Granting that it is good for an artist to be self-expressive--is it also good for an art to be broadly communicative?
Let us look at the ordinary North American's taste in art--at the feeling of broad rather than inclusive community he seeks--noting a number of angles from which the subject may be approached and finally focusing on one.
While a good deal must be said here about popular arts and particularly about motion pictures, no effort will be made to gain the coverage of Gilbert Seldes' still lively treatment of The Seven Lively Arts (1924) or his and others' more recent studies of motion pictures. While also a fair amount must be said about "exclusiveness" in various arts, no attempt will be made to cover that question with the admirable historical perspectives of the chapter on "The Arts, the Snobs, and the Democrat" in Jacques Barzun's Of Human Freedom (1939). Both are recommended for their larger dimensions. Here, instead, emphasis falls on a limited number of ideas, vibrantly communicated by the arts in our time, particularly ideas about man's relation to what Lewis Mumford (1938) has called man's second greatest work of art, the modern city, which has established conditions of mass audiences and mass media affecting all other arts.
The phenomenon of urbanized writers like Stein, Joyce, and Eliot, at least, might have been in the mind of the anthropological linguist, Edward Sapir (1930), when he wrote about certain deliberate barriers to communication in his article on "Communication" in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: It is a question whether the obvious increase of overt communication is not constantly being corrected, as it were, by the creation of new obstacles to communication. The fear of being too easily understood may, in many cases, be more aptly defined as the fear of being understood by too many--so many indeed, as to endanger the psychological reality of the image of the enlarged self confronting the not-self (iv, 80).
If this is a reasonable psychological explanation of the expatriate American behavior of Stein and Eliot, and the super-patriot Irish behavior of Joyce--i.e., that they were afraid or otherwise unwilling to meet the gross mass audience in its largest dimensions--then the ordinary man is intuitively right in feeling that they are no important business of his. He would be intruding on deliberate privacy. To be sure, popular journalists establish Stein, Joyce, and Eliot as symbols of unintelligibility and to that extent violate their privacy, perhaps, and make them symbols in mass communication; yet the ordinary man accepts these symbols as curious without compelling much curiosity. The less ordinary man, eager perhaps to belong to a somewhat exclusive group and so sustain his image of a special kind of self, may become one of a circle of initiates.
This is an extreme interpretation of limited communication of the fine arts, of course, which will offend many a resolute lover of literature and art who has gone to considerable pains to become an initiate in one art or another. It will bring forth familiar protests of "anti-intellectual" and "a typical literary (or scientific, or bourgeois) attitude." Yet it is hard not to see, with Barzun, a considerable amount of truth in it, verified by one's own recognizable impulses to be exclusive, and the similar behavior of many of one's fellows. The connection of art with magic, "mysteries," and prestige and power practices of various aristocracies, rather than with lucid communication, is an old story to all students of culture.
To hold that popular art is ipso facto worthier would be an equally extreme interpretation. We know too much about low common denominators and promotion rackets in a field which includes comic strips, magazine covers and advertising, the shapes and colors of ten cent store articles, the staples of radio and juke box music, movie stereotypes and the prevailing automobile design and architectural stereotypes. By the devotee of exclusive art, all these are likely to be condemned as aesthetically bad. Yet, they probably have about the same proportion of aesthetically good and bad as the sum total of all that is produced in the name of fine art. All is not bad, surely, in the Disneys and Currys and Grant Woods and Winslow Homers and Norman Rockwells, the Currier and Ives prints, the Stephen Fosters and the Gershwins, the Kitty Foyles and Mr. Deeds, the Chaplins and Ingrid Bergmans, the Radio Cities and neo-Gothic cathedrals and neo-New England churches, the transplanted Cape Cod and neo-Spanish and geometrical-functional houses, the intaglio soap and the playful "container," the streamlined cars and trains and fountain pens. They convey emotions. They have design. They show considerable dexterity.
"But are they Art?"
If Art is symbolic expression of feeling and idea in significant design--whether in language, colors, tones, wood, stone, steel, or other materials, singly or in combination, then they are art even though they may be qualitatively less "significant" in certain respects than a Picasso or a Stein. But who dares then to argue that the evoking of response of large audiences to certain common symbols and the values they stand for is a less significant function of art than the capturing of new visions, aspects, and values of human experience?
At any rate, George H. Mead (1934), pioneer philosopher of communication, offers what seems to be an important corollary to Sapir's observation on exclusive art:
The organization ... of social responses makes it possible for the individual to call out in himself not simply a single response of the other but the response, so to speak, of the community as a whole.... As scientists, we will say, one's community consists of all his colleagues, but this community includes anyone who can understand what is said. The same is true of literature. The size of its audience is a functional one; if the achievement of organization is obtained, it may be of any size. Bigness may in this sense be an indication of qualitative achievement (pp. 267-68).
Many an art critic will protest that the very mention of science and literature in one breath lets art out, that emotional art is the very opposite of non-emotional science, that literature with its devotion to story is too often the betrayer of art, that art has its own pure essence of form according to the special genius of the material used.
