Politics and the Arts

Where, as they frequently do, politicians fear or refuse to tread, artists must rush in to nourish the principles of freedom and human understanding. This theme is explored by the distinguished actor, director, short-story writer, and novelist Peter Ustinov. It is drawn from an address he delivered recently to an audience of politicians, the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

by Peter Ustinov

MORE faithfully than any historian, the artist reflects the atmosphere, the pith, and the prejudices of his epoch. He is the chronicler of moods, the distiller of style. He translates life into poetic and organized terms. In his lighter moments, he is the safety valve on the boiler of state. From the beginning of time, great kings had the habit of employing clowns to insult them, to cajole them, and to keep their feet on the ground while their heads were grazing in the clouds of conquest.

And yet, the function of the clown was always understood to be something outside reality. He could be as lethal as he wished — he could tell the truth about the ruler — but the laughter with which his truth was greeted was enough to divert it from its target. Occasionally an attempt is made to mix the worlds of reality and satire, as when the Beatles, who are in some respects Britain’s answer to the Boeing and the Bomb, were awarded the Order of the British Empire. Immediately a host of distinguished colonels, who were ready enough to enjoy the irreverent wit of the clowns as an entertainment, turned in their medals, feeling that the world of serious achievement was being invaded by some lesser breed of hero. Why is this? Is it not perhaps because those who reach the top of the tree are merely those who do not possess the qualifications to detain them at the bottom? After all, if by some extraordinary quirk the Secretary of State were compelled to fill in for an ailing clown, his lack of qualifications would become apparent in a matter of seconds, whereas a clown standing in for the Secretary of State would have a very much better chance of survival. My guess is that the change would pass completely unnoticed for several months, until such time as people began to be aware that no diplomatic blunder had been committed for a remarkably long period. Then they might reasonably ask themselves what had gone wrong in high places.

There is a reason, naturally, for the predilection of those who govern to commit errors of judgment. They are politically engaged, whereas the clowns are professionally detached. Detachment affords a much clearer view of the world, and an untrammeled spirit to boot, whereas engagement compels both opportunism and compromise, and is a fruitful source of ulcers.

If, now, there is a perceptible tendency for these two worlds to drift toward each other, this should not be put down entirely to a sudden ambition of the entertainers to be taken seriously, but rather to the emergence of television as a political medium.

This has had much the same impact on the political life of all nations as the advent of sound had on Hollywood. Just ascertain stars of the silent screen found the abrupt ability of the public to hear their voices an embarrassment, so experienced orators felt bewildered and cheated when their beloved audience vanished into an impersonal black box with an unblinking bloodshot eye mounted on it. In desperation, many distinguished public figures turned to actors for advice on makeup, comportment, and elocution, and the actors often took advantage of their own savoir faire, with the result that George Murphy is now in the Senate, with Ronald Reagan in hot pursuit. Soon equal time will be of less moment than the billing.

In case it be thought that this is a purely American phenomenon, I hasten to make it clear that a talented actor from the Stratford-on-Avon Company is now giving his performance daily in the House of Commons, in what threatens to be his longest run. Also, in the recent French elections, M. Mitterand enjoyed the voluntary services of one of France’s leading actors in matters of technical advice, but General de Gaulle, in the first counterattack of this type, proved himself a greater actor than the tag team ranged against him by cleverly consenting to become a bumbling granddad before the cameras while his opponent acquired the crafts of the performer, and consequently lost votes every time his newfound resonance and elocution excited the indifference of the viewers. It is a curious phenomenon that in the glacial era of computers which we are just entering, this second ice age, it is warmth and warmth alone which carries the day on television. Had the medium existed in Hitler’s day, I doubt very much whether he would have persuaded even the most hardened goose-stepping dolt that all was in order with the Reich. His fireside chat to the nation, in which he would presumably have been seated in an armchair near the burning Reichstag, might have begun in calm, but it would have quickly disintegrated into an interminable harangue of the nation — and politicians who address the nation as a nation on television are on their way out. Even if twenty million people are watching a program, they are not seated in serried ranks, but in their homes in threes and twos and ones, and there is nothing more forbidding for the solitary viewer than to be addressed as though he were a huge cross section of the populace.

I am told that in the Californian senatorial race, George Murphy mumbled and bumbled, lost the thread of the argument, and misplaced his notes, while Pierre Salinger answered with crystalline dexterity and a fabulous command of his various subjects. We all know who got in. The actor disguised as a common man defeated the common man disguised as an actor on an untechnical K.O. It was the same in the heavyweight match in Paris. The professional disguised as an amateur defeated the amateur disguised as a professional. In other words, in order to compensate for the increasingly impersonal aspects of society, nature has brought us television, on which, for the sake of preserving the last vestiges of humanity, the Achilles heel lords it over the head, and fallibility wins over proficiency.

