PRINT June 1962

Conformity in the Arts

OUR TIME IS WITNESSING A massive drift toward the mechanization of life and the dehumanization of man. As a result, what might be called the ideology of conformism infects everyone, even those who class themselves as rebels and who rebel in the same way. The menace of conformism to freedom of thought and action and to the value of the individual is perhaps the most critical problem of this century. For we desire the efficiency and security which come with submission to mechanized controls, and simultaneously we are losing faith in the creeds and traditions upon which the worth of the individual is founded. Let me make brief mention of six of the powerful forces which have brought us to our present impasse.

First, there is our increasing economic interdependence, which cannot be reversed, and which binds us together in a network of common practices and diminishes our sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. For example, a prolonged strike of truckers or steel workers upsets the daily lives of millions.

Second, there is the development of the specialist, the fragmented man with a special skill, whose economic contribution in a complexly interdependent society is highly efficient, and whose mind may be more freely manipulated by those in power. Should we be surprised that in an age of specialists, the intellectual and the artist have also become specialists—fragmented men who create an art of emotive fragments intelligible only to one of their own kind?

Third, the development of almost instantaneous world-wide communication of both ideas and visual images not only makes men more subject to domination and control, but also gives to every idea or image which man invents the new dimension of potential propaganda for assent. Thus the artist and the intellectual are subtly infected with the psychology of the salesman. They issue manifestoes, run in herds and defensive pressure groups, and become self-conscious hucksters of new fads and “isms,” such as abstract-expressionism or neo-Dadaism.

Fourth, we are witnessing the perfection of techniques to condition and control the minds of men, along with weapons powerful enough to discourage and suppress any civil rebellion. The phrase ‘human engineering’ is sometimes defended as merely the technique of employing the skills of men efficiently, but the term itself implies its ultimate goal—the technique of ‘using’ men. What can halt the increase in efficiency and the expanding employment of psychological conditioning and ‘brain washing’? As time passes we will use the techniques more and be less aware of doing so. Already many artists, critics, museum curators, professors of art, and school teachers are deeply involved in indoctrinating a point of view regarding modern art, but are so little conscious of it that their denials would have the ring of genuine conviction. Criticism of the arts has taken on a quality of hypnotic obscurantism and mystical euphoria, which easily persuades those who have been properly conditioned by prior rationalizations and by the prestige of aesthetic hierophants. The modern impulse to conform, to accept the beliefs and attributes of a prestige group, so blinds the willing converts, that all proclaim the beauty of the naked emperor’s clothes. For this mental conditioning, this human engineering by our taste makers, is effective even when the works of art in question are totally meaningless and absurd to highly educated men who have not been subjected to the appropriate indoctrination.

Fifth, we have accepted Freud’s demeaning psychology of the human mind. He pictures it for us as a repository of libidinous subconscious impulses and motivated to thought and action by suppressed desires. For Freud, reason is only an instrument of the mind usable by the Unconscious to attain its private ends. His psychoanalytic method makes us preoccupied with the life of our individual psyche. And by apparently uncovering its impersonal mechanisms, Freud’s rationalizations exempt us from personal responsibility for our actions and excuse our past and future sins. Hence we should not be surprised that artists are commonly engaged in self-analysis, in self-expression as an end in itself, in irrational content, and in amoral exhibitionism and self-advertisement through shock, sensation, and novelty.

And sixth, many men today have lost faith in God, in an ultimate purpose of life, and in traditional morality. They consider wisdom a meaningless word and reason an overrated attribute of the mind not really distinguishable from rationalization. This loss of faith in so much that is required to give individual life meaning and value is the most serious loss of all. It is an indispensable ingredient in the ideology of the disillusioned intellectuals and sophisticated aesthetes. All the fine arts feed upon it. It frees the way for the economic and political forces which make our daily lives impersonal and mechanical. And it is the only one of the six forces I have described which seems to have no redeeming features, and perhaps the only one which could be attacked directly and unequivocally if we wish to halt the progress of conformism.

