Our Cultural Humility
IT was Matthew Arnold, read and reverenced by the generation immediately preceding our own, who set to our eyes a definition and a goal of culture which has become the common property of all our world. To know the best that had been thought and said, to appreciate the master-works which the previous civilizations had produced, to put our minds and appreciations in contact with the great of all ages,— here was a clear ideal which dissolved the mists in which the vaguenesses of culture had been lost. And it was an ideal that appealed with peculiar force to Americans. For it was a democratic ideal; every one who had the energy and perseverance could reasonably expect to acquire by taking thought that orientation of soul to which Arnold gave the magic name of culture. And it was a quantitative ideal; culture was a matter of acquisition — with appreciation and prayerfulness perhaps, but still a matter of adding little by little to one’s store until one should have a vision of that radiant limit, when one knew all the best that had been thought and said and pictured in the world.
I do not know in just what way the British public responded to Arnold’s eloquence; if the prophetic wrath of Ruskin failed to stir them, it is not probable that they were moved by the persuasiveness of Arnold. But I do know that, coming at a time when America was producing rapidly an enormous number of people who were ‘comfortably off,’ as the phrase goes, and who were sufficiently awake to feel their limitations, with the broader horizons of Europe just opening on the view, the new doctrine had the most decisive effect on our succeeding spiritual history. The ’land-of-liberty’ American of the era of Dickens still exists in the British weeklies and in observations of America by callow young journalists, but as a living species he has long been extinct. His place has been taken by a person whose pride is measured not by the greatness of t he ‘land of the free,’ but by his own orientation in Europe.
Already in the nineties, our college professors and our artists were beginning to require the seal of a European training to justify their existence. We appropriated the German system of education. Our millionaires began the collecting of pictures and the endowment of museums with foreign works of art. We began the exportation of school-teachers for a summer tour of Europe. American art and music colonies sprang up in Paris and Berlin and Munich. The movement became a rush. That mystical premonition of Europe, which Henry James tells us he had from his earliest boyhood, became the common property of the talented young American, who felt a certain starvation in his own land, and longed for the fleshpots of European culture. But the bourgeoisie soon followed the artistic and the semi-artistic, and Europe became so much the fashion that it is now almost a test of respectability to have traveled at least once abroad.
Underlying all this vivacious emigration, there was of course a real if vague thirst for ‘culture,’ and, in strict accord with Arnold’s definition, the idea that somehow culture could be imbibed, that from the contact with the treasures of Europe there would be rubbed off on us a little of that grace which had made the art. So for those who could not travel abroad, our millionaires transported, in almost terrifying bulk and at staggering cost, samples of everything that the foreign galleries had to show. We were to acquire culture at any cost, and we had no doubt that we had discovered the royal road to it. We followed it, at any rate, with eye single to the goal. The naturally sensitive, who really found in the European literature and arts some sort of spiritual nourishment, set the pace, and the crowd followed at their heels.
This cultural humility of ours astonished and still astonishes Europe. In England, where ‘culture’ is taken very frivolously, the bated breath of the American, when he speaks of Shakespeare or Tennyson or Browning, is always cause for amusement. And the Frenchman is always a little puzzled at the crowds who attend lectures in Paris on ‘How to See Europe Intelligently,’ or are taken in vast parties through the Louvre. The European objects a little to being so constantly regarded as the keeper of a huge museum. If you speak to him of culture, you find him frankly more interested in contemporaneous literature and art and music than in his worthies of the olden time, more interested in discriminating the good of to-day than in accepting the classics. If he is a cultivated person, he is much more interested usually in quarreling about a living dog than in reverencing a dead lion. If he is a French ’lettré,’ for instance, he will be producing a book on the psychology of some living writer, while the Anglo-Saxon will be writing another on Shakespeare. His whole attitude toward the things of culture, be it noted, is one of daily appreciation and intimacy, not that attitude of reverence with which we Americans approach alien art, and which penalizes cultural heresy among us.
The European may be enthusiastic, polemic, radiant, concerning his culture; he is never humble. And he is, above all, never humble before the culture of another country. The Frenchman will hear nothing but French music, read nothing but French literature, and prefers his own art to that of any other nation. He can hardly understand our almost pathetic eagerness to learn of the culture of other nations, our humility of worship in the presence of art that in no sense represents the expression of any of our ideals and motivating forces.
To a genuinely patriotic American this cultural humility of ours is somewhat humiliating. In response to this eager inexhaustible interest in Europe, where is Europe’s interest in us? Europe is to us the land of history, of mellow tradition, of the arts and graces of life, of the best that has been said and thought in the world. To Europe we are the land of crude racial chaos, of skyscrapers and bluff, of millionaires and ‘bosses.’ A French philosopher visits us, and we are all eagerness to get from him an orientation in all that is moving in the world of thought across the seas. But does he ask about our philosophy, does he seek an orientation in the American thought of the day? Not at all. Our humility has kept us from forcing it upon his attention, and it scarcely exists for him. Our advertising genius, so powerful and universal where soap and biscuits are concerned, wilts and languishes before the task of trumpeting our intellectual and spiritual products before the world. Yet there can be little doubt which is the more intrinsically worth advertising. But our humility causes us to be taken at our own face value, and for all this patient fixity of gaze upon Europe, we get little reward except to be ignored, or to have our interest somewhat contemptuously dismissed as parasitic.