I HAVE dwelt on these developments at such length because in order to discuss international understanding through the arts, we must first discuss the nature of our battlefield, and the nature of the weapons at our disposal.

It a cliché to say that the world is shrinking. What is perhaps less conventional is to say that the frontiers of liberty itself are shrinking, and shrinking perilously. The span of possible political thought has diminished. England is now represented politically by three parties of the center, and the reason for the difficulties of the gallant Liberal Party is that the other two parties have occupied their platform, on which there is now standing room only. The Conservatives of today would have horrified Disraeli, while the Socialists would have appalled the Fabians. Britain, like every other country, is shackled by her economic and geographical possibilities. There is only one policy left. It matters less today what is done than how it is done. In the German elections, the real differences between Erhardt and Willy Brandt were minimal. Today, we tend to vote for men rather than parties or even opinions. In France, the elections were a palpable effort to rid the country of a man, but since the opposition, a hybrid collection of impossible bedfellows, had no idea half as constructive or a quarter as coherent as those of General de Gaulle, this old-fashioned parliamentary expediency was doomed to fail.

Whenever I ask experienced politicians to explain the difference between Democrats and Republicans, I get a different answer, and it usually boils down to dissension on a local level. I do not think it can be denied, however, that the left wing of one party is frequently much closer to the left wing of the other than either left wings are to their own right wings.

As the political cement dries, the countries of the free world are further bound to each other by a series of military treaties which inhibit independent opinion even more thoroughly, until eventually, while still jealously guarding our theoretical freedom of choice, we may all well be asking ourselves of what value this freedom is when there is no choice left. I believe it is the artist’s solemn function to defy this perceptible diminution of our horizons, and to risk disapproval, suspicion, and even hostility in the relentless pursuit of objective vision.

In this increasingly technical world, it is small wonder that the two giants, the United States and the Soviet Union, are watching each other like hawks as the race goes on on earth, in the stratosphere, and in the caverns of the sea, each believing that the other may chance on some bright idea which will give it a temporary advantage.

Consequently, the Soviet Union watches the tremendous acumen of American technology — a formidable surge of industrial power and flexibility in the very country which Karl Marx in Das kapital foresaw as the obvious first victim to Communism. What does she do? She peppers her industry with incentives and artificially inseminates her own system with competitive ideas. Russia has reached a stage in her development where a greater degree of liberty is a necessary prerequisite to expansion, and so she slyly but practically adapts some of the methods of capitalism to her own rigid structures.

At the same time, she is the only country which has consistently boosted the position of the artist in her own society. This may well be due in part to the traditional piety with which Russians, red or white, have always worshiped the arts, but it is certainly also a logical consequence of her particular revolutionary tradition. The Communists well know that although the rage of the masses may spark a revolt, revolutions are made of grimmer fiber and of sounder mind, and they are carefully planned, not by hungry workers, but by artists and intellectuals.

The phrase is not mine, but is a common one in the vocabulary of Communism. Artists and intellectuals are always lumped together as the new elite, the aristocracy of the left. Their rewards are high when they respond to the courtship of the Party by toeing the line, and their punishment is terrible when they seem ungrateful for their special position by declaring their independence. It is natural that in such a society the interpreter has a much easier time of it than the creator. Even if there is a subversive or reactionary way of playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, it is frankly beyond the capabilities of the average commissar to detect it, but even the glummest of high-ranking comrades recognizes a pessimistic symphony when he hears it. The result is that there was a sudden spate of great Russian interpreters playing and pirouetting their way into our hearts, and spreading their innocent message of goodwill in all parts of the world. The United States, believing that the Soviet might be onto something good here, abruptly began looking to its own artistic heritage, and unleashed a process of cultural escalation worthy of its size and importance. Pianist for pianist, fiddler for fiddler, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are well matched, and their struggle for ascendancy gives general pleasure, which is a change. The interest started during Mr. Kennedy’s tenure, and it continued, albeit with a little less assurance than before, under Mr. Johnson. For instance, Mr. Lowell, great poet that he is, was enabled to attract much more attention to his particular point of view by his refusal to attend a function at the White House than he would have by merely writing to a newspaper. In doing what he did, Mr. Lowell admirably illustrated the ideal position of the artist in society. He not only has a perfect right to his opinion, but as perfect a right to take expedient advantage of a specific opportunity to express it.

President Johnson, in attempting to smooth the ruffled feathers, a process in which the hard school of politics has made him an expert, most graciously read out his favorite lines from among Mr. Lowell’s works on a subsequent occasion — lines which turned out to be by Matthew Arnold.