Throughout history the fine arts have always been created for an elite audience either of aristocrats or of priests. But until modern times the men in power included the cultural leaders as well. Today, however, there are two antagonistic cultures in the West, that of the power elite and that of the intelligentsia, yet each submits in its own way to the massive force of conformism.

The conformism of the power elite takes many forms. In Europe it was harnessed to political compulsion both by the Nazis and by that other form of National Socialism which we usually call Communism. In each, men are transformed into pawns with an invoice number, under the control of a state bureaucracy, subjected to incessant propaganda to adjust to the system, and receiving cradle to the grave security in exchange for unquestioning conformity to the ideology and mass-culture of the power elite. The art of this Nazi and Communist mass culture is therefore controlled by and dedicated to the interests of the state, and up to the present no significant artists have been developed by Nazi, Fascist, or Communist societies anywhere.

In the United States, the power elite of industrialist and business men create our conformist mass culture and cater to its needs. Conformism by political force is sponsored by McCarthyism and by the John Birch Society. But the ideal end of the more benevolent welfare state is also a bargain of security from cradle to grave in exchange for conformity from cradle to grave. In the labor movement the obvious trend is toward the unification of all workers under a small band of power-hungry commissars, involving an ever increasing sacrifice of independence of thought and action by the individual workers. In big business we have all become familiar with the new ideal called the “Organization Man,” who adopts stereotyped behavior, dress, and living conditions, who holds approved opinions, chooses an appropriate wife, and selects the right car to reflect his current status in the organization. In the field of education, the principle of mass culture conformism is inculcated by what are called life-adjustment curricula. It begins in pre-school, where Johnny and Mary have all their individuality adjusted out of them. The opinion held by the college students in the amusing novel called Where the Boys Are, is that state universities are “big brain bakeries turning out identical loaves,” while the “professors seek to disappear without a trace into a department,” and big business representatives come around each spring to hire the most tractable conformists among the seniors. There are statistics on the interests and reading habits of college graduates which seem to indicate that on the whole they are no different from the mass culture interests and reading habits of those who never went to college.

The art of this mass culture is what is known as “commercial art.” Commercial art is designed to serve the leaders of our economy in the same way the art of foreign dictatorships, whether of the right or left, is designed to serve the interests of the political leaders. In America this subordination of the art of our mass culture to the interests of commerce has not and cannot produce a significant art. It must cater to the lowest common denominator of public taste in order to appeal to the greatest number, and hence it is characterized by tired clichés and ready-made expressions and slogans. It is the art of soap operas and TV commercials, of Hollywood westerns, gangster pictures, and colossals, of sentimental serials, comic books, and rock and roll, of true story magazine and advice to the lovelorn columns, of Madison avenue and political oratory, of stop lights, freeways, supermarkets, status symbols, and hamburgers.

In contrast to all this, there exists in the Western World an international art of the intellectual and aesthetic elite or intelligentsia. Its exponents in the United States are accustomed to satirize the American mass culture. They feel infinitely superior to it, alienated by it, and ambitious to shock its conventional sensibilities. But they, too, have a stereotyped ideology which is no less conventional, and unfortunately no more creative, wise, or culturally constructive. The urgent question of our time must therefore be: “Where are the genuinely independent minds who conform to no sophisticated pressure group and who may have the wisdom and constructive influence to stop the rapid progress of cultural disintegration which we are witnessing today?”

Up until the second World War the development of the various arts in our century was in the healthy direction of liberating the artist from the stifling bonds of moribund tradition and opening up the whole of art history as an unlimited reservoir of ideas to stimulate the artist’s creative imagination. Theoretically the artist should have then been free to be himself; and a major exhibition should then have featured art in the most diverse styles, each work reflecting the personal gifts, interests, and convictions of its maker. But this is not what happened. After the war most roads were blocked, leaving only one broad freeway down which all artists have had to travel if they would be sophisticated and respectable, if they would win a prize or even get their work accepted, if they would have it sold by leading dealers, purchased by museums, or discussed in art journals. This highway is marked “abstract expressionism,” which includes such anti-art phenomena as “action paintings,” “neo-dadaism,” “junk culture,” and the “art of assemblage.”

