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Salvation by Words

This is a part of the Blashfield Address delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Letters at its annual ceremonial on May 17.

We are told that art is now under attack. Of course it has often been under attack. Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so. However it may be admitted that in this age art seems to have rather more enemies than usual. The tyrants of course are still here, and we know what they do. But now science, philosophy, and forces arising within art itself threaten this traditional activity: an activity which we are so used to, which we take so much for granted, and which is perhaps more frail and unstable than it might seem.

The Romantics felt instinctively that science was an enemy of art, and of course in certain simple and obvious ways they were right. A technological society, quite automatically and without any malign intent, upsets the artist by taking over and transforming the idea of craft, and by endlessly reproducing objects which are not art objects but sometimes resemble them. Technology steals the artist’s public by inventing sub-artistic forms of entertainment and by offering a great counterinterest and a rival way of grasping the world.

Of course science affects the artist not only in his public relations but in his soul. What is called “anti-art” is not a novel phenomenon. The latest art has often seemed like an anti-art and been so regarded by its friends as well as its enemies. At regular intervals in history the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society. In this century we have already seen the completed history of a movement, surrealism, which fought art by art on behalf of revolution. The surrealist movement, of course, ended by dividing into two, some of its members returning into art via anti-art and others abandoning art for politics. The motives of surrealism are not unlike the motives of our contemporary anti-art revolutionaries. The artist has a particular way of making his own a very general revulsion against a materialistic reproductive industrial society. He is particularly well-equipped to attack and caricature this society, and he may elect to do so by deliberately deforming his own art and turning it into a mockery and a provocation.

A motive for change in art has always been the artist’s own sense of truth. Artists constantly react against their tradition, finding it pompous and starchy and out of touch. Today’s reaction seems only more extreme than before, in that many young artists, especially in the visual arts, seem to want to reject the whole of the European tradition and to challenge the very idea of the work of art, that well-known and well-loved idol of so many past generations. The work of art and the artist as its creator have lost some of their old grandeur and dignity. Writers and painters are not so much revered now as they were, say, in the nineteenth century. And there is a deep crisis of confidence in the very idea of art as the making of completed statements. I think that technological entertainment sub-art affects the artist here by showing him how what is utterly ephemeral can have an immensely attractive technical perfection and can be, because it is so unpretentious, curiously honest. European art, the great art upon which we were once brought up, is certainly very grand stuff by comparison, claiming serious attention, professing to purvey universal truths, offering big complicated completed statements about the world. Many people today, especially young people, instinctively mistrust this claim to completeness. They want to challenge the completeness of the art object itself as a way of challenging the authority of the statement it appears to be making. Traditional art is seen as far too grand, and is then seen as a half-truth.

There is also, and has been, only now it is stronger than ever, a decent and comprehensible kind of utilitarian reaction against art. Philistines, of course, we have always with us, but I am thinking here not of Mr. Gradgrind but of sincere people who feel that in a world reeling with misery it is frivolous to enjoy art, which is after all a kind of play. There is a familiar puritanical and Protestant ancestry to this thinking, which expresses itself in the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who refused to allow poetry a dignity which was higher than that of pushpin. Today technology further disturbs the artist and his client not only by actually threatening the world, but by making its wretchedness apparent upon the television screen. The desire to attack art, to neglect it or to harness it or to transform it out of recognition, is a natural and in a way respectable reaction to this display. Western moral philosophy, which has of late been moving quietly from existentialist behaviorism to sociological utilitarianism, has in fact thereby exhibited in philosophical form two of the possible hostile reactions to art. Existentialism, the last fling of liberal Romanticism in philosophy, by putting a value upon sincerity and immediacy, suggests a criticism of old solemn art as being in mauvaise foi. The “happening” is a proper child of existentialism. In fact Romanticism has always held the seeds of anti-art in its cult of sincere feeling. Rousseau: the beginning of the end. While sociological utilitarianism, with a bent that is scientific rather than humanist, represents a certain deliberate and even high-minded philistinism.

I cannot here discuss all these multifarious foes of art. I want simply to do two things: to diagnose what I think is a fundamental malaise which afflicts us (in the West) about art; and to make a resultant recommendation. To help the diagnosis I want to draw in two great and notorious, and in many ways sympathetic, critics of art: Plato and Freud. Freud says that “before the problem of the creative artist psycho-analysis must lay down its arms.” However, Freud does not lay down his arms. He tells us that art is essentially the fantasy life of the artist stimulating the fantasy life of the artist’s client. The work of art lies in between acting as a sort of concealed bribe. The formal and “innocent” aesthetic charm of the art work leads the client, as it has already led the artist, on toward an end pleasure of quite another sort, a sexual satisfaction in a licensed play of fantasy, which provides the work with a spurious air of completion. Art then consoles, but does so by secret and unacknowledged means; the unity and the dignity of the work of art are in a sense sham.

