THE ARTS, THE SNOBS, AND THE DEMOCRAT *

Jacques Barzun

If a democratic society is left to its own devices, what kind of art can it expect? Henry Adams, almost fifty years ago, was already concerned over the frittering away of cultural energy that might result from free democracy. His assumption was that in the past, notably in the Middle Ages, there was an imposed standard to give coherence to individual effort, a central authority to pay for great works of art, and a consequent richness of production. Moreover, having an absolute standard, the artist could warn, instruct, and glorify what was socially sound. He could criticize life and mold it to a common morality.

This is an historical appeal which must be met at the outset with two denials. The absolute unity of the medieval scene is imaginary rather than real, and the criticism-of-life theory is recent. It is in fact contemporary with democracy as we know it. If we pick up the critical works of Aristotle, Pope, or Lessing, we are at once struck by the fact that they were hardly concerned about the poet''s rapport with his environment. He was said to write well or ill according as he possessed skill and inventiveness, judgment and power. Those were the variables, while Nature was One. The spirit or breath that made the artistic mill go round was supposed to originate in the bosoms of nine barefoot ladies, as old as the hills on which they lived, and who therefore no longer bothered to suit their attire to changes in fashion.

Since about 1800, owing chiefly to the historical-minded Romanticists, criticism has changed. Nature means a particular clime and time. Art is a particular, personal gift. We expect individual forms from individual talents. We clamor for an American literature, native music, and circumstantial landscapes. We put the artist on the spot and expect him to stay there. The products of art must smell of the soil, or at least of the asphalt of a particular city. Woe to the poet whose free verse is too free of vital statistics, or to the novelist who does not "formulate" properly! We demand, but how do we provide?

The usual reply is that great art flourishes whenever the

____________________
*
[From Of Human Freedom ( Boston and New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1939). The text of this chapter has been slightly revised by the author. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

-15-

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