People who write better than me really annoy me. I don’t mean that they inevitably make me angry, I mean they disturb me – they activate me to sit up and take notice, and think about things in a new way. And that’s what annoying is. Annoy – verb: cause annoyance in; disturb, especially by minor irritations. Denis Dutton annoys me. He wouldn’t remember me, but we had some great conversations back in the very late 80’s. I was working for Tearaway magazine, and I think we were both wondering what the hell we’d done, respectively, in our previous lives to end up in post-Muldoon New Zealand. I think Denis was one of the first people I’d spoken to who made it ok to have a brain. In the late 80’s, in NZ, that was a rare thing.
Timeshifting back to the 70’s, (which, by the way, made the 80’s look like an unending picnic), I used wonder what would happen if the ‘big one’ hit what would be left. I have no idea what the ‘big one’ is, but here’s the basic premise. Let’s say the ‘big one’ was about to hit, what would you take with you?
I’m not talking about the tsunami arriving and you being found with the Hello Kitty pencil case you got age five firmly clenched in your sweaty hands. I’m meaning let’s say we had to leave the planet, and we could only take so much with us, what would get taken? What would be relevant for the next planet? What music, what art, what culture would we take, not so much as an individual, but as humanity. How much of what we take for culture is purely an expression of context? An artefact as much as a prisoner might scratch four lines and fifth at an angle to cross a batch of days.
I’m not much chop at parties. I normally try to hide and look at people’s record (or maybe cd), and always their book collection. Few artefacts mark the passage of context as well as books and music. You and your Bay City Rollers lps. I like to think of the informal research into the archeology of bookshelves as a form of informal learning. Better that than nosy. Or bored. What I’ve learned is: most of the ilk of Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, Eminem, and Boney M are not things I’d load on my container to go to the stars. They (and the morass of their tribe) are not galactic desert island discs.
They’re crap, really.
I’ve wrestled with this angel in my mind for a long time. And I noticed, annoyingly, that Denis has been thinking and (more annoyingly) writing about this too. In “What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?” he observes that The majority of works of popular art today are not inevitably shallow or worthless, but they tend to be easily replaceable. I am of the opinion that is true to the extent that they are replaceable by works that are equally not inevitably shallow or worthless. Isn’t that one and the same? I’m not brave enough to argue with Denis, any more than I willing try to stare down the sun.
What I have no argument with Denis is in his observation:
Some unique works of art, for example, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, possess this rare but demonstrable capacity to excite the human mind across cultural boundaries and through historic time. I cannot prove it, but I think a small body of such works—by Homer, Bach, Shakespeare, Murasaki Shikibu, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Wagner, Jane Austen, Sophocles, Hokusai—will be sought after and enjoyed for centuries or millennia into the future. As much as fashions and philosophies are bound to change, these works will remain objects of permanent value to human beings.
Have these authors, artists, and composers somehow managed to capture our essential humanity? The best of us and the worst of us? Denis alludes to this universality of art:
…the ephemeral nature of mass art seems more pronounced than ever: most popular works are incapable of surviving even a year, let alone a couple of generations. It’s different with art’s classic survivors: even if they began, as Sophocles’ and Shakespeare’s did, as works of popular art, they set themselves apart in their durable appeal: nothing kills them. Audiences keep coming back to experience these original works themselves.
I suspect if I was going to load up my container of meaty cultural goodness ready to play galactic desert island discs, I’d want to call Denis again. I’m very confident that in some distant corner of the big one, there’s room for a shakespeare that will not die. And you. And the Hello Kitty pencil case.