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 Post subject: On Classicism.
PostPosted: Sat Jul 12, 2008 10:40 am 
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Posts: 25
There are many senses of Classicism. One is the flat belief that Greatness belongs to times past, rather than modernity; a belief or prejudice that spurs neoclassical revivalism and the deadpan apotheosis of the High Great Dead. This form of classicism often associates itself with specific stylizations as well— cool Apollonianisms, solemnity, the ancient Mediterranean. Another sense of Classicism, closer to the way Gadamer envisioned, was that the classical could survive not only history, but an historical interpretation. So that after it had been situated in history, tacked down by the particulars, ascribed and adjusted, it still spoke. And, in fact, not only spoke, but effectively overrode the significance of these particulars; of who was speaking, when and where.
The Classical is something that is written or done with even that distant, though not necessarily universal, ear and eye in mind. Spoken or performed before history, maybe. The antithesis of the classical would be something that just gathers up local color and trivia, squeezes it through a tube, and then dies with its age. Being composed wholly of its circumstances.

So there is a shallower and deeper sense of classicism, but the two are often difficult to pry apart because the first kind of classicism— an uncritical familiarity with the old and revered— is often adopted to conceal weaknesses in our own efforts. We can borrow its solemnity, for instance; because, as a species, we humans are overly impressed with solemnity. We instinctually put stock in the solemn opinion as we dismiss even the earnestly light-hearted (and I do mean instinct, almost hypnoidally so— deep and automatic.) We can summon a long-dead Mediterranean instead of inventing our own phrasing, and— voilà— we have placed ourselves within the Tradition, whether or not we deserve it. So this comes as a warning to those who think the company of classicists will always be something pure and rarefied.

Dealing with modernity, you get the same issues: shallower and deeper approaches. The shallower take mirrors the events swirling around it; grabs things and ideas that scream crisp modernity, but nothing else. The deeper is engaged with mending itself with history; altering it, but meanwhile working on the continuity, showing by word or example how the Past could step into the Future. The Future Classical works both sides at once.

So what we see, in both shallow Classicisms and Modernisms is that failure to synthesize the ages. One flees the Present; the other denies the Past. The greatest success would be some effort that could synthesize the ancient wisdom from the time of Gods and Giants, and meld it with a modern understanding of the moment— something that could convey the weight of the classical without just an exoticism of the Past... Joyce springs to mind, but we can do even better.

One thing I will say though about the uses of shallow classicism is that if it is earnest, it might create a critical striving— that we might strive in order to win comparisons with the High Great Dead. In this case, our pantheon becomes a better, secular Divine Realm; better than the Otherworldly Divine Realm of saints and archangels. I've been thinking very seriously about mythos lately, and I'll spring it in a later post or essay, but for now, I just wanted to begin a thread on Classicism, to field some opinions.


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 Post subject: Re: On Classicism.
PostPosted: Thu Jul 17, 2008 2:38 pm 
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Joined: Tue May 13, 2008 1:46 pm
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I agree with your calling-out of shallow Classicisms; however, while I loathe such closed-minded aesthetic judgments, I feel I can somehow defend the most shallow, automatic Classicist impulse as well.
In short, because:
1) A classical work will always give one more insight into history than a contemporary work, and will therefore enhance one's understanding of humanity as a whole, historically, etc.,
2) A classical work has already proven its timelessness by remaining available/in print through the ages, while a contemporary work has no such qualifications and should therefor be approached less readily,
3) Classical works are healthy for aesthetic discourse because they teach one to look beyond the ur-shallowness of fashion and trend, giving one again a more universal view of art and world -- as Pound puts it, Classical art is "news that STAYS news", while most contemporary work is news only presently, soon to be trampled underfoot, therefore implicitly less valuable,
4) By allowing the viewer/reader a historical detachment, the Classics are simply better suited for aesthetic judgment... One cannot "objectively" view contemporary art because one is blind to certain cultural and historical customs which, when viewed from another historical period with different customs, would alter the meaning of said art. (For instance, looking back even 150 years ago.. a work influenced deeply by Victorian prudishness does not seem particularly moral and admirable to readers today, whereas in its time it could have appeared to be the peak of beauty and distinction; also, the familiar tale of the greatest authors and artists gaining recognition only after their death,.. a certain historical separation was required for their genius to be recognized).

More on this last one... Perhaps Classicism implies that an art's value must be eternal. One can, on the other hand, think of art in a more ephemeral sense, that whatever caused the most excitement and garnered the most accolades at the time of its creation, no matter if it was laughed at and derided in the next century, is truly the great work.
Contemporary-ism (what should we call this.. I think Modernism is too weighted a word) values the ephemeral present, complete with its social circles, fashions, economic interests, and hasty judgments, over the more eternal serenity of a Classical beauty.

One other point against privileging of "the New": In communities of contemporary art, music, literature, etc., one is constantly making friends and making enemies. Friends are essential to getting things done, and enemies are an essential byproduct of groups of motivated and passionate individuals. What suffers most gravely from having friend and enemies, however, is one's capacities of aesthetic judgment. One is ALWAYS more likely to appreciate, understand, be moved by something made by a dear friend, and ALWAYS more likely to be critical and disdainful of something made by someone you think is a real idiotic jackass. I don't see this as a minor problem, or just an ignorable aspect of the world of art/music/etc. I see this as a significant dysfunction which leads, always, to friends with power supporting and promoting primarily friends, with quality of work being only a secondary thought. This leads to a system of artistic value where one's work is only good insofar as who one is friends with. Such aesthetic corruption is, I believe, prevalent, and is gradually leading me to "step-out" of all contemporary art and music circles. This is more a matter of contemporary work, but it could be another argument, not necessarily for classicism, but for the wiseness of a historical focus.