Such lapses are charming, and point to the fact that the arts as a field for government support are virgin soil. Perhaps the British have a little more experience in this field owing to the unfortunate financial circumstances Britain is in. The arts always seem to flourish in times of financial stress. The German theater had its golden era during and after the inflation of the early twenties; the Russian cinema never rediscovered the drama and the beauty of the films of the immediately postrevolutionary epoch. The American theater’s most exciting time was during the Depression, and now Britain, suffering from the humiliation of shrinking pains and the embarrassment of a slow surrender to new standards which she accepts as practical necessities but which nevertheless repel her, suddenly concentrates on the arts as a vital last ditch for the contribution she still has to make to thought and action in this world. You will not have noticed it over here, but I assure you that when there is not quite enough money to make your own spacecraft, it is the arts which benefit.

THE roots of the British theater have always been in the foreground. The theater, until recently, has never been admitted as a cultural activity but rather as a place of slightly reprehensible diversion, and the actor, and more especially the actress, have been understood to be vaguely disreputable. Shakespeare was probably frowned on by upright people of the sixteenth century as a farmer with an uncontrollable vice. “Most unfortunate,” they no doubt muttered; “he’ll give Stratford a bad name.”

Since the first actors in America were English, because ours is an unabstract art, which depends on language, it is natural that you inherited the kind of theater which is so admirably described in the phrase “show business,” whereas music, being abstract and international, was certainly brought into this country by musicians from Central Europe, who established your admirably decentralized system of orchestras, inbred with civic pride and a healthy rivalry. Many American orchestras are known the world over, by reputation, and now by records, whereas no regional or even metropolitan American theater is known anywhere, simply because up to the present there have been none which deserved to be known.

The instinctive misgiving which many Americans feel when confronted with anything vaguely smacking of socialism sets up a resistance to a government’s involvement in any private enterprise, but those very people are unaware of the extent to which socialism has entered their lives. The schemes whereby workers win bonuses of stock in the corporations for which they work and various pension plans are all unadulterated socialist practice — in fact, I would go so far as to say that there is only one corporation in this world which is larger than General Motors, and that is the Soviet government. Gone are the days when the outgoing chairman of the Supreme Soviet is sent to prison. This simple procedure has been supplanted by a board meeting, which is in some respects even more sinister. Mr. Khrushchev enters the boardroom, and immediately notices an atmosphere of complicity among the other board members, which makes him fidget. Before he has a chance to open the meeting, Mr. Kosygin, the spokesman for the opposition, puts his arm around his shoulder in friendly fashion and says, “N.K., the boys and I have been looking at the figures. We made too many convertibles again last year, and not enough sedans. There’s a glut of carburetors, N.K., and a shortage of spark plugs. Now, N.K., you’ve always wanted more time for golf —" I sometimes wonder if the Russian revolution really took place at all, and if it wasn’t merely the antitrust laws which broke down over there.

IN EUROPE, socialism has made large inroads, no matter which governments are in power. Ironically, the United States is substantially responsible for much of this, since the commercial invasion of our markets by large American corporations in search of new fields of expansion and seeking to escape from the restrictions imposed on them at home has driven more and more of our industries to seek protection from our respective governments, and once the government is entrenched in commercial life, it gets in everywhere. I am not complaining about this. In order to complain about a tidal wave, you have to be on more intimate terms with the Almighty than any mere mortal can be — but in the theater, I am saying that the United States is indirectly responsible for “Thespicare,” our Arts Council which worked on a shoestring while Britain was still manufacturing her bomb and still had high hopes for her brilliant aircraft industry, which is being battered into a pulp by your commercial methods. Now, more money is available within the possibilities of our economy, and the Arts Council, acting rather like a Film Finance Corporation, helps those who are willing to help themselves.

To give you an example, the city of Nottingham is about 200 miles north of London, and has a population of over 800,000. It was always rather a good theater town for touring companies, but nothing exceptional. The building itself is clean, but old, and by no means ideal for new methods in the theater. After much bitter political haggling in the town council, it was decided by one vote to risk building a new and very modern theater, with its own restaurant, picture gallery, and so on, a real cultural center. The new theater opened to howls of misgivings from the philistines. It was launched with a performance of Coriolanus, and has since played classics, modern plays of quality, and many world premieres with a permanent company of actors, including Julie Christie. In the three years which have just finished, it has played to 92 percent capacity. In other words, it is paying its own way. This is an extraordinary record, and it has started a chain reaction among other civic authorities, but it would have been impossible without government support.

If there is no government support, the consequences are as paradoxical as they so often are in societies overjealous of their freedom of action.

The professional theaters in the United States are not up to the streamlined standard set by business and industry. The buildings, even if well cared for — which is rare, believe me — are old, with limited and uncertain futures. To add fuel to the irony, there is usually some superb seat of learning not two miles away, with a magnificent theater constructed by a world-renowned architect, which is used only for lectures or graduations or an occasional performance of Electra in ancient Greek.

