Until about a century ago, European culture was a standard for the rest of the world to emulate. Now it is moribund or non-existent. Several commentators of the caliber of Niall Ferguson and Mark Steyn have been saying for some time that the game is up for Europe. It jolted me when not long ago a book of Walter Laqueur’s foresaw that the whole continent was turning into nothing but a tourist trap, with museum attendants and gondoliers and the like preserving the past just to live off it. Perhaps it is coincidence, but in the years since the European Union imposed itself nothing of any cultural significance has been produced under its auspices.
I am in Italy where the newspapers convey this sense of dying out. Here’s an issue of the left-wing La Repubblica with one downbeat headline after another: for instance, “Too much sacrifice and little hope,” or “the Economy is to blame for so many human dramas.” One article states that more than 1,000 businesses are closing each month, and another records how the unemployed are committing suicide, leaving notes like this one from a man who hanged himself in Salerno: “I’m afraid of the taxes to be paid, I’m afraid of what’s awaiting me.”
“Americans in Florence” is a wonderful exhibition in the Strozzi palace that gives a glimpse of how very different things were when Europe still mattered for its creativity. At the end of the 19th century American artists came to that city to absorb its culture. John Singer Sargent was one who painted in the great tradition. His portrait of Henry James, bequeathed by James himself to the National Portrait Gallery in London, shows a man of the same stamp, able and willing to be the master of them all. I knew little or nothing of artists such as Frank Duveneck, the Fabbri brother and sister, Frank Weston Benson and others, but the energy with which they threw themselves into everything around them is unmistakable. The thought came to me unbidden that this American interest in human life is the cultural dynamic that Europeans have lost and that Islamists with their vaunted love of death could never know.