new zealand electronic poetry centre


A.R.D. Fairburn


The Culture Industry

A.R.D. Fairburn

Originally published in Landfall 39 (September 1956): 198-211


The word ‘culture’ is used in a variety of ways by different writers. The most usual meaning is defined by the Shorter Oxford in these terms: ‘The training and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners; the condition of being thus trained and refined; the intellectual side of civilisation.’ The ideas and aims implied here, when conceived under the form, say, of Greek kalokagathia, or of Renaissance virtu, represent one of the highest projections of the human spirit.

In our own age, two things seem to have happened to the idea of culture. In the first place it as been narrowed greatly to signify, in the main, the practice and appreciation of the arts; and in the second, the dilettantism implied in this notion has achieved such a vogue that a new industry is being built up – one that has, among its other aims, the enlargement of its empire among the white-collar classes, and the development of State patronage. As our leisure increases, it is possible that the various activities that go under the name of ‘culture’ may become a rival to sport as a palliative for suburban boredom.

Of course the arts are an essential part of any genuine culture. Along with religion, philosophy and science, they are the means whereby individuals and communities become aware of themselves, and are conscious of meaning and value. Some would go further. In his latest book, Icon and Idea, Herbert Read argues that the image always precedes and makes possible the idea, and that the aesthetic provides the matrix of all meaning. Whitehead seems to have been moving towards the same conclusion along his own very different path. We can even find religious warrant: ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good’ – the logical end of Creation being its perception and enjoyment in contemplation.

In none of these cases is there any suggestion that passive aesthetic contemplation can be divorced from the active processes of creation. Still less is it implied that in the mansion of the human spirit the rooms must have no doors or windows. One of the problems we have to face today is that the practitioners of art, science, religion and philosophy, as well as the engineers, the business men and the politicians, would all like to seal off their particular room completely; or failing that, to be able to use the other rooms as conveniences. The artists (and the art-fanciers) are just as single-minded in this respect as any other group, and in many cases are even more fanatical. Yet if we survey their various activities, we shall perhaps find ourselves asking how many of these have a bearing on any coherent notion of life lived more abundantly. The Greek and Renaissance ideals are remote from us, and we have generated nothing analogous to them. We lack the driving-force of an ideal conception of the natural aristocrat: who, though he directs his energies through some particular channel, is at the same time many-sided; who is highly-tempered yet lives in balance, sustaining within himself those great tensions of the spirit which give meaning to life. Even Liberalism, the highest attainment of the post-Renaissance period, is wilting in our eroded soil. Our humanism has gone flabby. It has become mere humanitarianism. And we are content to see our world split into fragments and handed over to a mob of specialists – mobilised to that paradoxical end, a hedonistic society living under the protection of the H-bomb.

In this situation ‘culture’, as a specialised activity rather like orchid-growing, is beginning to thrive. And since the objects on which it fastens its attention have had high prestige in the past, there is a general inclination to see them as being important at present. In many cases they may be so. But a reassessment is necessary. It is by no means to be taken for granted, for instance, that panel-painting can fulfil the same function today as it did in earlier centuries. Nor can we assume that with the vast expansion of recording and broadcasting, music will continue to have the same kind of significance as it previously possessed.

Nevertheless, a boom is in progress. Art books and LP records pour from the presses. The film is taken seriously, and provides one of the main topics of conversation when the gentlemen rejoin the ladies. Architecture and furnishing have become matters of intense interest, and it is almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in an interminable discussion of the modern home when one ventures abroad into company. In all the arts, but especially in literature, a huge critical pullulation goes on: we see the breeding of criticism on itself, layer on layer, and the reduction of the work of art, often enough, to the status of mere coat-hanger or laboratory specimen.