This is the consequence of laissez-faire, or of freedom run wild. It is as though medical students were trained by the very latest methods, in the knowledge that when they graduate, they will be compelled to operate on ironing boards with rusty scissors.

The government has its place in the arts. The problem is as simple as this. So long as a government undertakes to reflect faithfully the will and desires of the electorate, it is duty-bound to recognize a public need. This need to occupy the mind is palpably evident in the so-called culture explosion, the vast sale of paperback books, the creation of FM good-music stations, and the longer leisure hours as the advanced technology leaves us more hours of idleness. This is a cold statement of fact, as practical and as hard as a national emergency. The enemy is at the door. The enemy is idleness, free time. The rise in delinquency shows that this problem is not being faced. The arts are not merely for the old and erudite; they are for the young and unformed. There is no incompatibility between Barnum and Beethoven; both have their place in a cultured society. But the dispensation of the arts is certainly more effective on a state level than on a federal level, since it has to be handled in any but wholesale methods, each case being individual and different, and having to cater to local needs. Money can come from any source, but the problems are most effectively dealt with on a state, or even better a civic, level.

As for better international understanding through the arts, I feel that there was more chance of this when we were all further away from each other than we are today. The arts can hardly be used today to introduce unknown countries to one another, but they can be used to correct misapprehensions. Curiously enough, because of circumstances, the United States seems to be the country in the world most in need of constant understanding. Like Britain in the Victorian era, America finds herself with a host of real world obligations, to which she sometimes adds a few gratuitous obligations of her own. She is alone in many ways, isolated by her own immense power. She has no allies, since it is impossible for a small country to be an ally of a vast one, unless you are willing to call the sidecar the ally of a motorcycle, or a button the ally of a coat. Sometimes, with the elegance of an elephant dancing on its points, it steps among us, touchingly attempting not to fray the susceptibilities of allies like the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Nicaragua. At other times, a spokesman such as Dean Acheson declares tactfully that General de Gaulle is talking utter nonsense, and goes on, in his infinite . . . I was going to say wisdom, but I will substitute the word experience, to say that France is like the sick man who has been saved from death, and who suddenly believes himself fit enough to brave the elements. It is not surprising that to French ears Dr. Acheson sounds like one of those physicians immortalized by Molière who do not wish the patient to get well.

No one in his right mind is anything but grateful for the aid which has flowed so generously from the United States, but don’t forget that in the last four years, Europe has purchased nine billion dollars’ worth of American military equipment, representing more than 1,200,000 man-hours. Much of this we could have manufactured ourselves.

General de Gaulle’s attitude hardened when the only large French computer corporation went to GE, and when Simca vanished into Chrysler’s bosom. His struggle may be quixotic, but it is fundamentally right. Dr. Acheson feels that the balance of power in Europe is imperiled by this seeming defection. It is the balance of power itself which is stagnant and unproductive and dangerous. The good General’s position is that of a traveler seated by the window in a train. The other passengers beg him to close it. He refuses. Thanks to him we may all catch head colds, but we may be saved from asphyxiation.

To be frank, we all regard America with great admiration for her institutions and her energy, and because her people are immensely likable, but we are rather afraid that it is humanly impossible to have developed such a colossal military machine without being tempted to use it at times. The incident of the Dominican Republic, for instance, seemed to me as disproportionate in its application of power as though I had rung for a waiter only to find the entire hotel staff answering my call. Events such as the temporary loss of a nuclear device in Spanish waters do nothing to allay European fears — I notice that bombs are called devices when they don’t explode — and it really requires a slavish devotion to free institutions to allow yourself to be blown sky-high by your protector in the interests of democracy.

To counter the effects of the new American paternalism toward the Europeans, the American arts have made more valid contributions than American diplomacy. Films such as On the Waterfront, The Blackboard Jungle, and more recently, West Side Story amazed us all by their lyricism and by their ability to take an objective and cruel look at aspects of your civilization. Any form of sincere self-criticism is humanizing and welcome. Dr. Strangelove also was considered an extraordinary film, although I must say that the glut of pictures about U.S. Presidents going imperceptibly out of their minds did cause us a little concern. It was not the fact that they went out of their minds which was disturbing, but the fact that none of the sane advisers noticed until it was too late.

I said in Moscow a year ago that we all have much more to learn from each other than we have to teach each other. Surprisingly I got a standing ovation from an audience weary of propaganda and doctrine. The arts do not teach, but we can learn from them. The mind and the heart require food just as the stomach does, and with the increasing sameness of life, they are and must remain the last pasture of the questing spirit.