Is Shakespeare better than Dan Brown? You know the answer; it is ‘yes’. Is Botticelli better than Banksy? We are fairly sure of it, but would acknowledge it possible that someone might sincerely believe Banksy better. Is the Sistine Ceiling, finished by Michelangelo in 1512, better than the Ardabil Carpets, those masterpieces of Islamic art produced in Iran in the mid-16th Century, and now amongst the rarest treasures of the V&A Museum? I believe so, but such a question begins to look rather subjective.
Is the art produced in Renaissance Rome better than Islamic art of the same period – or, while we’re at it, is the art produced in the last millennium in Western Europe better than that produced in the Middle-East? You might now begin to say that such questions do not make sense; you would certainly find it uncomfortable to ask them. Are the works of Shakespeare better than a pair of good boots? That’s another which might prove prickly.
Alain Finkielkraut asked that last one brilliantly – and went some way to answering it – in the final chapter of La Défaite de la Pensée in 1987 (translated as The Undoing of Thought). It is a book I cannot recommend highly enough. An important lesson that contrasting such questions and monitoring our reactions to them teaches us is that in aesthetic or cultural judgement the scale between blind chauvinism and absolute relativism is sliding. They are the two extremes of a single spectrum. On one end lies jingoist intolerance, on the other the agglomeration and equation of all peoples and creeds. Some of the most difficult, and most important, questions we must consider as individuals interested in art and culture concern where we situate ourselves in terms of both aesthetic and cultural ascriptions of value or lack thereof, how we come to do so, and the ensuing tolerance or intolerance we show towards those different from ourselves.
Thought on such subjects is not abetted but obstructed by the fact that some would make asking such questions – even countenancing them – taboo. In the most recent series of South Park it has become socially unacceptable for anyone to offer any opinion on Caitlyn Jenner other than that she is a “hero” and “stunning and brave.” Although specific, there, to a particular kind of political correctness, the point travels. We do not wish to give ourselves airs, but one thing to which the Soho Revue is committed – and permitted to do as a wholly independent, free magazine – is to address such uncomfortable cultural questions. In this issue our writers do so on a number of fronts.
Dasha Varvarina considers the destruction of culture in an attempt to overwrite history – the sackings performed by ISIL (in Iraq particularly) – and how such destruction is about to be made a war crime. Abigail Davies reviews ‘Russia and the Arts’ at the National Portrait Gallery: an exhibition of 19th century Russian portraits on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, in exchange for which the NPG has sent over some of its treasures. Davies is quick to point out that the exhibition addresses neither why the portraits we have been lent span only a fifty year period whilst those we have given cross four centuries, nor why the Russian pictures have never travelled to Britain before. It is as if the Cold War, Socialist Realism – indeed, as if the entire 20th century never happened. Dr Jaspreet Singh Boparai, reviewing the National Gallery’s ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’ (a suggestively grandiose title), reassesses Eugène Delacroix, positing that he may not merit quite the reputation he has garnered, and that his influence was much less significant than this exhibition would like to imagine –
if not negligible.
J L Blarney, ‘The Sohoist’ and author of our regular column, considers a particular cultural class who transgress many usual boundaries: the international, itinerant rich, flocks of whom appear in London in the summer. He makes the brilliant point that, past a certain level, luxury assimilates all difference: “Louis Vuitton looks the same in Tokyo or Milan, Krug bubbles as pointlessly in Portofino as in New York”. Does the ideal burger change? Hayley Daen finds something like it at Patty & Bun. Is it better than Shakespeare? It is hard to say. But we are not afraid to ask.