Taruskin Distilled

The grim history of the twentieth century – something Brahms or Franck could never have foreseen, to say nothing of Matthew Arnold or Charles O’Connell – played its part as well both in discrediting the idea of redemptive culture and in undermining the authority of its adherents. The literary critic George Steiner, one such adherent, after a lifetime devoted (in his words) to “the worship – the word is hardly exaggerated – of the classic,” and to the propagation of the faith, found himself baffled by the example of the culture-loving Germans of the mid-twentieth century, “who sang Schubert in the evening and tortured in the morning.” “I’m going to the end of my life,” he confessed unhappily, “haunted more and more by the question, ‘Why did the humanities not humanize?’ I don’t have an answer.” But that is because the question – being the product of Arnoldian art religion – turned out to be wrong. It is all too obvious by now that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them little more than self-regard. There are better reasons to cherish art.

                  – Richard Taruskin, Music in the Nineteenth Century, p. 783


  1. says

    Kyle, did you ever read Clive James’s _Cultural Amnesia_? Some of his opinions on specific artists might infuriate you—I know they did me—but overall he is so good, so thorough, so rigorous about the state of culture in the 20th century, and the way that we interact with culture and the canon in general, that I can’t imagine you coming away from it unpiqued, at least.
    KG replies: I’ll take a look at it. Rings a bell.