While this is often called avant-garde art, which implies that it is the expression of a minority of individualistic and divergent fringe artists, it is on the contrary the all-pervasive conventional art of the respectable conoscenti in all quarters, from which we can only deduce that our intellectual leaders have become temperamental conformists. To judge by the absurd fruits of their labor, they have also lost faith in God, in man, in reason, and in the future of the human race, and so have forfeited their power for constructive leadership in the realms of moral and social values. Not that all of them are fully aware of their plight and of the implications of their ideological conventions. Lionel Trilling’s remark is applicable to our new academy of intellectuals, that “an ideology is not acquired by thought, but by breathing the haunted air.” Trilling goes on to say, “The life in ideology from which none of us can wholly escape, is a strange, submerged life of habit and semi-habit, in which to ideas we attach strong passions, but no very clear awareness of the concrete reality of their consequences. To live the life of ideology with its special form of unconsciousness is to expose oneself to the risk of becoming an agent of what Kant called ‘The Radical Evil,’ which is ‘man’s inclination to corrupt the imperatives of morality so that they may become a screen for the expression of self-love’.”

Let us pause for a moment to review some of the more notorious examples of this respectable elite art. And let us first admit that we can all enjoy them by guiltily accepting the conventional premises on which they are based, or by temporarily suspending disbelief. Yet the more we permit ourselves this license to indulge in a love affair with the irrational and absurd, however casually, the more our conscience is tempted to abandon for good the lonely road to originality and a deeper wisdom.

There are painters who, by means of dripping or smearing techniques of applying paint to canvas, claim to be creating exciting space relationships and who are sometimes called “the push-pull painters” or “the space cadets.” Some call themselves “action painters,” the import of this term being that the value is in the action itself, of which the physical painting is but the lifeless document. They may paint very rapidly. Tsingos, for example, once completed twenty oil paintings in one evening, although only two were described as masterpieces. Kujawski paints ten pictures simultaneously. Mathieu has painted a whole exhibition in a day and sometimes paints while dancing or riding a bicycle. Sondorborg titles his paintings by the time it took to paint them, varying from fifteen minutes to three-quarters of an hour. Newman paints huge pictures with one or two thin vertical stripes. Yves Klein paints huge pictures with a roller such as one uses to paint a kitchen wall. They are solid cobalt blue and sell for from three to ten thousand dollars each. He calls his art “a voyage through the void of the immaterial,” and says, “The true painter is the one who creates nothing visible.” Klein also paints what he calls “draggings” or the “living paint brush,” by smearing paint on nude girls and dragging them over the heavy paper used for a canvas. The price for a typical “dragging” is $2,500. His prices are said to have risen fourfold in the past two years. But all this neo-Dadaism is a lucrative folly, as many of the artists will admit. One abstract expressionist painter has confessed that he laughs all the way to the bank. But most critics, professors and museum curators take it very seriously. Were this not so, the absurd in art would go unnoticed and its exploitation would be impossible.

Fontana, a highly respected Italian artist, takes a knife or nail and cuts, tears, or pokes holes in the canvas, and such pictures sell for $1,000 each. Xanti Schawinsky puts paint on his shoes and dances on the canvas. He also puts paint on the tires of a small automobile and drives it over large canvases to make works of art. New York University cooperated in the car-track paintings by blocking off Greene Street for his use.

