The Isolation of the American Artist

First, last, and always a poet, ARCHIBALD MACLEISH has been for varying periods a lawyer in Boston, an editor of FORTUNE magazine, the Librarian of Congress, Assistant Secretary of Stale, and one of the first Americans to serve in UNESCO. He is today the Boylston Professor of English and Rhetoric at Harvard, and through his lecturing here and abroad he has become uncomfortably aware of the status of the American artist.

IN ATHENS it was Bill Faulkner. In Paris it was Thornton Wilder. In London it was Robert Frost himself. You can say almost anything else about the State Department these days but you can’t say it isn’t busily exporting the evidences of American culture. Except that Thornton Wilder wasn’t being exported. There was an interview with him in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune along in April or May in which he was reported as saying that one of the advantages of turning sixty is that you don’t have to go lecturing around the world for the State Department any more. Since I was turning sixty-five at the Hotel de la Poste in Saulieu at about that time, and since I had just come north from lecturing for the State Department in Rome, and west from lecturing for it in Athens, the remark rankled. It seemed to imply a judgment on my extra five years and my farther wanderings. There was Wilder in Paris giving it all up at the age of sixty.

And giving it up why? Because, he said, he hadn’t done it very well! It would be difficult to think of a more inadequate justification for a great resolve. In the first place, nobody in Washington has ever suggested that it should be done very well: you just do it. In the second, Wilder is the most felicitous talker in America on almost any subject and particularly on American culture, and it is inconceivable that, no matter where he spoke, he should have spoken badly. Even in London, where, as everyone knows, the difficulties of language are greatest and the interest in the subject least, he would have made himself understood, and on the Continent his appearances would have been triumphant.

Obviously all this was mere circumlocution. What Wilder meant was something very different. What he meant was either that the job wasn’t worth doing or that it couldn’t be done and therefore should not be attempted. And it was that thought that spoiled my birthday. I saw myself carrying news of American culture to the Romans and the Athenians and I blushed. In Rome I had spoken in the elegant little auditorium of the Embassy to an audience composed largely of Romans, with a scattering of young Americans; the ambassador and his staff had presumably heard about American culture before. In Athens I had appeared — that would seem to be the appropriate word — in a little downtown theater where the stage was set for a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank and the lights were green and the audience included, in addition to a few Embassy people and the usual American busmen, the poet Seferis, the novelist Venezis, the man of letters Katzymbalis, the painter Ghika. In both cities I had spoken on the same theme: the predicament of the American artist. And in both, it now appeared, I had wasted my time, to say nothing of the time of my listeners, and had conceivably made a fool of myself as well.

Why should the Romans or the Athenians care about the predicament of American artists? And how, even if they did, could you talk about it intelligibly? The Romans and the Athenians have writers of their own with their own problems. I remembered a luncheon under a budding grape arbor in the garden of a village inn outside Athens with the dark resinated wine in the little glasses and the blue profile of Mount Hymettus on the shining air and the big, fine voice of George Katzymbalis reciting a poem of Seferis and Seferis sitting silent listening, and afterwards the silence. Seferis must have known even then that he was to go to London as ambassador with all that bitterness of Cyprus to face and, back of him in Athens, all that bitterness. I remembered an evening in Rome when Silone had talked of the current newspaper sensation in words which had us choking with laughter, but with a curious ironical sadness in his eyes. I remembered Char, huge in the big room over his unexpected Paris garden, talking of Rimbaud but thinking from minute to minute of something else which pulled him back and back into himself. A writer’s life is difficult enough in any city these days. Why take on a foreigner’s troubles?

WILDER had me there, but still I couldn’t give in to him altogether. It’s true, you don’t go abroad for the State Department to make sympathizers for yourself. But what about your country? Isn’t there something writers and artists can do abroad which can’t be done by the diplomats and the sales agents and the bankers who are there already? It seemed to me there was, and that almost any observant American tourist could name it. For almost any observant American tourist who ventures beyond the grand hotels and the managed tours discovers sooner or later that, friendly as people are, there is a sleeping dog across the threshold. We are welcome enough to spend our dollars in the shops, but once we try to walk into a man’s life in Europe or in Asia it’s another story.

And not because our government has played a clumsy and blundering role in Egypt and the Middle East, but for another and more human reason. Governments are supposed to be stupid from time to time, and the world is ready enough to forgive the people they govern and to love them notwithstanding. What is wrong with us in our neighbors’ eyes is not our government but ourselves. Or, more precisely, what is wrong is the image of ourselves the world has formed.

The dog across the threshold, to give it the name the Europeans and the Asians and the Africans call it by, is American materialism. You stumble over it everywhere you go if the talk lasts long enough and the tongues are honest. Students meet it more often than their fathers and mothers, and Fulbright Fellows, teaching in colleges and schools, more often still, but every American traveler with eyes and ears and the wit to use them learns to know the dog is there. It is not only that we Americans are richer than the rest but that we seem to like being richer. We make a point of it. When we talk, as we tend to do, about “the American Way of Life,” we give the impression that we are thinking not of the freedom we have won for our minds but of the gadgets we have collected for our houses and our automobiles.

