Monday, September 14, 2015

Artistic Preferences

My favorite novelist is, without a question, Kingsley Amis. I should record here how I first came upon his works.

Sometime in the late 1990s I saw his son Martin talking about literature on C-SPAN. He's a brilliant guy, so when I later saw his autobiography on sale, I got curious and bought it. In spite of his smarts Martin turned out to be a terrible writer. And I'm not basing that judgement solely on his bio. I've also looked through Money, Other People and his historical work Koba the Dread. But I did get something really, really useful out of that autobiography. He mentioned his father in it a lot. And in a way that made me curious.

If you're going to try Kingsley's novels, you should probably start with Lucky Jim, his first and most famous one. But I wouldn't say that it's the best one. I don't know what the best one is. He maintained a shockingly high level of quality for more than 35 years. In some moods I think that One Fat Englishman is the best. In others that it's The Green Man. You Can't Do Both, Take a Girl Like You, Difficulties with Girls, The Old Devils, The Biographer's Mustache, The Russian Girl, Girl, 20 are all masterpieces. Stylistically speaking his Memoirs are the best non-fiction book I've ever read. And it's great content-wise too - he knew a lot of interesting people.

Kinglsey's main themes were the hatred of pretension, crankiness (even in young age) and guilt. When I tried writing a novel myself, I ended up unconsciously imitating his style. I don't do that anymore. First I wasn't any good at it and second it was very difficult and time-consuming. I spent dozens of hours per page, giving up after about 30 pages.

In general if you want to get in touch with genius, literature is a pretty good vehicle. Very few people know what exactly it took to come up with particular scientific or technological advances. The discoverer himself, a few of his rivals. To begin with, an outsider wouldn't know what the level of knowledge was before the contribution was made.

But smart people like reading for fun and a certain percentage of them eventually say "I could do that too". And unless they're very pretentious the end result will be accessible to reasonably smart laymen.

Other novelists I like a lot:

Evelyn Waugh, specifically Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and Scoop. I reviewed Brideshead Revisited on this blog, and unfortunately it wasn't very good.

P. G. Wodehouse. I've read three of his Jeeves and Wooster novels - Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, Right Ho, Jeeves and Jeeves in the Morning. They were all brilliant.

Patrick O'Brien. I explained the reasons here. (It would be best to start reading that from the bottom).

My acquaintance with Russian fiction mostly comes from school. I liked Chekhov's short stories the most in those years. I've looked at them as an adult and I still think they're great.

I've written some bad English poetry, but I haven't read as much of the good kind as I would like. Kipling was the best practitioner of it that I'm aware of. If you're curious about what his best stuff was like, this is representative.

On to music. I'm very sure that the best period was Baroque, but it's difficult for me to name the best piece or even the best composer. I've spent a lot of time learning Bach's Little Fugue on the piano but it's not because I think it's his best. The piano was invented during the Baroque period, but it didn't become popular until after it ended. Because of that very few Baroque pieces were written for it. The Little Fugue was written for the organ but for some reason fits the piano very well, and that's the main reason I'm learning it.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons is a contender for the title of the best, but while the manual dexterity in this video is stunning, the result is still much worse than the original orchestral version.

The best 20th-century songwriter I know of was Paul McCartney, followed by Paul Simon. "John or Paul" is a good test of whether or not you like music for its own sake. Lennon was more alpha, which people like, and more political, which helped musicians at that time, but if I had to come up with a list of 100 best 20th-century songwriters, he wouldn't be on it.

Again, no favorite song, either of McCartney's or from the 20th century in general. I'm putting Paul on top because he wrote more great songs than anyone else that I'm aware of, not because one of them is my favorite of all time. I can't really pick a favorite. Yesterday, Blackbird, Eleanor Rigby, Let It Be, Here, There, Everywhere, For No One, I Will, Penny Lane, When I'm 64, She's Leaving Home, I'll Follow the Sun, Golden Slumbers, Another Day, Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, Maybe I'm Amazed, The Mull of Kintyre, No More Lonely Nights, Calico Skies and lots of others are great. Some, like Yesterday or I Will, seem perfect. Some have flaws - for example the backing vocals in Here, There, Everywhere sound cheesy, and McCartney's voice is perhaps a little too sweet on it, yet the melody could be the best one I've ever heard.

The idea that Paul's genius died with the Beatles is wrong. The number of great songs per decade gradually declined, but their quality didn't. Beautiful Night, for example, is as good as his best Beatles songs.

The visual arts:

The best TV shows I know of are old British sitcoms. Faulty Towers, the first season of Blackadder, the Young Ones and the Jeeves and Wooster series with Fry and Laurie stand out in my mind the most. Favorite episodes are the one where Blackadder is married to the Spanish Infanta and the one where Basil Fawlty hires builders to work on his hotel. Unfortunately the first of those has disappeared from YouTube.

