"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Brass Peacock - There Are Indeed Valid, Universal Standards Of High Culture

A number of years ago, a friend was gifted an ornate bronze, enameled Iranian peacock.  It had been commercially crafted (the Tehran bazaars are full of them), selected by hand (there are hundreds of variations from the imperial to the familiar), and wrapped in faux-gold and silver foil.  To his patrician Bostonian taste, the gift was ugly. 

He knew he had to display it for as long as his Persian friends were still around.  Unsure of what to do with it, he tried first on the table in the foyer, but its reflection in the early 19th century mirror from the court of the Queen destroyed all sense of honor and propriety.  He tried it on  the 19th century Portuguese sea chest on the first floor landing, built out of teak, oak, and mahogany to last a lifetime; but it simply was out of place with this imposing, historical piece. 

The dining room was no better, decorated as it was with early 18th century Revere silver cups and gold inlaid salt cellars of the same era.  The bedroom, breakfast nook, and upper hallway were equally unsuitable.  The Art Deco piece– a graceful dancer of ivory and bronze – would not accommodate any newcomers, and the original Toulouse-Lautrec poster from the Folies Bergeres could only stand on its own.
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The enamel coloring on the feathers was particularly brilliant, the legs sparkled with  gold-colored scales, and the eyes were obsidian.  Although it resembled hundreds of peacocks mass produced when Iran was still on-limits for foreigners, it had been chosen with care.  While never to be confused with the real thing - the ornate figurines from the palace of the last shah - it was a gift which was both a gesture of gratitude and respect, and a nod to the Imperial past. Nevertheless, it had no place in my friend's Spring Valley home.

“What in God’s name are we going to do with it?”, he asked his wife.  Re-gifting was impossible because because it could never be given with confidence.  Who, among all his friends, would possibly appreciate the peacock as a work of craftsmanship and not bazaar-ware?  Who among his friends who collected Shaker furniture, Victorian bronze, Georgia O'Keefe, and Clos du Bois crystal could possibly think of it as anything other than unnecessary?

The shoe of course is always on the other foot.  My friend’s niece never thought twice about consigning the fork-and-spoon sterling silver, engraved, baby set of the Court of King George VI, to the back of the kitchen drawer – useless, hard to clean, awkward and cold.  His nephew by marriage, a successful advertising executive on the West Coast wondered what to do with the second edition copies of A Child’s Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson’s compilation of nursery rhymes and colored prints.  His children were modern, eclectic, free form, and media savvy, and this ancient book with cracked spine and slightly frail pages was appreciated for the gesture but soon but away.

Image result for images first edition a child's garden of verses

It is hard to look at 18h century silver, Victorian first and second editions, elegant Havell-Audubon prints, Ottoman original gold-inlaid collages of Konya dervishes, 9th century Khajuraho stone carvings, and Remington horse-and-rider bronzes and not consider them pieces of uncompromising good taste.  On the other hand it is impossible to look at supermarket Déjeuner sur l'herbe reproductions as anything but decorations; or at collections of quick-sale African masks, Balinese dancers, and Inuit seal hunters as cheap cultural copies. They may have been bought as a nod to high culture, but were displayed to fill space.

So is there no accounting for taste – de gustibus non disputandum est – or are there some cross-cultural groundings which make good taste universal? Is originality worth more than contemporary reproduction? Are wood, silver, gold, and platinum worth more in cultural terms than plastic or computer-generated imagery? Is simplicity – essential form, line, color, and substance – more absolute and universal than imitation add-ons?

As much as proponents of multi-culturalism may differ, there are universal standards of art, ideas, and culture. Shakespeare is qualitatively different, more insightful, and more elegantly written than slave journals of the 1850s, pioneer chronicles of the West, and diaries of wives of the British Raj.  

Iranian peacocks are everywhere – in gift shops, on television soaps, in living rooms and dens, in parlors, dining rooms and bedrooms.  There seems to be a universal indifference to good taste and an equally universal need for decoration and imitation.  What is more American than Las Vegas, the biggest Iranian peacock ever created – a great, glitzy, monument to American popular culture.  An unabashed  and unapologetic confession of lowbrow taste – image, melodrama. and glitz.

Las Vegas is the most explicitly American city in the Republic.  The legacy of the Main Line, Rittenhouse Square, Russian Hill, Nantucket, and Park Avenue is fading fast.

Image result for image shows Las Vegas glitz

So what to do with the faux ceramic vases, embroidered images of Rumi, nylon and acrylic stamped Ottoman-themed carpets, plastic figurines, and paintings of Vesuvius? Would a gift of original Rhode Island cabinetry be as quickly put away by a pharmacist's family in Adana as my friend's Iranian peacock? Or Faberge eggs? Or original Tiffany lamps?  Is culture truly relative; and are there no universal standards of art and culture?

Of course the hairdresser in Rize or Adana cannot possibly understand the cultural and historical significance of original Rhode Island Townsend cabinetry; and to assume differently, say post-modern critics, is arrogant patriarchy at best.  Yet the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Mona Lisa, Guernica, Cosi fan Tutti, and Botticelli have never lost their appeal nor cultural relevance.  Shakespeare is as pertinent and important as he was in 1503.  Aristotle and Plato have not been dethroned. Why, given their longevity and centuries-old respect, should they not be the standard for art and cultural expression?

Image result for images caravaggio john the baptist

Post-modernists and deconstructionists want to have nothing to do with standards.  What was right for 15th century Florence  or 16th century England has no absolute relevance for today.  Works of those eras at best can provide historical context, but to assume a more permanent truth is wrongheaded and culturally arrogant.   How can this be?  Any fool can distinguish between the Iranian peacock and Caravaggio’s John the Baptist.

Cultural relativism and multicultural equivalency can only lead to a dissolution of high, universal standards.  A professor at a well-known theological seminary recently advised students to ignore Aristotle and Plato as influences on early Christian theology because they were privileged white men.  The subsequent history of Western philosophers, he said, was so tainted by misogyny and white privilege that all non-contemporary artists and thinkers should be regarded with circumspection.  How could they be relevant to a post-modern, multicultural, non-traditional society?

According to the curators of the Frick, the Phillips, and the Gardner, the Iranian peacock belongs only in the  market stalls of Isfahan; the faux ceramic, Ottoman-inspired flower vases only in the bazaars of Mardin;  wounded, suffering, bleeding Christ-on-the-Cross statues only on street sale in Algeciras and San Salvador.  They belong no place else.

An unfair intellectual consignment or a final dismissal of bourgeois taste making way for a return to more sophisticated values?

The cultural, intellectual, and artistic superiority of Caravaggio, Shakespeare, Bernini, Delacroix, and  James Joyce cannot be questioned because their works represent the unequivocal and unquestioned best of human intelligence – intellect, insight, perception, context, and individualism.  Taste devolves from them and is never a contemporary thing in and of itself. While everyone cannot own classic paintings nor appreciate Elizabethan literature, they can at least understand their significance.  Every bad reproduction of Delacroix is an erosion of artistic standards and not a well-meaning effort to keep them current.

My friend still has the Iranian brass peacock in his closet along with other un-regiftable  vases, statuettes, mirrors, and boxes.  He knows that they would be valued in the cultures from which they originated, but he simply cannot bring himself to giving a gift he things is worthless.

Plato and Aristotle were right after all and from the beginning.  There exists an ideal world of higher art, morality, and principle; and although we may never achieve or attain it, it is there for the taking.

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