All this needs looking into, even if with only brief associationalglances, as a way of taking bearings.
Pure and Mixed Arts PAccording to current truisms, the fine arts tend to be pure, while the popular arts are almost always mixed. Obviously, purity is better than its opposite.
But is the supposed purity of our finer arts, i.e., the refinement of forms in a single medium, really anything more admirable than making the most of limited resources? Naturally, the artist who for reasons of economy or temperament chooses or is compelled to work only with canvas, or clay, or ink and paper, lovingly rationalizes his medium and his control of it--and even his garret--into the most admirable of things. Very good. But may not a mastery of several media at once be more admirable, especially if it can enlist responses from persons of differing kinds of responsiveness--auditory, visual, kinaesthetic? A Shakespeare play, popular alike with galleries and groundlings in Elizabethan London, shows artful mastery of words and action and music hardly inferior to the pure lines and colors of a Mondrian, or the precision of a Paul Klee or the shapely protoplasms of a Miro.
For that matter, some of the modern giants in the fine arts seem to be abandoning the purity; whether because they find interesting varieties of materials at hand, or because they feel the need of more varied materials to capture the complex feelings of modern life, or both. What (Mackenzie, 1940) of Picasso's fusions of the effects of sculpture and stained glass in his paintings or his actual mixing of various kinds of materials in three dimensional montages (see Plates VI, VIII, XI, XII, and XIX)? Or Van Gogh's heavy paint suggesting a kind of bas relief of feeling? Or the new hanging "mobiles" of string, wire, and painted cardboard or sheet metal cut outs, not only mixing materials but adding motion to printed and sculptural dimensions?
All this may simply be momentary aberration within the fine arts. Yet, it throws the theory of pure art as finer art into considerable doubt. It may remind us that our preference for Greek statues without their original paint is probably due as much to the fact that we are comfortably used to the paintless forms as that those forms are purer. The early painted forms of gods and heroes were designed to bring them close to the ancient Greek as painted madonnas and Christuses were meant to come close to folk in a later day. Today, for various reasons which may have little to do with art, sophisticated people prefer, as some of the later Greeks doubtless preferred, to keep at the greater psychological distance which pure stone or plain wood compels.
Technically, of course, the chance of fumbling and failure to work out a harmony increases with the number of factors involved in a work of art. So critics are doubtless wise to advise young artists to master one medium. But paradoxically they still give highest praise to works of greatest dimension and even of mixed appeal--a Ninth Symphony, an epic poem, a Last Supper, a Sistine Chapel, a Chartres Cathedral. Aristotle's "magnitude and order" still hold good, apparently. As for magnitude, is the magnitude of the audience of no account ? Or may the art of moving a very large audience through a carefully harmonized combination of appeals be a significant factor in measuring the magnitude of a creative act? Again, if artists and critics deny such possibility of any mixture of media, or any relation between artist and instrument and audience, are they not making the arts much less free than artists usually profess them to be?
There may be dangers in "slavery" to an audience, but there are perhaps greater dangers in "slavery" to a medium. When the artist becomes enamored of the materials with which he works, his experience in working with that material may become his most exciting experience, and he may become chiefly concerned with showing his power over that material. In that case, he is hardly different from the scientist intent on showing his power over the materials in a laboratory. Both can be valuable to mankind in exploring new possibilities in "pure art" or "pure science," but both are in danger of selfish and irresponsible self-indulgence.
The Literary Taint
The literary taint is, of course, the chief current offender against purity in music or pictorial art. It calls for extra inquiry, since language symbols are obviously factors in social communication before they become factors of self-expression, while the substances of other arts seem to have another kind of existence. The sounds of rushing wind or footfalls, or the shape and texture of a stick of wood or a lump of clay or a stone, or the stain of berries on fibers, or the modern counterparts of these primitive materials for art, are not born of any demonstrable communicative impulse, and so may be considered essentially different. Yet a Plato has conceived the sculptor's task to be simply the finding of the speaking image already in the stone and men "pathetically" persist in thinking of nature as speaking to them in many signs and voices.
The peculiar genius of paint is presumably color and light and shadow and perspective in contracted space. The genius of stone is its three dimensionality whether for intimacy or monumentality--not to forget its durability. The genius of music is its tonal flow in time. The genius of words is their multi-symbolic combination of explicitness and suggestiveness. Certainly, these distinctive powers should be developed to their fullest possibilities. In this respect, the artist is hardly different from the artisan or machinist proud of his mastery of a material. But to the rejection of other powers, so that they exert less than their full power?