An understanding of the fine arts is part of the mental equipment of the civilised man. It is in painting, sculpture, music and poetry that the greatest concentration of aesthetic meaning, and refinement of taste, occur. That interest in such things should be extended into the realm of domestic architecture and design might in itself be taken as a hopeful sign. We should not, however, be misled by appearances. I fear that there is in our day a great deal of aimlessness, and not a little that is shallow and pretentious, in the ‘appreciation’ of the arts. It is the artists and intellectuals themselves who are partly to blame. They tend to encourage preciousness, and the cult of aestheticism. Among the poets, for instance, it seems to be agreed that poetry should be written primarily for poets; its climate becomes more and more clinical, its implicit (and sometimes, as in the case of such writers as Wallace Stevens, quite explicit) subject becomes, more and more, simply poetry itself, hypostatised and regarded as pure end – although it should be evident that an art that gets itself into the position of the Oozlum bird is decadent, not renascent. In America the way to prestige, for some of the more fashionable academic critics, is to turn literary criticism into a debate as to how many angels can stand on the tip of a fountain-pen, and the same tendency is noticeable in a lesser degree in England. To the extent that poetry and painting are intended for a public, they are produced to meet the needs of the suburban culture-consumer, as interior decoration for his mind, as relief from ennui, or simply as ostentation. He must be regarded, however, as merely eavesdropping on the transactions of artists; and the more obscure the work, the greater the variety of poses and affectations, the more he feels privileged to be ‘in the swim’. If his flesh can be made to creep deliciously by occasional references to salvation and damnation, or rape, or nuclear holocausts, so much the better. But it is all a game, to be played in the intervals between mowing the lawn and wiping the dishes.

Left to itself, all this dabbling with the arts might be considered more or less harmless, if only because its essentially passive character would set limits to its growth. But a different situation arises when we find that it is being organised, and in a bigger and bigger way. Organisation of certain kinds is, of course, inevitable. The maintenance of any sort of cultural life at all depends on books being published, concerts and plays being presented, and so on. Nobody but a barbarian would wish all such necessary activity to cease. The growth of the Culture Industry, as I have called it, involves something over and above this. It has brought further developments, of a questionable kind. For one thing, it encourages the dilettante approach, rather than trying to deepen the foundations of our culture and make it more substantial. And for another, it is associated with the drift towards monopoly control that is common to all departments of social life, in which the State plays an increasingly important role.

If the Government (or a local body) is to spend public money on fostering the arts, we are entitled to ask questions. Is this or that activity really worth bothering about, from the point of view of the public welfare? Is such support likely to do harm rather than good in certain instances? To what extent can the general taxpayers be expected to support the arts? And is there any danger that, if the thing went far enough, something like a dictatorship of taste might come into effect? Already there are signs of the emergence of a new managerial class. If we hold to the view that art is what is produced by artists, in accordance with their own impulses and in response to public appetite, we may be inclined to regard this last danger as a very real one.

Not that this view of the artist is entirely satisfactory. It may be well to pause here and examine this question briefly, for it is really the nub of the whole matter. M.H. Abrams, in The Mirror and the Lamp, demonstrates most vividly the aesthetic revolution that has taken place since romanticism took charge in the latter part of the eighteenth century. For over two thousand years the ruling assumption had been that the work of art was (a) mimetic, in that it was an imitation of some aspect of an objective world, and (b) pragmatic, in that the artist, in producing it, set out to please an audience. The modern idea that art is primarily expressive, and that the artist is a self-sufficient ‘creator’, has come to provide the basis of contemporary aesthetics. We all believe in it today, and I think we are right in regarding it as being, at the very least, an indispensable part of the truth. But when carried to the point of excluding any necessary relationship with either an objective world or a society with whom the artist communicates, it leads to the blight of aestheticism against which I am inveighing.

The ‘crisis of expressionism’, as we may call it, provides the main battle-ground of aesthetic theory in our time. What such forerunners of the Constructivist movement have been trying to do is to escape from the solipsism of pure expressionist doctrine and practice. In Icon and Idea Herbert Read makes a gallant attempt, not merely to reconcile the objective or Constructivist approach with the subjective basis of expressionism, but to go much further and identify them. The fallacy underlying his treatment of the theme arises, I think, from his fundamentally romantic and anarchistic point of view, which he has never abandoned. In a word, he regards the individual will and the private world as being fully reconcilable, in theory, with the social will and the public world. A more historical and traditional view might suggest that there must always be a conflict, tragic in essence, between the individual and society; and that it is within the tension of this situation that significant art comes into being.