The impression is, of course, quite accurate. It is doubtful whether any people in history has ever thought as much and as frankly and as cheerfully about Things as we Americans have in the nineteen-fifties. For one thing, no people in history has ever had as many Things to think about as we have. Not even our American fathers and mothers. In McKinley’s time materialism was the privilege of the few who could afford it. With us it has become the birthright of something approaching a majority of the population. The proof is in the election returns. The party to which the manufacturers and distributors and advertisers of Things traditionally belong has so increased its public support with the aid of a popular President that it now holds power by manifest preference of the electorate rather than by prolongation of the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.

But if this is the underlying cause of the decline of what we call our foreign relations, then the part American writers and artists can play is fairly obvious. It becomes, indeed, a part they cannot help but play: a part they will find themselves playing whether they wish to or not. Artists are a kind of litmus paper to test the degree of materialism in any society, and the work they do and the way they live testify in spite of them or of anyone else. They exist, like the rest of us, by material means, and they can survive a high concentration of luxury and wealth — as they have done time and again in the history of art — but materialism of the spirit stifles them. It extinguishes their work, as it has done in Russia, or it deprives them of their place in the society, their influence, their effectiveness. The Russians have elevated their artists, so long as they are obedient, to the top of the hierarchy; but their work is mediocre. The work of Americans in many of the arts is of the greatest significance, but what is their place? Whether they speak or whether they are silent their actions are eloquent on that point.

The work speaks loudest, as it should. American architecture has imposed its profiles for better or worse on the metropolitan horizons of every continent. American music is hard to get away from anywhere on earth, and some of it, though commonly dismissed as popular, has influenced musicians far and wide. There are American novels which have found not only readers but imitators in most of the living languages, and American novelists who have dominated the art of fiction since Joyce died. Even in poetry, which is the most national because it is the least translatable of the arts, the principal influence in the English-speaking world over the past fifty years has been that of Yeats and Eliot and Pound, two of whom are Americans, while the greatest living poet today may well be another American, Robert Frost, whose work is so essentially of its own place and speech that, like certain exquisite wines, it will not translate at all.

BUT though the possibility for artists and writers to work in America can be demonstrated by the work itself, it is not so obviously self-evident that they have a place in American life. Seen from across the Oceans in either direction, and even from beyond the Caribbean, the apparent situation of American artists and writers seems to imply the contrary. Our writers appear, from that distance, to live in a kind of domestic exile. They are noticed in the news columns when they die or when they distinguish themselves in some artistically irrelevant way such as selling a novel to the movies for more than the last novel brought, or marrying for the seventh time, but their opinions on questions of public concern are not recorded. There are, that is to say, no American Goethes. There is not even an American Sartre. There are merely — or so it looks from overseas - - a number of more or less isolated individuals living quite out of the stream of American life on an island somewhere or in a foreign country or a provincial town or even an insane asylum while the great Republic speaks of itself to the world through its bankers and oilmen and corporation lawyers and generals.

Our friends abroad, needless to say, are well aware of the competence of those bankers and oilmen and generals. They do, however, find it both relevant and interesting that the most audible and authoritative voices in a Republic which once expressed itself through Whitman and Emerson should now be the voices of American men of business, and that the American people should see nothing odd in this situation. The European mind, which once observed that war is too serious an affair to be left to the generals, still believes that life is too important a business to be left to the businessmen. It still believes that great societies find their voices in their arts.

And there is other and more specific evidence which supports the impression that artists and writers play an inferior part in the present life of this country. Our friends abroad could hardly help noticing that American artists and American writers were among the principal targets of McCarthyism and that the indignities and perverse cruelties inflicted upon them were not resented by the American press and public as they would have been almost anywhere else in the non-Communist world. They noticed too that even when McCarthy was belatedly censured there was no expression of public sympathy for these particular victims and no demand that the ugly nonsense end. For, of course, it has not ended. In the vocabulary of the American moment, a vocabulary which listeners overseas find particularly revealing, writers and artists are classified as eggheads, and no one sympathizes with a broken egg: not even when the egg maintains itself with the dignity of an Arthur Miller.

Some of our fellow citizens, though holding no brief for McCarthyism, resent the conclusions drawn by Europeans from these facts. Our writers and artists, they point out, while no doubt badly treated, are not without blame themselves. Writers and artists are notorious political innocents swinging wildly from one extreme to the other, like Malraux, or canting and recanting, like Picasso. If the opinions of such people are not highly regarded in the United States, they have themselves to thank. How is the country to know from which particular soapbox a writer is addressing it? This, of course, is a familiar selfjustification; as familiar as the justification in Plato’s Republic, where the exile of poets was also defended. But in our time and country it suffers from something worse than familiarity. It misconceives the question at issue.

The question with us is not whether writers and artists change their minds. The question with us is whether the rest of the world is justified in regarding us as a materialistic people among whom artists and writers lead a second-class life or live in virtual exile. If it is, we can hardly regain its respect by arguing that we treat our writers and our artists as we do because they are political idiots. It is we who are on trial, not they. They are the witnesses.

