"Better" than Pollock?

Back twenty years ago in high school English class I read or studied, or something, Julius Caesar by George Bernard Shaw.

Shaw, as he is called by those who are familiar with him, was something new for us high school students. We were quite familiar with Shakespeare as the school curriculum included one of his plays every year, like some sort of literary vitamin pill.

There are a lot of great literary things to be found in Shakespeare. Like dill pickles, it’s an aquired taste, and five plays in five years wasn’t enough for me. I came to view Shakespeare’s lofty reputation as an exaggeration, the “official playright” of an imperial nation wanting to present themselves as the possessors of an old and well established, and uniquely English, culture of arts and letters.

The year before Shaw’s Julius Caesar, we had been chained to our desks and deprived of the necessities of life until we finished reading, or pretending to read, Anthony and Cleopatra by that great playright, “the Bard.”

In introducing Shaw’s play, the teacher kept repeating (you have to do that a lot in high school English classes) how this play by Shaw presents some of the historical events found in Anthony and Cleopatra in a more historically accurate context.

Oh yes. I opened the book and saw the many scholarly primary sources that Shaw had exhaustively studied in order to begin writing his definitive play about Julius Caesar. It was shameless name dropping of classical historians. I didn’t like this guy any more than Shakespeare.

Jumping to the back of the book, where the publishers add in all sorts of extra stuff, like commentary and analysis of the play by eminent authorities, I began to see the old bearded Shaw in shockingly different light.

“Better Than Shakespeare?” was the title of an essay about Shaw’s play written by the Shaw himself! Wasn’t it blasphemy to consider someone else greater than Shakespeare? And then to say it about yourself, that was even worse, assuming of course there was even space below such already depraved behaviour to sink even further.

All of a sudden I liked Shaw. He’s Irish (the teacher repeated that a lot too) and apparently back then, maybe even now too, he was something of an outsider and not supposed to knock revered English writers off their marble pedestals.

To some of the English it was an embarrasment to have the historical absurdities of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra pointed out, and particulary by an Irishman. But then Shaw went one painful step further and corrected Shakespeare’s mistakes by writing his own revised version of the events in his own play, Julius Caesar. Perhaps Shaw was thinking we could now throw Shakespeare’s old play away and use his new and improved one in it’s place?

I really didn’t like Shaw’s play much. Too “didactic” or teachy. You’d think it was intentionally written for a high school English class to study. But I liked his irreverent sense of humour. He should of stuck to making fun of the establishment instead of trying to become one of them.

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6 thoughts on “"Better" than Pollock?

  1. From Shaw on Shakespeare, edited by Edmund Wilson:

    “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.”

  2. It’s funny. I went to the Wikipedia to check up on Shaw to see if maybe I had made a mistake in insulting him.

    Turns out he never wrote a play called Julius Caesar but he did write Caesar and Cleopatra which was the play I must have read in English class.

    Also, Julius Caesar is the name of a play by Shakespeare.

    Apparently Shaw liked Stalin, of all people, and didn’t believe the Holocaust took place.

    I’m assuming this Wikipedia article is reasonably accurate. Wiki doesn’t really mean “wiki” does it? I thought wikis were sites where anyone could contibute anything and it was automatically displayed. What if someone like me wrote that article?

    I like Shakespeare a little more, now that I know Shaw didn’t like him. I’m surprised his Nazi sympathies aren’t more well known.

  3. I’m going to assume (Bwuuhahahahahaaa! there’s >that< word again...) that all this talk about George and Will (and Joe and Dolphie) are a collective attempt to push my hot buttons and it has... all of it -- I spent a reasonable amount of time binding it into a discussion of extremes being similiar at different scales and ended it (my commentary) by bringing in Carl (no, not Marx -- he spelled his name with a 'K') Sagan. And so, back to the original question. Better than Pollock? I doubt it. Pollock’s life was full of excessive sex… and he wasn’t so concerned with the result as he was with the release of energies in the act of making.
    I just bet I can count on my appendages the number of “fractal” artists who aren’t sitting comfortably in their comfortable little chairs in their comfortable little (et cetera, et cetera, peter cetera) lives… The rest of us, punch in the numbers, and down play all the elements of our compound desires. Why? go figure? You’ve got a 32 bit calculator — use it.

    Besides, who here among us (who feel that life is just a joke) has a view screen as big as a barn floor?

    Pollock’s Epiphany to the world of art, wasn’t an “In this sign conquer” It was more like a “Your free to feel the power of your release” So? go ahead, release, feel, paint.

    Is it any wonder he left us in a self crashed car. (Ambiguity intended)

  4. Alright, maybe it’s not better than Pollock. But I just couldn’t resist using Shaw’s provocative expression when I started to make these.

    Thanks John for adding the “Epiphany” comment. It’s interesting how an artist can have an influence on the art world that is greater than their own work. In a sense, I think what you’re suggesting is that Pollock showed us “how” to paint, not “what” to paint.

    “who feel that life is but a joke” Is that from Jimi Hendrix?

    So let us stop talkin’ falsely now,
    The hour’s getting late.

    Was Hendrix “better” than Dylan?

  5. “So let us stop talkin’ falsely now,The hour’s getting late.”

    OK. You got me. There is no such thing as “excessive sex”. Anybody who’s waited for the midnight hour long enough can tell us that.

    “Was Hendrix “better” than Dylan?”*

    The odds of that are 25 or 6 to 4.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that Jimi would’ve been one of the (Traveling)Wilbury’s.

    *Was Gene Clarke better than Stevie Ray Vaughn?

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