"The Stake of the Arts in the Democratic Way of Life"

by Walter Pach

Walter Pach, artist and author, was born in New York City in 1883. He was graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1903 and later studied at the New York School of Art and at the Academie Ranson in Paris. He has exhibited his paintings and etchings in many shows and they are in permanent collections at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, the New York Public Library, and in various private collections.

The paper published below, a revision of a talk in 1941, was read at the Tenth Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life held at the Men's Faculty Club of Columbia University, New York on 6 September 1949.

EIGHT YEARS AGO, we were fighting Hitler's ideas, above all. But his disappearance has not meant the obliteration of totalitarian methods. On the contrary, Russia--to which country I already referred in 1941--is now offering an even clearer example of attempted control of thought and art by a government. Since education and the opportunities to understand art are far more advanced in Germany than in Russia, resistance by Germans to the autocratic domination of their thinking was stronger than what we have heard about in Russia, though the regimentation of the Germans was lamentable enough. Even so, if Hofer and Marcks were put under surveillance by the Nazis, as I described, no case has come to my notice of German artists condemning their own work as Prokoviev and Shostakovitch were forced to do after admonition from the commissar in charge of music. We know how the threat of punishing the family and associates of accused persons has extracted the most extraordinary confessions in Russia, and I cannot believe that when the two eminent composers promised to conform in the future and to give a more national and popular quality to their music, they were free of intimidation. Even if no physical suffering or imprisonment were threatened, the loss of government support might mean destitution in a country where art is so completely under official control.

An explanation somewhat along these lines is needed when we find Shostakovitch, as one of his country's representatives at the recent conference of scientific and intellectual workers, repeating his mea culpa, and thanking the authorities for putting him on the right track. Imagine Mozart uttering such ideas! Or, still more unthinkable would be self-condemnation by a man of Beethoven's independence.

A statement by Jan Christian Smuts, quoted by Dr. Irving J. Lee, comes to mind: "Amid the evils of the world today where the tendency is to follow slogans, to run after catchwords, to worship ideologies or exalt party politics, the sovereign remedy is...the spirit of science which exalts fact above sectional loyalties and ideologies."

If totalitarian governments have followed the reverse program, and flouted the spirit of science to the point of bending facts to suit their purposes, how much more is such a process to be feared when we come to the arts. There we are but rarely dealing with things as stubborn as facts. We deal with sensations and ideas so difficult to define that the obscuring of judgment, indeed the loss of judgment, is the price that will be paid for any deviation from impartiality.

Instead of allowing individuals to decide for themselves by what they can profit in the production of our time, a party line for art is established by official aestheticians such as V. Kemenov, whose article, "Painting and Sculpture in the Bourgeois West," was recently used by Togliatti in the magazine which is one of the organs of the Italian Communists. Condemning such men as Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Lipchitz, and Henry Moore, the article leads up to its climax in the words, "Today, Soviet culture is creating works of world importance following the road laid down by the genius of Stalin."

The "world importance" of the works referred to would be a more convincing matter if reported to us by someone less governed than Kemenov by the "tendency to worship ideologies or exalt party politics," so accurately described by General Smuts. The tying together of aesthetics and politics is subversive of the freedom necessary for artistic creation; and so clearly was this recognized in Italy that numbers of artists who had previously been Communists resigned from the party rather than accept Togliatti's dictation. I have confidence that Americans will be no less conscious of the truth than were the men whom we have noticed in Germany, France, and Italy. If, in those sorely tried lands, oppression was powerless to make artists give up their birthright, it would be strange indeed if our people, with their tradition of liberty, did not offer another affirmation of the artist's true position in society, his role in revealing the ideas in us which only his instinct, unhampered by political pressure, can bring to the light.

I want to stress that the foregoing remarks are not a criticism of Soviet policies on any point save the one discussed. No one, indeed, can quarrel with a genuine desire that art be accessible to the largest public willing to make the effort needed to understand and enjoy it. Such a result is not, however, to be accomplished by governmental dictation to artists, any more than people can be legislated into virtue or happiness. The urge toward such desiderata must come from within, not from without.