Freud is actually too loyal and traditional a European to make his attack upon art in any savage style. He interlards his criticism with compliments, though the criticism is none the less devastating. No such polite respect for a large established institution hampered Plato when he decided to exclude artists from his ideal state. Plato outlaws the artist for reasons which are remarkably Freudian. He regards art as the base addressing the base, created by and for and about the lowest part of the soul. Art studies the unstable and the various, what we might call the neurotic, which it can easily and amusingly depict. Goodness, which is steady and unified and “uninteresting,” art cannot understand or represent. (Plato is thinking mainly of writers of course.) Art moreover makes us “relax our guard” (Plato’s phrase) and indulge vicariously in adventures of emotion which we would not tolerate as part of our “real life” activity. Art is a false consolation, celebrating the mediocre and the mean and excusing self-indulgent emotion.

This powerful attack, which occurs at the end of the Republic, may be effectively read in conjunction with a remarkable passage in the Phaedrus (275), in which Plato criticizes writing. I mean the use of a visual symbolism to express words, then of course still a comparative novelty. Plato says that written statements can only properly be reminders of genuinely understood communications which occur viva voce face to face. A written statement, like a picture, is only itself and cannot answer back. It is portable and can be moved from one place to another and so is able to be degraded and misunderstood by ill-wishing and mediocre minds. The written word should always be thought of as ancillary to real direct communication, by which it must be constantly refreshed, and not as an end in itself. Literature then, verbal art, would of course be open to this criticism too if it were written down. Thus Plato anticipates not only Freud (whose therapy depends, incidentally, upon the spoken, not written, word), but existentialist aesthetics and Marshall McLuhan as well.

I think these two great critics have suggested an unease about art which perhaps especially afflicts us now. Of course it can be said at once that what Freud and Plato have to say applies with a prime obviousness to bad art: the lowest part of the soul amusing the lowest part of the soul. But what is interesting about it is that it has its application to good art too. Many people, including many artists, feel now that art affects a false dignity and purveys a false consolation, and that the work of art is a false unity. Much visual art exhibits a consciousness of this false unity by an attack upon unity as such. Pictures fall out of frames, objects are made too large or too senselessly complex to be grasped by a unified vision. The printed word too is thought of as somehow essentially insincere, and hence a preference for immediate experience, participation, happenings, which cannot lie.

It may in fact be, in this age of frightful self-consciousness, wise and healthy to admit that art is a sort of conjuring trick and that the work of art is a sort of pseudo-object. Of course works of art are not, though they are linked more or less closely to, “material objects.” The work of art, however, appears as a sui generis “object” in so far as it appears as a quasi-sensuous self-contained unity. W. H. Auden describes a poem as a “contraption,” but adds that there is a guy inside it. This felicitous image suggests something a good deal less formally complete than many advocates of art would like to think that works of art manage to be. Of course the arts differ among themselves, and certain arts, perhaps music, can attain a degree of formal completeness that is impossible in literature; and I mainly have literature in mind here, though what I say does, I believe, apply mutatis mutandis to all the arts. Of course no poem, no play, and a fortiori no novel can be as clarified and as non-accidental and complete as it seems, and as it aims at seeming, to us when we are absorbed in it, or when we vaguely brood upon it when not studying it. How small in compass a Shakespeare play often looks when we return to the text from a more vague enjoyment of our general sense of it as an object.

There is certainly a conjuring trick. But our discovery of the trick need not discredit the trickster. We in the West have always been perhaps too fascinated by the idea of the work of art, that grand safe authoritative benign resplendent transcendent entity. And now we express uneasiness about art by means of criticism of the art object, and feel that if the object is attacked art is attacked. I myself very much believe in the importance of the work of art as an attempted formal unity and completed statement. There is no substitute for the discipline of this sort of attempt to tell truth succinctly and clearly. This particular effort is uniquely world-revealing. I do not think that the traditional production of works of art is ending or should end. But art is not discredited if we realize that it is based on and partly consists of ordinary human jumble, incoherence, accident, sex. (Sex, though it produces great thought forms, is fundamentally jumble: not even roulette so much as mish-mash.) Great art, especially literature, but the other arts too, carries a built-in self-critical recognition of its incompleteness. It accepts and celebrates jumble, and the bafflement of the mind by the world. The incomplete pseudo-object, the work of art, is a lucid commentary upon itself.

