New Adventures In Antiquarianism

February 4, 2010

The best part of The New Republic‘s new online book review “The Book” is the prominence given to classic reviews. The “TNR Classics” section is one of the most visible on the homepage, located immediately below the lead review, next to recent articles, and above new takes on classic books. Better: “TNR Classics” isn’t just an invitation to search their archive but a deliberately curated trove of reviews that speak directly to contemporary issues.

Consider today’s lead article, “The Cult of the Best,” by Randolph Bourne, written in 1916. Bourne criticizes art education for concentrating on the teaching of masterpieces instead of fostering the sense of taste. He writes,

Artistic appreciation in this country has been understood chiefly as the acquiring of a familiarity with “good works of art,” and with the historical fields of the different arts, rather than as the cultivating of spontaneous taste. The millionaire with his magnificent collections has only been doing objectively what the anxious college student is doing who takes courses in the history and appreciation of art, music or literature, or the women’s clubs that follow standard manuals of criticism and patronize bureaus of university travel.


Bourne’s essay somewhat anticipates Sontag’s famous “On Camp” in its insistence on taste as an aesthetic category, but it differs in its broader focus. “Camp,” since transformed from an interpretive mood to a category of art, can be acquired in much the same way as masterpieces for a similar type of cultural capital. Your iPod Video (do they still make iPod videos?) can hold “Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert” as easily as it does “Last Year At Marienbad.” For Bourne, this acquisition is worthless. What matters is “spontaneous taste,” the ability to appreciate and interpret at the moment of experience. And acquisition says nothing about aesthetic engagement.

But it’s not just that Bourne’s essay is vibrant in content, it’s presentation is indistinguishable from one written yesterday.  These aren’t scanned page images of The New Republic-that-was, but the living, breathing internet, filled with banner ads for, well, The New Republic, and links at the bottom to share this on Facebook. You can tweet the re-posted Bourne like it was the latest missive by Andrew Sullivan, or make it your status update on “The Facebook.” No longer shall you have to painstakingly transcribe Bourne quotes into your gchat status!

The real genius of “The Book”: it transforms great ideas of the past into contemporary media.

One Response to “New Adventures In Antiquarianism”

  1. Dale Pickle Says:

    I’ll stop painstakingly transcribing Bourne quotations into my gchat status when someone pries the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.

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