I've never liked movies. I think I've seen three in the last year, two of them pretty much against my will. So my judgments about them are based on near-total ignorance. I remember liking Trainspotting a lot. The fact that it made drug addiction look kind of cool is immoral, but it was a fun movie. Office Space, Mike Judge's first movie, was very funny. The Monty Python movies were brilliant.

My father's main hobby was painting, so I grew up around lots of art albums and constant talk of art. Consequently I'm more sure about my judgements here than in other fields.

I think that the best period was Impressionism, but the best painter was Van Gogh, who's classified as a Post-Impressionist. Rembrandt's late self-portraits are famous for a very good reason. On to the stuff that not everyone might know about:

The best 20th-century painter that I'm aware of was Hugo Pratt. Here's the Google image result for "Hugo Pratt aquarelles". I have a big album of those at home, and there are many stunning ones in it that seem to be absent from the Internet. If I ever get around to reviewing it on this blog, I should scan some in as a public service. The colors, compositions and characters are... there are words for this.

Pratt made money with comic books. I've checked them out. Artistically they're much worse than his aquarelles and the story lines are childish - just what you'd expect from the medium. The aquarelles though amaze me every time I look at them.

Gothic cathedrals are likely the best architecture that's ever been done. I'm curious about the intellectual history of the world. The Middle Ages are often seen as a great civilization wasteland, and this is mostly true. Yet Gothic architecture was born in the 12th century. It's subtle, beautiful and unlike anything that came before it. No stylistic connection to the Greco-Roman world, for example. If you forget technology and concentrate on how things make you feel instead, it appears to have been something entirely new for the time. It's very difficult to come up with things that are both new and good in the arts. And there haven't been any new things of that level of quality since then, not in architecture. It just doesn't fit the usual assumptions about the Middle Ages.

The best sculptor I know of was Arno Breker. There's a problem here: he worked for Hitler and I'm Jewish. Well, first it's art. He didn't shoot anybody. Second, if one wants to hate all the things that Hitler promoted more than other politicians of his time, one would have to hate environmentalism, vegetarianism, laws against animal cruelty, anti-smoking legislation and lots of other stuff. I think he was fond of Viennese pastries too. One can draw a line between mass murder and the stuff that just happened contemporaneously with it.

Breker did not get the same sort of post-war pass as the VW Beetle because some of his art portrays what one might call superior man. And I understand the politics behind that. But the question of whether or not it's beautiful is separate from that. Humans have been sculpting for 40,000 years and as far as I know, he might have been the best one at it ever.


  1. I am woefully uncultured when it comes to "big L" Literature, and frankly I am content to continue wallowing in my ignorance. With a few exceptions like Dostoevsky most of my forays here have ended up disappointing and/or boring me. Only really interested in fantasy and sci-fi nowadays.

    My favorite musical period is the Romantic, though I appreciate arguments that the Baroque and Classical have greater artistic merit. Of the Big Three according to Charles Murray - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven - the latter is my favorite. My favorite piano composers in particular are Chopin and Rachmaninov. When I used to play piano many years ago I focused on those two.

    Not a huge fan of movies let alone TV either. I didlike Faulty Towers too (I did live in Britain). There are some very good movies still being made - this year Ex Machina stands out, and I don't only say that on account of Alicia Vikander's nude backside - but most of them naturally cater to the lowest common denominator. Mad Max: Fury Road was very overrated, while the latest Jurassic Park was quite frankly crap. But hey it was (IIRC) the third highest grossing movie of all time so the directors did know what they're doing.

    I do think video games are an art form if one that is typically not accepted as such by older generations. I would rate either of the two major Deus Ex games as being on par with a high quality sci-fi novel.

    1. A lot of Big Literature IS boring. The stuff I recommended in this post - Kinglsey Amis, Evelyn Waugh's comic novels, P.G. Wodehouse, Patrick O'Brian - isn't boring though.

      I can play Beethoven's Fuer Elise and the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata badly (I play everything badly). I'd like to learn the 3rd Moonlight movement some day (though it's very difficult) and the Tempest Sonata's 3rd movement:

      Some of the Romantic stuff is very beautiful, some of it is mopey and sentimental. Baroque music is often like a beautiful filigree. I like that more.

      I'm ignorant about video games. Have always feared that I'd get addicted to them. I have the kind of personality that would make that possible. Was a bit addicted to Tetris and Minesweeper during the stone age of PCs. I even remember Tetris-themed dreams.

  2. I like several of the things you mention here, so I'll make an effort to check out some of the others. Thanks.