Robert Rauschenberg, the neo-Dada leader of the American so-called “Junk School,” or more recently the “art of assemblage,” and whose works are shown in the most respectable museums, does such things as hang on the museum wall as a work of art his bedclothes smeared with paint. Another of his works of art is a stuffed goat with an old automobile tire around it. Cesar takes old cars, crushes them with giant presses and exhibits them as art, and several museums have purchased them. Jean Tinguely made as a work of art a junk machine which ceremoniously and ritualistically destroyed itself in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, before an assembled crowd of egregious arbiters of polite taste and high priests of our cult of futility. The Museum of Modern Art has just opened a large exhibition of 252 junk constructions, newly christened as the “art, non-art, and anti-art of assemblage,” which will travel to museums in Dallas and San Francisco. The Clert Gallery in Paris put on an exhibit of junk culture, “La Culture du Debris,” and to dramatize it ordered two truckloads of junk, dumped in the gallery in such a way as to leave just enough room for people to walk around through it.

In New York, Allan Kaprow, whose wisdom and dignity are guaranteed by a professorship at Rutgers University, is the leader of a school called “Happenings.” An example of this combination of art and theater would be as follows: Hang refuse materials on the walls of a room and tattered pieces of canvas in front of them. Strew the room with debris from slums, such as old bottles, chicken wire and garbage. Hang some old bed springs from the ceiling and put up signs with absurd remarks, such as “Dirt is deep and very beautiful.” Then, for the “happening,” have a voice counting continuously in German, a machine making retching noises, a beatnik girl repeatedly stabbing a dummy, and a man pouring paint over his own head. Burn sulphur to make the audience go into paroxysms of coughing.

In the other fine arts there are, of course, similar, if less offensive manifestations of a taste for the irrational, the formless, the absurd, the accidental, the shocking and repulsive, the anti-aesthetic and anti-moral. We can make brief reference to only a few of them. In the novel, we might mention the so-called “Literature of the Object,” which consists of minute, laborious, and long-winded descriptions of objects, such as a slice of tomato, done with the demented preoccupation of Proust’s endless examination of his own neurotic past. Karl Shapiro remarks that, “Our poetry can boast only a tangle of subtleties and grotesques and the obscurantism for which it is famous. It is a diseased art.” In the cinema there is the so-called “Nouvelle Vague” or “New Wave,” like the films of Alain Resnais which no longer subscribe to what they call “the tyranny of common sense.” In these, characters may not be identified except by letters like X, A, and M. It may not be possible to tell who is speaking, or where the scene is located, or what is taking place.

The theater of our intellectuals is called “anti-theater” and the plays “anti-plays,” or sometimes “plays of despair.” Good examples are the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, Albee, Jean Genet, and Jack Gelber. In such plays as Krapp’s Last Tape, The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, The Chairs, The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, The Maids, The Balcony, and The Connection, there is bleakness of setting, poverty of action, spar-city of character, and superficial character delineation. The texts are a farrago of nonsense, vulgarity, and humorless gibberish, of pessimism, perversity, and exasperation. Life is presented as devoid of meaning and purpose and all our spiritual premises and securities are blatantly challenged as though to trumpet and proclaim a universal moral cataclysm. Yet it appears that nothing could more effectively titillate and gratify the aesthetic sensibilities of our sanctimonious culture orthodoxy. And nothing is so well designed to elicit the vast quantities of subtle and arcane criticism of our literary culture constables, who seem to have transformed the art of criticism into a hypnotic mystique of promotionist propaganda.

I cannot speak with intimate knowledge of the field of music, but, here too, it would seem, the conformity of avant-gardism has brought forth a new academy. As in the visual arts, there is an international style of composition that is dehumanized, impersonal, and virtually devoid of both individuality and musical validity. Examples which come to mind are the “musique concrete” or “tapesichord music” of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, and Richard Maxfield, which is composed from such tape-recorded sounds as the arrival of trains, the beat of a heart, people coughing, or a singing voice, which is then electronically distorted out of all recognition. The so-called “electronic music” of Edgar Varese, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Luciano Berio, and many others, consists of sounds which are manufactured artificially and mechanically and then distorted and synthesized. The “Poeme Electronique” by Varese has been described as like being imprisoned inside a boiler factory while riveters are at work. In general, the electronically produced synthetic sounds resemble roars, rumbles, thumps, squawks, growls, auto horns, whistles, warbles, pings, burps, barks, and groans, and the music consists in composing these sounds in surprising arrangements or in random accidental and chance effects without rhythm or relationship of sounds.

