What do people talk about? Apart from something current in the news, like Ebola at the moment of this writing, doubtless the favorite subject of most persons is themselves and their doings. This is so much the case that another favorite is criticizing anyone who won’t stop talking about himself long enough for others to get back to their favorite subject.
After self, what gets talked about? There’s the weather, of course, but I’d say that besides that culture is what is talked about most.
Not that most persons nowadays realize they’re talking about culture when they do. If they did they wouldn’t talk about it, egalitarianism having taught them to think of culture as something to ignore or actively scorn as the preserve of a despised elite who claim that the art they prefer is superior to what everybody else likes: Mozart or Vivaldi to pop, Crime and Punishment or Madame Bovary to bestsellers (or no books at all), Shakespeare or Sophocles to a TV show about doctors, lawyers, cops, vampires or zombies. Yet it is of culture they speak when they talk, as they do a lot, about movies and TV shows, songs and bestsellers they like, or don’t. It simply happens to be culture of a low order.
These persons can be likened to young African-Americans who disparage other young African-Americans for “talking white”.
Let no one object that great art has never been popular. That is nonsense. Bach made three times as much money in tips from the crowd at the Café Zimmerman where he played his music on Friday night than he was paid by the tightwad elders of the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig for whom he composed his sacred cantatas. At the Globe Theater where Shakespeare put on his plays the groundlings sitting on the rough benches down below always outnumbered the well-heeled in the nicer balcony seats. Paintings by Caravaggio weren’t hung in churches of Rome and elsewhere for the edification and enjoyment of no one but the nobility attending Mass. Nor did Bernini sculpt his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa solely that some passing prince could behold the rapture of a soul in union with God.
Two things need to be observed about the art of which we speak compared to what most persons look at, listen to or read nowadays. First, the overall level of culture was higher. It was Christian or still so steeped in authentic Christian belief, as in Reformation England or France of the Enlightenment, that everything produced by all artists was superior whether or not it was “religious”. That is, the music Bach played for the Café Zimmerman’s customers was the “pop” of their day. They never heard music that wasn’t worth hearing even when it was folk melodies they themselves played or sang.
Second, and more important, artists in the Christian culture of the past never produced anything with an audience foremost in mind. They weren’t concerned primarily with whether their work would sell.
We said this was more important, but it was still due to the overall culture being sufficiently Christian that artists had the Christian understanding, if only instinctively, of good being hierarchical like everything else in Creation. This understanding would prevail culturally until the Revolution that began to unfold in 1789 made the bourgeoisie the ruling class of society. With their commercial values ascendant, the arts like nearly everything else eventually became a business so that by our day we speak of theater, film-making, musical performances and even painting and book-publishing as parts of the “entertainment industry”.
To be sure, pre-modern artists knew and took into account what would “work” for the public, and when their music, painting or poem was commissioned they had to fulfill any requirements stipulated by those who would pay for it. For example, Caravaggio would be told a picture was wanted of Christ summoning Saint Matthew to apostleship and that it was to fit within a certain space. When we look at the resulting masterpiece we can almost hear Our Lord, pointing across the room at Matthew, commanding: “You. Follow me.”
Matthew is saying, with an expression that looks close to fear as well as befuddlement: “Me?”
How was Caravaggio’s picture possible? The artist was not a notably “religious” man. (His name is found on contemporary police blotters that show him accused of various crimes, including homicide.)
It was possible because, of the three kinds of good, Caravaggio aimed for the highest. This can be said with certainty precisely because four centuries after his pictures were painted persons still want to look at them. Do you think that in 2414 anybody will be looking at Andy Warhol’s picture of a Campbell soup can?
You wouldn’t know it from the way we live today, but the lowest form of good is that which is useful. Above the useful is good that gives pleasure. The highest good is that which is good in itself. What is interesting is that the lesser goods will flow from the highest, or the pursuit of it, but never the other way around.
Paint a picture for the sake of painting the best one you can, one that has something to say even if it is about nothing more than the view outside a window with a frayed curtain billowing in a chill breeze (I’m thinking of Andrew Wyeth), and if you’re gifted the result will give pleasure and may even sell, if only after you’re dead. Conversely, paint a picture for no reason except to make money, it may sell but will be junk.
As in art, so in life. Cultivate the friendship of a man for the sake of the man he is, his company will give you pleasure and chances are he will offer what help he can if you need any. On the other hand, if he sees that all you want is to use him, perhaps on account of his contacts or in the hope of getting money from him, he’ll sever relations – deservedly.
Christians who deplore the state of culture today, not simply in art but in manners, dress and speech, need to do more than complain about it. Charity, as well as their own moral enrichment, requires that they endeavor to raise the overall level of culture. The place to begin is with themselves because, as with religion, this kind of conversion is accomplished one soul at a time. The man sunk in moral squalor will never convert anybody to the Faith, and the level of culture will never be raised except by persons who listen to Mozart instead of pop, read Crime and Punishment instead of bestsellers, and will appreciate Shakespeare more than The Walking Dead.
Because the highest good infuses all great art and the highest good of all is God, doing so will also assist them in staying close to Him, or at least will not stand between them and Him the way most of today’s culture will. It could also give them something worth talking about besides themselves.
One more important thing: High culture does not belong exclusively to the past. Good stuff is produced today. Seek it out, and encourage the production of more of it by supporting efforts to provide it. I’d say, stretching this point but not very much, that would include supporting those who offer thoughts such as were expressed here and the website that posts them.