something quite long or going quite a long time without posting anything. Other demands being what they are, I would perhaps be better served posting something brief rather more frequently. I do often have ideas occur to me which would be good material for a blog post, but I always find myself working them out in too great detail and come to the point where I inevitably lack the time to be satisfied with my production. This summer we shall see if I can train myself for more frequent short posts.

I picked up Adorno again yesterday, having dipped into Benjamin the day before, and came across this excellent gem in his essay "How to Look at Television":

"The increasing strength of modern mass culture is further enhanced by changes in the sociological structure of the audience. The old cultural elite does not exist anymore; the modern intelligentsia only partially corresponds to it. At the same time, huge strata of the population formerly unacquainted with art have become cultural 'consumers'. Modern audiences, although less capable of the artistic sublimation bred by tradition, have become shrewder in their demands for perfection of technique and for reliability of information, as well as their desire for 'services'; and they have become more convinced of the consumer's potential power over the producer, no matter whether the power is actually wielded."

(A form like 'wielded' always grates on my ear; had a few things turned out just slightly more fortunately in October of 1066 we would have a good strong form like 'wolden' or 'welden.')

Adorno points something out in this paragraph which is both immediately obvious and widely ignored, that the current relation between popular and elite culture is an entirely different relation than that of previous ages. It is as equally misleading to compare Mozart to Philip Glass as it is to compare him to Paul McCartney, although both may appear fitting in different situations. Our 'elite' artists of today (and indeed our cultural elites in general) are far more esoteric and far less intimate with the structures of political power than cultural elites of Mozart's day were. The arguments that align Philip Glass with Mozart will be either aesthetic or social. The aesthetic arguments will inevitably appeal to vague categories, all of them inevitably either Romantic (profundity, feeling) or counter-Romantic (complexity, technique), in an attempt to ignore the obvious disparity in beauty and sophistication between the music of Mozart's era and our own. The social arguments will point out that, like Glass, Mozart really only appealed to a small elite within society, but the facts are rather clearly against this, from the packed opera houses of Prague and Vienna to the pianos of every drawing room in Europe. On the failure of these comparisons, one might perhaps attempt a genealogical justification, tracing a line of teachers and performances between Mozart and Philip Glass, and claiming merely that the profession has changed; but we should remember that in the development of species the new breed after a certain point cannot produce offspring with the old, and is therefore treated as something different.

The comparison with a popular musician like Paul McCartney is just as tenuous, treating popularity as though it overcame all the aesthetic obstacles, and refusing to accept those aesthetic objections for reasons perhaps sometimes more grounded but as a rule less persuasive than those which would defend someone like Philip Glass. Mozart did not string together three minute ditties with his friends and expect to be applauded for it as an artist. That a group like the Beatles should be considered to have produced cultural artifacts worthy of preservation for any reason other than curiosity is as much a political victory for democratic baseness as an aesthetic one, and should alert us of precisely the reasons why our current cultural elite only partially corresponds to the cultural elite of an aristocratic period like Mozart's. In almost every way besides the praises they are effusively afforded popular musicians of our day resemble folk singers and not court composers; that these two breeds should be somewhat alike in popularity is a testimony to radical economic, political, and cultural changes and not aesthetic kinship.

I have gotten somewhat away from Adorno at this point, driven, as are we all when we write without direction, by the goads of my own preoccupations and propensities. We must always keep in mind the important differences between the social situation of our cultural elite today and that of the past. And I have come to the end and this is no particularly short post; perhaps next time.