John Cage is perhaps a special case. His “music of the prepared piano” requires nuts, bolts, screws, stones, and hunks of wood to be inserted among the piano strings. He also stages such events as a concert with twelve radios, nine of which are tuned to different stations and all playing at the same time. His composition called 4' 33" has become his most famous work. I am told he sits immobile before a silent piano, holding a stop watch, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, indicating by gesture the end of each movement of the composition.

It would appear from these few examples of the several arts that we are in an age which has fallen in love with disorder, an age of anxiety and despair, of existentialist nausea and self-pity, of parasitic cynicism and moral degeneration. We are obsessed with the tortured conviction of the emptiness, futility, and boredom of life. Having neither faith nor hope, we thrash about in our frustration, now with violence and brutality, now with vulgarity or inanity, or again with bleak anguish or hyena laughter, with mad intoxication or abysmal depravity. Our imaginations run now to pointless banalities, now to abnormalities and freaks, and each artist strives with studied care to create more monstrous mutations, which he hopes will breed true as a fascinating progeny associated with his name. Our craftless works of anti-art are made only to feed the passions of the moment, and will not outlast their makers. Some artists are so filled with anger and with hatred or contempt that their art becomes chaotic and inarticulate. Others create symbols of nihilism and degradation, of an emptiness beyond despair, and seem dejectedly to be “waiting for Godot.” Still others, obsessed with impending disaster in the form of the apocalyptic atom bomb, make gestures of futility while waiting for B-Day.

But we can’t blame our plight on the danger of the bomb, nor can a change in the social system cure this malady, for we are dealing with a cancer of the soul of man at an advanced stage of malignancy. We can all understand this avant-garde art and can recognize its causes, but to understand it and to explain it is not to justify it. Our bourgeois world is not as hopeless as the conformist intellectuals would have us believe; nor is it so decadent as the artists who are denouncing its decadence. They pretend in their art and in their manifestoes to be taking the temperature of a sick world, but they are more accurately exhibiting the degree of their own fever. The real subject matter of the abstract art of today is the artist himself. The plays may seem to be about other people, but they are really documents of the state of the playwright’s own soul. The arts in our time are dying of their own eccentric excesses and of their modish anemia, and are likely to live in the future only as curiosities for scholars. Our intellectual elite lacks not only faith and hope, but also courage. They say, “I paint, therefore I am,” or “Apres nous le deluge,” or “Gefuhl, Gefuhl is Alles,” content to have lost their moral anchor, handcuffed by ideological conformity, and driven by the emotions of resignation and defeat.

What we need are independent minds, courageous dissenters, in this era of inquisition against the heresy of reform. Winston Churchill once said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” I believe that a saner view of the state of the world and of man’s hope would also be a truer view. It is perilously late in the day for the intellectuals of the West to acknowledge this truth, and to become existentially “engaged” by becoming socially and morally engaged. Cyril Connolly writes, “It is closing time in the Gardens of the West. From now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.” The truth is rather that the Gardens of the West are being betrayed by the intellectuals. It is their function and their privilege to lead us out of the present morass, to change the world for the better, not to live out their lives in aesthetic detachment and moral and social irresponsibility.

Let the intellectuals of the world arise; they have nothing to lose but their ideological chains. And let them take as their text these words of Andre Malraux: “A man becomes truly a man only when in quest of what is most exalted in him. True arts and cultures relate man to duration, sometimes to eternity, and make of him something other than the most favored denizen of a universe founded on absurdity.” Michelangelo Antonioni must have understood our spiritual dilemma too when, in his recent film, L’Avventura, he found a vivid and memorable symbol to express it. In the movie, a girl who is spiritually lost and in despair abruptly and inexplicably disappears. Her comrades, who also live fatuous lives of empty boredom, find her handbag, and when they open it the audience is suddenly confronted with its symbolic contents—a Bible and a book on modern abstract art.

Lester D. Longman