What needs to be said, however, is that in a society that is not disintegrating, and of which the artist is still a part, there will be enough common ground to allow this dialectic to continue fruitfully; but that when the artist withdraws from society (or is ejected), he naturally falls back on pure expressionism as the rationale of his situation. With the complete breach, tension goes, and with it the dialectic. Art then becomes trivial, escapist, and devoted more and more to a ‘religion of aestheticism’. It is the backwash from this that threatens to swamp the galoshes of the suburbs and give them bad colds.

While the breach between the artist and society persists, he must, to save his integrity, continue to assert his claim to complete autonomy. But pure expressionism is, nonetheless, a blind alley, from which the more responsible artist will try to blast a way into a more objective world. And it is this attempt, chiefly on the part of a number of architects and designers, that is worth giving much public support to, if public support is to be given to anything.

The manager or impresario with a will to power comes into this situation under false pretences. He finds it easy to pose as the modern equivalent of the old-style patron, the representative of society. In doing so, he confuses the issue. For he is not really helping towards a renewal of the contract between the artist and society: he is merely building his own private empire. It must be said, of course, that the impresario, when his services are needed, serves as a useful functional link between the artist and the public; but the closer he gets to exercising monopoly power, the more likely he is to try to foist his own ideas on both. The dealer-rackets, and similar parasitic growths on the arts, that have been so troublesome in the past are now beginning to get mixed up with public managerial rackets. A situation in which the artists are like performing ponies in a circus, who are given a lump of sugar when they do their stuff as the ring-master wishes, is one in which art that has any vitality is eventually tamed or fed to the lions for supper. We may regard with a suspicion that merges into hostility the high-pressure organisation of ‘culture’ by professional showmen. Carried on in the atmosphere of the revivalist’s tent, it produces at best a vulgar-genteel cult and a fug of triviality, at worst a distortion of public taste and a great deal of unhappiness among artists.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the suburbs as a whole had by this time become fully ‘culture-conscious’. Horses, motor-cars, divorce cases, sport, crime, pornography and alcohol are still the main interests of the majority of people. If, however, we compare the position today with that, say, thirty years ago, it is evident that a change has occurred. Interest in the arts has increased greatly, whereas appetite for the other things (alcohol excepted) has remained at the same level.

Those who would make a black-and-white distinction between, for instance, art-addicts (as ‘goodies’) and sport-addicts (as ‘baddies) are surely presumptuous. It is natural for human beings to be interested in a wide range of things, serious and trivial, sordid and uplifting. What matters is the general tone or temper of individual experience, and of communal living. Where there is vitality, people will naturally have a greater diversity of interests. When an exceptional individual deliberately narrows this range, it will be with the aim of seeking deeper and more concentrated experience. But he must in this case be wary of getting himself trapped in one segment of the world, and cutting himself off from the general process of life.

The question that must be asked of both the art-lover and the man who interests himself in sport, mechanics, alcohol, gardening, or any other matter, is whether the thing he is doing helps him to realise his potentialities as a human being – whether it is what Berenson calls ‘life-enhancing’. If he has taken to horse-racing, or alcohol, or shockers, or charitable work, as a drug, a means of escape from wider experience of which he is in some way afraid; if he is using vicarious experience (as spectator, reader, or film-goer) simply as a substitute for direct experience of his own – then the diagnosis points to loss of tone, and lack of spirit. Of course, one must be careful in making judgements about these matters. We all need, and use, drugs: but they should provide relief, not become a way of life. And vicarious experience is essential: but it should heighten our awareness and our desire for active living, not imprison us in a dream-world.

