‘What makes a work of art truly great?’

Jay Nordlinger thinks aloud on art:

What makes a work of art truly great? Durability, most people would say. A great work lasts — lives on and on — rather than sparkling and then fizzling out. Also, a great work should touch the heart or stir the mind. And maybe point to something higher, or deeper.

When is it safe to call a work of art great? Sometimes never. But if you are confident of your judgment, safety is not a consideration. WFB liked to quote Stravinsky, who said that it takes 50 years, after a work’s creation, to assess that work properly. I don’t know. With some of them, you know quickly (one way or the other). But Stravinsky and Buckley had a point nonetheless.

What role does great art play in society? Some societies prize it more than others. The same is true of individuals. Not everything appeals to everybody. WFB was not much for sports. Some are not much for the Great Outdoors. Woody Allen said, “I am two with nature.” I know people in classical music who are always trying to make classical music popular. “Don’t waste your time,” I say. “There’s a reason they call pop music ‘pop music,’ you know: It’s popular.” Classical music will never be popular. But that’s all right: There will always be a minority who cherish it, and keep it going.

So, in your view, the arts are something that people can take or leave? There is not a societal need for art? Look, I think society would be poorer without art, because art enriches the soul. It breathes beauty into life. It can take us above the muck (or not). But this is a matter of individual choice, or leanings. There will always be art-lovers in society — always — and others who are indifferent. The others will probably be in the majority.

You can’t make everyone conform to your tastes. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. I’m always quoting Homer — not the Greek poet, but Homer Simpson. When Apu was worried about impending fatherhood, Homer said, “Kids are the best. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.”

People are always trying to get others to love what they love and hate what they hate. Well, good luck.

But everyone should have an appreciation of art, right? “Should” is an interesting word. In one sense, we should all have pretty prom dates and Corvettes. I think everyone should be exposed to art — and sports and science and everything else.

What would you require in schools? Many things, a variety of things — a smorgasbord. Again, exposure. I think of Marian the Librarian, describing her ideal man: “If occasionally he’d ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great …” That’s enough, I think. They need not be fanatics, like some of us. Lead a horse to water — many waters — and let him drink what he will.

Some people think that arts are necessary, societally, as a protection against tyranny. I think that’s a nice idea — but way off. There are lots of artists who are SOBs. That includes great artists. They are not automatically liberal democrats, far from it. Think of all those Nazis, and all those Communists! For that matter, think of Hitler and Stalin, personally! There have seldom been two greater art-lovers. Everyone knows about Hitler’s devotion to Wagner. But he really loved The Merry Widow, that fizzy, adorable thing. He saw it over and over, and bestowed awards on the composer, Lehár.

In order to be appreciated, does art need to be relevant to a person’s life? I don’t know what that means. I think “relevant” is one of the great nonsense words of our time. Is Bach’s B Minor Mass relevant? Relevant to what? It’s great. Is greatness relevant? As I see it, art can be liked and loved. It can instruct us, console us, thrill us, elevate us. But this mania, this fashion, this craze for relevance (whatever that means) is bizarre.

It is also a perversion of art, possibly. I suspect it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it does not really matter. These are shallow people. By “relevant,” they may well mean “political.”

What’s the relevance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? The last movement features a hymn to brotherhood, true. But the Ninth is also … you know: a symphony in D minor. Music. Such art has a power beyond words, beyond human concepts.

I think that’s right: art seeks transcendence; points beyond itself.

Free speech and federal dollars

Grant Addison writes on the White House’s proposed executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars:”

Most major colleges and universities, including the majority that receive federal research funds, maintain speech codes and other restrictive policies that are unconstitutionally overbroad, hopelessly vague, enable viewpoint discrimination, or otherwise threaten academic freedom and First Amendment principles. For example, Middlebury College’s general conduct standards state that “behavior that … demonstrates contempt for the generally accepted values of the intellectual community is prohibited.” Such nonsensical language means that any view a campus bureaucrat deems to violate “generally accepted values” may be officially banned. These censorious policies have created a chilling effect on campuses. In one survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example, 54 percent of students reported they “have stopped themselves from sharing an opinion in class at some point since beginning college.” …

Thanks to the efforts of the organizations such as FIRE, Speech First, and Heterodox Academy, there’s been some small improvement of late in the state of free speech and academic freedom on campus. But a slight amelioration doesn’t mean the problem has been solved, and there’s no reason not to think that, absent a different incentive structure, situations on campus couldn’t again worsen. After all, as FIRE often points out, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech at public colleges and universities, and plenty of those still restrict speech and expression every day with impunity. Moreover, none of this changes the fact that the conditions for high-quality research and academic learning are those grounded in First Amendment principles and academic freedom and should be expected at a university. 

