Edmund Wilson: I’m delighted to hear about your new magazine.
The Visitor: We hope that it’s going to be good.
Wilson: God knows that some such thing is needed. The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only made us realize it had never existed. Apart from Norman Cousins’ campaign for peace and an occasional article on popular science, the Saturday Review is interesting only for its reports on new phonograph records. And those quarterlies are still mostly wandering in the vast academic desert of the structure of The Sound and the Fury, the variants in the text of Billy Budd and the religious significance of The Great Gatsby.
But where did you get the money? Not from a foundation, I imagine.
The Visitor: That’s where we were very lucky. We tried the foundations first, but of course there was nothing doing.
Wilson: The big ones, so far as I can see—in the literary and scholarly departments, at least—are run by second-rate professors who have found that they can make more money out of that kind of bureaucratic job than out of mediocre teaching. I’ve been trying for many years to get really good complete editions of the American classics printed—like the French Pléiade series, you know. When a publisher friend of mine who has been trying to do something about it went to the Rockefeller Foundation, he was told that it would first be necessary to have a study made in order to find out whether the books were available—which everyone who has done any work in this field could have told him at once they are not—and then the foundation man remarked that there was really no point in reprinting any author complete: who ever read all of Shakespeare? At the Ford Foundation, he was told that the whole of their cultural budget had been allotted to provide two planes to fly over the Middle West, broadcasting educational programs. The people on these foundations do not seem to have any competence to make judgments on the projects submitted to them (I except the Guggenheim Foundation, which is an older and quite different thing), and they feel free to formulate projects themselves in fields they know nothing about, with no relevance to the applicants’ aims. A middle-aged anthropologist who had devoted many years of his life to a group of Australian aborigines or a tribe of Mexican Indians or something of the sort was told, when he applied to one of the foundations, that it had been discovered in their offices that very little anthropological work had as yet been done on the Turks, and that it might recommend him to investigate this subject, of which he was totally ignorant. A scholar friend of mine who is an expert on the numismatics of the Graeco-Roman world had, when I last saw him, been trying without success to get a grant which would enable him to do research on the coinage of Alexander the Great—of special interest, it seems, as the first really international coinage. I have just read that he has been made chairman of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I hear of nothing but such stupidities on the part of the big foundations.
I have just had a letter from the Ford Foundation inviting me to recommend candidates—let me read it to you—for “a one-year program designed to enable a limited number of poets, novelists and short story writers to spend a year with professional resident theater companies. The intention of the program is to bring established writers in non-dramatic forms into formal association with the theater and, by acquainting them with stage problems and the requirements of dramatic writing, ultimately to improve the quality of plays and scripts available to American directors, actors and producers.” What nonsense! A typical foundation project, obviously thought up by somebody who knows nothing about the theater. What are these prospective playwrights supposed to be actually doing? The way to learn about the theater is to have a play put on or to act in one, and a grant from the Ford Foundation can hardly help one much to do either. A man who really wants to write plays is sufficiently enamored of the theater to get into it at any cost. If a poet does not write plays, why encourage him to hang around theaters? There are some very good people here who are listed as having had grants, but what a farfetched pretext for giving them money to work! In the case of the universities, I don’t know whether the grants that they obtain from the foundations are for projects originated by the bureaucrats, which the university devotes to some other use, or whether the university, knowing how these things are done, dreams up some grandiose project which it knows will appeal to the foundation mind and then uses it for something else; but I have seen a certain amount of evidence that these subsidies do not always go for the purposes for which they were granted
Well, tell me how you did get your subsidy.
The Visitor: It all comes from one backer.
Wilson: An old-fashioned patron?
The Visitor: Yes.
Wilson: You don’t think he’ll interfere with you?
The Visitor: I don’t see how he can. He’s unshockable—about politics or religion or art or sex or anything. He doesn’t want his name made public, but he’s a cultivated European who married a rich American woman. She died and left him all her money, and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s a collector of various things, but his collections are now practically complete, and are beginning in fact to bore him. He says that, first of all, he would like to see a review that he himself can read, and, second, that a country as big as this and as powerful as we are now supposed to be has enough nearly literate people to make it perhaps important to establish a cultural journal which will not have to worry about money and so will be free to set its own standards and to get only first-rate writers who are allowed to say anything they please. He himself was something of a figure in the cultural life of his country before the Russians took over.
