Today, I'm uncomfortable with a form of greatness.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
just read a book of George Bernard Shaw's old music
reviews. They are a trouble to my mind. But first,
you may ask: "What was Shaw doing as a music
Shaw's mother was deeply involved with music. The
whole musical scene of Dublin, Ireland, swirled
about his ears when he was a boy in the 1860s. He
never formally studied music. But then, he never
studied play-writing, either. He may have been as
fine a music critic as he was a playwright.
Shaw's reviews show the same dazzling inventive
mind that his plays do. They both bear the same
harsh witness to human folly. For example, after a
two-page assault on Hubert Parry's now-forgotten
oratorio Job, he concludes:
I have no wish to linger over this barbarous
task. ... But [Parry] might have let Job alone, and
let me alone; for patient as we both are, there are
limits to human endurance. I hope he will burn the
Shaw has no use whatsoever for Rossini.
... enough of Rossini ... I cannot say "Rest his
soul," for he had none; but I may at least be
allowed the fervent aspiration that we may never
look upon his kind again.
That's pure personal prejudice -- a
quality Shaw gleefully embraces. Objectivity has no
place in art criticism, he insists. Art doesn't exist
in an objective world. "It is," he says, "the
capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter
that makes a man a critic."
And here my discomfort rises. For Shaw, like the
best critics today, sees himself as a refining
fire, purifying art. He denies that he or any
critic holds the power to make or break artists.
Bad artists sink on their own demerit, unless there
are enough Philistines around to buoy them up.
So Shaw slashes his way through the music of the
1890s. The new opera Cavaleria
Rusticana is a pretty collection of tricks
that will not last. Cavaleria did
survive Shaw, but I'm not sure why it did. He's
right on target when he dooms Sir Arthur Sullivan's
only grand opera, Ivanhoe. It is, he
sneers, "smooth, orderly, and within the bounds of
Shaw the critic appeals to the child in me -- the
child who loves to smash and break. One side of me
says that we need, constantly, to winnow the chaff
from art -- and from technology as well.
I'm in somewhat the same business, but it frightens
me. It can corrode my soul to sit in judgment on
people who can do things I cannot do. Fine art and
fine technology must be put to the test. But people
who get too much pleasure from those dissections
frighten me. They do frighten me.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds