Art Workers and the State

Britain’s most distinguished dramatist, whose plays, whose letters, and whose postcards have delighted people the world over, GEORGE BERNARD SHAW is just a little wiser and older than the Atlantic. He was born in Dublin in July, 1856, and these are the dates which stand out in his record: 1876, when he captured London for life; 1884, when he became the leading spirit of the Fabian Society; 1898, when he was married; and 1925, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.


BEING old enough to have been educated by Macaulay and John Stuart Mill on the subject, all that has lately been written about State selection of budding novelists, poets, painters, composers, scientists, statesmen, and philosophers, with State nurture of them by tax-exemption, prizes, endowments, and so forth, seems to me obsolete. A State department for such selection would be like one for the selection and support of possible Derby winners.

In a Socialist State, with the Marxian class war between proprietors and proletarians abolished, there will come to the front the conflict between the energetic few who want to work until they must go to bed or for a holiday tour of at least six weeks, and retire at forty, having paid scot and lot for their education, subsistence, and pension, into a private life of leisure and experiment, and the easygoing who want to work four hours a day or less for five days or fewer in the week, and retire at sixty or later.

There will always be such people; and Socialism will have to organize employment for them, just as it will have to organize the lives of those who make docile and useful prisoners and soldiers in a condition of complete tutelage, but, left to themselves, become helpless and incorrigible criminals, beggars, borrowers, tramps; in short, burdensome good-fornothings. In these last the human stock is not necessarily degenerating: it is in fallow, recuperating for future harvest. It may include brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, of the world’s greatest geniuses. Mozart’s son was only a fair musician like his grandfather. Mendelssohn’s father complained that he had begun as the son of his father and ended as the father of his son. Beethoven’s nephew was a scapegrace; and none of the kindred of Shakespeare or Dickens achieved anything like their eminence. Selection by heredity, the weak point in the feudal system, is thus ruled out under Socialism. So is extermination of the defective.

Nature, which our religious sects rightly call Providence, somehow sees to it that as many geniuses as are socially necessary are born; but under Capitalism most of it is extinguished by lack of leisure from breadwinning. I myself, after five years’ commercial servitude, had to burn my boats and sponge upon my parents for my livelihood for nine years of literary apprenticeship, before I could earn my keep by my pen. From commercial habit I worked daily at fiction, like Trollope, day by day, without waiting for inspiration; but the publishers were unanimous in their refusal to select me as an author; and the better I wrote, the more resolved they were to have nothing to do with me.

Their advisers, who included George Meredith and John Morley, knew their business as well as any State department could.

What, then, was needed to tide me over this period had my parents been unable to feed, lodge, and clothe me?

Clearly and simply a bread-and-butter job in the four-hour-five-day-a-week division, leaving the novice daily leisure enough to write fiction as a wouldbe novelist, to paint pictures, to compose music, to invent machines, to excogitate philosophies or scientific theories, taking the chance of imposing on the world as a professionally self-supporting storyteller, painter, composer, philosopher, inventor, or what not. Rousseau lived by copying music, Spinoza by grinding lenses, Wagner by conducting (and borrowing), Dickens as a clerk, Wells as a schoolmaster, others as journalists or what not. But nowadays few such employments leave sufficient leisure to maintain the natural supply of geniuses. Sterndale Bennett was extinguished by having to teach five-finger exercises to young ladies when he should have been composing. Newton might have got as far as Einstein if he had not been employed as Master of the Mint.

There is, as far as I can see, no other solution of the problem of original work under Socialism than routine jobs and shorter hours for aspirants. Some business training docs no harm to artists and thinkers; on the contrary, it saves them from being the feckless nuisances they now often are, living in an imaginary world and ignorant of the real one. The Harold Skim pole side of Leigh Hunt was an extremely undesirable one.

I must warn the Soot-or-Whitewash Brigade, the All-of-One-Piece-Beginners who make Socialism and every other change so difficult, that I am not renouncing all my Fabian doctrine and advocating the instant and catastrophic discontinuance of all tests of fitness for public employment except the Trial and Error test. All that I have written suggesting that the present, promiscuous popular selection of our rulers be restricted to panels of persons with a minimum of education and sanity is as valid as ever. People with the mental scope of villagers should be eligible only as parish councillors, and should at least establish their ability to read an agenda paper, and to have some notion of the surviving items in the ten commandments and the limits of religious and political toleration. For the highest offices of State a grasp of the two elementary laws of political economy (rent and exchange value), and of the scope and importance of the fine arts, physical science, law and the religions, should be exacted. This much is roughly but sufficiently ascertainable, and does not include individual technical accomplishment as distinct from comprehension. Until the popular electoral choice is limited to some such extent, our present system of election of anybody by everybody will continue to operate as a guarantee of mediocrity and reaction interrupted only by paroxysms of Hitlerism.

Socialists who want to have everything socialized, Liberals who want to have everything Cobdenized, Conservatives who want to have nothing changed, and people who are unaware that all civilization is based on a foundation of Communism and a surrender of individual liberty in respect of totalitarian agreements to do or not to do certain fundamental things, should be disfranchised. Some of them should be sent to mental hospitals. Every competent citizen should be Communist in some things, Conservative, Liberal, and even Capitalist in others all at once, before he or she can rank as a competent citizen.

But the social provision for genius will still be leisure for voluntary experimental apprenticeship. No better anthropometry is yet within our knowledge.

EACH MONTHhereafter the Atlanticwill feature a series of papers on the Arts. In subsequent issues we shall publish the contributions of Francis Henry Taylor, Virgil Thomson, George Biddle, MacKinley Helm, John Crosby, Huntington Cairns, and James S. Plaut.


FROM the first the Atlantic has earned the reputation of being hospitable to new writers. Acting on the principle that anyone of intelligence has a good story to tell, the Atlantic editors have brought into print a succession of autobiographical narratives, true stories of men and women who have shared with their generation the truth, the humor, and the beauty of a remarkable experience.
There was Mary Antin, the impassioned immigrant who spoke for millions in her touching account of “The Promised Land”; there was Hans Coudenhove, a Viennese nobleman who, after the First World War, renounced his title to live as a hermit in deepest Africa. There was that remarkable quartet of valiant “primitives”:Lucy Furman and Olive Tilford Dargan, who wrote so tellingly of the Southern mountaineers; Eleanor Risley, operating — on a shoestring — her apple orchard in the Ozarks; and far north, Hilda Rose on her Stump Farm. Bill Adams and Hugo Johanson sent us their salty stories of the sea. There were Nora Waln in the House of Exile, Agnes Newton Keith in North Borneo, and Betty MacDonald on her incomparable Egg Farm. Every one of them broke into print in the Atlantic.
The Atlantic would like to encourage more of such stories — stories which are drawn from experience and veritable in detail. For the three best autobiographical narratives submitted between now and June 1, 1948, we shall pay $1000 each. These awards are not intended for war material, and fiction will be disqualified. The narratives may be as short as 2000 words or as long as 7000; they may be written by an amateur or by a professional writer. On page 1 the contestant should write, “For the I Personally Award.” — THE EDITORS