Thursday, August 27, 2015

Art Is Good for You, Alfred Kazin
So far as I can tell, there is nobody in the great enlightened American middle class just now who is not an art lover. Truck drivers may sneer at art and old laundrywomen may be too tired even on Sundays to paint; but if you have enough money and enough leisure, it is safe to say that you would dare any heresy in America now except indifference to art. Art is the paradise of "fulfillment" and "creativity" that democracy grants each of its sons and daughters. Especially its daughters, for the confidence that an American woman has in her choice of clothes and her ability to furnish a room invariably extends to the confidence that she can paint. And why not, when the cultural humility of the hayseed American turned businessman and world traveler no longer allows him to ignore the money in painting, the cachet in painting, the splendor of museums and the tyranny of "taste"? If any wife can paint, every husband has to be artistic. These days, who cannot pay homage to art when one considers (a) how "everything else" has failed and (b) that the vague daily discontent which used to be equated with the experience of mortality has now been identified as the unrest of being "artistic"?

To perform in music, you at least have to learn the language of music, and it is manifestly more difficult to write a book than to "sketch" a picture. But painting, already allied in history with churches and palaces, with the furnishing and decoration of houses and the cultural authority of museums, has now become the principal embodiment of the "artistic," of "creativity" —all the more in that painting has now broken away from representation and seems to be as free and easy as a thought, anybody's thought. Music will always be a language, and whatever its purity of form, a book must have a subject. But the more abstract painting becomes, the more intellectualized and assimilable the nonartist's use of it becomes, the easier it is to feel "creative" in the presence of paintings rather than in the reading of books. Andre Malraux has pointed out that art now seems to be embodied not in works—objects originally made for a purpose not purely "artistic" —but in moments; works have become only moments in the experience of us who behold them. 
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The cult of art, the widespread illusion that everyone should feel creative and "artistic," has led to a literary invasion of the art of painting and of art criticism. The more we are pressured into liking what it is inherently impossible for everyone to like, especially at the same uniform pitch of enthusiastic perception, the more we are likely to take secret refuge in literary reverie. E. M. Forster once wrote a charming essay on "Not Listening to Music," and confessed that in the concert hall he often thought of "how musical" he was. Much of what I read by art critics these days seems to me merely impressionistic, reveries on how creative the experience of art makes them feel.

A flagrant example is this book by Alexander Eliot, the art editor of Time. It is the most unabashedly literary self-dramatization in the presence of painting that I have read in years. Mr. Eliot explains that art is really a "city," and that all sorts of people are treating the city as if they owned it, "and they do," But some of us are still afraid of art, which is why we need a guide through "battlements" that seem to be "walls" but are really "gates." (Surely no one who cares deeply about painting is this much worried that everybody should love painting.) Mr. Eliot, in order to sanction his own literary emotions, is careful to explain away the philistine specialist, the coldly destructive critic, and to establish what he calls the "personal" point of view:
...The only way to begin to understand art is to accept it whole- heartedly on one's own, and then to enjoy it. The Spanish peasant drink- ing from a wineskin . . . never sips; he lets the wine spurt right down his gullet. Only afterwards will he reflect on its satisfying taste, the warm feeling in his belly and the new beauty of things round about. That is the way to enjoy art. Let questions of taste and scholarship ...come later.
So much depends on the "personal" interpreter:
Perhaps the path of free enjoyment and personal interpretation can help lead men back to the city. At least it demonstrates that art be- longs to them. To all who have eyes, art offers a flashing multitude of insights. Some of these insights the interpreter shapes into words and offers over again. He does not work dogmatically but as a friend in conversation, exactly as if he were describing people or landscapes that had inspired him.
But Mr. Eliot's own conversation is confusing. The book consists of very short orphic chapters — "The Children of Light," "What Do Artists See?" "The Birth of the Invisible," "Mirrors of Death and Life," "How to Just Imagine," etc., which have no visible connection with each other; free-association phrases that sound as if they had come out of a notebook alternately with random reflections that sometimes, not very often, express shrewd remarks about differences of style. And Mr. Eliot's own style is marked chiefly by the lack of any sustained argument. He writes about paintings by Caravaggio: "A black clamor threads the stillness of these canvases, as comets thread the cold of outer space." He says that "at his easel Monet was a frenzied athlete holding back the dusk. He begged mankind to witness a beauty on the edge of being lost. Not that he lacked faith in the morning: he knew the sun would arise again —and set again —but not for every man, not forever for any man, not very long for anyone." Does this say anything about pictures? Mr. Eliot's cult of the artist follows logically from his relative un- concern with the work itself, and at one point he even claims that great artists don't feel death as the tragedy that other human beings do:
To pretend that artists of Titian's size are doomed to the same disappointments and eventual usefulness as other men is to deny the saving grace of art itself. The great creators are not momentary, white-capped waves, however towering upon the seas of history, but sailors, admirals indeed, masters of their voyages. They sail upon history, including the history of thought and style, as upon the ocean sea.
In short, anybody who is lucky enough to be a great artist has, it turns out, an easier time of it than other people. "Artists come into the world not to fill their own bellies but to bring new nourishment to mankind." I wonder, however, if even artists know why "artists come into the world." Admittedly, good artists are people who have the ability to create works of art that are more coherent and lasting than they themselves are; but despite the pleasure we take in these works or the quickening of our lives through them, we do not actually know much about artists and cannot actually learn anything from their lives about art itself. In the despair of politics and the inadequacy of romantic love as the solution to every personal problem, we have put the whole burden of our salvation on art. But we press art too hard, we are too greedy for it to perform miracles in our personal lives, and it is for this reason that it is now possible to despise people who do not seem to love art as much as "we" do: they threaten the theoretical foundations of our happiness. Actually, if there were more intimate experience of art and less self-conscious use of art, we might see that none of us can fully explain the effect of art, or correct it when it is unsatisfactory, or keep it up as an ecstatic experience all the time. If we in this country had an honest sense of the limits of art, we would have a more grateful sense of its power. 
[1959]

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