Thursday, January 8, 2009

We are all Aristocrats Now

I've been reading Theodore Dalrymple again. This time his complaint (really, all he ever does is complain) is about contemporary art. His objection to contemporary art, which he is happy to lump together as all one thing, is that without spiritual ambition it has become pure egotism:
The successful modern artist’s subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can. Like Oscar Wilde at the New York customs, he has nothing to declare but his genius: which, if he is lucky, will lead to fame and fortune. Of all the artistic disciplines nowadays, self-advertisement is by far the most important.
Now certainly the contemporary art scene is awash in egotism and self-promotion. And one could make an argument that egotism and self-promotion are major themes of contemporary life.

But it is not clear to me that our egotism and fondness for self-promotion makes us any different from our ancestors. Dalrymple has some fun with a show of sculptures by Jeff Koons staged at Versailles, which does seem like an odd mix of material and setting. But think about this: who had the bigger ego, Jeff Koons or Louis XIV? Louis XIV forced the whole French court to revolve around admiration of himself, and he built Versailles and other palaces as stages for the royal theater in which he was the star. And whatever you think of Jeff Koons as an artist, at least he never started a war just to prove his manliness, as Louis XIV did.

It seems to me that we moderns are amateurs in egotism compared to some of our ancestors. Modern politicians and revolutionaries at least claim to be espousing ideologies, or to have practical plans for making the people better off. Many medieval and ancient rebels stood for nothing but themselves, and quite openly. What modern Englishman has tried to overthrow the king and make himself the monarch, as dozens of medieval characters from William the Bastard to Henry Tudor did? When a modern celebrity is insulted, he whines to the press or responds with further insults; his ancestor reached for his dueling pistol, or, a few generations further back, sent his private army to ravage the lands of this enemy and burn a few hundred peasants out of their homes.

Consider a character like el Cid, who was never satisfied with being the second man in any kingdom and went back and forth between various Spanish and Moorish courts before he finally became the ruler of his own small border principality. Or Bohemond of Taranto, who left the first crusade when it became clear he would never be King of Jerusalem, prefering to splinter the Christian cause and make himself Prince of Antioch, rather than serve under a rival. And what about those Romans, like Sulla and Caesar, whose ambitions and refusal to be satisfied with even the astonishing wealth and power of a Roman aristocrat led to civil war, the fall of the Republic, and the creation of the Empire?

Egotism is nothing new. If there is a difference, it is that in the past monumental egotism was the prerogative of great aristocrats, whereas now it is open to anyone with ambition. We may have democratized egotism, but we have not created it.

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