A symphony of the arts in high notes and banknotes

The Culture of the Europeans

December 8, 2006

An ambitious exploration of the business of cultural consumption ascertains the value of everything, finds Alex Danchev

Donald Sassoon is a true cosmopolitan. "Born in Cairo," reads the potted biography on the book jacket, "and educated in Paris, Milan, London and the United States." Like Eric Hobsbawm (saluted here with a graceful dedication), who made much the same passage a generation earlier, he is a citizen of the world. As a historian, his beat is Europe - large enough to get lost, one might think, and various; but he is at home in every corner of the Continent, and in several languages to boot. When it comes to culture - a strange and loaded word, as he says - Sassoon has form. His previous book was Mona Lisa: The History of the World's Most Famous Painting (2001). He found that the enigmatic Lisa demonstrated that something can be both a classic of Western art and pop, hip, cool.

"Besides," he concluded, "nothing is static. What we read, what we see, what we experience, changes our perceptions. When I started this work, I did not find the Mona Lisa a particularly beautiful painting. Now I do. I think I know why she is famous. I still do not know why she smiles. But neither does anyone else."

The author, therefore, is formidably well equipped for the task. He has created a megabook. The Culture of the Europeans is a prodigious work, and in some ways a puzzling one. The tone is reassuringly familiar. Sassoon remains the same civilised and sprightly guide that we have come to know and cherish. The raw material is inexhaustible and full of fascination. The construction is solid enough to last (except perhaps for the paper it is printed on). The puzzle is in the design of this enormous edifice: the conception, the definition and, above all, the limitation - the self-limitation - of what Sassoon has set out to do.

The subject of the work, in the author's own words, is the extraordinary expansion of cultural consumption over the past 200 years. The words are deliberately chosen. Sassoon declares: "The focus of this book is, quite unashamedly, on culture as a business, a profession; culture as a set of relationships. The story of culture, as it is related here, is the story of production for a market." Is there a note of defiance or a trace of doubt in that "quite unashamedly"? He provides a very fair summary of what it entails. "I have tried to include in the narrative the production, distribution and consumption of the kind of cultural artefacts available to Europeans over the past 200 years: novels, non-fiction, textbooks, self-help books, newspapers and periodicals; concert music, musical instruments and musical scores. I have dealt with singers, composers and virtuosi; the various theatrical genres including the opera; the recording of music and how this has changed the production of music; the birth of the cinema and its evolution throughout the 20th century; the organisation and growth of broadcasting; the spread of music in its various forms including popular music; the connection between some narrative genres, such as the serialised novel and the comic strip, and the expansion of the press; the role played by illustrations in books and periodicals. In the conclusion I look at the renewal of older forms of cultural consumption, such as museums, and the development of the internet."

All that is, of course, a vast remit. Nonetheless, there is a striking omission. The fine arts have been left out, as the author readily concedes, on the grounds that the market in fine art is a speculative one - a market for unique objects certified as such by a restricted and restrictive elite.

In some cases, these objects change hands for huge sums; in other cases, the merest suggestion that the object can be dignified with the name of art is an essentially contested concept. For these reasons, Sassoon seems to conclude that art is somehow anomalous in his scheme, involving calculations "quite alien to the cultural markets examined in this work".

Whether that rather eccentric rationalisation holds water is perhaps neither here nor there. The outcome may well leave many readers feeling short-changed. It is odd, to put it mildly, to consider the culture of the Europeans over the past two centuries with barely a mention of Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism - the "isms" that gave us the eyes to see; or Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti - the artists who made Paris the cultural capital of the world; or Goya, Cezanne, Van Gogh - whose struggles have defined the very idea of art and artist, culture and cultural production, in our time.

