Well, take a writer, for example. His medium is words. Now, words have meanings and, with those meanings, emotional associations. Despite all cynical doubts, it is very difficult for a writer not to say something whenever he assembles his words, and he likewise cannot avoid stirring in some measure the emotions of his readers. But so far as he does these things, he is intimately bound to life and to the world around him. He could be completely detached only if he treated words as sounds which have no sense, and this he would have to do in such a way as not to suggest any meaning through the very absence of it. This technique has been attempted by Miss Gertrude Stein, but it cannot be said to have caught on.
The painter has a wider area in which to practice detachment. He does not have to represent on canvas the forms and movements of ordinary life. He may, if he likes, paint “non -objectively”; that is to say, he can assemble colours into patterns of his own choosing without any resemblance to objects as they are seen. There can be no objections to this procedure so long as it remains one among many possible choices for painters to make; we do not require literal representation upon rugs or drapery, and there seems to be no reason why we should specifically require it for painting. Yet, even here, if complete detachment were to be attained, the painter would have to annul any possible suggestion which might lie in the painting’s emotional appeal. Kandinsky, for example, copies nothing; but the magnificence of his composition suggests harmony and movement, which in turn can suggest other concepts to the very boundary of an observer’s thought.
The composer seems at first sight, more detached from life than any other artist. Unlike the writer, he actually does deal with sounds that have no fixed meanings. Yet he is bound to life by emotional association fully as much as writers are. No one can take Tchaikovsky to have been an optimist; no one can imagine Beethoven to have been a man of small ideas. For his part, the old giant still maintained that in every work he expressed some portion of his philosophy. The apparent meaninglessness of musical composition is in fact an invitation to listeners to supply it with meanings as their minds roam free. Probably the only way to cancel all possible meanings would be to make the work so dull as to be no invitation.
It seems unlikely, then, that there can be many works of art which have no reference to life and the problems of living. For most artists it must remain inseparably difficult to negate the very humanity which is the source of their own skills. Try as one may to empty art of content, there will remain some hint, some whisper, which shall set in motion the minds of other men.
But these are limited examples, and we need a larger view. It seems to be a fact that the more a work of art is directed to mass audience, the greater the amount of surreptitious comment it contains. Best selling novels present themselves as pure narratives, that is to say, as chronicles of speedy and titillating events (pun intended), without the least commentary. Yet the sufferings of Scarlett O’hara would almost persuade us to love those wayward and exquisite slave owners who refuse to pass peacefully out of power. Even for reactionaries, grief over a lost tyranny is a waste of tears.
A more humble art form is the comic strip, but the public which it reaches is now so enormous that one can exclude oneself from it only by a violent exercise of will. In my boyhood, comic strips contained one joke per day, with no attempt at continuity. Even then, however, R. K. Laxman’s column The Common Man was a spirited expression of democratic revolt against parvenus and aristocrats. I do not know whether Mr Laxman drew all this consciously, but I acknowledge that I am in his debt.
if complete detachment were to be attained, the painter would have to annul any possible suggestion which might lie in the painting’s emotional appeal. when we survey the entire realm of art, we cannot fail to observe how rare and how difficult is genuine detachment from life. try as we may, an artist will seldom contrive to be absolutely speechless. he is almost certain to say something about something. when he does this, he comments; and when he comments it will take an analytical genius to decide whether or not he has committed propaganda.
Superman, who (as we are told) is not a bird or a plane, clearly compensates by his incredible powers for the impotence of common man. We readers, thwarted on every side by a social system which we do not control, find pleasure in the imaginary existence of a man whose powers are limitless and whose purposes are sublime. Unfortunately, he acts as a substitute, not as an inspiration. He leads us to rely on intervention from outside us and to forget how massive our strength can be, if we but organize it. Superman, I am afraid, is founded upon a retrograde social theory. At any rate, it is certainly not mere narrative.
The greatest of all mass arts is the cinema, and nowhere else does belief more ardently prevail that entertainment is the goal, not propaganda. “Entertainment” has acquired the power of a shibboleth. It appears to mean, primarily, escape from tedium or anxiety, from ugliness or defeat. It means, also, the sublimation of frustrated desire, as when the screen exhibits rooms we would like to live in and cannot, men or women we would like to love and cannot. It means, perhaps, the mere holding of attention, by which a few moments can be made to slip by.
When, therefore, we survey the entire realm of art, we cannot fail to observe how rare and how difficult is genuine detachment from life. Try as we may, an artist will seldom contrive to be absolutely speechless. He is almost certain to say something about something. When he does this, he comments; and when he comments it will take an analytical genius to decide whether or not he has committed propaganda.
Thus the belief that art and politics are incompatible as its social uses. The primary purpose is to silence and disarm. Everyone knows that ideas, when transmitted in the excitement of esthetic experience, have a powerful effect on the mind. Not only are they then more readily accepted, but they are more readily acted upon. While democracy persists, it is difficult to prevent such works by the use of government machinery. Suppression must be subtler. There can be no repression more subtle and at the same time more effective than to persuade novelists, playwrights and painters that their true vocation lies elsewhere. Once social themes are abandoned by the very men who could most passionately treat them, little needs to be feared from the imperfect performers who remain.
The primary use is thus preventive. A secondary, though valuable, use is a weapon of attack against those works which, despite all cajolery and enticement, continue to plead the hopes of mankind. To say that these are “propaganda and not art” is to say that the creator either has no knowledge of his craft or has sacrificed it to purposes beyond his legitimate reach. In this manner the novel is made to lose its readers, the play its audiences, and the painting its spectators. The superstition achieves all this without once hinting that the real objective of attack was not the work itself but the social ideas it contained.
If, lastly, the superstition, having fully concealed its origin and purpose, sets up as an independent esthetic theory, it will have an almost limitless capacity for harm. Creative genius. the mightiest of human faculties, must then confess itself a shorn Samson and humbly put its body to the wheel. Betrayed by a faithless Delilah and blinded by shrewd Philistines, it will have neither the thought nor the wish to pull down temples. So, while the assassin steals close, the dagger is lifted; but the victim murmurs, “I am an artist; I have no comment to make.”
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