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In Which A Little Of Everything Is Not Enough

Pleasure Is Serious Business

by Yvonne Georgina Puig

Greek Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti
through October 27th at the Getty Villa, Malibu

The impractical relevance of this exhibition, housed in a faux-Roman villa, atop a hill overlooking the Pacific, nestled far into the brush of Malibu, is startling.

Observing the work of these dilettantes past, the young, uncertain mind wanders from the actual paintings and statues and erotic curiosities into precarious existential territory. Am I a dilettante? And then, having considered the occupations and distractions of a handful of friends and acquaintances, the question is revised: Who isn’t?

As purveyors and consumers of the vagary known as “content,” it’s a question we’d do well to ask ourselves. Are we ashamed or proud to dawdle in a lifestyle that requires one only to be curious, and to simply, as the etymology tells us, from the Italian dilettare, “to delight”?

The Society of Dilettanti was formed in 1734 by some young British blue bloods, all veterans of the Grand Tour, looking to “encourage at home, a taste for those objects which had contributed to the entertainment abroad.” A sampling of their mottos: Seria Ludo (Serious Matters In A Playful Vein), Res est severa voluptas (Pleasure Is A Serious Business), and Viva la virtu (Long Live the Fine Arts.)

The Getty Villa has devoted three rooms to the fruits of the Society’s collecting and connoisseurship, and a dim corridor reserved for “erotic artifacts.”

There are portraits of early members by George Knapton, the Society’s first official painter. Francis Dashwood, a prominent member, dressed as a Franciscan Friar, head shrouded in an effulgence of gold, clutches a goblet reading “Matri Sanctoreum,” (To the mother of the saints), and stares off like a dope before the crotch of the Venus De Medici. Another member is dressed as a Cardinal, a filial of Pan, the Greek woodland god known for his naughtiness, perched on the back of his chair. An allusion to “sex vigor,” the curators tell us.

It’s easy to love these guys, so deliciously self-referential at time when most people were an unpleasant cocktail of anal-retentive and psychotically- religious. We are told that the Society “celebrated the interests of the amateur,” and that the “nominal qualification” for membership, according to the writer Horace Walpole, was “having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk.”

But the exhibition centers on the Society’s later study of Greek architecture, and Greek and Roman sculpture. The meticulousness of the architectural drawings, of the notebooks of the Society’s archeologists, suggests an interest in quantifiable beauty , a valuing of precision not in line with today’s understanding of the whimsy dilettante. These gentlemen may have indulged without restraint in life’s finery, reenacting the rights of Bacchus and the lot, but their humor was not entirely aimless.

Back then, to be a dilettante was to be delightful in a dreary society. Today, to be a dilettante is to be a narcissist and a hipster, a slight assuming an indistinct interest in self-expression coupled with a mediocre artistic ability. We are horrified by the thought of this dreaded combo, or else, lacking the attention spans to understand the cost of perpetual idleness, we prance our frivolity across the pages of photo blogs.

Can greatness be achieved without fire? Without a fear of failure seething in the gut, aiming itself at a specific target? It’s fitting to note that the word meticulous is derived from the Latin meticulosus meaning “full of fear.”

There’s little power in the mastery of pleasure, only release. But shouldn’t we also aspire to master our pleasures? David Hockney is the Society’s current official painter. A master of pleasure, yes, a dilettante, yeah right. Perhaps it amuses people who clearly aren’t dilettantes to play the part of the dabbling amateur, and I wonder if the Society of Dilettanti even admits dilettantes these days.

The fact is, a truly modern dilettante would likely not have much to contribute to a formal society other than a Xanax prescription. As for us sort-of dilettantes, we reel at the thought of being considered dilettantes, yet the old lifestyle of “delight” is alluring. Not as alluring, of course, as sweet, earned validation. In the meantime, however…

We leave the exhibition and stroll through a breezy colonnade into the Villa’s main courtyard, an ambrosial recreation of the real, Roman thing. There are ripe grapevines spilling over a trellis and fig trees in fruit. We pick a bunch of grapes and a few sticky, purple figs, and sit on the edge of the fountain. The water is cool, the sky is pale blue, the grapes are sour and pop in our mouths. The figs fuel the fire.

Yvonne Georgina Puig is the contributing editor to This Recording. Her blog is here.


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