It seems to me that no understanding of the artist's relationship to society is possible unless we proceed from an acceptance of the fundamental fact that his mind is a free mind as far as the demands of temporal or spiritual employers are concerned. His freedom is limited only by the character of the race, the country, or the period to which he belongs, and never by the will of individuals or groups who tell him what to say. Even when he does say what is commanded of him, he does so because he believed it already: it is his own truth that he tells; but expressing what is deepest in his own sense of life, of proportion, of contrast, and balance, is also the best means of expressing such ideas as they exist, latent, in the mind of the generality of men. And it is for this that he has been esteemed.

It is through the properties of his art, which he can share with others only when he does his rightful work, that he conveys the great emotions we get on entering Chartres Cathedral, for instance. When we see that grand interior, with its perspective of shafts and arches, and its magic of light and shadow, we know that it is not to ecclesiastical or feudal lords that we owe the mighty stir of our blood that occurs every time we see that solemn beauty. It comes to us from architects, builders, and sculptors--those who carved each capital on the columns which the workmen placed where they needed to be placed, subtly varying the design which the maitre de l'oeuvre had traced on paper, but in which no one could foresee the thousand accidents of space, material, and light. These could be orchestrated only by the quick sense for rightness of living men--who thus left a living work.

Compare Chartres with the churches along Fifth Avenue, for example. There, indeed, we get the result of acceptance by artists, or near-artists, of an authority outside their own minds.

Those minds are separated by many centuries from the current of thought and the special sensitiveness to materials (stone construction as compared to steel construction) which mark the difference between the period of real Gothic and our own period. And so today, when an order comes to an architect's office for a church in the style of Amiens, Bamberg, or Exeter, we know in advance that the thing will be stillborn; and its deadness will be only the more evident if we look just across the street to Radio City, and see with what alert and loving attention Raymond Hood and his associates watched the growth of the great shaft--the NBC building--in the center, and magnificently adjusted to its proportions the two small buildings which mark the approach to the tower. I need not tell you how the response of sightseers, as they look on this living work, differs from that which they make when dutifully observing the nearby churches produced by the school we might call that of Real Estate Gothic.

Someone may object that I am advocating a modernism so rabid as to exclude the acceptance of the great lessons of the past.

That is not so; and I will prove my affirmation by reference to an artist who carries on the essentials of that Gothic School which produced the masterpieces. He is a man now seventy years old who, in his youth, so far obeyed the law of his profession--the law of the free mind--that he was classed with the group called les fauves (the wild beasts), for in the first years of the present century, so violently was it necessary to react against the pretended authority of the official bodies that that was the name invented by the academic crowd for men like Matisse, Derain, and Rouault. Rouault has never made the slightest change of direction from the course he was engaged on at the fauve period; but first one person and then another has become aware that his early training as a maker of stained-glass windows for churches, has remained with him, and that here was really new wine in old bottles. The wine has grown richer, headier, and stronger as the years have passed. The painting has gained in scope of color and in luminosity--both physical and spiritual; but while we recognize it always more readily as being uniquely the work of Rouault, our conviction grows apace that the artist is carrying on the spirit which animated the Gothic men, and thus giving one more confirmation to Van Gogh in his words, "Never say that the dead are dead; as long as men shall live, the dead shall live."

Returning to the question of the artist's relationship to society, and taking the instances where there is agreement between him and his employers, it is easy to see that his conception of his work should be the essential one, for it is a natural expression of the ideal inherent in the whole human group of which he is a part. But how does the matter stand when the artist is merely an instrument in the hands of a ruling class or an individual tyrant? History shows us many examples of such a condition, the chief one, for extent in time and for importance of result, being that of Egypt, with its thousands of years, during which the artist, but little above the rank of the slave--or perhaps differing from the other slaves only by the high degree of intelligence and training required for his work--produced that fabulously great sculpture which one may at times consider the supreme expression of art.

