Friday, March 08, 2019

Alma mater

It was not the best place in the world to study Art History. It was not the worst. It did not warrant the superlative degree of comparison. Within its high-ceilinged halls, lurking behind the plaster pillars painted to look like marble, slumped against the shelves of its reportedly estimable library, going up and down in the ancient two-person lift, were the usual degrees of wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, hope and despair. It was Dickensian, in short, and just as one tolerates a lot of nonsense in Dickens, a lot of it was tolerated here.

It was an establishment that had long outgrown its usefulness but was far too doddery to care. It was a finishing school in an era when the young no longer wished to be finished. The Catalfaque did not seek to explain its shortcomings. Indeed Catalfaquian explanations so quickly withered outside the sacred confines that it was deemed prudent to air them as little as possible. Oblivious to all else, the Catalfaque annually conferred degrees upon individuals who were able to take their places at any dinner table in the land, and were intent on doing so.

Many of this misguided crowd came, it must be said, from unfortunate backgrounds: at an early age they had been forced to don navy-blue blazers with gold buttons, as well as various articles of clothing constructed out of tweed, with a stylessness which they and their many authenticated forbears considered attractively aristocratic. Others had won their places besides the Catalfaque's stolid shelves through hard work, abject submission to examinations and their results, and the belief that the Catalfaque was a distinguished institution dedicated to the advancement of Art History as a respectable academic discipline. Without ado, and often much to their relief, these ingenues were soon informed that Art and History were but side-issues in a study that was more concerned with the geographical location and monetary value of two-dimensional antiques.
Ellmann, Lucy.
Varying Degrees of Hopelessness
Hamish Hamilton, 1991.

The author is a graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Home House, 20 Portman Square, is now a club

Gerard Hoffnung:

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