Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead

Melancholy, weary of politics, I took myself to the Clark Art Museum in Massachusetts this week, and found what I have been missing. Not beauty, not even excellence — just competence.

Beethoven, whom music scholar Hans Keller called “perhaps humanity’s greatest mind altogether,” enjoyed bad music, once in a while. But only once in a while.

Sweets can cloy. Even excellence can become wearisome. But never will I tire of competence.

That’s what I realized as I looked at a few square inches of clothes on a woman in a painting by a fellow I don’t care for: Constant Troyon, (1810-1865). The painting I didn’t like, but the texture of the linen, the folds as it wrapped around her body were perfect.

Like him or not, M. Troyon was competent. He knew what he was doing; he had spent years training himself to do it, and he did it well.

Here’s another of his pieces that hangs in the Clark. It doesn’t knock me out either, but look at the air and the light. It’s afternoon in late autumn, a bit cold. The trees are nearly bare, but it’s not spring. The light is slanted, but it’s not morning light.

A painter has got to be pretty damn competent to paint air.

Troyon began his career by decorating porcelain — delicate work. When he turned 21 he quit and traveled through France painting landscapes until he ran out of money. Then he’d apply for work at a porcelain factory and paint curlicues and whatnot until he had enough money to hit the road again. Not until he was 40 did he begin specializing in animals, which made him famous. He died at 54.

Let me illustrate this by another subject, in which I have some competence, journalism. When the Sulzberger family, which runs The New York Times, wants to train an heir, they send him or her to a small paper to work as a beat reporter. After a year or two, if the heir seems competent, they’ll kick him up to a bigger paper, as a reporter or maybe a low-level editor. If that works out, they’ll bring him to the Times and see how he does there, in one job after another. Only after this long period of apprenticeship, closely watched from on high, can an heir approach the inner sanctum.

I worked as a city editor for a publisher from a well-known newspaper family, which had a large and once powerful chain of dailies. He’d come up the same way, one step at a time. He was a great publisher — in the sense that he was great to work for. He knew the business top to bottom, and he never steered me wrong — even when he was dead set against me. Our little newspaper kicked butt, too. When his daughter graduated from college and wanted to go into the news business, he put her through the same apprenticeship to which the Times subjects young Sulzbergers.

Now imagine for a moment what would happen if the Sulzberger family, for reasons beyond human ken, decided to sell the Times and go into the ice cream business.

Suppose they appointed a generation of young Sulzbergers to make the ice cream and sell it, to make the machines that make the ice cream, to write the recipes for it, to tear up all the old supply contracts and hire new dairies, and new herb farmers, and flavor chemists, and trucking companies, and chemical and industrial engineers. Without knowing a damn thing about the ice cream business.

Would anyone be surprised if Sulzberger’s Hugely Great Ice Cream failed? From Day One?

Could any musician succeed by playing bad music all the time, when his caterwauling amuses only a select clientele, and even them, only once in a great while? And provides nothing but a degraded form of amusement?

Now think of the far more complicated and important problems involved in managing 330 million human beings. Without any experience at managing so much as a village.

Aside from kings and queens, I can’t think of any Great Person in history who became great by starting at the top. Life is not like that, except for kings and queens.

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