Taking other periods of history, almost at random, we can be sure that the Roman allowed very little freedom of choice to artists, either the ones who built his glorious aqueducts and amphitheaters, or the ones who recorded in portraiture the face and gesture of the conquering people. During the period which produced the greatest works of Christian art, the artist's role was stated by St. Bernardine when he decreed that the Church alone is to decide upon the content of works of art, and that the painter or sculptor shall simply execute the orders given him by ecclesiastical authority. Again, when we read about the haughty tyrants of the Renaissance, we may be sure that only a titan like Michelangelo could stand up to them. Raphael, though he has been called divine, times without number, appears to have been submissive on all occasions; and Leonardo, in his famous letter to the Duke of Milan, setting forth his qualifications in a way that would seem boastful if we did not remember his unparalleled intellect, is still the commoner humbly approaching a lord.

If I may take from a field adjacent to my own--the field of literature--a very specific example of the relationship between artist and patron, I would recall the dedication to a young prince which La Fontaine wrote for one book of his Fables. The great master speaks with such humility that he begs the acceptance of his work on the ground of its being unworthy of the time in which the prince himself could execute it--and far better than the poet--if his august lord were willing to absent himself from more important occupations. We get the significance of this when we recall that the prince was then six years old.

Let me also offer examples of the artist's attitude in more recent times. Jacques Louis David is, through his paintings, one of the instigators of the French Revolution, and, by his acts, one of the men who carried it to some of its most drastic manifestations. Yet he accepts Napoleon, not only as the brilliant general of the Revolutionary army, but as Consul and as Emperor, recording his coronation in a picture which is a prodigious masterpiece. Ingres continues the placid course of his art from the time of the old royal regime, through the periods of the Revolution, the Empire, the restoration of the Bourbons, the Second Republic, and the reign of the new Napoleon; at no time do the changes of society show in his work.

Under Napoleon III, Delacroix makes a sardonic entry in his Journal. He has just come home from a reception held by the sovereign; he snickers over the men who had been opposed to Bonaparte, and who now crowd his drawing room in order to stand well with him. "Whom did I see?" writes the painter, "Barye--the republican, Rousseau--the republican, Francais--the republican." Then Delacroix mentions other artists for whom the change from the democratic to the autocratic form of government meant just as little.

It may seem that I am taking a very strange course, for one who speaks for the preservation of the democratic way of life; one might say that I am proving the artist to be quite aloof from society.

"Have patience," says Daumier's old lawyer to the client who is writhing under the denunciations of the opposing attorney, "have a little patience: presently I shall insult the whole family of your adversary."

That is what I am going to do; but first I must recall that statement which I called basic: that the mind of the artist is a free mind as far as the demands of temporal or spiritual rulers are concerned. If compelled to waive his republican principles when Napoleon III came to power, Barye's mind remained one of the freest that the human race has ever brought forth. Essentially a man of his time, typical of the nineteenth century in its magnificent power, he could at one moment so profoundly reorient us in the genius of Hellas that Theophile Silvestre called him "an Athenian," while at other moments Barye's rendering of the animals, his demonstration of the continuity between man and the animals, caused him to be denounced for making what we should today call propaganda in favor of the theories of Charles Darwin.

Ingres, by his evident lack of any political principles, provoked the sneers of that same Theophile Silvestre, a most admirable writer. But the mind of Ingres retained its limitless purity, its limitless freedom, whatever were the demands of temporal or spiritual rulers, throughout the eighty-seven years of his life. David, in going from the Republic which he prophesied in his work and which he helped create, to the glorification of the Emperor, was the expression of the will and character of his people, and his work has, throughout its great expanse, that monumental quality given only to those whose utterance is that of a whole period. The authority of an artist's race is one that he must obey. Perhaps, in a superficial viewing, he seems to run counter to that authority, as Rembrandt did, in his maturity and old age--when he produced his supreme work--and paid the penalty of rejection by society. But that simply means that there are sometimes counter currents in a given time. The greater the artist, the more he will plunge to what is eternal in his race--as Rembrandt and Ruisdael did, while Frans Hals and Vermeer--though they are admirable masters--still remain nearer to the surface of things.