Specifically, just how bad is it for a painting or a piece of music to tell a story, to be "literary"? If a painter chooses to tell in paint a story that he might better tell in words, he may be misguided. Yet, his paint may tell certain parts of the story with an immediacy and simultaneity of effects that would be impossible in words. Some human stories are wordless, but not toneless or shapeless. His own genius may be for such wordless stories. And are we sure, after all, that any human experience can be freed from the chronological, cause and effect, story dimension? Or that it is the better for being freed, or for having this dimension concealed? Probably not, in spite of the modern quest for the essence of the material. What would the "Nude Descending a Staircase" be without its playful title? The life of word-using man is a narrative undergoing constant revision. To remove anything wholly from this narrative context is to dehumanize it, the very thing which the artist resents in the scientist, the so-called "dehumanization" of surrealism notwithstanding.
This leads to another set of questions, about humanization and the humanities generally.
If one may not reason from literature to the other arts, or from the other arts to literature, then American college education in the past fifteen years has been moving headlong in the wrong direction. For the most conspicuous recent development in college education has been the development of comprehensive humanities programs in which pictorial and plastic art, music and literature are studied together for their common symbolic expression of human values. In 193I, there were four such college programs. Now there must be a hundred of them in our leading colleges and universities. These colleges may be wrong. But it seems more likely that our highly specialized artists and critics who insist that each art is unique in essence are wrong, and are indulging in medicine man mysteries to enhance their own "magic." For the ultimate essence of art is in man, his impulse to express and communicate symbolically.
Similar testimony comes from even more inclusive studies in communication, both in our colleges and in non-academic enterprises. In our developing philosophies of communication, primary emphasis is on symbols of communication rather than the "human values" of the humanities, although symbols obviously imply values. A book like Smith, Lasswell, and Casey's (1946) Propaganda, Communication, and Public Opinion reports on hundreds of studies in communication. Practically every one focuses on man's symbolic behavior. Many of the findings are still hypothetical, among them those on the intricacies of the symbolic process. Yet, the grosser stages in man's symbolic behavior seem clear, the process of selecting from a flood of impressions one or more that seem most significant, the establishing of abbreviated images or other signs to stand for them in the mind, and the expression of them in words, pictures, music, gestures.
Sapir, from the essentially unbiased position of the anthropologist, does not conceive of language as essentially different at root from non-verbal symbolization.
It is best to admit that language is primarily a vocal actualization of the tendency to see reality symbolically.
Mead's (1934) observation on the symbolic nature of language may also be extended to all the arts:
The significant symbol is nothing but that part of the act which serves as a gesture to call out the other part of the process, the response of the other (p. 268).
Susanne K. Langer (1942), after warning us not to generalize too freely from one art to another, and particularly not to press the phrase "a language of music" in a literal sense, has this to say of the symbolic nature of music:
The belief that music is essentially a form of self-expression meets with a paradox in very short order; philosophically it comes to a stop almost at its beginning. For the history of music has been a history of more and more integrated, disciplined, and articulated forms, much like the history of language, which waxes important only as it is weaned from its ancient source in expressive cries.... Sheer self-expression requires no artistic form....
Let us now explicitly abandon the problems of music as stimulus and music as emotive symptom, since neither of these functions (though both undoubtedly exist) would suffice to account for the importance we attach to it; and let us assume that its "significance" is in some sense that of a symbol....
Music articulates forms which language cannot set forth. Because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with musical forms than with forms in language, music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach.
I strongly suspect, though I am not ready to assert it dogmatically, that the import of artistic expression is broadly the same in all arts as it is in music--the verbally ineffable, yet not inexpressible law of vital experience, the patterns of affective and sentient being. This is the "content" of what we perceive as "beautiful form," and this formal element is the artist's "idea" which is conveyed by every great work.... That is presumably what Walter Pater meant by his much-debated doctrine, "All art aspires to the condition of music" (pp. 216-35).
In Signs, Symbols, and Behavior, Charles Morris (1946) goes farther than Langer in calling all arts languages:
I see no compelling reason for not regarding the arts as languages ... less adequate than spoken language for some purposes of communication but more adequate for others.
Such arts as music and painting may ... signify in any of the modes of signifying ... designatively informative, appraisively valuative, and so on.
The separation of the fine arts within the arts--however made in detail--is less important than the recognition that non-vocal signs occur in all modes of signifying and are used for all purposes (pp. 193-95).
In the last analysis, the very commonness of the literary is probably the chief cause of condescension or condemnation, bringing us back inescapably to the exclusiveness analyzed by Sapir. Familiarity can breed either admiration or contempt. Note the change of attitude of those folk who loved Tchaikowsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" or Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" so long as familiarity with them was a mark of status in the exclusive company of symphony lovers, but who condescend to them now that Tchaikowsky and Schubert have become familiar favorites of even a modestly large number of radio listeners. George Inness's paintings similarly were touchstones of the cognoscenti until prints of the "Home of the Heron" began to grace every picture framer's window. Obviously, there has been no change in the art quality or design of these works. The change has come in the audience or audiences. Art then seems to be not a pure or absolute quality, but a condition of the time, place, and circumstance of communication also, whether narrow communication or wide. Some people want to possess it only if it is rare, possessed by few others or no others. So, with the works of art in the Duke of Ferrara's "Last Duchess." So, even with the ladies of the vanished Browning Clubs. This question of familiarity deserves more inquiry, with particular reference to some of the American popular arts cited earlier.
