A True Story


Readers of my novel The Forgery of Venus will recognize a version of the following.  In the novel I used it to illustrate a point, but slipping it in there didn't wash it from my mind, because it was so oddly shocking.  This is the version from memory.

Some years ago my daughter worked on the campus of a technology firm here in Seattle and I occasionally went to lunch with her out there. On one of these occasions, we were walking down a corridor lined with glass-walled offices when I was struck by an image hanging against the glass of one of them.  It was a reproduction of a Renaissance painting, a St. Sebastian, tied to a stake, pierced with arrows, looking hopefully heavenward.  I was seized with curiosity as to why the inhabitant would post such an image in his office (or her, actually, for the inhabitant was at home.) As it happened, my daughter knew her, and made introductions.  She was an art major, a fairly recent graduate of a good university, and she was helping the firm to organize its image holdings. I said,"I like your St. Sebastian."  Blank look.  I said, "The picture in your window."

    "Oh, is that who it is?  I just liked the image."

    "Who is it by, do you know?" I asked 

    "No, but I found it in that book.  I could look it up."

    With that, she went to a copy of Gombrich's art history, in a particularly lavish, heavily illustrated edition, and threw it open in the middle, as one does with a thick volume.   The page exposed showed an image of a 17th century Dutch landscape.  She started to page through the book, but in the wrong direction, towards more modern art and not towards earlier.

    When I pointed this out to her, she said, "How do you know? I thought you said you didn't know who painted it."

     "I don't.  But the style of the painting is from earlier in the book.  You're in the 17th century there, and the Sebastian is a quattrocento painting, the 15th century, two centuries earlier."

    Now appeared on her face a look that suggested to me that no one had ever spoken to her about historical styles of art. I might have been speaking Welsh.  She clearly did not share my sense that an understanding of where art came from and what the artist meant by it, as derived from his own historical experience, is essential to the intelligent viewing of a picture.  To her, images had no history and no meaning except as esthetic objects, to be manipulated, transformed, mixed, fragmented, and emulsified to become part of an amusing or ironic commodity. There was no past of any interest, there was no sense that we had ancestral artists whose struggles and skill had created what we are pleased to call our culture.  She was really not a member of that culture, although she had a degree in media from a famous university. And there was no way I could communicate any of this to her, because we had no common terms of reference, beyond agreeing that the St. Sebastian image was cool.   She did flip the pages back the other way and found the plate.  It was by Mantegna.

One can, of course, argue that the aged have ever thus regarded youth. When I was in college, for example, there was a deal of harrumphing among some of the faculty about how very low it was that we were allowed to read the classics in English rather than in their originals. But  languages aside, we were still being imbued with a culture that had lasted a very long time, and that because the faculty believed that it had eternal value: in other words, that the past had something to teach us.  As result of this I received essentially the same education in the humanities as graduates ten, twenty, even fifty years earlier.  But not the same as those graduating ten years after I did.  Obviously, there are still humanities going on in colleges and people are still studying history, but I think that my St. Sebastian woman is more the rule than the exception.  What they learn is different, and they don't seem to miss context at all.   I don't know what will come next in culture, but I'm sure it will be wonderful in its own way, as jazz and rock were wonderful in their ways, but the sense of historical continuity and enduring culture that formed the basis of every educated person's view of the world for centuries will not be a part of it.   It really is closing time in the gardens of the West.