And now, getting back to La Fontaine: what did it cost him to write all his transparent flattery? Was anybody fooled, when he made his living as he did? Could you imagine any way in which he could have been more authentically the voice of France in her wisdom and poetry, and therefore one of the most beautiful voices of mankind?

So also those artists of the Gothic time: they took orders from their employers, but it is the genius of the workers themselves which gives to the cathedral its character, and makes it a universal thing. Renoir said that the craftsmen are the men to whom we must look in order to understand what is peculiar to a locality or a period, for the great artists go beyond the boundaries of space and time. And in saying that, Renoir, who himself had begun as a craftsman, unwittingly placed himself beside Aristotle, who said that art is not the imitation of the particular but of the universal.

The case for the artists of Rome and Egypt stands in just the same way. No matter how absolute were the Caesars, or the priest-kings from the time of Memphis to that of Sais, the laws which the artist followed in making an arch or making a man for his Roman master, in determining for his Egyptian master the scope of a pyramid, or in carving a hawk, or shaping a vase, were laws inherent in the nature of mankind. Essentially, therefore, these arts, like all arts, were democratic, even when the government was theocratic.

And that is what a vulgar parvenu of culture, such as Adolf Hitler, cannot understand. Amid the mass of his brutality and his ignorance, nothing stands out as more false and futile than his pretension to control the current of art. In a collection of popular German songs published under the Nazi regime, it was impossible to omit Die Lorelei, but in the space where the author's name should appear are the words, "Poet unknown." Of course every German knows that the poem was written by Heinrich Heine, and perhaps every German knows that for all the days to come, the printing of those words, "Dichter unbekannt," will be futile in blotting out the name of a Jew, one who remains one of the glories of Germany.

But after all, the lie about Heine is only a little lie, a detail to which history will attend, for as Leibnitz says, God Himself cannot change the past. The big lie comes with the attempt Hitler so shamelessly and constantly made to falsify the processes of thinking, first among his own people, and then among the French and the Italians who were under his heel. The stupidity of Neville Chamberlain, for example, was above all in his blindness to the way in which Hitler had succeeded in corrupting Germany. Not a fanatical rouser of the rabble was to be dealt with, but a people fallen under the domination of its scum, and to a great extent already perverted in its mental processes by a philosophy of lies. The stupidity of our isolationists, who imagine they could keep out the ideas of the totalitarians by means of the oceans which surround us, may be compared only with the mental processes of that "pleasant gentleman," as John Milton calls him, "who thought to keep the crows out of his park by shutting the gates." The glorious defense of intellectual freedom which Milton gives in the Areopagitica is an example of the length of time during which the English-speaking peoples have cherished the democratic way of life. For in making his fight against censorship, the great poet was in effect asserting that authority in matters of literature and art resides not with individuals, who may have special interests or a system to uphold, but with the mass of mankind, that will decide through its own conscience what is good and what is bad.

But, someone may object, even if totalitarian ideas do seek to invade our country--by radio, to begin with, and then by means of the printed word, by the cinema, and the work of painters and sculptors--are you not joining the ranks of the defeatists, the men who have so little faith in America that they turn panicky over what they suppose to be its inability to defend itself? My answer to that question is no: President Roosevelt was not a defeatist when he decided that our defense begins with Iceland and doubtless other distant places yet to be designated; and we are no defeatists in calling attention to a menace to our way of life, a menace which is an integral part of the program of the dictators. I will first glance at the case of Russia. Never having been in that country, I cannot testify at first hand as to the use of Russian museums by the present regime. But friends who have visited the country have brought me accounts of the placards on the walls of the galleries, and the so-called explanation by the guides, under whose supervision one is--or was--compelled to place oneself in order to see the pictures. The burden of both the printed and the spoken word in the museums was purely and simply Communist propaganda, a reiteration of Marxian principles as applied to the history and interpretation of art. Thus a Raphael Madonna was stated to belong to the period when the Church was manufacturing a specially insidious form of its "opium for the poor," the latter-day words for religion; other pictures were described as means for oppressing the masses by glorifying capitalist society--and so on.