Familiarity and Popularity, Love and Contempt
Can art be good and be popular? Can the "best" art become popular and remain best? Is fine art the finer art? Does art fulfil its prime social function until it is widely known and understood, i.e., communicated or commonly shared? And particularly, how are we to think of these things in America?
The prestige arts have not always been so far removed from the common or so sharply separated from one another as they are in North America today. The medieval cathedral remains a symbol of a highly communicative and also self-expressive union of the arts. It moves people of all levels and faiths. It could move a highly sophisticated and doubting American like Henry Adams to a book like Mont St. Michel and Chartres, and lift Longfellow's nineteenth century language to rare heights in his sonnets on the Divina Commedia--as in the one beginning:
How strange the sculptures that adorn these towers
This crowd of statues in whose folded sleeves
Birds build their nests; while canopied with leaves,
Parvis and portal bloom like trellised bowers,
And the vast minster seems a cross of flowers!
But fiends and dragons on the gargoyled eves
Watch the dead Christ between the living thieves!
Uprose this poem of the earth and air,
This medieval miracle of song.
Both the cathedral and Longfellow's sonnet are presumably to be classed as "literary" arts. For the cathedral also tells a story. Partly, it is the "literary" story of Christ, partly the architectural story of the dark and secret vaults of the early worshippers pushed above ground and pointed until they dominated all the land around, yet still kept dark and vaultlike. In turn, Longfellow's sonnet--one of the few works of Longfellow still regarded by connoisseurs as high art--takes unto itself the virtues of architecture. Would either be better for being purer? Or for being less literary? Or less familiar?
Architecture constantly remembers the story of its own growth--fluted columns remembering early buildings of reeds and wattles, stone corbels the early wood supports. Similarly, literature grows on literature--Longfellow on Dante and both on the Bible. So with music and painting. Here is communication through time as well as over space. A considerable measure of familiarity is evidently essential.
In America, our widespread adoption of ecclesiastical Gothic and its first cousin, collegiate Gothic, has come, of course, in the face of a strong counter impulse symbolized in the white New England church. Born of Protestant and pioneer plainness, the New England church provides the text for a deeprooted, widespreading American attitude toward several arts which must not be ignored. Functionalism in architecture and furniture in the New England church became beauty. And although music and painting never advanced beyond simple symbols of unity in the tune of an old hymn and the whiteness of preserving paint, familiarity has given them a kind of fitness or beauty. While thus functionalism has become one of our chief values--and a very admirable one--the lack of status given to art, particularly music and painting, resulted in limitations of popular experience with these arts and a contempt of unfamiliarity only now being widely overcome (sometimes with a vengeance!) through the inventions of movies, radio, recordings, and color printing.
This is not simply an American matter, of course. Our British preceptors have been similar victims of Protestantism, Pragmatism, and--yes, here even the defender of literature must complain against one aspect of literature--Printing. The matter is important enough to call for several paragraphs.
It was no accident that Printing and Puritanism sprang up together in Britain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Printing made possible the widespread reading of the Bible, and reading of the Bible by common folk provided the basis for Puritanism, with its suspicion of graven images and the other arts of Babylon. Yet, it is conceivably historical accident that printing came before other kinds of art reproduction, and that literature became a matter of letters instead of pictures, as indeed it has become a matter of pictures for many "readers" of comic books today.
What if, by some accident plus man's inventiveness, medieval man had discovered some cheap form of color lithography before he had developed letter press, and had been able to give wide circulation to picture stories before he developed inexpensive books ? Would he have come to depend on letter press for communication as he did increasingly between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries? Would he have come to be so color blind as he came to be when he got his color more and more (as color in dress and furnishings declined) through descriptions of color in black and white letter press? Or would writers have gone to the pains to describe landscape or costume if they could have had true colored illustrations at hand?
Or consider another possibility. What if Leonardo only a few years after Gutenberg had discovered that a stylus on a wax disc could reproduce the human voice, and had developed cheap sound reproduction? Would people have been put to the same pains to learn how to read? Would we have become so print minded and tone deaf as many of us are?
We may argue, of course, that print could provide the impression of color, picture or music, sometimes remarkably well, as well as be very explicit about ideas, and provide it in a durable form that man could come back to readily. But granting the probability that letter press books would have become important even if color reproduction and sound reproduction had come earlier, those books would not have carried so much burden or been so set apart that literature, music and pictorial art now seem to many people, common and expert alike, to have quite separate functions, instead of complementary communicative appeals to several senses.