They must be the witnesses, for they alone can testify credibly to the truth or falsehood of the charge. They alone know to what extent their apparent exile and their apparent inferiority are real, and they alone are in a position to confirm or deny the suffocating materialism from which we are thought abroad to suffer.

It is my personal belief that most of them, given the opportunity, would deny it. They would deny, that is to say, that American materialism, which is real enough and overreal, has yet reached the point of saturation at which the arts are in danger. They would even deny that their miseries under McCarthyism were and are wholly the consequence of a public indifference. On the contrary, many of them would willingly admit — and this would be the most telling aspect of their evidence — that the indifference was in large part theirs: that it was their failure to make concerted efforts to defend themselves, rather than the apathy of the country, which gave McCarthy his opening. They would not merely admit it, indeed, they would boast of it. They would tell audiences in any part of the world that, except for occasional misguided protests, they had been silent, and that they had been silent not because the senatorial inquisitors had torn out their tongues but because political silence is the political attitude appropriate to their calling. The American artist does not engage in political activity even to defend himself — even to defend the freedom by which art exists.

Not all of them, of course, would say this. There are still American artists and writers to whom the political world is part of the world the arts can know. But enough would express themselves in these terms to make it fairly evident that the so-called “isolation of the American artist" of which our friends in Europe are so fond of talking is an isolation quite as much by choice as by necessity. The “political art” of the thirties is as unpopular in artistic circles as it is among the politicians. And it is unpopular not for political but for aesthetic reasons. It is not that its artist was then a Communist or a Social Credit man or a clerical fascist or a New Dealer; it is simply that he proved himself aesthetically unreliable. He violated the American mystique, or what has since become the American mystique. He was not a pure artist. He was a political man.

THE isolation of the American artist, which looms as a political phenomenon in Rome, appears in America, in other words, in different colors. The political and social and economic factors of course exist. American materialism is as real as anyone in Italy ever thought it was. But there is another factor also which must be known and judged before the Republic is indicted as a country on the way to materialistic suffocation, and that other factor is one only American artists and writers can speak of with conviction, for only American artists and writers, and the critics who surround them, know that it is there. That other factor is the current American aesthetic.

What the dogmas of this aesthetic are is not perhaps as certain as it might be. None of the numerous critics who accept them have spelled them out in detail. But the fundamental position is nevertheless reasonably clear. The American aesthetic rests, as so many modern aesthetics have rested before it, on the old dichotomy between life and art. It does not go as far as the London aesthetic of the nineties which made of ar, in the angry phrase with which Yeats turned his back on it, a “terrible goddess" to whom life must be sacrificed, but it goes far enough to make of art a minor divinity which must have no traffic with one entire aspect of life.

One of its explicators, for example, informed his hearers on a most solemn occasion that the temptation most dangerous to the artist — the temptation the artist most should fear — is the temptation of public duty. Another, the editor of one of the principal organs of the American aesthetic, explained patiently to the Negro author of a brilliant first novel about American Negro life that a novel about American Negro life written by an American Negro cannot be a work of art because it must necessarily be a novel of “protest.”Nor did he shrink from the logical conclusion that American Negroes are thus foreclosed from writing novels that can be works of art at all.

The dogmas behind these various pronouncements may be vague, but what they add up to in the way of aesthetic doctrine is clear enough. What they add up to is a rejection, in the name of aesthetic value, of the old human dream of a possible reconciliation between the outward world of event and the inward world of conception through the act of art; the old dream that art may interpret the inward world to the outward and eventually make the outward world habitable for the creature within; the dream which every statue of the great age of Greece expressed and which some of them may, in their now unknown originals, have realized. It is not an admirable or very impressive doctrine. To declare, as the American aesthetic seems to do, that the effort to act upon the external world in the making of a work of art is a betrayal of the work of art is a misconception of the nature of art. The nature of art is action, and there is no part of human experience, public or private, on which it cannot act or should not.

But though this latest attempt to divide the practice of art by aesthetic theorizing from the political struggle in which the destiny of our time shapes itself is neither courageous nor noble, it has, nevertheless, its relevance. It puts the isolation of the American artist into a proper perspective. If more American writers and artists went abroad to work and talk, whether they were men who believed in the American aesthetic or men who didn’t, the truth of their situation would become more visible across the water than it is. It would then appear that though the increasing materialism of their country is an affliction to them all, their “isolation” in American life is quite as much a matter of the turning of their own backs on the age as of the age’s turning of its back on them. It would appear, that is to say, that American materialism is not yet the materialism of the Soviets and, with a bit more courage in its writers and its artists, never need be.

As for Wilder, I hope his vow of silence may wear thin and break. There is no man in America who knows the truth of the American writer’s dilemma better than he and no man whose words will carry farther round the earth. America may be the most magnificently industrialized nation in the world and the most powerful, but she desperately needs defenders who can use the weapons of the spirit, for it is there that she is vulnerable.