What The Culture of the Europeans does embrace is undertaken with a determined, at times deterministic, concentration on the market. There is an old saying about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Sassoon knows the value of everything - Paganini's gross earnings for concert performances in March-April 1831, just over 133,107 francs, "an enormous sum, much in excess of what was then the estimated value of Leonardo's Mona Lisa (90,000 francs in 1849)" - but he has not permitted himself to plumb its significance, to track its resonance, to contemplate its secrets. The mystery of that smile has no place here, nor yet the source of the appeal, unless it is measured by the millions passing before her in the museum, bitten or smitten or merely bored, and the precise duration of their adoration (slightly less than a minute).

Sassoon frames some interesting questions, en passant , only to dissolve them in data - quantitative measures of book sales, literacy rates and the like. ("Do novels have a "nationality" beyond the nationality of the author?"; "Is there a connection between the growth of cultural markets and political institutions?") The text is encyclopaedic; like the encyclopaedia, there is a tendency to compile and a temptation to catalogue. Sometimes it veers perilously close to cultural Trivial Pursuit, upmarket or downmarket according to taste. By the end of the 19th century, who was the artist most translated into Romanian, along with Dumas, Dickens and Scott? (Heinrich Zschokke.) What was the provenance of the best-known interpreter of the role of Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller? (Austrian, born in Timisoara, Romania.) Which words did Samuel Beckett have to remove from his second play, Endgame , before it could be performed in Britain in 1958? ("Balls", "arse" and "pee".)

There are compensations. Sassoon writes with marvellous fluency throughout, and he delivers some good old-fashioned ex cathedra pronouncements, nicely calculated to rouse the somnolent. ("To read a printed text it is necessary to be literate. To listen to music - like listening to a tale being told - requires no skills"; "Hegemonic countries are provincial, inward-looking and narcissistic.") He has a keen eye for the pointed comparison. In a case study of the cult of Walter Scott, he notes that Edinburgh's main railway station is still called Waverley, after the novel, "an unusual move in Britain, where places are seldom given literary names. Not even the French, who like to celebrate their writers, have thought... to call the Gare du Nord in Paris Les Misérables or, worse, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu".

Too often, however, the market conception of culture leads to an emptying out of the content and a neutering of the very civilisational force by which Sassoon sets so much store. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu , for example, is discussed solely in terms of sales and prizes (and railway stations), never in relation to its extraordinary cultural transmission, to say nothing of its status as a touchstone of European cultural achievement.

The creeping process of cultural sedimentation, the way in which a work can embed itself in the European cultural conscious, or unconscious, is remarkably underexplored. Joseph Conrad is mentioned only with reference to his publisher's reader, Edward Garnett, or as the object of Georges Simenon's wish-fulfilment; Heart of Darkness , a paradigm case, not at all.

In application, Sassoon's method also tends to disaggregate both the culture and the Europeans. It was once claimed that histo-rians can be divided into lumpers and splitters. For all his reach, Sassoon in this guise is a splitter. The culture of the Europeans is treated for the most part as the culture of the various nation-states; the focus is on national cultures and national comparisons. European culture, as such, is almost a missing dimension. Artist creators (producers) of truly European horizons, by aspiration or transplantation, do not figure: the writers Kafka and Kundera, the poets Rilke and Celan, the photographers Kertesz and Brassaï, the directors Kieslowski and Tar-kovsky, men whose fingerprints are all over the culture of the Europeans, nomads without a tribe, who have slipped the bounds of national status and become common cultural property - a notion that might appeal to the maestro of the market.

The Culture of the Europeans is touted not merely as a big book but an ambitious one. So it is, but the ambition is curiously directed. Fixation on production, distribution and consumption has a flattening effect. The intellectual sophistication latent in the work is constricted. The fine sensibility is subdued, the distinctive voice muffled. It could surely have been otherwise. Many years ago, halfway through Sassoon's chosen period, John Ruskin, in himself a great storehouse of European culture, declared majestically: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but, of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last." The note of challenge is unmistakable. Sassoon is one of the few Western scholars who could take up that challenge with verve and conviction. In which case, The Culture of the Europeans might be regarded as a kind of prelude to the great work to come.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

The Culture of the Europeans

Author - Donald Sassoon
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 1,656
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 00 255879 3

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