I could pursue this line of thought indefinitely, and perhaps end by getting myself up a moralistic gum-tree, or stuck in a metaphysical bog. It will be sufficient, for present purposes, to take a common-sense view of the things I have been talking about. And common sense suggests to me that much of the interest taken in the arts today is little different in kind from an interest taken in sport, crime, alcohol, and a number of other distractions, in that it provides evidence of a lowering of tone, of frustration, confusion of mind and lack of spirit, rather than of any Elizabethan renaissance.

These ills are general, and are not likely to be remedied by any hasty therapy. But we can at least clear our minds of cant, and try to make a calculated appraisal of our situation.

Those of us who are unwilling to think of ‘culture’ as either a shot of morphia or an organised tour through a chocolate-factory, and who are aware of the inter-relations of politics, economics, and the arts, are under some temptation to look for short-cuts. I think most of us have outgrown the belief that everything can suddenly be put right by political revolution. There may be people who believe in the possibility of a world-wide religious revival; if they are wedded to that belief, they are unlikely ever to outgrow it. There remains the chance of a bet on the last race: an aesthetic crusade. This, for some of our number, is full of promise. They point to the hosts of the infidels – or, if I may jumble history, the Philistines. They see evidence of a change of heart, of an increasing concern about aesthetics.

Even as I write, and break off for a moment to glance at the morning paper, I come across a tiny footnote to my dissertation. Under the heading, "Growing Interest in the Arts", a précis is given of the annual report of our Regional Council of Adult Education. After quoting figures to show the great increase in numbers since 1949, the report says: "There is evidence that economics, psychology and now the arts have each in turn taken the centre of the stage." What nostalgic memories, what withered hopes that sentence must evoke for anybody over the age of fifty! Economics in 1936, aesthetics in 1956, with a hunting foray into the jungle in between.

Politics and economics must inevitably affect all of us and the study of them is therefore vitally necessary. (It is a pity that in New Zealand, at the present time, a general conspiracy has been entered into to shelve all conflicts of principle in this field.) Religious awareness, in the broad and non-fanatical sense, is probably essential to the imaginative life of Homo sapiens. And aesthetic consciousness is no doubt as fundamental as Herbert Read sets out to prove it to be. But perish the thought of crusading. Salvationist campaigns carried out in the name of any of the higher verities always end in relapse or perversion. On the rare occasions when genuine movements of the spirit occur they are spontaneous, and historically logical. Even then, they cannot continue merely as a series of waves of enthusiasm. They must be absorbed into the structure of society, which they are almost certain to modify. Using another analogy, they must provide pabulum, not cosmetic.

If anything is to be done through organisation it will need to be genuinely educational, not merely titillating, and it will have to be based on a long-term strategy that begins with Design (in its social context) and only comes to the ‘fine arts’ when a solid foundation has been laid. There is no useful end to be served by turning an art gallery into a place where the dilettanti can dabble in the fine arts, and thereby subtly debase them. The jaw-bone of an ass, wagging incessantly about ‘modern art’, will certainly not prove effective against Goliath. The fine arts are of great importance, and should not be neglected, even under present conditions. But they need protection rather than ‘popularisation’. An art gallery should aim at presenting the tradition, and establishing and preserving high standards. Apart from this, it could well become an instrument of basic aesthetic education by running a continuous programme relating to Design – displays of pots and kettles, knives and forks, bottles, tools, architecture, furniture, town planning, and the ten thousand other things that go to make up our environment. By implanting in the minds of people a variety of images reflecting tomorrow’s possibilities, we might hope, in the long run, to lay a foundation of taste that would give meaning to the fine arts, while at the same time hastening the processes by which our environment may be redesigned [1].

I come now to what must be regarded, on a long view, as the most significant and (I would say) dangerous development affecting the arts – by which I mean the extension of State patronage and sponsorship.

