Jacques Barzun on Art, the State, and Religion

The eminent cultural critic Jacques Barzun passed away last week.  Here are two smart posts over at First Things about his writing: the first by Gerald Russello and the second by Rusty Reno about a book of Barzun’s on education that I didn’t know about.

And here is an elegant essay of Barzun’s on the nature of the state’s role in the promotion, and production, of art, written in the 1960s when these issues came to prominence in the aftermath of the Kennedy presidency and early in the Johnson Administration.  Spending, Barzun observed, also means direction, “for support cannot help being selective and guided by rules.”  After listing a handful of arguments in support of the association, Barzun considers the points against.  First, he wonders what the “central object of ‘aiding the arts’ is,” and which groups are to benefit, and in which ways.  But the larger problem, Barzun thinks, is the fundamental incompatibility of the state’s aims — most especially including the democratic state’s aims — and those of the artist:

Recognizing the confusions of fact and inadequacies of thought about the arts is a prerequisite to framing a government policy in their behalf. This would be true on general principles; it is true for us in particular because such a policy cannot be one that simply gives the people the food or medicine they need. It is not even like the support of scientific research at large. It resembles rather the chancy empirical policies devised to sustain national prosperity.  Culture is a whole like the economy. And the analogy extends to the multitude of interests at work and their irreconcilable conflicts.  John Sloan the painter favored government support of the arts because, he said, the true artist would then know who his enemy was.  Others foresee interference with taste and style because it is impossible to disburse money without implying standards and holding out rewards for conformity with them. Government aid cannot help generating a bureaucracy of critics and accountants, seekers and prize-winners. To say that the judges and dispensers of favors will be drawn “from the arts themselves” is no reassurance. Cliques and clans and dictatorships will arise. It is no use instancing the panels of scientific referees that now pass on projects for government sponsorship, and proving that they have on the whole been fair. Science can use more impersonal criteria for judgment and, fads apart, the effort of science has a common goal and no doctrinal implications.

The arts and the humanities on the contrary are always in the thick of the battle of ideas. They stir up the passions and are meant to. A piece of work need not have a Communist for its author in order to be subversive – and subversive in a way which a politician or his delegate in office will instinctively feel and properly resent.  For he is after all the custodian of the people’s money and welfare, and he has sworn to uphold the regime of which he is a part. Now the arts in the west have for over a hundred years been anti-social and irreligious; they have incited to immorality, revolution, and nihilism; they seethe with hatred of the bourgeoisie, business, normal appetites, and machine civilization. They war against everything that under the name of education the government already pays for: settled habits, decent thoughts, respect for the family, obedience to the law, and adherence to grammar, syntax, and democratic ideals.

It’s an interesting reflection, followed toward the end of the essay by some thoughtful policy proposals.  But it seems to me that the “irreligion” of art that Barzun mentions proceeds from a more European idea (an “Establishment art, into the bosom of which the ambitious seek to climb; for once inside, everything is assured,” as he says later) than an American concept of the nature and function of religion in its relationship to the state.  In America, perhaps it might be that at least some of what is contained in the paragraphs above, and in this essay generally, might be perceived by some to apply equally to religion and art.

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