Print seemed pragmatically sufficient for communication for many people in Britain and America. Why go to the pains of cultivating other arts? It did not pay; it was a mark of upper classes who could afford luxuries and non-essentials. Just so, the Bible seemed sufficient as a guide to life, including all one needed to know of communication. In seventeenth century, Puritan America children learned to read so that they could read the Book. They saw few pictures. Their music established communication in one important sense: It gave them a feeling of community, of being together. But these Puritans were a word-minded and house-minded people, and their descendants have remained largely so today, whether they are in New England or in those large sections of the Middle West to which many of them migrated. Since they came to be the symbols of the oldest and best in American culture, their example was widely followed. Art loving Southerners might have changed the story if they had not come into conflict with these literal minded Yankees, but they did come into conflict and their love of art became a picturesque and alien legend, along with the society which had cultivated it. Some of these questions of Puritan influence were hotly debated some 25 years ago, you may recall, by an anti-Puritan critic from Baltimore and a liberal Yankee professor from Illinois. H.L. Mencken thought we must fight for release from our Puritanism if our arts were ever to come of age. Stuart Sherman thought we must make the best of our Puritanism and develop our arts on the basis of it. Their quarrel seems quaint to many readers today, but the issue was real and is with us still. A familiar "literary" approach to art is inevitable for most Americans.
American or European
To most Americans, the fine arts have been synonymous with Europe. This has been so for the pragmatic native Americans. It has been so, in another sense, for the immigrants from Europe. To American artists or patrons of art, it meant looking to Europe, or, better, going to Europe. It meant European standards. And European standards meant something alien to most Americans. In Europe, the artist has been interested in variations from a well defined epic. In America, the artist still has to define the epic. Hence, our quest for the great American novel, the great American symphony. The very critics who most vigorously applauded European art found the transplanting of European techniques inept.
Yet, in spite of these frustrations, Americans have developed sub-arts that have come to status--not as folk expression exactly (for they were not produced by the folk) but as folk communication in keeping with American mechanical prowess (for they were produced for the folk by machine and received by them). The most influential is the motion picture.
Even the few questions raised so far seem to point the need for a new social aesthetic closely allied to studies in communication. Any lover of the arts wishes it were possible to use as text certain arresting lines of John Dewey (1934):
In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience (p. 105).
But it needs so much qualification that it embarrasses more than it helps. This new aesthetic must go into four questions, particularly:
(1) How far is familiarity a condition of aesthetic creation and response--loving what one knows, confirming what one believes?
(2) At what point does familiarity become a drag on response--breeding contempt and a spirit of rebellion?
(3) Under what conditions is directly functional usefulness likely to be a prime condition for pleasurable response?
(4) Under what conditions is a "plus element"--functional for the observer but not necessarily "functional" in the material object--a necessary condition for continued aesthetic satisfaction?
The remaining two sections apply these questions to other popular items named earlier.
Mass Production and Mass Communication
Disney, Chaplin, Norman Rockwell, Currier, Ives, Stephen Foster, Gershwin, Kitty Foyle, Mr. Deeds, Ingrid Bergman, streamlined trains and automobiles and fountain pens--all are the results of American mass communication in tune with American mass production.
Bigness has been a prime condition of American life, bigness in natural resources, bigness in distances, bigness in population, bigness of industry, bigness of cities. It may be, as Mead intimates, a prime mover in distinctly American art.
It is no accidental result that Americans have invented telegraphs, telephones, high speed presses, motion pictures, phonographs, airplanes, skyscrapers, assembly lines, to cope with bigness. They were necessary for the American community. Mass art is necessary also for community--common perceptions, common values--in terms other than those of localized folk art. They tend to come together in works like Benton's or in Federal Art Project murals, which invite participant response for people of rural memories.
Disney's mechanized folk fable, like much comic strip and animated cartoon work, serves various purposes, but particularly to reduce complexities of urban behavior to natural simplicities--in the ingenuities of Mickey Mouse (cf. Herriman's Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse for an earlier more sophisticated version), the comic frustrations of Donald Duck, the psychologically based fantasies of Snow White and Fantasia.
Chaplin's pre-Disney service in reducing bewildering complexity to satirically aesthetic simplicity has drawn this comment from J.B. Priestley (1946) in Bright Day:
Given a night off by Aunt Hilda, I would go to the second "house" of the Imperial Music Hall.... Looking back soberly at those music hall shows, and making every allowance for my youth and for the infectious enjoyment of Uncle Miles, I see now that in those noisy smoky halls, with their brassy orchestras, their plush and tarnished gilt, their crudely coloured spotlights raying down from the gallery, we were basking in the brilliant Indian Summer of a popular art, a unique folk art that sprang out of the gusto and irony, the sense of pathos and the illimitable humour of the English industrial people, braving it out in their mills and foundries and dingy crowded towns; an art that flourished, withered and decayed well within a man's lifetime, but that, before it lost all vitality, scattered its seeds, its precious seeds of rich warm humanity, all over the darkening world, and sent an obscure droll called Chaplin as far as California so that his flickering image could go out to conquer the earth (pp. 32-33).
