52 Poems, Week 24: An Old Man's Winter Night (Robert Frost)
52 Poems, Week 25: When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer (Walt Whitman)

Sunday Night Journal, June 17, 2018

Speaking of (visual) art: I mentioned that there are some painters whose work I like. At the risk of marking myself as a clod, I will say that Andrew Wyeth is one of them. I can certainly understand that the contemporary art establishment would disparage him. That's all right; I consider it pretty much a certainty that one day in the future that establishment will be the target of vast ridicule for the idiocies it has embraced, idiocies which make those people who admired the emperor's nonexistent clothing look wise.

But I was surprised a few months ago when a piece in The New Criterion, a conservative magazine which gives a lot of attention to the arts, seemed to more or less go along with the despisers. The views of the author, James Panero, seem somewhat ambivalent, but he ends by saying that Wyeth's "compelling images still offer up a voyeuristic escape, all with the timeless stamp of inauthenticity." And in the beginning he quotes the magazine's founder, Hilton Kramer--well, let me just give you the whole passage, which quotes not only Kramer but other critics.

“An image of American life—pastoral, innocent, and homespun—which bears about as much relation to reality as a Neiman Marcus boutique bears to the life of the old frontier,” is how my late colleague Hilton Kramer saw Wyeth in 1970.... Remarking on Wyeth’s “monochrome vision of the world,” here Hilton wondered “if there is not in this art a hidden scatological obsession. How else can one account for the excremental quality of this palette, which censors out anything that might complicate its ‘earthy’ view of nature and human experience?”

Beyond false realism, a near unanimity of critics has accused Wyeth of trafficking, it might be said, in a false consciousness of American life. Wyeth’s images of “frugal, bare-bones rectitude” may be “incarnated in real objects” wrote Robert Hughes in the New York Review of Books, but they have been “glazed by nostalgia . . . which millions of people look back upon as the lost marrow of American history.” A “kitsch-meister” of “dreary vignettes” that “celebrate . . . cultural and social immobility” (Robert Storr), Wyeth painted “formulaic stuff not very effective even as illustrational ‘realism’ ” (Peter Schjeldahl) in a palette of “mud and baby poop” (Dave Hickey). “Not a great artist.” “The press noted when he voted for Nixon and Reagan” (Michael Kimmelman).

A lot of that suggests, or more than suggests, precisely the self-inflicted semi-political stupidity that the magazine normally deplores. Worse, it strikes me as somewhat ignorant. I say that with some hesitation: who am I to claim that these celebrated critics are ignorant? They certainly know vastly more about art than I do. But it reminds me of those naive readers acquainted with only a handful of Robert Frost's more pleasant works who see him only as a painter of quaint New England scenes. 

A little internet searchng shows me that Wyeth was the subject of a Time cover story in the December 27, 1963 issue. This, then, was almost certainly my first acquaintance with Wyeth. I would have been fifteen years old. My grandfather, who lived with us, subscribed to Time, and I frequently read it, which makes me think now of a Garrison Keillor bit about the intellectuals of a small town being the ones who read Time. It certainly was a window onto a different world for me.

I remember very clearly looking at the Wyeth paintings reproduced in the story. I had no idea who Wyeth was. I don't know that I had ever given a moment's thought to painting as an art. But I was instantly captivated by the images. And what captivated me was more or less the opposite of what the critics quoted above seem to see as his appeal. Yes, the paintings were realistic in execution. But it was precisely not their picture of rural America, nostalgic or otherwise, that appealed to me. I was a teenager on a farm in Alabama. I was perfectly well acquainted with rural America as it actually was. What spoke to me in those images was not their depiction of that world, but their mysterious suggestion of another. There was something numinous in them (though of course I didn't have that word.) I think especially of Christina's World and Wind from the Sea. Both of them captured a deep and mysterious yearning, and made me feel it. In spite of, or because of, their carefully rendered detail, they were for me the opposite of a portrait, idealized or not, of the very ordinary world around me. 

For all I know most of Wyeth's admirers see his work as being the same basic sort of thing as the antique advertisements and farm implements on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. All I can say is that it is not that for me. Is the fact that I recall so vividly that experience of 55 years ago evidence of my naiveté or of Wyeth's power? Unlike, for instance, the science fiction I read at that age, Wyeth's work still strikes me more or less as it did then.


Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed and other Catholic-and-or-conservative critiques of the classical liberal project are getting some responses from people on the right who aren't convinced that the current problems of said project are intrinsic to it. (Please note standard distinction between classical liberalism as philosophy and contemporary political liberalism as philosophy and practice.) 

