Saturday, September 20th, 2014
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Lady in a Veil


As trickled down to the undergraduate elements of the avant-garde at Yale College in the 1950s, questions about the uses of art (its place in society, its promise of a career) resolved into a “pandemonium” of words like those recorded by Roberto Bolaño and described by Stefan Zweig as a “collective, eager, competitive curiosity” translated into vivid statements of noble principle and passionate objection. Usually I found myself on the wrong side of the critique, in some quarters regarded as an obsolete romantic, in others as a trivial bourgeois. Introduced to the modernist doctrines of alienation and despair, I took the notes but didn’t learn the lesson. The Bauhaus architecture I thought better suited for a barracks or a penitentiary; in the paintings of Mondrian and Kandinsky I could recognize little else except the surface of a decorative design. Nor in the works of Berg and Shostakovich could I identify the sound that from the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century composers I’d learned to recognize as music. The apparatchiks in the English department employed the techniques remarked upon by Billy Collins—“tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it,” beat it with a hose “to find out what it really means.” I was less interested in what it really meant than in A. E. Housman’s definition of poetry as that which raises the hair on the chin while shaving. Despite four years of being told that art was somehow sacred, divorced from all sakes other than its own, I never learned to prefer the comprehension of the theory of the thing to a naive delight in the thing itself.

But in what was then the spirit of the times, the side of the argument on which anybody came down, against Haydn and for Stravinsky, with the early or the late Picasso, mattered less than the shared belief among all the voices in the room that it was art and literature that were to be looked to for the light on the far and fair horizon. The certainty was in line with the generous idealisms expressed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights as well as with the intent to furnish the newly emergent American empire with the trophy of a civilization. America’s victories in World War II had established its military and economic predominance; in the 1950s it was thought that a determined courting of the lady in the veil would bring forth works of genius of a match with the arriviste hegemon’s spiritual and moral grace. Other empires had done so, most notably Periclean Athens, Elizabethan England, France during the reign of Louis XIV. Surely the United States could produce something equally impressive. Was not America richer than any other country known to history? Were not its weapons more terrible, its virtues more abundant? How then could its painting not be more luminous, its literature more profound, its music more sublime?

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Comments Post a Comment »

  • Lewis, We love this! Can we repost at Andrei

    Posted by Andrei Codrescu on Mon 22 Mar 2010

  • '...with the dawn of Reagan's bright new morning in America, the notion of art as the way into a redemptive future had withered on the vine.'

    Posted by Vargas on Fri 26 Mar 2010

  • Dear Mr. Lapham,

    Unlike much of modern and postmodern art, which you rightly lament, along with the sophistries of theory, yet offering nothing worthwhile with which to replace them, Tolstoy had a serious vision of art that included not only the infecting of others with the feelings and emotions of the artist or writer, but held that the highest art conveys the deepest religious sensibility of the artist and the time.

    Draining Tolstoy of the spiritual dimension trivializes his conception of art, assuring only more of the bathetic for the nation.

    Frederick Glaysher

    Posted by Frederick Glaysher on Tue 27 Jul 2010

  • Art is a gift that should be shared as opposed to being purchased and displayed on a wall in private.

    Cayman Islands Real Estate

    Posted by Linda on Fri 19 Nov 2010

  • I regard Mr. Lapham and his Quarterly to be one of the most important voices in America today. This essay, in particular, says everything I would like to say in answer to why I paint what I paint the way I paint it. If I could, I would simply lift this essay directly as my Artist's Statement.

    Ray Horton

    Posted by Ray Horton on Sat 9 Jun 2012

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Lewis H. Lapham is the Editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

Art is a jealous mistress, and if a man have a genius for painting, poetry, music, architecture, or philosophy, he makes a bad husband and an ill provider.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1860
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