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 lately done, to discover himself thoroughly displaced. Even then, his passive nature customarily inclines the Philistine to shrug rather than to rail. Luxe, calme, and a full stomach have a way of inhibiting more direct forms of action, particularly if they cost money. The result is that the new generation of Philistines has opted, in the main, for a kind of internal exile, settling, more or less comfortably, into a disgruntled underground where it may enjoy the benign company of others who don’t know anything about art but who know, emphatically, what they dislike.
It is precisely this underground to which Mr. Hartford has now given, as one might say, voice. Where others of his “cultural” persuasion have been content to shake their heads or even, when duly provoked, their fists, Mr. Hartford has heretofore chosen instead to write checks. Which is to say that, in terms of the time-honored Philistine Weltanschauung, he has shown himself more than willing to make the supreme sacrifice. It is this which sets him apart from the quiescent Philistines of former times. It is this which stamps him unmistakably as one of the new men, and which clearly entitles him to our respectful attention.
It must be admitted, however, that such men are not at their best in a literary role. The tiresome conventions governing the literary profession do not come easily to minds trained in the more celerious medium of the checkbook. The niggling requirement that, for example, words gathered into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, bear some discernible relation to each other and to some overall abiding “thought” is bound to act as a brake to precisely those passions which prompt an aspiring militant to attempt so obdurate a medium in the first place. Mr. Hartford is obviously a man who prefers action to words. Like all true militants, he is impatient of time spent in the pettifogging minutiae of literary syntax when so many other, more compelling tasks cry out for his attention. Yet what is he to do? By some cruel infelicity of fate, he finds himself in a position from which only “ideas,” so to speak, can extricate him, and he has faced up to this challenge manfully. Anyone who doubts it is advised to pay the closest possible attention to his herculean effort to find for the subject of every sentence in Art or Anarchy? a more or less apposite predicate. The effort is indeed epical, and if he does not always emerge from it with complete success, well, that is only a measure of the task he has set himself.
A work like Art or Anarchy?, with its wide-ranging references (Brueghel, Nietzsche, Peter Pan) and its recondite epigraphs (my own favorites are to be found on page 19, where Oscar Wilde follows hard on the heels of St. Paul), moving effortlessly between disparate spheres of specialization and evoking the most exalted achievements of the human spirit—such a work does not lend itself easily to synopsis, and I will resist the temptation to summarize, and thus simplify, its conclusions. For this is a book whose details must be savored before the full impact of its message (if I may be permitted a vulgarism) can be felt. Perhaps, though, a single quotation will suffice to indicate the immense scope of the inquiry: “If we understand the Bible and the Magna Charta [sic] and the Bill of Rights, then we know a great deal about the arts as well, for I believe that they are as firmly based in the same simple precepts of right and wrong—and of common sense!” A writer who undertakes so lofty a synthesis of Judeo-Christian ethics, political democracy, and the relations that obtain between aesthetics and radical empiricism must surely be permitted a few lacunae in the structure of his argument, especially if, like Mr. Hartford, he is giving voice to a point of view that does not customarily express itself in the medium of words.
February 11, 1965