Familiarity is plainly a key element in these, familiarity of folk figures and stories, as Disney dolls and Chaplin "nights" have testified. Yet, they have lasted, too, because there was depth to the familiarity, not simply surface likeness. Depth is essential to hold off boredom and contempt, the boredom that comes soon with the trick tune or trick gesture or trick design. It is essential for lasting popular art as well as lasting fine art.
Functional usefulness also is essential in anything that is often repeated. Disney and Chaplin qualify here again because they give certain needed communication gestures toward life's common incongruities not provided by loftier art and literature. Pantomimic exaggeration can be admirably played up by the motion picture medium. Yet it can be played up well also with paint or clay. Action adds something more. It gives heightened significance, for instance, to the varied types of suspenders and buttons with which clothing stays more or less in place on hoboes and on animal figures. If one lets his fancy play on these saucer like buttons and safety pinned suspenders, and their relation to child life and adult life generally, he has a fairly good illustration of the "depth below depth" in all lasting art. These satirical "plus elements" are made integral with the rest. Decoration can add to depth even when it is no more essential than the cameo figures on a Wedgwood plate.
Norman Rockwell? Currier and Ives? They may be shrugged off as Americana, genre art, the art of our cultural adolescence. But they, too, have depths that invite reexamination. In the Currier and Ives prints, there are appreciative depths of space relations, other than perspective, and time relations other than narratives of Thanksgiving Days or Steamboat Races or Transcontinental Trains, space relations of a day when people had elbow room and time relations of a day when people had time, and when they apparently sensed a danger of losing both. That is more than nostalgia, though nostalgia is a legitimate part of it. Matters of space and time are profoundly important in the designs of lives, and they are important in art for the same reasons.
Norman Rockwell has some of these same rural and village qualities as Currier and Ives, saying with gentler humor than Aristophanes that urban man had better hold on to some of the old values; but his plus element, like Winslow Homer's, is his visual sense of texture of homely realities. Texture happens to be one of Picasso's concerns also. Rockwell's sense of texture is less dramatic than Winslow Homer's feeling for the fisherman's oilskins, or a bronze bell, or the tarry planks of a Nassau schooner; nevertheless Rockwell is very revealing. Manhattan born, Vermont adopted, Rockwell has said some important things about the relative textures of urban and rural things and people--as to what textures we had better hold onto in this day of stone and steel. This is far more than "mere representation." In a day when Hollywood, too, is concerned with textures, mostly slick, it may be quite as important to express texture in this American manner as to express the quality of light in the bridges and ponds and railway stations of French impressionists. If one can express two things together, story and texture, integrally, each may gain from the other.
Currier and Ives, Winslow Homer, Rockwell: all are "mass reproduction" art, and have done well with the limitations of mass reproduction processes--which have their "disciplines" also.
Gershwin, Stephen Foster, "Rhapsody in Blue," "Swannee River": Here is the "story" of the homeless the world over. The Jew, the Negro, the urban people of all colors. These mixed elements must be harmonized and unified. They are America's greatest challenge. Here, the artist has gone farther to meet it than the statesman. "Swannee River" sought its harmony in the rural love song pattern of its day, with still poignant depths of meaning for white and black, North and South, child and parent, lover and loved. A "Rhapsody in Blue" with longer perspective and tougher-mindedness, reaches back from its initial fire siren wail to the work songs and spirituals of the plantation Negro (cf. Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess"). We feel them become hectic and more homeless as they take on the ragtime rhythms of New Orleans life; then, moving up river, yield to the Memphis and St. Louis blues; then turning east, catch the crash and jangle of Chicago and the "Chicago School"; and finally become merged in New York with an ancient melody of the Jewish people whose whole history has been a quest for home. With its companion piece, "An American in Paris," it says things that cannot be adequately caught in words, and that seem to be more profound than thematic variations on a Negro Spiritual in Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. Hearing "A Rhapsody in Blue" on a summer night in Lewisohn Stadium in New York leaves little doubt that the breathless audience is there for something deeper than trick tunes, something which brings chaotic life and people into significant form, as Whitman sought to do for an untuned audience in the preceding century.
Kitty Foyle and Mr. Deeds or Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper, if you prefer? Are they epic symbols or Hollywood stereotypes? It is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, as the poet of "Lonesome Train" observed of Lincoln and the people. Gary Cooper, not unlike Lincoln in face and frame, is perennially the frontiersman or countryman facing the city. Ginger Rogers, versatile, not too pretty for belief, is the white collar girl also facing the city. To be sure, Christopher Morley had to write his novel of Kitty Foyle backward to get her taken seriously (rather than sensationally in the manner of the drugstore bachelor girl romance), but that device was within the range of the popular audience.