There seems to be common agreement at the present time among all those who, for either good reasons or bad, wish to advance the arts that the State should be looked to for support. This is in accordance with the trend of the age. The power of the paternalistic State grows apace, and gradually becomes more totalitarian in character. This is accepted, even welcomed, by many people – not only, in our day, by socialists and communists, but also by conservative politicians who realise that it will augment their personal power and importance. The two-party system becomes in effect, more and more, a monolithic administrative apparatus which in return for the centralised power vested in it consents to play the part of Santa Claus. Other people, with theoretical objections to totalitarianism, adopt a cheerfully defeatist attitude. They are prepared to ‘relax and enjoy it’.

Some economists tell us that, in the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves, we have only two things to choose from – public monopoly or private monopoly – and that the arts, like everything else, must eventually fit into one or the other of these patterns. Our economic system, or the greater part of it, is at present controlled by a Heath Robinson blend of the two; and our lives remain tolerable only because neither has yet gained complete ascendancy. I do not, myself, think we should enjoy either very much if it came to the point, and I think it is well worth while putting up a fight. Certainly any artist who gives positive encouragement to State expenditure on the arts – especially to certain forms of it – is asking for a collar and chain. For State subsidies mean some measure of State control sooner or later, however much disguised it may be.

It is not only in the arts that this problem arises. The effects of State intervention in medical practice are not yet fully apparent, but it is clear that the profession will have to resist encroachment on is intellectual authority. The University, which once was privately endowed, is now dependent on State funds, and will also find itself having to stave off pressures that threaten to limit academic freedom. The arts, above all other human activities except religion and love, should be carried on by individuals acting in free association. There should be no suggestion, even, of the sort of framework of curricular policy which, properly enough, governs the University.

Humanly speaking, it is understandable that business men, caught in this drift, should accept the rule of expediency and pursue their own private ends. What is more alarming to contemplate is le trahison des clercs – the willingness of so many artists, writers and intellectuals to allow themselves to be sealed off in a sort of ‘aesthetic world’ from the general processes of society, and to become a charge on the State. Among the younger writers the soup-kitchen mentality is strongly in evidence. Some of them give the impression that they are anxious to allow the State to take over all power both secular and spiritual, so long as they are provided with the means of fabricating their private worlds. The artist, if he values his soul, can never afford to make the eunuch’s bargain: ‘Give me a hand-out for Art, and I’ll agree to keep off politics, economics and religion.’ It must not even be remotely implied.

The sums of money at present being expended by the State on supporting the arts are modest in size, but pressure is building up. Voices have been raised that are loud enough to have been heard by the Minister of Education, who has spoken about the possibility of setting up an Arts Council similar to that which operates in Britain. It is to be assumed that such a body would become the channel through which considerably greater amounts would be expended.

One would think that the use of public money to subsidise culture, and the clamant demands for more to be provided, would bring howls of rage from the majority who contribute most of the rates and taxes. I have no doubt there are mutterings. I muttered myself a while ago when somebody proposed a tax of a penny a glass on beer to provide funds for the promotion of culture; and began to plan a campaign demanding a tax on the arts in order to provide me with beer-money. But one doesn’t, in fact, hear much objection. The reason for this, I think, is that so many other groups besides the artists and the art-lovers have a vested interest in expanding the Culture Industry. Governments gain credit for being concerned with the things of the spirit when they set aside even small sums for the advancement of culture. They may even find it helpful, in providing ‘full employment’, to spend public money on the arts through such devices as Roosevelt’s W.P.A. scheme. City councils maintain art galleries, seldom because their members are even remotely interested in the arts, but for reasons of prestige. Newspapers, too, have a stake in the business. Nowadays art means copy. An artist such as Picasso (his merits apart) is God’s gift to the journalist looking for odd and interesting ‘angles’. By keeping up an incessant chatter about art they provide yet another form of distraction for their readers, and create the impression that a great revival is in full swing. Effervescence, however, is not necessarily a sign of vitality. It may indicate excessive CO2, or even rabies.

