AMERICA AND ART *

Louis Kronenberger

The compelling fact about art in America is that it is not organic. It has almost no share in shaping our life; it offers, rather, compensation for the shapelessness. And just because we prescribe a certain amount of art for ourselves as a kind of corrective -- being "deficient" in art as we might be in calcium or iron -- we regard it less as ordinary nourishment than as a tonic, something we gulp rather than sip, regard with esteem and yet suspicion, and either require to be made up with a pleasant taste or exult in because it tastes unpleasant. The American feeling, or lack of feeling, for art as been immemorially easy to satirize, whether at the one extreme of Babbittry or at the other of Bohemia. All the same, for whatever reasons, such feeling has long been part of the American character -- which is to say that the American bent, the American genius, has honestly moved in other directions. Like the Romans and the Germans, we are not an artistic people. This may be partly the result of our so long being able to reach out, rather than having to turn inward; of our possessing a vast continent to traverse, subdue, explore, develop, grow rich on, so that there was no husbanding or skilled handling of resources, no modifying what we started with or were saddled with into something gracious and expressive. A race, like an individual, develops a style in part through what it has uniquely, in part through what it has too little of. French prose owes its dry, neat lucidity to the same things that produced a general lack of magic in French poetry; French women owe their chic, I would think, to their general lack of girlish beauty. Americans have suffered from overabundance -- from not needing to substitute art for nature, form for substance, method for materials. At the very point where a patina might begin to appear, or mellowness to suffuse, we have abandoned what we made for something newer, brisker, shinier; and with each such act we have become a little less "artistic" in our approach. But of course there is more to it than that. An artistic people -- the French, the Chinese, the ancient Greeks -- is one whose necessities are made the comelier by its dreams, but whose dreaming is equally controlled by its necessities: the two are integrated,

____________________
*
[From Company Manners, by Louis Kronenberger. Copyright 1951- 1953- 1954; used by special permission of the publishers, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. ]

-64-

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