One more minor query before turning to the question of the ultimate symbols for which American popular artists are questing. At first glance this last one may appear trivial: What of streamlining? It is something more than an application of faddish, intrinsically non-functional racy lines to kitchen mixers or baby carriages. It says something, even in those objects, about a need to integrate science and art in our hurried lives. In the streamlined train and plane and automobile, laggard as the latter is in reaching true artistic functionalism (in part because the customer is said to prefer only modest departures from the familiar), the adaptation of form to economical movement through space has gone far. In the building of homes, "streamlining" took an unhappy start, suggesting that objects were about to take off into space. Then came a happy deflection into the idea of economical space enclosure rather than swift movement through space, but with some suitable hint of moveableness still. Streamline pens? The advertisements of the most shapely of the pens play up their well balanced shapeliness in the hands of artists, by a well known semi-popular, semi-prestige artist. Doubtless, there is something of talisman appeal here, and also some illusion that the streamlines will spell swiftness in writing. Yet when the novelty of the present suggestion is gone, the artist can show where the streamlined function is equally valuable, slipping easily into a vest pocket and leaving no square edges to block or catch pocket notebooks or glasses cases. The pen may seem here as a symbol of a great range of industrial art on which Read and others have written seriously as well as "popularly."
The Ultimate Symbol?
The ultimate question of popular communicative art in America turns of course on the movies-cinema to the exclusive. The present faint lines of demarcation between radio and movies, growing fainter every day as Hollywood takes over the personnel or supplies it, will be obliterated in another generation if television takes over radio.
The movies are America's chief contribution in the arts, for good or bad. They have made certain other contributions in the arts an almost inseparable if not integral part of themselves--Afro-American jazz, streamlining of various sorts, montage effects, skyscraper perspectives, sloganeering. Can these ever be brought into a satisfying integral composite symbol--ultimate, of course, only in the sense that it captures the pattern of what is most significant in the current phase of our complicated, technical, urbanized life?
In an earlier day, we used to hear a good deal of serious talk about a mythical "great American novel." (It was matched, of course, by similar dreams of the great American symphony, opera, and architecture, if not painting.) Today, we hear of the "great American novel" only in a playful sense. It was to capture the shape and to symbolize all that was most significant in a balanced rural and industrial society, to serve as the modern epic, not in verse but in an idiom that Whitman was trying to anticipate in his compromise between verse and prose. The impressionistic critic Huneker said probably the wisest words about that old literary dream:"The great American novel will be in the plural; thousands, perhaps."
The novel did very well, in an inclusive way, for frontier and rural America, and for the first stage of growth of our cities: Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Hoosier Schoolmaster, Zury, The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Cliff Dwellers, My Antonia, Ethan Frome--although for popularity, novels still could not compete with the Bible, into whose symbols of migratory, rural life Americans had learned to read their own epic.
But the novel, despite notable achievements, has failed to capture in any truly satisfying comprehensive way a modern urban pattern into which everyone can fit himself--fully granting the grasp of Norris, Dreiser, Herrick, Edith Wharton, Poole, Dos Passos, Farrell, and the magnitudinous Wolfe. After twenty years of searching study of the American urban novel, I am convinced that there is nothing the novel can do that the movies cannot do more artfully, more effectively, more economically--in short, that this is the movie's great job. The great advantage of the movie turns on its superior portrayal of the hard-to-grasp, often fantastic simultaneities of city life. (Parenthetically, here, I suspect that the popularity of the mystery novel is due in no small part to the fact that here, for highbrow and lowbrow alike, the incongruous simultaneities of urban violence and orderliness are most satisfyingly combined, and always with the reassuring knowledge that there is a precise solution to the riddle for the ingenious man to find. Is it possible that in this unpretentious guise our most promising approach to "the great American urban novel," in the plural, has stolen on us unawares?) On this crucial point of incongruous simultaneity plus design, music, painting, dance, architecture are all superior to print, which must present its observations one at a time. The movie can combine them all. It is still inferior to the stage in actual three-dimensionality, in the sense of people around one instead of simply in front of one, but is not inferior to the novel in that respect. When a novelist does not seek this effect of urban simultaneity--Dos Passos has probably been the most successful--he forthwith uses devices of movies (the Camera Eye, Newsreel, montage), music, architectural perspectives, and modern paintings of masses and thrusts.
In the opening paragraphs from the chapter "Skyscraper" in Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos (1946) plays on such fantastic simultaneities to good effect, here chiefly in architectural perspectives and a montage of street signs:
Jobless, Jimmy Herf came out of the Pulitzer Building. He stood beside a pile of pink newspapers on the curb, taking deep breaths, looking up the glistening shaft of the Woolworth. It was a sunny day, the sky was a robin's egg blue. He turned north and began to walk uptown. As he got away from it the Woolworth pulled out like a telescope. He walked north through the city of shiny windows, through the city of scrambled alphabets, through the city of gilt letter signs.
Spring rich in gluten.... Chockful of golden richness, delight in every bite, THE DADDY OF THEM ALL, spring rich in gluten. Nobody can buy better bread than PRINCE ALBERT. Wrought steel, monel, copper, nickel, wrought iron. all the world loves natural beauty. LOVE'S BARGAIN at Gumpel's best value in town. Keep that schoolgirl complexion.... Joe Kiss, starting, lighting, ignition and generators.