There is one thing that needs to be said quite bluntly about State expenditure on the arts. There is no law against private patronage. There is nothing whatever to prevent any group of people from getting together and subscribing money for the encouragement of any cultural activities. So when we persuade the Government or a local body to step in and spend taxpayers’ or ratepayers’ money on such projects, what we are really doing is to use the State apparatus as a means of getting the fellow next door (who drinks beer and backs horses, and is taxed heavily for these pleasures) to subsidise our own diversions – or at any rate, things we consider to be important. The economics of the matter are quite simple, and should be kept in mind.

In ordinary equity, therefore, the Government has a responsibility to see that public money spent in such ways is in fact directed towards ends that have some demonstrable public value; and that it is not devoted to entertainment disguised as ‘culture’, or to what I have called cosmetic purposes – to making the community appear to be more cultured than in fact is the case. My own view is that, in the main, patronage of the arts should be left to be provided for voluntarily out of the very ample private income of the community. This would give a better measure of the real importance we attach to the arts, and prevent us from over-reaching ourselves. In the long run it would be much better for the health of the arts.

There is another quite general consideration to be kept in mind, as a restraint on our enthusiasm. Apart from anything Herbert Read may say about the aesthetic process, apart from the desirability of doing something to regenerate that process, aesthetics provides no substitute for ethics, or for Christian charity. Although we are entitled to accept, as a reasonable working hypothesis, the belief that people are likely to lead more orderly lives, and to behave better towards their neighbours, when they live in an aesthetically satisfying environment, we cannot take too much for granted. People with strong artistic appetites, from the Emperor Nero downwards, have often been inferior human beings. One can easily imagine a beautiful and functional building which in fact houses gas-chambers. The transcendental beauty and nobility of the world of great music does not prevent musicians from fighting like cats. We cannot afford to put all our eggs in the basket of aesthetics.

If the State decides, with some backing of public opinion, that the spending of a certain amount of public money on the arts will improve the general quality of life, the question that arises is: In which directions can it be spent most profitably, with propriety, and without doing harm to the arts? Assuming that the drift of history is not going to land us in a sort of low-grade Byzantinism, and that these matters are worth being treated with hopeful seriousness, let us consider some of the projects that are at present operating, or that are being advocated.

In the first place, I think it is possible to go a long way further on the ‘interpretative’ side of art than on the ‘creative’. The danger of intellectual corruption does exist there, but it is not as serious as in the case of the ‘creative’ artist. It is unlikely, for instance, that National Orchestra programmes will ever show the bad effects of political pressure. The more important problem here is that of equity. I find it difficult to agree that such an organisation as the National Orchestra, admirable as it is, should be kept going indefinitely in order to satisfy a section of the public if they cannot afford to pay the cost. Like tariff protection, State support for it is justifiable on the assumption that something is being nursed that will eventually be able to stand on its own feet. (Why it should be financed out of radio licence fees instead of through the Consolidated Fund is beyond rational comprehension.) But for various reasons – chiefly the claim the Orchestra may have to being an instrument of general education – the case against State subsidy of the Orchestra is not likely to be pressed strongly by those who dislike State control on principle.

I am delighted to read in the press that the New Zealand Players intend to turn themselves into a public company. There is no doubt in my mind that this is precisely the pattern that is best suited for any such enterprise. It gives every member of the community a chance to offer his support, and at the same time it removes any invidious suggestions of political control or restriction, or of unfairness to other sections of the community. However one may feel about the present status of the National Orchestra, there is no gainsaying that it would be better for it to be run in this way. If the question of maintaining high standards is raised in connection with either of these organisations, I would say, unhesitatingly, that honesty of taste comes before refinement of taste; and that genuine refinement must be based on honesty.

The proposal to establish an Arts Council is one that may be regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. If it were the outcome simply of an agreement among the various art societies and similar bodies, it might serve certain useful purposes. But State organisation and State subsidy are both ideas which, in essence, reflect the business man’s and the bureaucrat’s conception of art rather than the artist’s. Even if such assistance is well-intentioned, and limited in scope, it harbours the seed of future trouble.

