Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: the psychology of early Celtic art, part nine

Of Self-Complacency
A fool's broth he does stir and feed
Who thinks he is of witty breed
And so admires his lovely face
That e'ère into the glass he'd gaze,
Yet grossly ignorant that he
A fool in yonder glass doth see...
Woodcut and quote from Sebastian Brant,
Ship of Fools, 1499.
"By academic complacency I mean the attitude that one's undoubted distinction in one's own subject entitles one to pontificate about any other; and conversely, that their ignorance of one's own subject disqualifies everyone else from having a worthwhile opinion on anything at all. Such complacency shades into arrogance, of course, but I think of arrogance as the child of vanity, whereas complacency is the child of laziness. The virtue opposed to arrogance is modesty; that opposed to complacency is curiosity."

Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge, in Mathew Reisz et al: The seven deadly sins of the academy, Times Higher Education, 2009

Even if we are not lazy and we are dedicated to getting to the truth of the early Celts and their art, the Zeitgeist acts like blinkers to shut out some of what has come before while completely blinding us to present influences. A number of artists of the Italian Renaissance produced the so-called Paduans (named after Giovanni da Cavino "the Paduan"): medallions which attempted to emulate the classical Roman style. Many of them were actual copies of Roman coins but some were fantasies. No modern numismatist would mistake any of them for Roman originals and the only problems of authenticity lie with later casts. We see them as examples of Renaissance art but their makers would have believed them to accurately reflect the classical Roman. In part one of this part of the series I illustrated a plate and caption about Celtic coins from C. G. Jung et al,  Man and his Symbols which was started in 1961 but not published until 1964. Not one part of it was right and its conclusion was nothing more than an expression of its time. In that case, the problem was not so much the psychology of the Zeitgeist, but its manifestation as academic fashion.

I used the video Why is "Celtic" Art "Celtic"?, by John Collis, FSA as a springboard for this theme in December. Collis was one of the central figures of the academic fashion of Celtoskepticism which was at its peak in the mid nineties and is currently being deodorized and justified to some degree to reflect the current Zeitgeist.I think that what it mainly does is to give an impression of how past efforts have failed, and how the present is now the repository of all that is true about the subject. I also think that much of its content will be seen as an expression of our time in a another fifty years or so. There is nothing so dated as futurist writing, but academic fashions come a very close second in that horse race. Herein lies the danger of academia examining itself. It is better, by far, to look at the past with fresh eyes but how can we avoid the influence of the Zeitgeist? We are not trying to write history, we are trying to write the past. History is always of the present and is thus constantly being rewritten whether we intend to do this or not. "Keeping up with Jones's" in the sense of jumping onto academic bandwagons guarantees that anyone doing so will be forgotten if they come to it too late and will be laughed at if they are in its vanguard. In times past, this was just fine for academic power building and a long career could be expected, but today's world is moving too fast to make that a safe option.

Someone once said that the value of the researcher could be measured by the number of daggers in their back. One has to be an outsider to make a real and lasting mark on a subject.Colin Wilson attempted to classify such people in his book The Outsider, but it failed to bring him into their fold because it, also, was too similar to the navel-gazing of academia examining itself.

Writing the past is best accomplished by allowing that past to write itself as much as is possible. It requires a fierce independence; passion; and the ability to not think too much. It also requires considerable luck to find the right inspiration. As soon as you wrap your work within the confines of a theory you have lost. Only the originator of that theory had any value. It is only after the fact that you will see how what you have done resembles what has been cited as belonging to various theories and you will also notice that what you have is not restricted to just one of them, either. I developed my interests in Jung, postmodernism and transdisciplinarity only after I had come to some of their conclusions independently. When I built my first expert-system, I had never heard of that term at all.

Oscar Wilde competes with the Bible, Shakespeare and Mark Twain for being quotable, and one of my favourite quotes of his is from 1895: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!" (said by Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest). Tomorrow, how the truth of early Celtic art is far from simple and how to avoid simplicity to move toward to the truth.

John's Coydog Community page

No comments:

Post a Comment