The Banality of Banksy, the Decline of English, and Remembering Roger Scruton
As many of you already know, Roger Scruton has died. Douglas Murray remembers him in Spectator: “He was a man who appeared to know about absolutely everything, producing books on architecture, philosophy, beauty, music, religion and much more. In many ways — as his former student Rabbi Sacks once said to me — he seemed bigger than the age. There seemed no area he had not mastered. In the mid-2000s we were at a dinner party at the house of our late friend Shusha Guppy with a group of eminent writers and journalists, all with egos of their own. I remember one of them asking Roger whether he would think about doing an updated version of his book The West and the Rest. With characteristic and by no means feigned humility he replied that he didn’t think so because he didn’t think his Farsi was any longer up to it. How beautiful it was to see every other writer in the room look as though they might just give up there and then.” If you are not familiar with Scruton’s work, Rod Dreher recommends starting with How to Be a Conservative and Gentle Regrets. R.I.P.
The legendary drummer Neil Peart has also died. Bradley Birzer remembers him: “Best known as the drummer and lyricist of the Canadian rock trio, Rush, Peart was also a successful man of letters, a novelist, an autobiographer, and an essayist. As such, he influenced and reached generations of North Americans (and others) in profound but nearly unfathomable ways, probably even he in vast ways he did not fully understand nor desire to understand.”
Banksy has little real talent except when it comes to posturing: “To many Bristolians Banksy is a folk hero; to others he is a sell-out. Banksy formed his political outlook in a city that is a hotbed of left-wing attitudes, from community activism and student politics to rave culture and non-conforming lifestyles. It was an obvious place for graffiti to develop into elaborate grand-scale street art. Being an anti-authoritarian progressive is utterly conventional in Bristol. When protesters stand in Bristol’s College Green with signs welcoming migrants they face not riot police or ridicule but sympathetic students . . . Banksy is a talented graphic designer with a flair for self-promotion, no more or less. He is not an artist. His work lacks the breadth and ambiguity to carry multiple interpretations vital to serious art. Banksy makes one-liners that are mildly amusing, sometimes clever, but never more than one-liners. There is a place for comedy and satire, but mistaking that for art or insightful social critique is foolishness. He is an equivalent to Ben Elton — a middling-ability trendy comedian who fills an undemanding niche in British popular culture. If Banksy intended to dupe British society into taking him half-seriously he has been depressingly successful at it.”
There are only twelve Da Vinci’s paintings in existence, including Salvator Mundi. But it doesn’t look anything like his other work. “Given his celebrity, it isn’t surprising that in past centuries a very large number of paintings have been credited to Leonardo most of which have subsequently been eliminated from his oeuvre. The main source of increasing knowledge about him was his surviving notebooks and drawings, amounting to some five thousand pages, which gradually became available, and from various documents that are not always easy to interpret. The notebooks and drawings, which in their content and quantity are quite unlike the surviving body of work of any other Renaissance artist, confirmed much of what had been said about him in Vasari’s Lives: that he was interested in many things including anatomy, that he was an outstanding and innovative draughtsman, and that he was unable or unwilling to maintain a sustained involvement in the production of paintings. Because only about a dozen surviving paintings are now generally accepted, the notebooks and drawings provide the main insight into his personality and development as an artist . . . There is no clear indication from the 16th century of the existence of a picture of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo himself, and it is rather surprising that he should have made one given that his other works do not suggest that he would have been interested in producing something in which the principal figure is entirely static and frontal, as well as lacking any kind of characterisation. The related drawings are generally thought to date from some time after 1500 – that is to say, from a period in which he was able to pick and choose what he painted.”
Ross Douthat considers the decline of English studies today: “A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation and recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.”
Ian Sansom reviews an intriguing history of book parts: “I certainly did not know, for example, that the earliest recognised dust jacket belongs to a literary annual entitled Friendship’s Offering of 1829. Nor that e.e. cummings’s self-published No Thanks (1935) contains a dedication to the 14 different publishers who had rejected the manuscript: ‘NO THANKS TO Farrar & Rinehart, Simon & Schuster, Coward-McCann’, etc. Nor indeed that acknowledgements tend to be printed at the front of academic books, unlike works of fiction where the acknowledgements go at the end — this primary placement offering ‘a means to publish the author’s CV and boast of influential friends’.”
Essay of the Day:
In National Affairs, Nicolas Eberstadt writes about the crisis in male employment in America:
“America today is in the grip of a gradually building crisis that, despite its manifest importance, somehow managed to remain more or less invisible for decades — at least, until the political earthquake of 2016. That crisis is the collapse of work for adult men, and the retreat from the world of work of growing numbers of men of conventional working age.
“According to the latest monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘work rates’ for American men in October 2019 stood very close to their 1939 levels, as reported in the 1940 U.S. Census. Despite some improvement since the end of the Great Recession, Great Depression-style work rates are still characteristic today for the American male, both for those of ‘prime working age’ (defined as ages 25 to 54) and for the broader 20 to 64 group.
“Unlike the Great Depression, however, today’s work crisis is not an unemployment crisis. Only a tiny fraction of workless American men nowadays are actually looking for employment. Instead we have witnessed a mass exodus of men from the workforce altogether. At this writing, nearly 7 million civilian non-institutionalized men between the ages of 25 and 54 are neither working nor looking for work — over four times as many as are formally unemployed. Between 1965 and 2015, the percentage of prime-age U.S. men not in the labor force shot up from 3.3% to 11.7%. (The overall situation has slightly improved in the last four years, but this group still accounted for 10.8% of the prime-age male population in October 2019.) Over that half century, labor-force participation rates fell for prime-age men in all education groups, but the decline was much worse for men with lower levels of educational attainment than for those with higher levels. Labor-force participation dropped by about four percentage points for college graduates and by two points for men with graduate training; it fell by 14 points for those with no more than a high-school diploma, and by 16 points for those who didn’t finish high school. By 2015, nearly one in six prime-age men with just a high-school degree was neither working nor looking for work, and for those without a high-school diploma, the ratio was worse than one in five.”
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