Capitalism, Art and Equality

While I have him in mind: two more interesting (?) points about Samuel Laing the Elder.

He was one of the first assertive and ideological philistines I’ve come across in history. He argued that ‘art’ was an unrelievedly bad thing, suited only to peoples at low stages of civilization, before they had advanced into the state of progressive utilitarianism he thought he saw in Norway, where no-one wasted their time on such fripperies but instead concentrated on the solid, material things of life. So one sign of Sweden’s inferiority to Norway was her superiority in the fine arts – painting, decorative architecture, and so on. The same was true all over Europe (where he travelled and recorded after leaving Scandinavia). Italy and France were at the lowest stages because they were artistically accomplished; Britain near the top because she was unartistic, devoting her people’s time, money and efforts to making useful things like steam engines and money. I explored this in another ‘Laing’ article: ‘”Monstrous Vandalism”: Capitalism and Philistinism in the Works of Samuel Laing (1780-1868)’, in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 1991). In a later reply to comments on this, I waspishly suggested that this might be the reason why modern ultra-capitalist America was so relatively poor at ‘art’ (except jazz); only to be denounced as elitist, of course. (I’m not really.)

Secondly – and this should be borne in mind when we consider the early ideology of ‘liberalism’ generally – Laing was convinced that the free market and all its trappings were conducive to human equality. It was this that made him a democratic as well as an economic radical. John Stuart Mill, the doyen of Victorian liberals, took this idea from him, in his Principles of Political Economy, where he wrote (2nd edn.) that if that did not turn out to be the case he, for one, would become a ‘socialist’. (Michael Caine voice:) ‘Not many people know that’. It shows how fundamentally the ideology of ‘liberalism’ has changed over the years: indeed, has almost metamorphosed into its opposite. Victorian liberalism, which Thatcher for example professed to worship, must not be confused in any way with the ‘neo’ kind.

Samuel Laing would not have approved of our present-day ultra-capitalists. Or indeed, to return to his ‘philistinism’: of Edvard Grieg. (We hope to make a pilgrimage to Grieg’s house in Bergen next week, after visiting Laing’s Levanger.)

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to Capitalism, Art and Equality

  1. “In a later reply to comments on this, I waspishly suggested that this might be the reason why modern ultra-capitalist America was so relatively poor at ‘art’ (except jazz); only to be denounced as elitist, of course. (I’m not really.)”

    Why “not really” an elitist?

    If elitism in this case refers to adopting a superior attitude to philistinism, it is difficult to work out what other subjective stance one should take when confronted with, for example, Trumpist socio-political philistinism, such as one finds in devotees of Fox News. Do you really respect the racism-sexism, the readiness to embrace blatant lies and unwillingness to engage in even the smallest criticism of their Leader? The alternative to contempt is condescension: “I regret that you have been poorly educated, brainwashed, hoodwinked, consumed by selfishness etc.” Is there a third alternative? The very use of the term ‘philistine’ implies elitism in its user.

    Apparently, the subjective attitude of “liberals” towards “conservatives” in the US is a primary factor in creating Trumpists – and Brexiters perhaps in the UK; so the question of elitism, how one reacts to philistinism in all its guises, is an important issue.

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    • Yes, I suppose I am an elitist in the sense of someone who believes that an educated, thoughtful and sophisticated view of the world is generally (not always) better than an ignorant one, and safer. I’ve also just looked up the word ‘philistine’, which is defined here (Wikipedia) as ‘a person who is lacking in or hostile or smugly indifferent to cultural values, intellectual pursuits, aesthetic refinement, etc., or is contentedly commonplace in ideas and tastes.’
      My own use of the word ‘philistine’, in the context of Samuel Laing’s views – he was certainly not an ‘anti-intellectual’ – takes in only a part of that, being restricted to one’s views of ‘the arts’. It’s in this sense that I would deny any personal ‘elitism’, on the grounds that my own taste and appreciation for the ‘arts’ aren’t restricted to what are called the ‘high’ or ‘fine’ arts, but include (for example) popular music, comics, and TV soaps. (But probably not Trump’s gold-plated elevators!)
      I was once challenged at a US university by a member of my audience who thought that by using the word philistinism I was disparaging Palestinians. Until that time I had no idea that the words ‘Philistine’ and ‘Palestine’ were connected.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. TJ says:

    Thatcher may have professed to believe in Victorian liberalism, but her version was largely imported from the USA via disciples of Friedman, Hayek and even Ayn Rand who were mainly opposed to state activity, and lesser known American academic advocates of ‘trickle down’ economics. This infections are still pervasive, even though causing huge damage and suffering

    Liked by 1 person

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