Andrey Sinyavsky has defined art as telling truth by the absurd and leading up to simplicity. These words are important. Art makes a place for precision in the midst of chaos by inventing a language in which contingent details can be lovingly noticed and obvious truths stated with simple authority. The incompleteness of the pseudo-object need not affect the lucidity of the mode of talk which it bodies forth; in fact, the two aspects of the matter ideally support each other. In this sense all good art is its own intimate critic, celebrating in simple and truthful utterance the broken nature of its formal complexity. All good tragedy is anti-tragedy. King Lear. Lear wants to enact the false tragic, the solemn, the complete. Shakespeare forces him to enact the true tragic, the absurd, the incomplete.

Great art, then, by introducing a chaste self-critical precision into its mimesis, its representation of the world by would-be complete, yet incomplete, forms, inspires truthfulness and humility. (So Plato, though partly right, was partly wrong.) Great art is able to display and discuss the central area of our reality, our actual consciousness, in a more exact way than science or even philosophy can. I want to speak finally about one of the main tools of this exploration: words. If we wish to exhibit to ourselves the unpretentious, un-bogus piercing lucidity of which art is capable we may think of certain pictures, certain music. (Bach, Piero.) Or we may think of a use of words by Homer or Shakespeare. But there is no doubt which art is the most practically important for our survival and our salvation, and that is literature. Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood, of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence. We became spiritual animals when we became verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit. Of course eloquence is no guarantee of goodness, and an inarticulate man can be virtuous. But the quality of a civilization depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth, and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision. Some misguided people even attack the printed word and hence words themselves in the name of sincerity and genuine feeling. But we have to realize that, in our world, the quality of words is the quality of printed words. Of course Plato is right that words are best understood, are most precise and profound, when used in particular face to face contexts. The printed word has inevitable ambiguities. And doubtless there are some things, such as Zen Buddhism or the philosophy of Wittgenstein, which can only be communicated at all by viva voce discussion. But since we do not live in a city-state we have to use print, and though this is a danger it can also be an inspiration and a challenge.

We must not be tempted to leave lucidity and exactness to the scientist. Whenever we write we ought to write as well as we can, in order to meet the dangers of which Plato spoke, and in order to defend our language and render subtle and clear that stuff which is the deepest texture of our spirit. When George Jackson deplored time wasted upon Latin that could have been used for maths or science he was wrong from his own point of view. Of course the exactness of science has an importance which is not likely to be underestimated. But the study of a language or a literature or any study that will increase and refine our ability to be through words is part of a battle for civilization and justice and freedom, for clarity and truth, against vile fake-scientific jargon and spiritless slipshod journalese and tyrannical mystification. There are not two cultures. There is only one culture and words are its basis; words are where we live as human beings and as moral and spiritual agents.

As I said earlier, I do not think that the art object as would-be complete statement either will or should perish. It is important to try to make such statements because they challenge our ability to discern and express truth and often constitute the only form in which certain truths can be expressed at all. And I think that the work of art, as a pseudo-thing, is profoundly suited to the nature of beings who inhabit a thingy planet and are themselves pseudo-things. I believe that, as in the past, art will take over anti-art and make it its own. This is an anti-metaphysical age in our part of the world. The rejection of art is in many ways an aspect of a general rejection of metaphysics, in philosophy, in religion, and in the popular beliefs which are compounded out of these. This stripping down of the scene certainly produces shock. But it has also perhaps made possible a kind of healing agnosticism, a natural mysticism, a new humility which favors clarity and plain speech and the expression of obvious and unpretentious truths: truths that are often unconnected and unhallowed by system, reflections of the somewhat random creatures that we are. Both art and philosophy constantly re-create themselves by returning to the deep and obvious and ordinary things of human existence and making there a place for cool speech and wit and serious unforced reflection. Long may this central area remain to us, the homeland of freedom and of art. The great artist, like the great saint, calms us by a kind of unassuming simple lucidity, he speaks with the voice that we hear in Homer and in Shakespeare and in the Gospels. This is the human language of which, whenever we write, as artists or as word-users of any other kind, we should endeavor to be worthy.

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