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…

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