Here is one, a somewhat lengthy one, from Vincent Phillip Muñoz, a Notre Dame colleague of Deneen's, at National Review. He attributes the critique of liberalism in large part to "radical Catholics." Or rather "'radical' Catholics", suggesting that he doesn't consider them radical in fact. I don't know whether that's an accurate description of Deneen or not. I certainly don't think it's an accurate description of me, except in what ought to be an almost tautological sense that I consider the Catholic faith to be at the root of my views about most things. (I'm one of those people who often insist, rather tiresomely, that they just claim to be or want to be Catholic, no preceding adjective needed. But of course the reality is that the adjective often is needed, or at least very useful, in talking about the actual-world-as-it-is. )

Radical or not, I'm more or less in agreement with Deneen about the current condition and likely future trajectory of liberalism. (See this post from last month.) A good part of Muñoz's piece is an argument that Deneen is wrong about the nature of liberalism as it was understood by the American founders. I'm not qualified to judge that. What I can judge is the present state of things, and it certainly seems plausible to me that liberalism, as attractive as it is in many ways, and as successful as it has been in many ways, contains the seed of its own destruction. The absence of a solid metaphysical center may have made it inevitable that eventually liberal man would take that absence to heart--"internalize" it, as they say--and become a law unto himself, with the only seemingly paradoxical result that he must rely ever more on the power of the state.

Muñoz believes that the process is reversible:

If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles. Our political and economic institutions have never been perfect, but (aside from slavery and its legacies, perhaps) they have never been so corrupt that they have made virtuous living impossible. Original sin may make corruption probable, and political liberty may make it possible; but the causes of America’s problems lie primarily in the poor choices we have made.

That means the solution to our problem lies, to a large extent, in our choices. To choose well, we must regain both political wisdom and the character that befits a constitutional people. Reacquaintance with our actual liberal principles and a return to belief in the existence of an obligatory moral law are essential.

The latter may require a reemergence of religious belief, especially among the cultural elite where it has precipitously declined. The necessity of morality for liberal democracy, and of religion for morality, cannot be understated.

I'm sorry, but when I look around at the actual-world-as-it-is, this seems to amount to little more than saying "If things were otherwise, they would not be as they are." The first sentence may well be true. But I see absolutely no reason to hope that the American people at large, and especially its culturally dominant and deracinated class, will regain anything that the founders would recognize as wisdom and character, unless perhaps if forced by some kind of catastrophe to face reality. I don't want this to be true. As I noted in that blog post I linked to above, I would on the whole like to see the liberal order preserved, because I don't think I'd care for most of the likely alternatives. But it seems very improbable. 


Please raise your hand if you have tried to use the search function on this blog and given it up as hopeless. I'm thinking about removing it. I just tried to use it to find that recent SNJ in which I discussed Deneen's book and it failed. DuckDuckGo returned it as the top result. Having a search function that's seriously unreliable is worse than not having one at all. 


We had several thunderstorms during the past week.


And some peaceful sunsets.



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I also like Wyeth, Mac. But then I'm a liberal so I guess I'm into excrement.
Numinous - another great word! Rudolf Otto!
I have had that problem with your search button too.
Nice pictures.

I'm with you on both Wyeth and Munoz.

Up here where I live a clearing sky after a daytime storm will sometimes produce the most amazing sunset. Looks like the case in your neck of the woods as well.

Barack Obama mini-review:

Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen
In a time of growing inequality, accelerating change, and increasing disillusionment with the liberal democratic order we’ve known for the past few centuries, I found this book thought-provoking. I don’t agree with most of the author’s conclusions, but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.

Donald Trump will soon put out his review of Green Eggs and Ham...

Obama really wrote that? Interesting. Sounds like he didn't really get it, but then he's part of the problem. But much credit to him for reading it anyway.

Those picture actually weren't taken on the same day, but chances are good that there was a storm earlier in the day of the sunset picture. Better than good, actually, almost certain.

Re the "excrement" remarks about Wyeth: I started to cut those out on the grounds of being disgusting, but left them in on the grounds that they really made the critics sound irrational. That idea would certainly never have crossed my mind.

I would be sad if you got rid of the search function. I use it fairly frequently and can almost always find what I'm looking for.


Well, anybody who has access to my Facebook feed may have noticed that I "like" or share almost every Wyeth painting that I see. I've shared "Wind from the Sea" twice.

I cannot comprehend what those critics are saying. They look at beauty and see scatology. It's like the dwarves in The Last Battle.

Somewhere right at this moment, there is a window that looks very much like that window with a wind blowing the curtains. The people who are in that room may not be leading a "pastoral, innocent, and homespun life." There may be poverty and strife or sickness in that room but the beauty is there nonetheless, and points to something else, as you say.

Christina was not living an idyllic life. She was crawling because she was cripple, but he saw something in her effort.