Radio broadcasting is an institution that has become a permanent part of our social life. Because of its very nature it tends to fall into the totalitarian pattern. In England this problem has been dealt with by establishing a Corporation, with a Parliamentary charter. This is perhaps the most enlightened solution possible. Although the B.B.C. is a monopoly, the selection of material for broadcast is in practice left to a large group of individuals who are allowed considerable discretion. The B.B.C. has not escaped accusations of favouring certain kinds of opinion, but its record is on the whole so much better than we might expect that it must be regarded as the most satisfactory form of organisation so far devised. Australia has allowed broadcasting to be split up among a number of controlling interests, public and private. The results are not entirely satisfactory. In New Zealand we have a broadcasting monopoly operated under direct Governmental control. In principle, there is nothing whatever to be said in defence of this. The results are not as bad as they might have been; on the other hand, they are not nearly as good as they could be if the English pattern were adopted. It is astonishing that our habit of slavish devotion to English models should have broken down in this particular instance; and still more astonishing that a conservative government, nominally committed against State socialism, should have continued the form of control introduced by its political opponents. I may say that I know of no member of the staff of the Broadcasting Service who is not of the opinion that better work could be done under Corporation control.

When we come to ‘creative’ art, things become more sticky. I think the setting up of State Literary Fund can be justified, provided it restricts its function to making possible the publication of all work that appears to have any sort of value at all; and provided those who are appointed to administer it are willing to resign at once if official objections are made to their sponsoring a publication because it has some kind of doctrinal slant, religious or political. From a social point of view it is more necessary that literary works should be put on record than that they should be acclaimed by reviewers, or make money for their authors. A State Literary Fund Committee must not try to be too highly selective, for that would imply a sharpening of the critical function that is out of place. Better that a great deal of apparently mediocre work should be published than that any sort of dictatorship of taste should be set up.

Grants made for the sustenance of writers raise a more difficult problem. Certain works of public record (historical and biographical) can be quite properly assisted by State funds without risk of intellectual corruption. Yet even here we should be extremely circumspect. It would be easy to arrive by slow stages at the point where history is re-written to order by State-employed professionals, as happened in Nazi Germany, and as has become the standard procedure in the U.S.S.R. If State funds are to be used for any such purpose, it had in most cases best be done under the aegis of the University, which provides a buffer against political control and helps to maintain some sort of objectivity.

Poetry and fiction should, in my view, remain completely exempt from State patronage – except for the recording function provided by the State Literary Fund. They are of value only when they are the work of independent artists. Put a novelist on the pay-roll of the State and sooner or later you turn him into a tomcat (arrangé) that comes to the kitchen door for its milk, and in return begs prettily or catches mice.

In general – State aid or none – I wish that we could be less vulgarly self-conscious about our effort at cultural advancement. The serious artist, above all people, regards with suspicion anything that smells of culture-climbing. His maximum demand, as has often been said, is to be let alone. The careerists and parasites who clamour for ‘recognition’ (meaning, not the sort of understanding the genuine artist values more than any other thing, but does not expect to be able to command at will – but money) should be ignored.

[1] Mondrian strove ‘towards the end of art as a thing separated from our surrounding environment, which is the actual plastic reality.  But this end is at the same time a new beginning….By the unification of architecture, sculpture, and painting, a new plastic reality will be created.  Painting and sculpture will not manifest themselves as separate objects, nor a ‘mural art’ which destroys architecture itself, nor as ‘applied ‘ art, but being purely constructive will aid the creation of an environment not merely utilitarian or rational but also pure and complete in its beauty.”   (Quoted by Read in Icon and Idea.)  As a Constructivist manifesto, laying the basis of social art, this is excellent.  All I would question is whether representative art, deriving from common natural images, need be excluded from this new world.   Is the old iconoclastic heresy creeping in once again?  


© A.R.D. Fairburn


Last updated 27 June, 2002