WHY ART IS CONSERVATIVE

We should never confuse artistic place with artistic spirit, nor either one of these with artistic truth.

Just as the Jews and the early Christians measured everything against Rome, capital of Empire, so in our time, London, Paris or New York has served to validate the artist.

Either the village artist came to learn in Paris, or Paris came to exploit the village artist. Replace ‘village’ with ‘bourgeois,’ or ‘conservative,’ today, and still the final arbitrator is the faceless and inscrutable committee of the avant-garde, sitting with its tentacles in the middle of a great city.

Great artist validated by great city is one of those truths supremely obvious to the extent that the even more obvious meaning is missed.  In Ellen Williams’ Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance, look at how one great city draws the “bohemian artist” away from another great city: it is ever and always, with a certain scholarly mind, all about place:

Floyd Dell, the leader and as it were founder of the new artistic bohemia, brushed aside Harriet Monroe’s requests for poetry and prose, and had to defend himself against the charge of being “standoffish” not long before his departure for New York to join the staff of the Masses.

Dell’s departure reminds one that the turnover within the local bohemia was high. Perhaps 1912 was a significant moment in a progressive centralization of American society. Edgar Lee Masters, who had come up to Chicago in the generation before from a small Illinois town, had joined the local bar, married a local girl, and settled down to family life. But the young people with artistic aspirations who came to Chicago in 1912 from other, smaller middle-western towns departed in a few years for New York, or after the war, for Europe. Thus Dell left for New York late in 1913; Margaret Anderson moved the Little Review to New York late in 1916, after some two years’ publication in Chicago; and Sherwood Anderson was spending more time in New York than in Chicago by 1918. This “upward” mobility of the leadership would tend to diminish the influence and weaken the identity of the local bohemia.

Several factors, then, kept Poetry from being the voice of the new generation in Chicago, whatever general stimulation it got from them or gave them. Ezra Pound, operating by letter all the way from London, remained the principal avant-garde stimulus in its editorial counsels.

Just an aside: Margaret Anderson’s Little Review was the original publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses—the obscenity charge which put Joyce on the map was brought by the U.S. Post Office after Pound inserted excerpts of Ulysses into Margaret Anderson’s magazine.  Pound’s editorial digs were in London, and from there, Pound, the creepy, egotistical, gadfly, mediocrity, with the help of two women, Margaret Anderson and Harriet Monroe, shaped not only 20th century poetry, but 20th century fiction, as well.  If Harriet Monroe had not happened to visit a shop owned by publisher Elkin Matthews in London and found a couple of Pound’s books just published by Matthews, in her trip around the world in 1910, the world might be a different place.  Bohemian creds (which Pound had) have long been vital, even though the poetry produced might be unreadable today, because revolutionary ideals go a long way to inspire a certain type of ambitious fraud—when ‘conservative’ and ‘bourgeois’ are enemies to blanket, blank-check, bohemian thrills.

A funny truth about Harriet Monroe, poet, founder and editor of Poetry, is not that she covered, as a journalist, in 1913, the Armory Show of Modern Art in New York, or that she came up with a great business plan for her little magazine, or that she adored Shelley, or that she had many reservations about the avant-garde poetry she published, or, that she allowed herself to be deluded into thinking the great con-man Ezra Pound was a poetic genius; no, it was this: Harriet Monroe’s brother-in-law invented the skyscraper.  She even published a memoir on him—John Wellborn Root.

This is just the sort of fact that eludes the fact-finder: the fact of place, the fact of the important city, the fact of Monroe’s commercial connections are layers such that less obvious facts cover the more obvious ones. Bohemians are always the last ones to get the most obvious facts—that Pound was a con-artist, for instance.  The importance of place is one of those facts that keep most avant-garde critics busy in their obscurantist mission: do everything to distract the audience from the show-off, tasteless, inferiority of the art itself.  Every time we read of the adventures of some self-important, “rule-breaking” avant-garde cabal, we always notice how the geographical locale, whether we are in the actual city, or outside the actual city, or on the west coast, or on the east coast, or the Left Bank, is the most crucial thing.

The way a thing is advertised is not the thing, but the advertisement, with enough repetition, often becomes the thing, while the latter (the thing itself) practically disappears.  This is pretty much how avant-garde art works.

How ridiculous to think that it matters whether a poet is working in Chicago, or New York, or anywhere.  Or riding a motorcycle.  Or walking. Travel literature is a legitimate genre, we suppose, but why do so many confuse it with aesthetics?  Wearily, we are forced to learn of Harriet Monroe and Chicago, due to factual curiosity about Poetry magazine—and when was factual curiosity a criterion for art?  Only when art is made for sinking.

