My home in European culture
We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup.
There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.
Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now.
This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone.
And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World.
This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.
And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness.
So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms.
Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.
It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level, that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold.
First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents.
The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it.
Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.
It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.
But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?
There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.
But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.
(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard European well.)
For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.
What makes it European? I suggest five key things:
—First, there is a bias toward realism.
—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.
—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress.
—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.
—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.
(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.)
Deeply rooted realism
In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.
Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.
Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.
In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?
We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.
Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras.
Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.
And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?
Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.
Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.” Always march on to the next style.
But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad?
It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs.
If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.
Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.
At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.
The human figure
It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.
It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.
You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.
‘Dead White males’
It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.
Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.
As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.
But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.
Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.
Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me.
When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults.
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Europe, yes. And more specifically for me, Italy.