But nauseating as such words were to every Russian of culture or of independent mind, the harm was small and temporary as compared with what occurred when the Soviets began to break up the collections which were the priceless heritage of the people, selling large numbers of masterpieces, like the Alba Madonna and the St. George of Raphael, now in the Mellon Collection at Washington, the great Van Eycks and the Watteau now in the Metropolitan Museum, and the Van Gogh of the Cafe at Night now in a New York collection.

The excuse for these sales was that the Soviets needed the money-to which we may reply that there are certain things one may not do for money. That is what all countries and all periods reply to the prostitute and the thief when they try to justify their way of life through the argument of necessity. Harsh as the reply may appear in individual cases, it is--along its general lines--the verdict of mankind.

The Nazis, in following the Bolsheviks, as they so often did, were a bit subtler in the statement of their case. From a museum in Berlin they sold the greatest piece of Gothic sculpture in all Germany, the glorious Madonna and Child now in the Cloisters, at Fort Tryon Park. But, they explained, this work is French, and they wanted to put works of German art in the place it had occupied. Perhaps that was also the excuse as to the Raphael portrait of a man from Munich, now in the Kress Collection at our National Gallery. We are pretty safe in saying, however, that all these examples of action by the dictators were motivated by the psychology of the kidnaper--to whom nothing is sacred if he can turn it into money. And if we think of the honor which the older Germany gave to learning, culture, and art, and then think that such outrages on the character and tradition of the people were tolerated in our day, we may well say that we are not dealing with an imaginary menace for America when we call upon its intelligent men and women to make themselves a barrier against the spread of this gangster psychology to a people like our own, whose necessary concern, till recently, with the clearing of a continent has not left time for such experience of art, such consideration of the value of art, as have been possible in the Old World.

But a more flagrant and dangerous poisoning of the wells of thought still remains to be noticed. I mean the branding of certain modern tendencies as degenerate, and the prevention by the government of work by the artists so stigmatized. Van Gogh has been dead for fifty years, and so the sale out of the country of great pictures by him has no more effect than to impoverish Germany by the loss of the actual works, the artist himself being beyond the range of persecution. One hopes the same is true of Derain, whose magnificent landscape of Vers has come to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thanks to Hitler's incursion on one of the German museums. But this artist was in Paris, under Nazi rule--since one must recall that horrid fact. While no report has come as yet (1941) of interference by the German authorities with the activities of French painters, it would be a simple step if there were what they call a coordination, a Gleichschaltung, of artists in the conquered territory with those in Germany itself. The best painter and the best sculptor, in that country today, Carl Hofer and Gerhard Marcks--to name them--are both so cut off from the public and so constantly visited by the police that their work has had to stop entirely.

Is it any wonder that the members of their profession in this country are--probably to a man--filled with loathing and contempt for a regime which supports itself by the sacrifice of what is best within its borders? Do not let it be suggested that these are temporary measures, like the sale of art works in Russia, which has now indeed prohibited such sales, and has even given orders for the repurchase of any of its works which might be obtainable.

The most vicious of the German activity was against ideas, especially those of freedom, because it has been, since the French Revolution, the chief aspiration of mankind. Crushed in the brave gesture it made in Spain, no one doubted--and Hitler least of all--that only force, in that country, will prevent its rise again. That rise has always been prophesied and led by the arts. Hence the Nazis' attempt to corrupt, prevent, or suppress them. Hence the identification I have been making between them and the democratic way of life. We have seen that the autocracies, the very theocracies of the past, representing the general understanding of the world of their times, operated in general harmony with the arts--which today are forced to seek refuge in the lands which have still kept their freedom, the condition understood by our time as the right one for humanity.

