Roger Kimball, Modern Art, and Flabby Elites

Roger Kimball of New Criterion has an excellent essay up at PJ Media, entitled “Annals of the art world: everything old is new again“.  He portrays the sad emptiness, the hollow pretensions, the “mere flabbiness” of modern “transgressive art.”

It reminded me of something I wrote a while back, in 2011, about something else written even further back,by classicist Gilbert Murray in 1940 (that’s how these things go, some time).   Murray pithily sums up the art world, and much the rest of culture, from around 1900 or so.

“First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them.

Here is “The Mere Flabbiness of the Elites”.

________________________________________________

I came across a passage which seems to describe in remarkably succinct terms the process of the “avant garde” elite’s degradation of our culture.  It is in a 1940 book on Aeschylus by the classical scholar Gilbert Murray.  He is contrasting his subject with the turmoil raised by the Sophists of Athens.

“The development is one which has often been repeated in ages of great intellectual activity.  Vigorous minds begin to question the convention in which they have been brought up and which they have now outgrown.  They reject first the elements in them which are morally repulsive, then the parts that are obviously incredible; they try to reject the husk and preserve the kernel, and for a time reach a far higher moral and intellectual standard than the generations before them or the duller people of their own time.

“Then, it seems, something is apt to go wrong.  Perhaps a cynic would say – and it would be hard to confute him – the element of reason in man is so feeble a thing that he cannot stand successfully except when propped in the stiff harness of convention. At any rate there is always apt to come a later generation which has carried doubt and skepticism much farther and finds the kernel to consist only of inner layers of husk and then more husk, as the place of George IV’s heart, according to Thackeray, was supplied by waistcoats and then more waistcoats.

First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them. “

(Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus pp. 79-80)

I must confess that, not being a classical scholar myself, I found this only by reference in Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of his Order and History.  EV’s analysis of Plato’s exposes of the Sophists has made it clear to me that these clever, clever men were the true models of much of modern Western society. ”Plato saw Athenian society as the Sophist writ large”, says EV somewhere, and it seems to be true again in our own day. The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

At any rate, Kimball’s book sounds like it will be worth the pain of reading it.

A tip of my hat of the hat (or at least a touch to the brim or knuckle to the forehead) to Jay Nordlinger at NRO’s Corner for pointing me to all this.

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