The beginning of fall is when the arts season really kicks into high gear. Our local Montreal Symphony Orchestra, for instance, is currently featuring a four-part Tchaikovsky festival.
The first show was a sort of mélange of many diverse pieces that included opera and ballet. There’s not much to visualize during these types of events, except during the ballet bits and operatic arias. And in the latter case, it was mostly a portly Russian fellow gesticulating passionately. So when the charm of watching the back of the conductor’s head starts to fade, you begin to find yourself almost hypnotized by the sight of all those violin and cello wands dancing rhythmically up and down. At the end of it all, it starts to seem like a natural form of self-expression, and you wouldn’t be surprised the next day to find yourself pirouetting over to a colleague’s cubicle to discuss database growth rates in a loud booming baritone.
Interestingly, I was practically assaulted leaving the symphony by one of the ushers, a stoutish, dour-looking sort of woman who brought all my pretty musings to an abrupt end. I had just stepped off the down escalator when she pushed me with rather more force than was strictly necessary into a slow-moving gaggle of elderly ladies in front of me, shouting, “Avancez! Avancez!” like we were on some kind of death march.
The event gave me a taste for what the French genre painters must have experienced during the French Revolution. I had seen an exhibit over the weekend on French genre painting at the National Art Gallery (or NAG, as we like to affectionately refer to it) in the nation’s capital, Ottawa. For those who may not be hip to the French genre-painting scene, the term refers to the painting of little vignettes from ordinary life. In the case of the French, this meant a lot of racy scenes of people drinking heavily and making ardent declarations of love (not necessarily in that order).
The genre painters were considered to be at the bottom of the food chain as far as painters go, the French painting community being a snobbish lot not celebrated for their chummy inclusiveness. This meant that when the genre painters walked by in the cafeteria of the Académie Royale, the painters of historical and religious works would snigger and trip them with extended legs.
French genre painting was considered to have come to an end by the time of the Bonapartes, Napoleon and Josephine. The Stewart Museum in nearby Île Ste-Helene is located on the site of a reconstructed English fort, and recently featured an exhibit on the Empress Josephine. It must have been surprisingly popular, because the waiting time was almost a full hour just to enter the museum. From time to time, members of the Fraser Highlanders regiment would appear, wearing kilts and playing bagpipes in an effort to alleviate the boredom. In practice, this meant having to shout over a lot of loud, mournful music at your companion in order to make yourself heard.
The exhibit was entitled “Josephine, le Grand Amour de Napoleon,” and by all accounts he does seem to have loved her passionately. When they married, she was 33 and he a love struck 27, although the marriage certificate lists them both optimistically as 28. Not all is as cozy as the exhibit’s title would have us believe, although we’re assured that he only reluctantly divorced her once it became obvious that she was not to bear him any heirs. We know that the fault lay with her, since he’d proven his virility beyond doubt by impregnating his mistresses.
They maintained a chummy kind of relationship, even after their divorce. In fact, Josephine’s daughter from her previous unhappy marriage, Queen Hortense, married Napoleon’s younger brother Louis, thus ultimately uniting the two lineages.
The exhibit inexplicably leaves out a lot of juicy little tidbits. We would have liked to know, for instance, that Josephine is widely rumored to have engaged in much extramarital activity during the early years of their marriage, or that Napoleon was known to have written to Josephine asking her not to bathe, so that he might return after two weeks to enjoy the fragrance.
What I carried away from it all was that Josephine was like some kind of 19th-century Princess Diana. She seemed to have been a mildly industrious, not terribly profound person, kind to the poor when she noticed them, and rarely rising after nine in the morning. This last was kind of fortunate, seeing as how it took her about three hours to dress. The sum she expended on her toiletries in one year was equivalent to the entire purchase price of her sprawling estate, the chateau Malmaison. Josephine’s most enduring legacy was to have left numerous descendants who today, we are informed, occupy many of the royal houses of Europe.
I found myself musing on the arts once again, on September 11. That morning, I had found myself slipping bleary-eyed into my gym outfit, which unintentionally happened to include a cute little Abercrombie and Fitch number – originally sold to commemorate the 9/11 attacks, and sporting a decal of the American flag on the front and a quote from JFK on the back. I was only struck by the symbolism some twenty minutes later at the gym when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror.
Perusing the paper later on that morning, I read a short article about the reinstatement of a ban against Barbie. That great menace to civilization, Barbie, had not escaped the eagle-eyed scrutiny of the Saudi Commission on the Prevention of Virtue and Promotion of Vice, or rather the other way around. I was horrified to learn that she was a loose, immoral Jewish doll who heartily deserved what was coming to her. Far from those untarnished images we had of Barbie wearing party clothes and tending to the sick, it seemed that all along she’d been plotting Zionist conspiracies and frequenting swingers’ clubs with Ken. Socialite Barbie and Nurse Barbie belonged to the faraway, nostalgic past; Zionist Barbie and Swinger Barbie were the harsh new reality.
Also that same morning, the local radio broadcast a piece on a subversive Afghan radio station that’s been causing quite a stir – not for its fiery promotion of radical political ideology, but because it features Bollywood pop songs of the frothier kind, interspersed with casual conversation between male and female disk jockeys who don’t break for prayer. This had one young Afghan rather exercised. The speakers broadcasting prayers at his local mosque crossed frequencies with the hip new radio station, and the faithful were apt to find themselves praying to the latest Hindi musical.
That evening, some R&D colleagues of mine had organized what they termed a “Geek Night,” which made me inevitably think of a lot of pasty-faced people going around wearing shorts with black socks and sandals, but which in this case meant playing four-way Quake, eating takeout Chinese, and watching Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. This last struck me as horribly inappropriate on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To watch a logically inconsistent, intellectually dishonest screed that lays the blame for the worst attacks on American soil on the victims themselves, was surely beyond the bounds of good taste, I thought.
The Saudis, the Afghans and Michael Moore seem on to something. If ideologies are popularized as much by vulgar entertainment as by high-flown ideals expounded by earnest intellectuals – if philosophies are as unconsciously imbibed in darkened movie theatres as assiduously studied from dense treatises – then Barbie and Bollywood and Bowling for Columbine are all as influential in forming the opinions of society than any number of official coucils or loya jirgas. Art and entertainment are not simply reflections of culture and politics, but shapers of them. The French genre painters would have understood this debate. Their works mixed unapologetically frivolous portrayals of aristocratic society, with some indisputably moralistic in tone. So would Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who died this month.
Tchaikovsky himself had plenty of occasion to reflect bitterly on art's dual purpose. He had reluctantly undertaken a commission for a patriotic work to commemorate the Russian defeat of the Emperor Napoleon. The resulting 1812 Overture, an invigorating piece blending Russian folk music with the Marseillaise, was featured at that Tchaikovsky Festival I attended.