Let me make a final point in our question of the stake of the arts in the democratic way of life (and I would ask you to observe--in passing--that I have refrained from discussing, unless it be by implication, a subject even more vital, perhaps: I mean the stake which the democratic way of life has in the arts). My last point is that the present time is most particularly one when contamination of the arts at the hands of a political ideology, or by mere banditry, would be disastrous to a more than usual extent.

It is well known that the past hundred and fifty years have paralleled by the development of art the immense changes in the field of science. As to the latter, one would not expect even a Franklin, a Volta, or an Ampere to recognize himself or the results of his discoveries in the telephone, the airplane, or the radio, with their utter transformation of our concepts of space and time. Similarly, the painters of their period might well stand amazed at the externals of the art of today, even if we know to an absolute certainty that what made a picture good in the year 1800, or for that matter in 1500, is what makes it good today. But we can be sure that those great scientists of the earlier time would readily understand the latter-day marvels in their field if they had sufficient opportunity to trace the evolution since their own day, and grasp the thought of our day. In the same way, one can perfectly imagine Ingres, with his creativeness so closely conditioned by his study of the museums, coming to a full comprehension of Derain. The same words about creativeness within a tradition, which I have just used about Ingres (born exactly a hundred years before Derain), may be applied to our contemporary. Delacroix, recalling his journey to Morocco in 1832, and knowing his debt to the Orient for much of the color in his work, might well see the beauty of Matisse's color--with its own influence from Morocco and from other exotic lands.

The Goya who produced those frightful plates of the Disasters of War would, I am positive, hear his own voice in that terrible cry which Picasso utters in Guernica: the great Spaniard of the earlier invasion and the great Spaniard of the recent invasion both preserve their respect for the laws of their art, and both extend the scope of those laws, even while hurling their imprecation against the enemies of that democratic way of life to which the people of Spain are so passionately devoted.

Schumann said that only genius perfectly comprehends genius. But if such comprehension of the modern masters as I have predicated for those older masters belongs to men of their stature alone, there is still a vast treasure of ideas and power to be derived by even average men from the great achievement of recent times. In a general way, we are coming to grasp this fact; and I am constantly finding myself astonished over the way the youngsters of today are seizing at once the ideas that the men of my generation came to only through the famous blood, sweat, and tears.

I have been speaking of the artists; but often I am more interested in laymen and, considering the creation of the Museum of Modern Art here, and the immense developments of the unspecialized museums of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco (to take only the most widely separated cities), I do not think it in any way a self-deception to see a progressive closing of that unfortunate gap between the artist and the public which characterized the nineteenth century as no other before it.

For this beneficent process to continue, it is evident that a free movement of the spirit, undisturbed by totalitarian meddling, is essential. And so, though I cannot imagine how even the most blighting tyranny would cause the disappearance of the artist, although---as compared with him--it is the world in general that has most to gain by the preservation of the democratic way of life, I affirm that the artist needs it also, in order that he may, in the new era before us, no longer have to depend solely on his own strength, as he was forced to do for about a hundred years past, but may have the benefit of the understanding and support of his fellow men. In losing contact with him, they have--during the period which saw the creation of the museums--given their admiration to the things of the past. No loss of our love for the classics is required for us to enjoy the art of our own day, and when such enjoyment becomes general, when the artist is released from the isolation of the ivory tower and is again permitted a free exchange with his fellow men, he will make the great new advances for which his work in recent times has prepared him. Basing my convictions, therefore, on his own interest as well as what I know of his general outlook on life, I am proud to offer this testimony that the men of my profession stand solidly in support of the ideals of the present Conference.


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