Saturday, March 11, 2006

Steven Pinker, philistine

In an excellent edition of The Quarterly Conversation, Dan Green provides a shocking insight into the philistine world of Steven Pinker, popular science writer and darling of the liberal media.
[In] the chapter on the biological origins of art and the appreciation of art [...] Pinker comes close to suggesting that art and literature are necessarily restricted to fulfilling biological functions assigned by human nature and that any artists or writers failing to meet the terms of these requirements are thereby derelict in their duties.

In [his] account, the culprits here are not merely the usual postmodern suspects so frequently identified by critics of contemporary art and literature, but can be traced all the way back to the early modernists: the painters and their “freakish distortions,” the fiction writers, with their “disjointed narration and difficult prose,” the poets who “abandoned clarity,” the “dissonant” composers unable to appreciate rhythm and melody, the whole lot producing nothing but “weird and disturbing art.” Given the public’s presumptive preference for the familiar and comforting, the work of modernists and postmodernists alike is characterized not only as artistic failure but as a kind of moral decadence as well.
I remember upsetting some of Pinker's fans when I expressed disgust at his recommendation of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, the literary critical equivalent of such narrow-mindedness. At the time, I wondered if I had gone too far. But Dan's review-essay convinces me otherwise, and I'm grateful for his informed resistance to presumptuous scientific approaches to art. (I made an indirect attempt myself on this blog some time ago).

Elsewhere, discussing the same work, Harold Fromm quotes Pinker about our recent past:
The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship.
Well, rather pretentious and unintelligible than ignorant and plain wrong.

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