Over and Out: Learning to Appreciate Art, Old and New

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by Andrew Baker

Before this week, it had been a while (maybe two years) since I had been forced to organize my thoughts and actually talk about art in a casual but remotely intelligent way. One of the things I did to try and prepare was flip through and reread passages from The Journal of Eugene Delacroix at random. For a lot of the people I know, it's sort of a required text. I picked it up again last night and found the following entry.

28 July 1854:

I have been thinking of Voltaire's novels, of the tragedies of Racine and of thousands upon thousands of other masterpieces. Can we believe that such things are done merely so that in every generation men may ask whether there is anything fresh to divert them in the way of literature? Is not this incredible output of masterpieces, produced for the human herd by the greatest minds and most sublime geniuses, enough to terrify the more sensitive portion of our unhappy race? Will the insatiable search after novelty never give anyone the idea of seeing whether the old masterpieces are not newer and fresher than the rhapsodies that pander to our idleness, and which we prefer to the masterpieces? Were these miracles of imagination and wit, of reason, gaiety, or pathos, produced by geniuses at a cost of such immense labour and sleepless nights, and rewarded, so rarely alas, by meagre praise when they first appeared - were these great works, I say, created only to lapse, after a brief appearance and a few eulogies, in the dust of libraries and the unproductive, almost dishonoring esteem of so-called savants and antiquaries? Shall college pedants tug at our sleeves and remind us that Racine is at least simple, the La Fontaine saw as much in nature as Lamartine, and that Lesage portrayed men as they really are? Are the leaders of our present civilization, these ordinary schoolmasters, who have been raised to be ministers or shepherds of the people because they once had a quarter of an hour of inspiration according to present-day standards, the men who are to make a new literature? New indeed! A fine sort of novelty!

I think it's a strange sort of comedy that I should find this entry at the end of the week, and I think it works as a fine bookend to the Cloisters piece from Monday.

Delacroix would have been 56 when he wrote that. He'd be dead inside of ten years, and most the major work for which he's celebrated would have been 20 to 30 years old by then. Already collecting dust. And while there's an undeniably embittered tone to this, I choose to find some hope.

It was 1854. As the Great Master of French Romanticism was bemoaning the sorry state of literature and of art, Gustave Courbet was toiling away at The Artist's Studio. Frederic Church had just returned from his first trip to South America. Dickens was writing Hard Times. In 1863, the year of Delacroix's death, the Paris Salon rejected a painting called Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Its maker found another venue to display it instead. And so it went. Delacroix died, but to no surprise, art and the world moved on. Year after year great work would continue to be made by great artists, and every year, some curmudgeon stepped up to echo Delacroix's condemnation of the fashions of the moment. I hope that I did more than to simply take up that old mantle this week. I hope that I conveyed something more than that.

Before I close, I want to thank the editorial staff at The Atlantic who did their best to make my voice as palatable for as many readers as possible, it's no easy task and there's no reason it should be a thankless one. Also, thank you to Sara and Jamelle, it's been a pleasure sharing the stage with the both of you. To the Battalion, because that's the way I choose to remember you, while I would like to believe that nobody really has to force themselves to read anything I've written, I know better. I've truly cherished every comment. And, if it's okay, I choose to read your silence as awe. I will soon rejoin the ranks.

And to TNC, thanks again. I hope it was all you hoped it would be. I had a good time, anyway.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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