When I ordered “The Power of Art” -- which is a series of lectures on famous artists as presented by the BBC -- I had no idea who Simon Schama was. He turns out to be a professor of art, history and politics who works both sides of the Atlantic and is almost the definition of “irrepressible.” His language is so eloquently elegant, sensuous and inventive that it’s almost lascivious. Tim has seen him in person and says his hands fly everywhere like wings. Clearly his tongue also has wings. A parody on YouTube goes for his bobble head. He’s a high-concept, wry, mischievous fellow, six years younger than me, and what Montana folks would call a “character.”
The middle of the three disc series came first -- what did I think, that it wouldn’t have to come from out-of-state? I’m just grateful to get these DVD’s. But I had thought they would be about, you know, color and composition with maybe a little sociological context about the times. But in the mouth of Schama, each artist (here, it was David and the French Revolution, Turner and the English awakening of conscience, and Van Gogh searching for God in creation) was practically a re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. (In fact, that exact image snuck in here and there.) Schama believes in the artist as daemon, inspired monster, outside any social restraints, and illustrates in some cases by providing previously forbidden images.
I suppose now it seems safe to show us Marat dead in his bath, sainted at last; or Turner’s slave ship drowning its human cargo so they will be insured, forever damning the ship captain; much less Van Gogh stuffing a whole tube of Chrome Yellow oil paint into his mouth. (I hope it was mustard.) I can see why few in Montana watch this series, quite apart from not being able to get public television except on cable. Modern cowboy artists are pleasant businessmen with very nice houses. Charlie Russell is a grandfatherly gent who only hung around whore houses because he was . . . well, nevermind. No one expects artists to, um, “impact” politics. For one thing, most of the buyers are Republicans, though Democrats like pretty scenery and animals. There is no political niche for demented artists. Even Governor Schweitzer’s mild excursions outside sober propriety get called down. (Repubs are known to drink but never to be too drunk to drive.)
David (Da-VEED) was not above pandering to rich patrons and painted them very well. According to Schama, the awakening came when he visited Rome and realized that the French sovereign order with all its wretched excess was heading for the same ruined fate. Huge national debt, personal wealth sequestered from general poverty and privation, frivolous preoccupation with glamour and sex -- am I scaring you yet? Or were you already pretty worried? Maybe looking for someone to blame. Thousands were guillotined -- the best, the brightest, and in some cases the bravest. Hopefully we won’t do that this time, though unfunding education is probably as effective.
Van Gogh, Dutch son of a clergyman that he was, suffered from actual physiological damage expressed in epileptic fits. Sensitive to the suffering of the poor, he had thought at first he would convert them and God would come to their aid. By the end he was simply opening his undefended heart to the land itself, the sunflowers and the wheat fields where the crows flew up. It proved unendurable, though his ecstatic work endures.
Turner never had a lot of use for humans anyway. His woman and children were sequestered away from his home/studio. People were puppets in the grip of a mighty sea of fantastic forces, gorgeously tinted and smeared with vapors. He recognized the horror but it was always in a context of mighty waves and typhoons of a grandeur that miniaturized humans.
Possibly there are contemporary Montana artists who are painting in this highly charged way, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Or maybe the media just ignores them as too disturbing, too ugly, raising too many questions about what a human being is on a land so vast, so deadly, so cold and so hot, so little sheltered from winds so powerful, so ranged with mountains with spiritual impact far beyond anything offered in a cathedral and badlands that suggest portraits of hell.
If you talk this way to a Montana person younger than fifty, they’ll think solemnly for a few minutes, then say, “I have a painting by so-and-so. How much do you think it might be worth?” If you talk this way to a Montana person older than eighty, they won’t say anything but their eyes will fill with tears. If you talk this way to a full-blood Indian (if you can find one), they will simply and quietly rise and leave.
Tim says that most people who listen to Schama have no idea what he’s talking about. Wikipedia (we don’t approve of Wikipedia) says, prissily, “Schama has a literary way of writing that is attractive to both historians and a wider readership. It is ‘packed with evocative detail: rich fruit cakes crammed with raisins, currants, nuts and glacé cherries all mulled in brandy sauce’. He has also received criticism from one critic for dumbing down history, presenting a ‘grossly oversimplified and mythologising view of the history of nations’ and not fostering critical thinking.” This is a predictable sentiment from the snarky little overeducated white male twits who control Wikipedia. They just cannot tolerate excess and passion. They have neither the nimble vocabulary nor the sympathy with the masses that Schama demonstrates.
You know, when Ace Powell was still alive, we had conversations about such things. That’s before he was captured, dried out and commodified. He would have understood Simon Schama and his long sweeps of idea and theory, even from Ace’s John Birch point of view, which in Ace’s interpretation was a people’s movement.
Now I’m on the hunt for a copy of “Landscape and Memory,” either the book or the DVD. On the face of it, these two words ought to be highly relevant to an understanding of Montana -- oh, why accept state boundaries? Have a little scale! Let’s say an understanding of the high continental eastslope prairie, at least as much as a human can manage.