Abandoned virtuosity 2

September 14 2014

First post.

Primitive African art (it was called primitive), therefore, was the second non-European subverter of Europe’s academic tradition. It dealt the death blow. The first subversive influence, starting half a century earlier, had been the more widely-, sometimes unconsciously-assimilated art of Japan. Toynbee constantly writes about the impact of the West on Japan in the nineteenth century, but he never once mentions the influence out of Japan, which operated at a high-cultural, not a political, economic or religious level.

He never mentions Ife, nor shows any taste for the primitive. On the contrary, in 1939 he sees European engagement with barbarous African art only as a sign of a loss of vitality in Europe’s own art.

He cannot see modern art as a revitalised art. I don’t think his visual or musical sensibilities were highly developed; they were in any case Victorian. Victorians of his background and education were not known for visual or musical sophistication. He can think only of a breakdown.

One could make a fascinating anthology of reactionary writing about modern art, and especially about jazz. High learning, high culture were opposed to popular culture and to barbarous art. The mish-mash of high and low that almost all educated people embrace today was outside his and his generation’s experience. There are Economist pieces about modern mish-mash here and here.

In a late dialogue, Toynbee says:

“Recreation” in the present-day Western sense has always seemed to me to be an unhealthy regression to childishness. I have therefore despised it, and I believe I have been right.

European art wasn’t moribund in 1900. It was vital because it was changing. Artists, even relatively conservative ones, were caught up in a great movement. Academic establishments were becoming trivial or dull. (Even Brahms could seem dull, and when Britten said that he played Brahms once a year to remind himself how bad he was, and a friend of mine spoke to me about “eine verdammt tote Musik” without naming a composer, they perhaps had at the back of their minds some of his late piano pieces. I suspect Britten of thinking of opus 117, no 1. Re-enter rhythm with the Rite of Spring and jazz.)

In Vol IV “Benin” meant barbarism in art. But he had modified his views slightly by the time he got to Vol IX.

The Kingdom of Benin, including the site of the modern Benin City, was in modern Nigeria, east of Ife, and further east of the country called Benin. It was destroyed by the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 (last post). The only reason the new country called Benin has that name is that Dahomey was not considered neutral for all ethnic groups; and Benin referred to the Bight or Bay, not to the Edo kingdom.

I am sure he would have gone on to study African history had he lived longer. A travel book called Between Niger and Nile, published in 1965, does not count, and he does not seem to have noticed Ife, though he warmed to Nigeria. He spoke loudly and consistently against white settlement in Kenya and apartheid in South Africa and in the US, and was quoted approvingly by Malcolm X in his autobiography for having referred, in the New York Times on September 29 1963, to the white race as the “bleached” race. Perhaps he would even have come to see something in African art worth absorbing, but before post-colonialism it was thought reasonable to place cultural attitudes in a different compartment from racial and colonial ones.

Experiences, OUP, 1969

2 Responses to “Abandoned virtuosity 2”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    People in Nigeria speak about having fun in Benin a bit like how people in Rwanda speak about having fun in Burundi. I went to Burundi in 2012: a delightful surprise all round. I hope to get to Benin, though it is now in the Ebola corridor between Guinea/Liberia and Nigeria.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee was not fond of his barbarian ancestors either:

    https://davidderrick.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/origins


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