And with justice! For our very goal and ideal of culture has made us parasites. Our method has been exactly wrong. For the truth is that the definition of culture, which we have accepted with such devastating enthusiasm, is a definition emanating from that very barbarism from which its author recoiled in such horror. If it were not that all our attitude showed that we had adopted a quite different standard, it would be the merest platitude to say that culture is not an acquired familiarity with things outside, but an inner and constantly operating taste, a fresh and responsive power of discrimination, and the insistent judging of everything that comes to our minds and senses. It is clear that such a sensitive taste cannot be acquired by torturing our appreciations into conformity with the judgments of others, no matter how ‘authoritative’ those judgments may be. Such a method means a hypnotization of judgment, not a true development of soul.
At the back of Arnold’s definition is, of course, the implication that if we have only learned to appreciate the ‘ best,’ we shall have been trained thus to discriminate generally, that our appreciation of Shakespeare will somehow spill over into admiration of the incomparable art of Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson. This is, of course, exactly to reverse the psychological process. A true appreciation of the remote and the magnificent is acquired only after the judgment has learned to discriminate with accuracy and taste between the good and bad, the sincere and the false, of the familiar and contemporaneous art and writing of every day. To set up an alien standard of the classics is merely to give our lazy taste a resting-point, and to prevent forever any genuine culture.
This virus of the ‘best’ rages throughout all our Anglo-Saxon campaign for culture. Is it not a notorious fact that our professors of English literature make no attempt to judge the work produced since the death of the last consecrated saint of the literary canon, — Robert Louis Stevenson? In strict accordance with Arnold’s doctrine, they are waiting for the judgment upon our contemporaries which they call the test of time, that is, an authoritative objective judgment, upon which they can unquestioningly rely. Surely it seems as if the principle of authority, having been ousted from religion and politics, had found a strong refuge in the sphere of culture. This tyranny of the ‘best’ objectifies all our taste. It is a ‘best’ that is always outside of our native reactions to the freshnesses and sincerities of life, a ‘best’ to which our spontaneities must be disciplined. By fixing our eyes humbly on the ages that are past, and on foreign countries, we effectually protect ourselves from that inner taste which is the only sincere ‘culture.’
Our cultural humility before the civilizations of Europe, then, is the chief obstacle which prevents us from producing any true indigenous culture of our own. I am far from saying, of course, that, it is not necessary for our arts to be fertilized by the civilizations of other nations past and present. The culture of Europe has arisen only from such an extensive cross-fertilization in the past. But we have passed through that period of learning, and it is time for us now to set up our individual standards. We are already ‘heir to all the ages’ through our English ancestry, and our last half-century of European idolatry has done for us all that can be expected. But, with our eyes fixed on Europe, we continue to strangle whatever native genius springs up. Is it not a tragedy that the American artist feels the imperative need of foreign approval before he can be assured of his attainment? Through our inability or unwillingness to judge him, through our cultural humility, through our insistence on the objective standard, we drive him to depend on a foreign clientèle, to live even in foreign countries, where taste is more confident of itself and does not require the label, to be assured of the worth of what it appreciates.
The only remedy for this deplorable situation is the cultivation of a new American nationalism. We need that keen introspection into the beauties and vitalities and sincerities of our own life and ideals that characterizes the French. The French culture is animated by principles and tastes which are as old as art itself. There are ‘classics,’ not in the English and Arnoldian sense of a consecrated canon, dissent from which is heresy, but in the sense that each successive generation, putting them to the test, finds them redolent of those qualities which are characteristically French, and so preserves them as a precious heritage. This cultural chauvinism is the most harmless of patriotisms; indeed it is absolutely necessary for a true life of civilization. And it can hardly be too intense, or too exaggerated. Such an international art exhibition as was held recently in New York, with the frankly avowed purpose of showing American artists how bad they were in comparison with the modern French, represents an appalling degradation of attitude which would be quite impossible in any other country. Such groveling humility can only have the effect of making us feeble imitators, instead of making us assert, with all the power at our command, the genius and individuality which we already possess in quantity, if we would only see it.
In the contemporary talent that Europe is exhibiting, or even in the genius of the last half-century, one will go far to find greater poets than our Walt Whitman, philosophers than William James, essayists than Emerson and Thoreau, composers than MacDowell, sculptors than Saint-Gaudens. In any other country such names would be focuses to which interest and enthusiasms would converge, symbols of a national spirit about which judgments and tastes would revolve. For none of them could have been born in another country than our own. If some of them had their training abroad, it was still the indigenous America that their works expressed, — the American ideals and qualities, our pulsating democracy, the vigor and daring of our pioneer spirit, our sense of camaraderie, our dynamism, the big-heartedness of our scenery, our hospitality to all the world. In the music of MacDowell, the poetry of Whitman, the philosophy of James, I recognize a national spirit, ’l’esprit americain,’ as superbly clear and gripping as anything the culture of Europe has to offer us, and immensely more stimulating, because of the very body and soul of to-day’s interests and aspirations.
To come to an intense self-consciousness of these qualities, to feel them in the work of these masters, and to search for them everywhere among the lesser artists and thinkers who are trying to express the soul of this hot chaos of America, — this will be the attainment of culture for us. Not to look on ravished while our marvelous millionaires fill our museums with ‘old masters,’ armor, and porcelains, but to turn our eyes upon our own art for a time, shut ourselves in with our own genius, and cultivate with an intense and partial pride what we have already achieved against the obstacles of our cultural humility. Only thus shall we conserve the American spirit and saturate the next generation with those qualities which are our strength. Only thus can we take our rightful place among the cultures of the world, to which we are entitled if we would but recognize it. We shall never be able to perpetuate our ideals except in the form of art and literature; the world will never understand our spirit except in terms of art. When shall we learn that ‘culture,’ like the kingdom of heaven, lies within us, in the heart of our national soul, and not in foreign galleries and books? When shall we learn to be proud? For only pride is creative.