Wilson: Won’t he want to contribute himself?
The Visitor: He comes from a country with a minority language—only spoken by a few hundred thousand people. He has always read English but he doesn’t write it. German was his second language.
Wilson: One of those Baltic barons?
The Visitor: I’m not allowed to tell.
Wilson: Well, I congratulate you!—You say “cultural journal.” So you won’t be dealing only with books.
The Visitor: No, with all the arts—and that’s what I wanted to ask you about. You’ve written so much about literature but not much about painting and music. We wondered if you wouldn’t contribute some opinions about graphic and musical subjects.
Wilson: Gladly: I know nothing whatever about them.
The Visitor: But in the twenties you used to do articles on concerts and exhibitions.
Wilson: Oh, that was in the days when I was cultural man-of-all-work for the New Republic. I wrote about everything from burlesque shows and circuses to Stravinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe. I’d never dare to write such stuff today.
The Visitor: An informal interview, perhaps.
Wilson: That’s what I thought you meant.
The Visitor: I’m sure you must have some ideas on current tendencies in the musical and artistic worlds.
Wilson: I never think much in terms of tendencies even in the literary world. I have preferences in music and painting, of course, but there wouldn’t be any point in enumerating, for example, my favorite painters. In my case, such preferences would be of no interest. If I should say that I like Edwin Dickinson but don’t very much like Rouault, it would be like announcing in public that I like shad but don’t like lobster. In order to talk critically about an art, you have to have some inside knowledge of it, and as I’m neither a musician nor a painter even in an amateur way, I don’t really know how those things are done, so, in any technical sense, I don’t know what these artists are doing.
The Visitor: It would be interesting to hear your preferences.
Wilson: Not for painters or musicians, I’m afraid. But if you want some unauthoritative opinions, here goes. There’s one great phenomenon of modern painting about which I seem to be in a minority of one. That’s Picasso. I can’t really feel much interest in him. Of course, I see the brillance of his work, and even at times the beauty. I’m willing to believe that Picasso is the greatest draftsman since Raphael—that he’s a prodigy of inventiveness, “resourcefulness,” virtuosity, variety, all that. And yet somehow the whole thing bores me. I can’t help feeling that the man himself is shallow. The deliberate ugliness of his women that are seen simultaneously in fishlike full-face and profile seems to me in its way just as facile as the pathos and charm of the acrobats that he was doing in his early period, or the cubism that he played with and abandoned. He goes on doing one thing after the other without ever becoming more interesting. It’s all on the same level! His idea of tragic bitterness at the time of the Spanish Civil War! He could only make Franco grotesque and humanly unbelievable, and those horses with tongues like spikes and eyes like little dots on the sides of their heads—that he said represented the Spanish people—and those caricatured classical women with their thick necks and wooden faces and their fingers and toes like sausages—you can’t imagine them suffering anguish. Picasso was much more interested in his cleverness in putting over women and horses that looked like that than in anything connected with Franco. You know that popular print that belongs to the Guernica period: the little girl holding a candle and confronting the monstrous Minotaur? Once years ago my wife was going to buy it as a Christmas present for me, but was dissuaded by Clement Greenberg, the art critic, who assured her that I’d very soon get bored with it. So I bought it for myself and hung it in my office, and Greenberg’s prediction was correct. I usually enjoy the horrific, but I couldn’t believe in that Minotaur, and eventually I gave it away. Put Picasso beside Goya and he’s nowhere. In Goya you do feel the horror—a desperate and tortured contempt—of the cruelties of war and the Inquisition, of Saturne devouring his children. And his drawings are dark and corrosive, they leave a scar on the mind, whereas—in spite of his calculated outrageousness—Picasso merely startles and amuses. I never get tired of Goya, who is, on the whole, I suppose, the artist that I find most congenial.