Keeping the door open

In a long article titled ‘George and his dragons’ in The Guardian (May 17th, 2001), Maya Jaggi ponders the mixed response given by the English-speaking world to the writing of George Steiner. She notes that his sternest critics dismissed his writing as ‘pretentious intellectual bombast’ presented in a ‘writhingly Latinate’ style. But she also reminds us that, for example, the Irish novelist and critic John Banville referred to Steiner as having ‘flung open’ a door on our European heritage, insisting that we should not be intimidated ‘by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border.’

Banville’s comment seems extraordinarily pertinent just now. 

I apologise if the topic of this post appears somewhat cryptic, but the circumstances that gave rise to it make this necessary, for reasons which will, I’m sure, be apparent to the reader.

I was recently reminded of George Steiner’s assertion that: ‘… a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning’ (in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966. 1967, London: Faber. p. 15). This came to mind – it is part of his argument that it is a grave error to assume that attending to the products of ‘high culture’ necessarily humanises an individual – while attending a meeting in which two very different assumptions about art emerged.

The prompt was a discussion about the Mexican singer-songwriter, political activist, and painter León Chávez Teixeiro, who now lives in Bath. A view was expressed, based on the video ‘Iba volando, documental sobre León Chávez Teixeiro’ that it was ‘pretentious’ and, in consequence, that Teixeiro’s work as a painter was not worthy of serious consideration. What prompted my remembrance of Steiner was my knowledge of the claims made for her own work by the artist making that judgement. It would obviously be inappropriate to go into further detail here. All I can say is that it was, for me, a chilling moment; one in which the assumptions of a person given cultural authority demonstrated how her possession of ‘high’ cultural capital led to a direct and contemptuous dismissal of alternative values. The values of people who are now having to actively resist being intimidated by the insularity and hidebound assumptions of closed minds in positions of power. Minds that seem unable to look beyond their own artistic genre, art form, nationality, political persuasion, and so on, or to hold any conception of a greater good beyond their own self-interest. 

I remembered later that Steiner’s thinking appears to have been profoundly influenced by his father, who held the view that teaching was the finest thing a person could do. (Steiner learned very early in life that ‘rabbi’ means teacher, not priest). As a former Chair of the National Association for Fine Art Education, I am only too well aware that many professional artists regard those who earn a living by teaching art as second-class citizens, just as they dismiss those who work across artistic disciplines like Teixeiro as somehow ‘impure’, of lesser value. But times have changed. The internationally successful artist Andrea Fraser has been stringently critical of her own profession’s stance towards our current socio-environmental situation, insisting: ‘Artists are not part of the solution … We are part of the problem’ (in Sarah Thornton 33 Artists in 3 Acts 2014, London, Granta p. 376).

It is surely time that all the assumptions I encountered in that dismissal of Teixeiro and his work were rigorously and publicly reexamined?