At least in theory, then, an executive order tying federal research funding to free speech could have a healthful effect on higher education. …

While individual institutions are and should be free to set their own ideological compasses, the size and nature of the federal investment gives taxpayers a clear stake in ensuring that colleges and universities that accept federal research funds take free inquiry seriously by respecting academic freedom and protecting free speech. Therefore, executive action should center on protecting and promoting these principles. 

In general terms, this means an executive order stipulating that, to be eligible for federal research funds, colleges and universities must commit to free speech and academic freedom and, as a contractual requirement, must uphold this commitment or else risk losing funds or eligibility status.

I’ve been supportive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education since learning about them ten or so years ago. What is needed is more than an executive order.

Novak Symposium

I’m at Catholic University this morning for the 2019 Novak Symposium at the Busch School of Business:

This event is an annual conference promoting discussion of issues that theologian Michael Novak opened up for further study, particularly his work on democratic capitalism and Catholic social teaching. This year’s symposium will address the theme of socialism and the future of political and economic liberty. When the Iron Curtain fell at the end of the 20th century, by all accounts capitalism and democracy had won out over socialism and totalitarianism. But where do we stand now? Is socialism making a viable comeback with figures like Bernie Saunders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? What about the situation in Venezuela?

8:00 a.m. Mass 
8:30 a.m. Registration and breakfast 
9:15 a.m. Welcome
9:30 a.m. Mary Eberstadt, author and senior research fellow, Faith & Reason Institute
10:30 a.m. Peter Boettke, professor of economics and philosophy, George Mason University
11:30 a.m. George Gilder, founder, Discovery Institute
12:30 p.m. Lunch
1:30 p.m. Faculty panel
2:00 – 4:30 p.m. Free time/Social Justice Lab Hackathon
5:15 p.m. Reception

I was here last February for “A Legacy of Faith and Reason: Honoring Michael Novak,” and this year am especially looking forward to George Gilder. They’re streaming the symposium:

Latin heard, written, and spoken

John Byron Kuhner writes that “for the first time in at least a century, Princeton teaches Latin in Latin:”

The campus of Princeton University has been designed to produce an impression of timelessness. The collegiate Gothic buildings, which resemble 16th century buildings at Oxford, might belong to the late 19th century — or to the 21st, like Whitman College, a lavishly beautiful Gothic ensemble named for the eBay magnate and built in 2007. To obscure Whitman College’s newness, Princeton planted full-sized trees next to the buildings. To hide the age of other buildings, a small army of repair crews descends upon the campus every summer, to head off any possible sign of decay. And yet they strive never to make anything look refurbished: everything is carefully left to appear as it was. The leaves color and fall in autumn, snow piles up and melts, spring grows into summer: but the buildings appear immune to time’s vicissitude. In old pictures, the students and their fashions come and go like the changing apparel of nature, but the buildings, the physical manifestation of the university, do not change.

Princeton’s Latin 110 course might appear to be more evidence of this changelessness. If you pass by its open door before class begins, you will hear students laughing and joking — in Latin, the language so associated with student life that it gave its name to Paris’s “Latin Quarter,” home of the Sorbonne. When the instructor arrives, he lectures to students solely in Latin, the language of Cicero’s orations and quondam Oxford dons. Student work is submitted daily — exclusively in the language of Horace and Vergil. The impression is of cultural continuity, another example of Princeton’s enduring character. But this obscures the innovative spirit behind the course. LAT 110, offered for the first time in fall 2018, is almost certainly the first course at Princeton ever taught entirely in Latin. And it has happened not because of some madcap eccentric professor, but due to undergraduate demand. Students calling for instruction to be conducted in Latin — and getting it, no less — struck me as something new and unexpected. I thought it was worth a trip to Princeton to investigate.

