Fade to Black

An essay by Virgil Hammock
The Second of May 1808, 1814 ~ Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes

High culture has pretty much disappeared along with the dress code. I never thought fifty years ago that nearly all people would be dressing like slobs in 2020. Yet, here we are with people wearing pyjama bottoms when they fly even in business or first class and men wearing baseball hats and sweat shirts to funerals. A walk down the main street of the small university town where I live, and yes, it’s even called Main Street, exhibits a parade of dull, darkly dressed people in t-shirts, jeans, and of course baseball caps. Admittedly, the more fashion minded wear their caps backwards. This has nothing to do with class. The rich, middle class, and poor are all dressed the same. The difference might be that some of the academics and hipsters think that their branded rock themed t-shirts are ironic while the others might actually like the bands their t-shirts advertise. We are, after all, a university town. Sadly this form of dress seem to be a worldwide style. Where men have to ‘dress up’, say in government or business, they all seem to have the same dark blue, single breasted, suit, white shirt, and a dismal tie. Women in the same professional classes are equally, dreary dressed.

Is this important? Yes. It signifies carelessness and a race to the bottom not only in style, but in high culture. It is hard not to think of Edward Gibbon and his The decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the thought of the Roman elite dressing like the Barbarians just before the shit hit the fan. True, we live in a time of high technology, but that has brought us the likes of Facebook and with it universal stupidity on a global scale. I have to admit that I dabble in social media, Facebook included, but all that proves is that I have morbid fascination with an endgame and my own brand of stupidity. I am writing this in my house with floor to ceiling book shelves full of books that I have actually read and hundreds of CDs and LPs of classical music. Friends think that I am crazy and that all that information could be on a hard drive or couple of flash sticks, but that would not be same as my things provide me with a warm physical womb to which I can retreat. If that is not a sexual metaphor, nothing is. Others just think that I am a crazy old man living in the past. Both my friends and the others have it at least partially correct. I am deranged by most people’s standards. The good part is that I am harmless.

I have loads of time to reflect on the ins and outs of the decline of high culture as I, like a lot of people, am under a table in my home, hiding from the modern day Apocalypse of COVID-19. I am told that being over eighty that. because of the virus, death is just around the corner and that I should not answer the door as it might be the Grim Reaper. I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto # 21, KV 467, a sad one, right now on streaming radio from Venice which is just more reason for melancholy. Things did not end well for Mozart, but he did add a thing or two to high culture. Sadly, far too few listen to Mozart and his ilk these days. Most people I know appear to want to hear Alternative or Classic Rock and our national radio station, CBC Music, gives them ample opportunity to do so. I am happy for them, but not so much for myself.

So what is this high culture that I am lamenting its decline? It is about the arts from around the Renaissance, with roots in Greco-Roman and Judaic cultures, and leaving aside the Dark and Middle Ages, until the late 20th century. Sometimes fondly referred to as Western Civilization.* This concern of its loss would certainly identify me as a hopelessly out of date elitist. I am guilty as charged. I fully understand that there are major problems with what is called Western Civilization. It has a long history of misery, war, and racism. In my lifetime, I have lived through periods of time that I wish I had not. The world is not a pretty place and it never has been.

My concern is with the things that people have made, and made well, during this period of high culture, be it literature, music, or the visual arts and now seem to be in a period of decline in quality. It is perhaps due to a democratization of the arts where everyone is an artist and everything is art; add to that the demonization of the concept of genius and result is a surfeit of mediocrity. Let me be clear: art is an addition to a society. Paintings, music, and novels to not so much make a society as record it. Wars, and their misery are not stopped by art, but Goya’s paintings and prints certainly pointed out their shortcomings. Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, The Leningrad, did not stop the siege of Leningrad by Nazis, but it inspired its defenders who did. All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, defined the horrors of World War One. Of course, despite Remarque’s novel, The War to End All Wars was followed twenty years later by World War Two.

Art, the making of art, is hard. Art is the result of study and practice—much practice. The idea of genius, while genuine, is overrated and is used by the less talented artists to explain why their own efforts fail to match the work of masters. Renaissance painters did not have magic paint brushes or secret recipes that made their paintings so different in quality than much of those in contemporary art. They just knew how to paint better. It was the result of long study and practice. Writing a symphony is hard as is writing a good novel. The men and women who have put their work, time, and effort into high culture have helped define what is noble in civilization. We need to remember that we are never far from barbarism. Great civilizations come and go and are often followed by periods of darkness. I think that we are pretty close to a new dark age, if not living in one already.

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 7 May 2020.

* Yes, I know that there are other civilizations than Western Civilization, but one civilization is enough to worry about.


Photo by Virgil Hammock

Virgil Hammock was born in Long Beach California in 1938. A Canadian citizen since 1973, He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute where a graduated with a BFA in 1965 after serving as a photographer in the US Army. He then studied at the Indiana University where he obtained a M.F.A in 1967. Appointed as instructor at the University of Alberta Department of Fine arts in 1967, he immigrated to Canada. From 1968 to 1970, he was Assistant Professor of Art, also acting as Director of University of Alberta Art Gallery and Museum. He moved to Winnipeg, where he was appointed Associate Professor of Art at the University of Manitoba from 1970−75 while being in charge also of the University Gallery 1.1.1, as Director of Exhibitions, from 1970−73. In 1975, he moved to Sackville, New Brunswick as Professor of Fine Arts and Head of the Department of Fine Arts at Mount Allison University where he taught until 2004. He also was the acting Director of the University Owens Art Gallery between 1988 and 89.The University nominated him Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts in 2005. Deeply involved in his community, Virgil has been a member of New Brunswick Arts Board, 1996−2002 and of New Brunswick Foundation for the Arts in 1999. Virgil Hammock was President of the Universities Art Association of Canada between 1973−79.

Virgil has also been also fully involved in an art criticism since 1968 when he became the art critic for the Edmonton Journal. He is the author and co author of several art books and artist monographs, including co-author 16 Quebec Painters in their Milieu 1978; Pol Mara 1990; Herman Muys en Monique Maylart 1992; Jacky DeMaeyer 1993; Edward Leibovitz 1994; vgPaul Smolder 1994; Juan Kiti 1995; Cesar Bailleux 1996; Daisy Wilford 1997; Guy Van den Bulcke 1997; Silvain 1997; Hélèn Jacubowicz 1998; Marijan Kolesar 1999; Guy Van den Bulcke: His Presence in the United States 2003. He also published numerous articles in Canadian and international journals and magazines, particularly art magazines. He was member of the editorial board of. Vie des Art (1973−80); Artfocus 1990−2011 and Artsatlantic 1999−2004. A member of AICA Canada, the Canadian Section of the International Association of Art Critics since 1973, Virgil Hammock has been a member of its board from 1975 to present and was he was twice elected its President, between 1976−80 and 1987−91. He was also Vice-President of AICA International board between 1987 and 90.

He is currently Adjunct Curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He curated for the gallery: Art Treasures of New Brunswick (21 Feb. to 26 May 2013), Stephen Paints a Picture (27 Feb. to 8 June 2014) and was a co-curator on Off The Grid (26 June to 14 Sept. 2014).Recent publications include The Circle Completed in Redeemed: Restoring the Lost Free Ross Mural, UNB Art Centre, University of New Brunswick (2013) and In Plain Sight, Off the Grid, Beaverbrook Art Gallery (2014). He is, since 1973, the Atlantic provinces correspondent for Vie des Arts where he publishes regularly. Published articles and commentary can be found at vigilhammock.com.

Virgil is a co-founder of the COVERT Collective.

~ Posted by Mark Walton