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The cultural machine

I have started reading Donald Sassoon’s monumental The Culture of the Europeans (1,400 pages not counting notes, I may be some time). It is (I gather from the opening few pages) a very interesting look at the business and machinery of culture over the last two hundred years. That is, rather than concentrating on books he concentrates on publishing and bookselling, rather than talk about music he covers the staging of concerts and the development of radio and recorded music, and so on. It is a perspective that is always on the sidelines of the cultural histories I’ve read before, so this change in starting point could be fascinating and revealing. (I’ll probably report back later, but don’t hold your breath.)

There was, however, one statement in his introduction that gave me pause:

One can imagine Jane Austen returning to earth and being given a book by Barbara Cartland. She might mock it, or be surprised by its ‘daring’ effrontery, but she would have no doubt that it was indeed a novel written by a fellow novelist. Mozart might approve or disapprove of the Beatles, but he would recognise ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ as a piece of music. It is, however, highly unlikely that Michelangelo, faced by a Jackson Pollock, could fathom that this was the work of a revered modern master. (xxvii)

This is part of his explanation for why his book covers literature, drama, music, but not ‘fine art’. Now I am quite comfortable with the fact that this book does not cover painting and sculpture, for a start the book is long enough as it is, the additional attention would inflate it to truly unmanageable proportions. But also, as he notes elsewhere, the fine arts have given rise to a narrow market for unique objects, where the price of any art object is at least partly determined by its rarity value. Whereas the market for music, literature, drama is a broader market for reproducible objects. The price you pay for a novel by Tolstoy or a CD by REM is not determined by the rarity of the object (unless we are talking about a Tolstoy first edition), so such issues as the spread of culture and the breadth of access to it are a part of the story that can be told. If you are producing a history of the cultural machine, then reproducible culture has to be the core of the story.

So the narrowing of the focus makes sense to me, but the argument presented in the passage quoted does not.

It started me thinking about the continuity of, to use a grand term, art. Would Jane Austen recognise that a work by Barbara Cartland was a novel? She might recognise the production or the presentation of it, a codex bound within a cover. But would she recognise the text as a novel? If she encountered the work in one of the new forms, on a Kindle or iPad, say, would she recognise it as a novel? Would she recognise anything on an iPad as a novel? And if she identified a Cartland book in such a digital incarnation as a novel, would she then consider any other digital text-based object, a newspaper, say, to be a novel? Or what about a graphic novel, how would she react to that?

In music, Mozart may well be comfortable with a Beatles melody. But despite differences in instrumentation (electric guitars), they use the same scale as Mozart. But how would he regard something atonal by Messiaen, the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg, or ‘4’ 33″‘ by John Cage?

And while Michelangelo might have problems with Jackson Pollock, he might have less of a problem seeing something by David Hockney as art.

In other words, Sassoon’s passage made me realise how much the components of art change, and how flexible we are in how we think and talk about them. We use the term ‘novel’ loosely to mean a physical object, or the particular set of words that may be contained within that object, or a particular subset of literature (the way that, for instance, many 20th century critics casually distinguished between the novel and science fiction), or any of a host of other uses. We will sometimes use the same word casually to mean different things even within the one sentence: ‘I don’t like his novel but it is a beautiful object.’ And I think that much of the time we don’t even realise quite how freely we use the word. The same with ‘music’: ‘I don’t like Messiaen, but that’s not really what you’d call music, is it.’

The point is, we don’t really know what we mean when we talk about ‘art’ or any of its components. But we do know how we use the words. But that usage changes over time or depending on circumstances. Because we say ‘novel’ now, in this particular context, about this particular set of objects, and because the people we are addressing now and who know this context understand this usage, we tend to assume it was ever thus. But I wonder if that is the case. I wonder if Jane Austen would understand ‘novel’ to mean quite what we understand ‘novel’ to mean. I wonder whether she and I might look at the same 200-page block of text and both call it a novel; and both call it a novel for the same reason. Conversely, I wonder whether Michelangelo might look at an arrangement of paint on canvas and aver that it was not art, or whether his usage of the word might not be as loose and encompassing as ours.

There is no such thing as art, there are only things that we talk about as being art, and the way that we talk about anything is fluid and subject to constant change.

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