That’s an incredible thing, that Latin 110 is at Princeton due to undergraduate demand:

Kevin Duraiswamy and Gabriel Parlin from the class of 2019, realized there was another way to learn the language. Duraiswamy had been following the world’s most proficient Latinists, to learn their secrets. Parlin found the keys to language acquisition while studying German and Russian. Working together, they felt they could speed up the language acquisition process for Latin and Greek — reducing the “cost to acquire them,” and thereby perhaps opening them up to a new group of students, even in the age of the dollar-quantifiable return.

There is something about Kevin Duraiswamy that suggests California. He’s tall, fit, and healthy-looking, the way we imagine Californians (he’s from Silicon Valley); he speaks gently and wins people over with a warm smile. But more than anything else, he’s an optimist and innovator. When he found that Latin was hard, he didn’t just think, “Latin is hard.” And he didn’t give up either. He thought, “There has to be a better way.” … Duraiswamy turned to the internet, where he found stories of people who had mastered Latin only after they began to treat it as a language: something to be heard, written, and spoken.

St. Patrick’s Day in Georgetown

Ben Novak arrived today from Ave Maria and is staying with me this week, visiting Washington for Catholic University’s 2019 Novak Symposium that’s happening on Tuesday. We spent this afternoon enjoying Georgetown in beautiful, nearly spring weather with a walk along M Street, a stop in Le Pain Quotidien, a visit to Amazon Books, and a St. Patrick’s Day dinner at Clyde’s.

After we toasted over an Old Fashioned and a Guinness, we prayed the first stanza of the Belloc-inspired “Benedicamus Domino”:

Where’er the Catholic sun doth shine
There’s laughter and there’s good red wine
at least I’ve always found it so
Benedicamus Domino

Cafe Milano

I visited Cafe Milano late last year for a fundraiser and see it often when I’m walking home. I knew it had a history, but didn’t realize what a role it has played in Washington:

As the sun was setting one recent evening, two black Chevrolet Suburbans pulled up next to Cafe Milano, the Georgetown restaurant where some of the world’s most powerful people go to be noticed but not approached. Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, slipped out of one of the vehicles and lingered with his Secret Service detail in front of the restaurant’s wall of windows. His fiancée, the actress Louise Linton, emerged wearing a sleeveless blush-pink jumpsuit, as if this were Studio 54 by the Potomac.

On the other side of the glass at this longtime power-dining fishbowl, the mood was clear: This was dinner and a show.

Every town, no matter its size, has a bar or restaurant where the powerful gather to hold court. Washington has Cafe Milano. It has been a destination for high-ranking members of media and of governments around the world since it opened in November 1992, on the same day Bill Clinton, now a Cafe Milano regular, was first elected president. It is a place where diners can enjoy relative privacy as they dine on grilled calamari and velvety burrata. It is also the exact sort of establishment that President Trump might have disparaged as a candidate, when he emphasized that his leadership would mean that the cozy bonds forged among the capital’s elite would be broken. …

Franco Nuschese, the restaurant’s owner, became well known in this city for making high-profile people feel comfortable and guarding their privacy. …

Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and a longtime fixture of Washington’s social scene, suggested that bipartisan behavior can sometimes rise above the fray at this establishment.

“If you have a relationship with someone,” she said, “it’s much harder to demonize them.”

I think places like this help literally to keep the peace, in the sense of serving as “release valves” from the tension and animosity and partisanship that dominate our politics.

Epiphany stations

Visited Epiphany on Dumbarton after work today for Lenten Stations of the Cross. We arrived just a moment or two before 7pm, and there were three of us for the half hour or so of prayer.

Epiphany is one of those places that brings you mentally to a simpler place; it feels like a place outside of time in some sense, in the way a sacred place should. There were only three of us there for Stations of the Cross. It’s not been a practice that I’ve participated in for years, but I’m glad to return to it.

Visiting the White House

Visited the White House earlier this week with Catherine Glenn Foster, President & CEO of Americans United for Life, and Steve Aden, Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel, to talk strategy on life-affirming law and policy.

