Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

My man, Thomas Craven, author of a book entitled Men of Art, 1931, does have a soapbox onto which he will clamber now and then. I am at the point in the proceedings where he has given fair warning that he intends to inveigh in due course against the American plutocrats and art imposters of the day. The soapbox does mar what is otherwise a perfectly readable book, though I will forgive him it; his sensibilities have been violated. I will cut him some slack partly because he does not excuse, let alone ignore, the dark side, or the political realities of the Italian renaissance – murder, rapine, and various mayhem; and because he takes a fairly pragmatic view of genius, saying of the thing that, even in a violent age, given sufficient time and space in which to operate, ‘genius’, as such, will account for itself. Who would have thought? But it is also because I figure I might have enjoyed the company of a fellow who seems to have been an itinerant ‘man about the continent’, one who just happened to be given to musings on the nature of art and artists and why it matters. He did not attend a workshop dedicated to the stuff. Otherwise, so he writes in his book, there probably is no such thing as ‘optimum conditions’ for art-making. Or to quote from a feel-good yuppie flick Shakespeare in Love, ‘it’s a mystery’. It seems that, to the author in the early years of the 20th century, American plutocrats looking for status by way of acquiring art objects, had common cause with artists looking to mystify the whole damn business of genius; it threatened to upend any possibility for a clear-eyed view of art and related matters. And yet, considering what passes for artistic activity now, we might judge Craven’s day of wannabe Matisses a golden one. Whispering Pines would have me know that, in the endeavour to destabilize and discredit the so-called art object and all the preciousness and pretensions to be associated with it, we got ourselves the ‘material artist’; in other words a con job was replaced by a Frankenstein—London Lunar continues to whisper at me, though he is no pine, much less a rhododendron. This time he goes on about the Riccardians and the triumph of nutters everywhere, inasmuch as the pate of Richard III was dug up from a car park in Leicester, thereby capping off what had been a mystic quest for the article. I also have in my ear – in fact I cannot rid myself of it, and it was put there by Tommy Lee Jones the actor – a certain rant. This rant occurs in the HBO production ofThe Sunset Limited, which it is a debate between a man gone rogue-nihilist and a black evangelical on a mission to talk up hope where there is none, not in the least savoury part of some mega-metropolis. I did not know, as I watched the flick, that it was based on a writing by Cormac McCarthy, though I should probably have guessed. At any rate, it explains why I kept waiting for the writing to go soft, and it did not. The thing is, Mr Jones delivered his ‘rant’ with such withering rage and acumen that it was impossible to refute as an item of dialectic. I wondered if he was even acting. I do have a soft spot for Mr Jones, especially for the roles he plays in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, No Country for Old Men, LincolnIn the Valley of Elah, and a number of other film works whose titles escape me. Men in Black? Well, arf, arf – to quote a hefty literary presence in these parts—But in the movie in question, he is all of Rome wearily engaging in the slap down of Christ. It is something to behold, this slap down delivered with a mild Texas twang. I have also had it in my ear that poets and historians are gradually being supplanted by evolutionists and other ists who make the intra-continental money trail of DNA their business, that is, when it comes to servicing the tribe’s annals and what the tribe got up to at any point in the last one million and a half years or so. What sort of future, I ask myself, will this invite? Unable to maintain liberty or submit to control (so Craven quotes Symonds in Men of Art),Florence overreached herself; she was ruined by the petulant and variable temper of a democracy wherein an over-developed intelligence passed into cleverness. (My italics.) Well, it is one thing the tribe got up to; but perhaps we have nothing to fear on that score, that bit about an over-developed intelligence degenerating into ‘smart’. And so forth and so on. Florence eventually succumbed to the Medicis—