I love the pictures. I am near desperate for a large body of water with a pier, but it's highly unlikely that I will get one.


I don't have a pier, but there is one not far away.

"I cannot comprehend what those critics are saying." Agreed. Almost none of it. It says much more about them than about Wyeth. Makes me wonder if they're all Manhattanites who think Central Park is "the country." "Voyeuristic"? "Inauthentic"? What in the world does he mean?!?

Yes. I know.


I've always known you were pierless.


Sorry, I just had to do it.



I can't even tell what that is supposed to be.


I don't want to disparage your body of water and your distant pier, though. That is way better than a ditch that becomes a stream when there is a heavy rain.


Sounds like you are disparaging ditches! Ditch-paraging, I should say.


Interesting piece on Christopher Dawson's belief that it was technology that did the deed -- "Christopher Dawson on Technology and the Demise of Liberalism"; here's a bit of it:

According to Dawson, liberalism was “transitional and impermanent,” lasting for less than a century. What took its place was what Dawson called “the planned society,” which aspires to reproduce culture by means of technology. Technological order, he claimed, is “now the real basis of secular culture.” The only thing it shares with liberalism is the faith in a progress that is merely temporal and this-worldly. ... Real secularism, according to Dawson, could not emerge until technology made it possible for most people to live without the ideals and practices of the older western order. Modern science changed the way that the educated class conceived of the world; but technology changed the way people lived.

Now, it must be said that by technology Dawson did not mean science, which is simply the effort to understand the natural environment. Nor did he mean merely the tools of applied science, e.g. steam engines, computers, etc. Rather, he meant the systematic application of tools to culture, especially to those areas of culture that had always been reproduced by humanistic activity, e.g. sexual intercourse, family, religion, and economic exchange. In short, by technology, Dawson meant the practice(s), via an interlocking set of technologies, of treating culture in the same way that the tool treats the natural environment. And this is simply another way of saying that the tool is no longer an instrument, but rather the measure of the humane world.

Modern technologies are not only “labor saving” devices. A labor saving device, like an automated farm implement or a piston, replaces repetitive human acts. But most distinctive of contemporary technology is the replacement of the human act; or, of what the scholastic philosophers called the actus humanus. The machine reorganizes and to some extent supplants the world of human action, in the moral sense of the term. Hence, the policy of mutual assured destruction supplants diplomacy; the contraceptive pill supplants chastity; the cinema supplants recreation, especially prayer; managerial and propaganda techniques replace older practices and virtues of loyalty, etc. Therefore, it is important to understand that Dawson’s criticism of technology is not aimed at the tool per se. His criticism has nothing to do with the older, and in our context, misleading notion of “labor saving” devices. Rather, it is aimed at a new cultural pattern in which tools are either deliberately designed to replace the human act, or at least have the unintended effect of making the human act unnecessary or subordinate to the machine. Of course, Dawson did not live to see the emergence of “virtual reality” technology, but he would have recognized it as part (perhaps the culminating part) of the continuum of technologies that he had in mind.

I have been reading Dawson this afternoon. Will read quote after dinner.


I guess I agree with this. The "I guess" is because I'm not altogether sure I understand it. Have to think about it a bit more.

The criticism of Wyeth reminds me of the criticism of Tolkien that "accuses" him of escapism. Tolkien response in his essay on fairy stories was, yes, fairy stories are escapism, but we need that kind of escape to remember what is really real

I had very much the same thought.

"Oh God, no more elves." -- Hugo Dyson

I've heard a cruder variant of that attributed to Lewis.

On Facebook today someone posted pictures of the Olson house, which is the house in Christina's dream. It's a museum and she is going there. Makes me want to go. I bet it is cooler there.


One of the weird things about that Panero piece is that he seems to think there is something illegitimate about the fact that some things in that and other paintings are not exactly as they are in reality. That's a very strange thing for an art critic to complain about.

By the way Janet, do you have any tips for making the search function work? I just tried about half a dozen different ways of searching for references to Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed" and none of them came up with the most recent and extensive discussion of it.

No. Yesterday I tried searches for words in this post and came up blank. Off with it's head!


Sounds good. :-) Though I think maybe I'll give Typepad support a chance to tell me why it's working so very badly.

I didn't know anything about Wyeth, so I looked up his paintings. I think they're lovely. I'm not surprised the idiot "elites" don't like him. But it's the nonsense in their criticism that grates. What can you do with such imbeciles?

I'm thinking I should buy a Wyeth print now, on principle.

I feel like I have to apologize for reading your blog and all the wonderful conversations silently for so long -
but today I found something which I hope you will like

Thank you. Looks interesting--I'll take a better look when I have time. You certainly don't need to apologize. Nothing wrong with just reading.

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