This is not to say that what an author does in body as well as spirit is not important—of course, occasionally, it is—we object to superficial and semi-obvious facts covering up the truth.

We always laugh, for instance, when critics list poets from a certain era—let’s say the 1890s—and since we haven’t heard of them, or read them, we’re all happy to assume that every last one of their works is awful, (as we continue to not read them) in comparison to Ezra Pound, the “revolutionary,” writing in 1910, and which we assume that many, if not most of his poems are exciting and new, not to mention “revolutionary.”  Or Pound’s friend, William Carlos Williams, “revolutionary,” too!

As long as we buy into the great “radical” art steam-rolling “conservative” art scheme, the great scholarly avant-garde ship keeps sailing along with Harriet Monroe, captain and Ezra Pound, first mate.

As soon as Rome became Christian, Christianity became conservative; when Paris recognized impressionism, impressionism became bourgeois; when New York bought abstract art, it sold for millions.

The skyscraper, the fact of the modern city, stands for many things, and it drives both commercial and democratic concerns.  The fact of the skyscraper is both radical and conservative, and in its balance, represents our age, which is both conservative and radical—which distinguishes all complex, civilized ages.

The skyscraper is democratic and commercial in its practical side of things; thus with the skyscraper the radical and the conservative are forever fused.

The trump card of the 20th century avant-garde was in getting itself called “modern” or “modernist.”  The name, “modern” became its chief selling point. This is another one of those obvious truths so obvious we hardly notice its real impact.  Victorian buildings are frilly; but the modern skyscraper (and modern art) is not.

As simplistic as this is, it is the stuff of artistic rivalry and ambition—the battle for the soul and the money of everything; this kind of artistic argument is nearly everything.

One could write a 17 volume treatise on verse, and all in vain, if it were shown, or more importantly, believed, that verse, was frilly.  Game over.  William Carlos Williams wins.

Take these four terms: conservative, radical, banker, poet.  They might very well define art for all time, believing, as we do, that the poet is always radical, the banker always conservative.  Belief in this formula has defined our age—but even as we recognize the force of the formula, we should recognize its falsity on a deeper level.

The poet becomes radical only when the banker fronting the poet is radical; in truth, art, in its primary existence, is conservative.

Socrates, the (lone) radical philosopher, pitted himself against Homer, the (popular) conservative poet; it was (O irony!) the triumph of Plato as an artist which made art into a radical vocation.  Shelley, the radical poet, faded away into Victorianism, or conservative poetry; Modernism rejected Victorianism so as to get back to Shelley—but something went terribly wrong along the way: the radical was kept, but everything else was rejected, including popular taste.  There is the lonely genius who, for the good of mankind, ought to get a hearing, and then there is the mediocrity—lonely because obscure.  These two should never be confused, but sometimes they are, especially if the latter is a clever s.o.b. who does a neat little dance in front of a skyscraper.

Art is conservative because of the phrase just used in the above paragraph: “Popular Taste.”  Homer was popular, but was censored by Plato on the matter of “taste.”  Since then, artistic success (favored by critic and mass audience alike) demands popular include popular taste.  The idea is actually democratic—taste refers to conditions which favor great masses of people respecting one another and treating each other well.  Mass appeal is required, but with something more: an unspoken sense of fitness and beauty, which, if we remember, Socrates accused Homer of violating, since Homer’s gods, superior beings, often acted from whim and cruelty.

One might think that radical art—and for many, these two words, radical and art, go hand in hand—is that which precisely offends popular taste.  But this is to put too much faith in shock, and not enough in art.  The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts  is currently running an exhibit called “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion,” and we enjoyed our visit thoroughly, as we found ourselves more convinced that fashion is art, and we received, in addition, a happy insight: the avant-garde dress fashion was able to please us for the very reason that we are familiar with 1) the human body and 2) a dress.  It is precisely from these foundations of universal knowledge so vital to all fashion that the “new” (truly bizarre and truly avant-garde) was able—not always, but sometimes—to please us.

If we accept that fashion is art, and for this art to work, note how the human body and the dress comprise a conventionality and a tradition that is eternal, we get a glimpse into the absolute conservative nature of artwork that calls itself avant-garde.

The truth, that even in bouts of experimentation, art is a highly conservative medium, may be unsettling to some, but we realize those it might unsettle are immune to that sort of thing, anyway.  For all artists, in all mediums, it is important that the standard—whatever it happens to be—is established in the popular mind.  The eternal nature of this standard is not something we can take lightly; if a poet, for instance, writes poetry in which some in medias res, avant-garde experiment is the starting-point, the chance of it having mass appeal is nil; the poet must always return to the true starting-point of what the poem, as defined by the popular taste, happens to be.

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