Art or Anarchy?
Between the writing of checks and the writing of books there are undoubtedly certain resemblances, and yet the transition from the one to the other is not always achieved without difficulty. Both may require a measure of passion and commitment, but still, the kind of endowment that enables one to perform with stunning virtuosity in the one medium is not easily applied to the mastery of the other. Hartford is surely not the first author to stumble on this distressing truth—distressing, because it reminds us of how unequally fate has distributed its gifts amongst us—but his is nonetheless a particularly poignant case of a man who, having achieved a certain fame in the medium for which his forebears handsomely equipped him, is now found wanting in the quite different medium into which his aspirations have lately led him.
To turn first, however, to the positive side of Mr. Hartford’s career, there is no question that, so far as the writing of checks is concerned, he has already made his mark. As the benefactor of the foundation that bears his name, as a purchaser of advertising space in our major newspapers, as a leader in amateur museology and pretentious journalism, his name is sure to be remembered for years to come wherever these enterprises are cherished. If his interests have seemed, at first glance, to be scattered and incoherent, this has turned out not to be the case. Behind all these multifarious adventures there has been, all along, a consistency whose source is only now becoming apparent. It is for the light that it sheds on this source that this book, marking Mr. Hartford’s debut as an author, is particularly valuable.
The publication of Art or Anarchy? makes it abundantly clear that Mr. Hartford is, in fact, a type new to the modern scene and one about which we may expect to hear a good deal more in the future. This type may best be described as the Philistine militant. Traditionally, of course, the Philistine has been in control, and it was therefore the vanguard artist who was obliged to assume a posture of militant dissent. But now, as the public rushes in ever greater numbers to embrace what it conceives to be avant-garde, it is the Philistine who has come to occupy, by default as it were, the place left vacant by his traditional antagonist, and who, like other minorities that feel their rights threatened, has taken an activist stance to dramatize his case.
Lest this reversal of roles be thought to indicate a resurgence of Philistine taste, however, I hasten to point out that it is, on the contrary, only the by-product of the hegemony which so-called “advanced” art now exercises over our cultural institutions. (It also, incidentally, confirms Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself in the form of farce.) Normally quiescent, perfectly content to slumber in the cultural ooze, the Philistine is aroused to militancy only when he awakens, as Mr. Hartford has …
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 all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.