The so-called divorce between contemporary art and the public is not a recent development. Even fifty or a hundred years ago—and one could go back much further—there was an art for the few, for initiates. Leopardi and Baudelaire failed to win enthusiastic recognition in their lifetimes, and Manet had to slap one of his denigrators to turn him into his devoted servant and patron. Nevertheless, the initiated public in the last century was still a public, not a crowd of failed artists. Those who approached Parsifal and the Ring Cycle at the end of the nineteenth century studying ponderous “thematic guides” and following the leitmotivs with their fingers were lawyers, doctors, businessmen, not always failed musicians or poets.
Today, it is no longer so. Only the professional (whether he is failed or not), only someone “in the field” can hope to be, I won’t say entertained, but less frightened by certain forms of art which refuse categorically to take shape too visibly or perceptibly. Go and hear Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon: a man recites (bad) lines of Byron in stentorian tones. His cries succeed—and fail—at overcoming a sea of intestinal rumbling and dissonance which do not engender surprise so much as tedium, for the ear quickly becomes accustomed to the new tones, the new false notes. The piece goes on and on, but it does not live during the performance, nor can it hope to do so afterward, for it does not affect anything that is truly alive in us.
If this example doesn’t suffice, try reading an “uninterrupted” poem by Éluard, or worse, by one of his followers: you will find pages composed of strings of adjectives, hundreds of them, without a single noun; you will find poems in which each line moves on its own, has a meaning in and of itself, but is not linked to the others. The syntax is nonexistent, or it is confined to a level that is not only extra-logical but extraintuitive. At the most, it is sustained by a mechanical association of ideas. The reader has to create the poetry for himself; the author has not chosen for him, has not willed something for him, he has limited himself to providing a possibility for poetry. This is a great deal in itself, but not enough to stay with us after the reading. An art which destroys form while claiming to refine it denies itself its second and larger life: the life of memory and everyday circulation. I will try to explain what this second life of art is so as not to be misunderstood.
It is true: the work of art that is not created, the unwritten book, the masterpiece which could have come into being and did not, are mere abstractions and illusions. A fragment of music or poetry, a page, a picture begin to live in the act of their creation but they complete their existence when they circulate, and it does not matter whether the circulation is…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Translation © Jonathan Galassi 1981