Everything made him bubble with repressed giggles. It was eleven o'clock. He hadn't been to bed. Life was upside down, he was a fly walking on the ceiling of a topsyturvy city (p. 322).
But Dos Passos could do a more powerful piece in shorter time than it takes to read these paragraphs, if he could work with Frank Capra--and better still if he had the further collaboration of a John Marin and a Gershwin. One could do worse than combine Marin's painting of "Downtown New York" (with a hint of the Singer building thrusting up from a street sign and a chaotic groundwork to a pale patterned sky), Gershwin's thrusting, jumbled opening of "A Rhapsody in Blue" and Dos Passos' skyscraper paragraphs--for all are saying the same things. And they might have been fitted into the Capra continuity of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town with excellent effect. In an army film, Capra did, in fact, introduce parts of "A Rhapsody in Blue" into selected sequences from the Steiner-Lorenz-Mumford-Copeland documentary The City.
Better still, however, would be a new film, or many films, reaching beyond The City and Mr. Deeds, Grade AA. Here, such artists could catch the magnitude and underlying order (techniques) of the city, the incredible simultaneities of apartment life ten stories deep and business life eighty stories deep, the elbowing communities which give people some feeling of identity in these "cities of villages" (Greenwich Village is the symbol, after its fashion), the street vignettes which lie around every corner (as they pop up where least expected in The New Yorker magazine), and not simply Times Square, Fifth Avenue, and the Empire State Building or Radio City. We need the homely textures as well as the slick.
Only a motion picture could do all this. Anyone who has seen the early documentary films on Paris and Berlin or The City, can hardly doubt that potentiality. Would it be worth doing? In my opinion, no emotional or intellectual need is so great today as the need for our artists to make clear the form and meaning of life of cities so that people may become masters of cities rather than be mastered by them. This is the idea taking shape in much modern art, fine and popular. For ours is increasingly an urban America, groping for the meaning of a way of life that has replaced the rural way of life. So long as our life was essentially a rural way of life, the Bible of the rural Jews could provide readily applicable symbols of values. As Whitman sensed nearly a century ago, we have need for an enlarged Bible, a new epic of our own, both urban and rural, communicated not in one art but in all available arts.
Would this supplant the need for works of personal expression, or of communication that might be highly limited at first? Not at all. We shall never cease to need works of bold pioneer expression which can be produced as inexpensively as a poem, or a painting, or a song. Out of them come new symbols for new experience, sometimes adopted with surprising speed by our modern movie trained, symbol conscious populace. Consider the speed with which the surrealist perspectives of Salvador Dali have become known. Dali is gradually coming to signify the middle position between pioneer unintelligibility and fairly widespread communication, thanks to the advertisers' recognition of Dali's show window power to focus attention on a perfume bottle set out on a bare "perspective" plain with long shadows, or on grotesquely monumental cantilever rocks, or limp watches fantastically playing upon our concepts of time, or human chests of drawers which play upon our fantastic urban feelings of not being sure where ourselves leave off and our furniture begins, or Dali's fantasies in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Here is the surrealist comment on qualities of space and time, turning on some of the same basic feelings as distinguished Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell.
Is the growing audience taking such surrealist expressions in precisely the terms that the early surrealists intended? I doubt it. But the ordinary man may be sensing factors here that the exploratory protesting artists were only partly aware of. He senses in surrealism a deep disturbance of the urban mind--denials of ordinary time, space, movement, identity--which took one form in rootless Parisians and another in New Yorkers. He may even sense that surrealist art may be the ordinary man's psychological therapist--doing inexpensively for him what the psychoanalyst of the "exclusives" charges a thousand dollars for, and permitting the ordinary man to take only as much of it as he needs. Until recently, ordinary people have not needed much of it, for they have not consciously faced the problem of the city. The older movie stereotypes have enabled them to retain contact with older remembered patterns of life. But more and more the movies themselves are making new patterns evident. And more and more ordinary people are coming to see parables in the spaciously ordered "irrationalities" of Dali and in the patterned distortions of Picasso.
All of which leads to one final question: May not mass audiences create out of works of art even greater works of art than their creators intended, in which the limited communication of the artist is turned into comprehensive communication by the people? I am sure this has been so in a semi-popular artist like Theodore Dreiser, who valued his books for their social rebels, while his readers have valued them for their presentation of the panorama against which the rebels rebelled. I suspect it is often true of both greater art and lesser art.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1934.
Dos Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer. New York: Penguin Books, New York, 1946.
Mackenzie, Helen F. Understanding Picasso. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.
Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.
Mead, George H. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.
Morris, Charles. Signs, Language, and Behavior. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1946.
Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1938.
Priestley, J.B. Bright Day. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946.
Sapir, Edward. "Communication." In Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 7 vols. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1957, iii:78-80.
Smith, Bruce Lannes, Harold D. Lasswell, and Ralph D. Casey. Propaganda, Communication, and Public Opinion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946.
return to the CNST 433 Home Page