Saturday, July 22, 2006
In Defense of Dilettantes
After the recent, and very untimely death of a dear friend, it was related by another friend the day after her memorial service, that she had never settled on a 'career' per se, as she had so many interests. She just wanted to be a dilettante...meaning it in the positive sense...and explore many fields. I nearly launched into a lecture then and there, but my added years have taught me the wisdom of saying little or nothing, when saying much would be inappropriate(sometimes, of course, I still blather on and on).
Dilettantism has become a slur in modern English, and indeed in other European languages...as far as I know them. Most dictionaries today define it as a broad but shallow knowledge of a subject, i.e...a know-it-all who cannot actually do any of it (whatever it happens to be). I knew that the earlier meaning was not nearly so perjorative, but looked it up anyway in my 1865 Italian dictionary. Dilettante comes from the verb dilettare, meaning to take delight (in something). It was defined as 'one who studies the fine arts, or something similar, merely for the delight, or enjoyment of them, rather than to earn money from either the practice or the teaching thereof' (translation mine). Diletto, the noun, means either delight, or beloved.
Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the beaux arts were filled with amateurs, who honed their crafts to a high pitch...not to make money..rather because the ability to write, sing, play, paint, compose, speak languages, etc., was regarded as an essential accomplishment of the well-rounded lady or gentleman. Some of these men and women, prohibited by their class from taking money for their creative efforts, nevertheless achieved proficiency equal to or surpassing many of their professional contemporaries. It must be said that the dilettanti were all of the middle and upper classes, as to be a professional in the arts (less so in literature) was viewed as scandalous and immoral. Probably because most professional artists were--frankly--scandalous and immoral, judged by the norms of their day.
Today, many of these genteel amateurs are very highly regarded. Michel de Montaigne, Elizabeth I of England (sometimes tipped as the real Shakespeare), Samuel Pepys, the diarist, whose participation in the literary, political, and musical circles of Restoration London are one of the richest sources of that period...all because he was dilettantishly interested in everything. Barbara Strozzi, for my money the greatest female composer ever, almost never performed (she was a great virtuosa singer) outside of private settings, and had her own compositions published under subscription. Much of the chamber music of Baroque greats such as Scarlatti, Handel, and Steffani was written for and performed by wealthy and/or noble amateurs who, through their fees funded the existence of many an independant (no court or church position) composer.
Joseph Haydn, in the employ of the Esterhazy family in Austria, was the most famous composer in Europe. He, needing none of the patronage of other nobles, still entrusted the premier of his favorite vocal composition (and indeed his masterpiece) Arianna a Naxos to the repeated performance of various singing girls in and around Vienna, before playing it himself in its professional debut with the great castrato, Pacchierotti, in London. The inability of a certain amateur composer to deliver, on the other hand, may have given us Mozart's Requiem. The gentleman in question commissioned the work, allegedly, in the intention of passing it off as his own. Mozart died, however, before he could finish it. The work was probably finished by his student, Süssmeyer (which is why the ending is so disappointing after the first 35 or 40 minutes of brilliance), and never delivered to the mystery nobleman.
The most famous Americans of the Revolutionary period were almost all dilettantes in one fashion or another. Benjamin Franklin, trained as a printer, was also an inventor, author, politician, and civic reformer. Thomas Jefferson, trained in law, was one of the greatest writers of English prose, a talented amateur violinst, agricultural reformer, architect, and viticulturalist. And Boston tanner William Billings, with one eye, one good leg, and arms of unequal length, was the self-taught composer of the Revolution, writing the great marching song, Chester, as well as the first masterpiece of American music, When Jesus Wept.
But in the 18th century things began to change. Jane Austen often mocked the 'accomplishments' of young ladies as pretentious, pedantic and shrill (who can forget Mary Bennett's domination of conversations and premeditated assaults upon unoffending fortepianos?). The popular taste began to shift towards allowing professionals to do something well, rather than the (often mistaken) impression of an amateur performance being, of necessity, a poor performance. The Romantic artists helped this impression along, creating the cult of 'artiste' as a rarified, suffering individual floating far above the plane of ordinary, mortal existence.
This worship-and-adore-me-from-afar arrogance was cultivated by artists such as Paganini, Byron (who mocked amateur friends when they waxed poetical), Liszt, and seminally, by Goethe, whose Sorrows of Young Werther in 1775 created the image of the fatuous, self-involved, modern artist. One of the great scandals in Anne Brontë's Tenant of Wildfell Hall is that the young lady has the temerity to make a living from selling her paintings. In Wilkie Collins' No Name, the degredation of the younger daughter is complete when she goes onto the stage to earn money, after her parent's death. And Edith Wharton's snide The Dilettante speaks for itself.
Searching the web the last few days under the word dilettante, I came up with a depressingly large number of scurrilous definitions, as per the one at the top of this collumn, and a lot of half shame-faced, half defiant personal blogs, making fun of themselves as jacks-of-all-trades, and masters of none. But it is the blogosphere itself which gives me hope that the 17th and 18th century understanding of dilettante is coming back into fashion. For what are bloggers but modern-day dilettantes? Almost always without direct specialized education, they boldly dive into all conceivable topics...like modern day Montaignes. Interest and competence seem to once again matter, rather than a specific University degree, or a years-long apprenticeship. I would like to place myself proudly in the category of the modern dilettanti, were I so assured that I was competent in anything outside of my own profession (ironically: the arts).
I think it's time that we, in regarding the dilettanti, discard 'dilatory', and go back to 'diletto'...delight, beloved.
Escutcheon Blot...amateur writer, painter, and pontificator.