This "Deep Modernism" of synthesis of ancient wisdom with 'the moment' is indeed a glad joining of forces, but one that very few have been able to do. Joyce, yes, but perhaps even better by Ezra Pound. Pasolini's avant-garde take on classics, Fellini's too. With art one must also be wary of a certain baroque approach.. taking shallow symbols of various historical arts and mashing them together-- one must translate the spirit, not the style of ancient times. "MAKE IT NEW' as Pound says.

One more from Pound, from his "ABC of Reading"-- I like his formation of art history as consisting mostly of three types: Inventors, Masters, and Dilutors. The Inventors conjure up radically new forms and processes, the Masters combine various invented processes and forms, and use them better than the Inventors, and the Diluters simply came after both Inventors and Masters and couldn't do the job as well. One appeal of Classicism is that, with time the differences between these three groups grows clearer, and the Masters rise naturally to the top.

However, I think there is a deeper question with regard to Classicism, one that goes beyond art, namely that of hatred of the present day, and yearning for a past time, before a certain "something" was lost. The identity of this "something" is a good starting point.


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 Post subject: Re: On Classicism.
PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2008 7:47 pm 
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Joined: Wed May 07, 2008 7:49 pm
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Each of the statements in defense of— how should I put it— "the classicist prejudice" had some partial truth to them; enough partial truth to make me agree with most, at the outset. Nevertheless, after closer scrutiny, I realize that each should come with its own pouch of corollaries and caveats. So I'll take them one by one:
Quote:
1) A classical work will always give one more insight into history than a contemporary work, and will therefore enhance one's understanding of humanity as a whole, historically, etc.,


Of course, reading from or across a distance is likely to involve a bit more historical consciousness, but oddly enough, the Classical Canon will probably give you far less historical consciousness than reading bullshit and ephemera from a by-gone or present era. This is, I'll insist, what distinguishes historians from non-historians: they compare and contrast the gritty details from disparate periods. Garden-variety intellectuals just read the distillate; the great synthetic histories. If they keep to reading the Canon, they are reading the minds of oddball geniuses, who were maybe but maybe not very representative of their day. If we were to adhere to the idea that the Classics "rise above their day," and are like Nietzsche, usually "untimely meditations," we cannot really use them as strong historical marks and measures. If they are strong historical measures, made of circumstance, then we have to re-evaluate the tenets that Nate laid out afterward. Honestly: reading a newspaper clipping from 1912— say, the socialite section of the New York Times— immediately impresses upon me more historical consciousness than reading, say, Civilization and its Discontents. Whichever way we go, I'm not sure that the Classic can bring both the historical and the universal, Time and Timelessness, into its kin, all at once.

Quote:
2) A classical work has already proven its timelessness by remaining available/in print through the ages, while a contemporary work has no such qualifications and should therefor be approached less readily.


This may be partially true, again, but demonstrates great faith in the Canon— a faith I do not have. We have to remember that the Classics worm their way into history one of two ways. They were either first approved by the "vagaries of taste" in their own day, to be subsequently judged again by coming generations. Or, they were re-discovered almost by accident, like Lautréamont or Schopenhauer or Khayyam.
I'd say that seventy-five percent of the world's greatest geniuses have slipped through the sieve of history because of the inattention of their contemporaries. This is the real crime. For every one admitted to the Pantheon, there are three others that should have taken his place. This begs us to pay closer attention to our contemporaries, to help catch lost genius from oblivion, and fundamentally alter the Canon in its outlook.

Which brings me to another point; the point about "corruption." This has some merit— gaining perspective before passing judgment— however this perspective is not something cool, fixed, or objective. Our valuations will always depend on processes of moral, cultural, and aesthetic sensitizations; things that we pick up from our neighbors and things in proximity. And the reason that Victorian novels— novel that are pinned with the restrictive moral precepts— now seem more conditioned, less universal, is because Western Culture took a sharp turn. We cannot worry too much about being influenced by the personalities of the creators, friends or otherwise. Our sensitizations always move by adjacency. We hear names dropped. We stumble over things. We like a cover, what have you. At best, we get recommendations. However, these are the things that help create— rather than corrupt— our sensibilities; our net of likes and dislikes. (Nate, I recently told someone about our chance encounter with the "Young Lacanians," at a party, that helped kindle your interest in Lacan). And the same distaste for historical personalities can get in the way of evaluation too. Personally, Clement Greenburg and André Breton both seemed like such hard-ons, from across history, that it's still hard for me to swallow them without gagging a little.

But there's a larger question: the relation of Classics to Self-Understanding. In the form of Self-Understanding you might get from psychoanalysis, self-understanding depends on a whole beehive of immediate particulars. We have to look back over the particular events, objects, decisions, encounters within our private map of experiences. Why would the same not apply for wider culture? Why would we not look to works that fully express Time and Place to culminate our Self-Understanding; whether or not they survive the next fifty years. Classics may set a keystone for Human Culture, but can they alone suffice for self-understanding?


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