Saturday, March 05, 2011

Value judgments

I was rather taken by this summing-up of Warren Treadgold's review of A Companion to Byzantium (ed. Liz James), at The Medieval Review:
...After a period of decades when "value judgments" were often discarded out of hand, some scholars are again ready to say that some Byzantine art is poorly executed, although few seem to be equally comfortable with saying that some Byzantine literature is poorly written.  While this expansion of the discussion is good for art history, the absence of such an expansion is bad for literary history.
Serious literary criticism is impossible if we cannot consider whether Byzantine authors succeeded in what they set out to do, or whether what they set out to do was worth doing (at least for some purpose besides advancing themselves by vapid praise of the emperor), or whether even they believed that what they were doing was an inferior form of literature (as was the case for most works in "popular" Greek, including hagiography).  This point is obviously related to the question of historical decline: we need to entertain the possibility that in some periods the level of artistic or literary achievement was higher or lower than in others, just as in some periods the level of economic prosperity or military or administrative efficiency was higher or lower than in others.  Even if such conclusions remain controversial, they are apparently becoming harder to dismiss as "outdated" without reflection or discussion.

1 comment:

  1. I don't want to say he's wrong, but it seems to me that such value judgements are dangerous and anachronistic unless we can adequately theorise them. It's impossible to distinguish `better' or `worse' from `more or less what we currently think of as good' (which has shifted noticeably from neo-classical naturalism to various more emphatic and distorted styles even over some scholars' lifetimes) unless we have some machinery in place by which we can explain why a culture might have (a) had such a universal standard, impervious to the sort of change we ourselves have thus gone though and (b) nevertheless become incapable of maintaining it or capable of 'exceeding' it. I realise that at the end of this lies complete cultural relativism, but I have a much easier time believing that artists and writers had a reasonable grasp of what went before and decided to vary it than that they just got less good, as a culture, at slavish copying. I don't want to deny the possibility that individuals were more or less able than others, before, after or at the same times as themselves, to produce certain standards of work. But this reviewer slides straight from that presumption to generalisations about whole cultures and periods that seem to me impossible to square with exactly that individual diversity of abilities and intents.

    To put it another way, I think that the people who "discarded out of hand" such value judgements had good enough reason to do so that a proposed return to them needs some justification that I don't think Treadgold provides.

    (Posted w/o OpenID authentication because Blogger seems to be having one of its hissy days for that with certain templates today. It's still me, though.)