It was beautiful out, and the experience reminds me that I’ll have to do an official White House tour at some point. What those walls have seen…

Memory and repentance

Hans Boersma writes on Lent and the relationship between memory and repentance:

Memorization is underrated. But it’s understandable that contemporary society puts it down: Why worry about mental storage when we have digital storage?

One answer is that repentance depends on memory. Thus, memorization is a Lenten practice, a repentant turning back to the memory of God. The link between memory and character formation was recognized long ago. Cicero insisted in the first century b.c. that we can only make prudent moral choices by consciously drawing on past experiences. He linked memory to prudence as one of its three constitutive elements. Memory, he explains, is the faculty that “recalls what has happened.” It deals with the past. Along with intelligence and foresight, memory allows us to make prudent decisions.

Thomas Aquinas also recognized the close link between memory and prudence. In the Summa Theologiae he deals with the topic of memory as part of a broader discussion of prudence. Aquinas thought of memory as an intellectual virtue that allows us to make practical moral decisions. “Experience,” he explains, “is the result of many memories…and therefore prudence requires the memory of many things.” …

Ordered thoughts make for ordered lives.

We may be tempted to think that digitization makes memorization redundant. The truth is, rather, that digitization yields distraction. I can select whatever I want from online storage at any time. The possibilities are endless, and so the order, steadiness, and peacefulness to which Hugh alludes consistently escape us. …

Memorization is a Lenten practice, reshaping our memories to be like God’s. When our memories are reshaped and reordered according to the immutable faithfulness of God in Christ, we re-appropriate God’s character—his steadfast love, his mercy, his compassion. Repentance, therefore, is a turning back to the virtues of God as we see them in Christ.  Being united to him, we are united to the very character of God, for it is in the God-man that God’s virtue and human virtue meet. The hypostatic union is the locus of our repentance: In Christ human memory is re-figured to the memory of God.

Because the internet is a messaging system, not a library, it is also in some sense a tool for forgetting, in the sense that the ephemeral is the inverse of the perpetual.

What traditional life aims for

Randall Smith distinguishes acts and practices of virtue from often-deficient and generationally-specific norms and attitudes. We think of both the former and the latter as “tradition,” in a sense, but Smith conveys why only the former constitutes a traditional way of life:

Gentlemen, it has become very clear from the responses I’ve heard repeatedly from bright, beautiful, devoted Catholic women that you would be making a big mistake were you to announce you wanted a “traditional Catholic wife.”

What young women hear when you say a “traditional” Catholic wife is that you want a woman who will stay home, cook, clean, and take care of the babies, while you work all day. To put this another way, you want your mother. And the one thing most bright, devoted Catholic women don’t want (especially the ones who want plenty of children) is to be some grown man’s mother.

There is also a nagging historical problem as well. What do you mean by traditional? …

The “traditional Catholic family” where the husband worked all day and the wife stayed home alone with the children only really existed – and not all that successfully – in certain upper-middle class WASPy neighborhoods during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Working in an office all day is not necessarily evil (depending upon how it affects your family). It’s just modern. There’s nothing especially “traditional” about it. …

I don’t think this sort of life [woman and man living their vocation together, both working to raise a family in as intimate a way as possible] would have appealed to young Jane Austen, as it rarely appeals to her modern-day Catholic equivalent. But it has an undeniable beauty and involves a “tradition” in the sense that it is bound up with very definite practices and virtues.

Let me suggest, therefore, that a “traditional” Catholic wife is one whose life is bound up with a tradition constituted by virtues and practices – in this case, let’s say the Catholic intellectual tradition and the life of the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues. That’s the key “tradition” you should care about. It would be foolish to define “traditional” by one particular arrangement at a narrowly circumscribed point in time.

Tough, smart virtuous women want a tough, smart virtuous man, not a boy looking to replace his mother. So man up. Accept it. You’re going to have to raise those kids along with your wife. If you think you can “offshore” that task and dump it on your wife or the teachers at the school, you’re not doing the traditional Catholic thing. You’re just doing the traditional stupid thing.

A tough, smart wife who challenges you will make you a better man.

To cultivate the “intellectual, moral, and theological virtues” is a better way to think of living “the traditional life”, not only because it focuses on the point of life and family but also because it could be instantiated in any number of apparently unconventional places and ways.