The fond hopes and great expectations didn’t survive the epistemological shift during the 1960s to the political and commercial sets of reference. The passionate objections and statements of noble principle were transposed into the key signatures of the Civil Rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War, proofs of the higher consciousness spray-painted on T-shirts, hoisted on the signs of protest. The locus of advanced artistic opinion moved from the Greenwich Village bars to the pages of Women’s Wear Daily; Andy Warhol discovered a market for portraits of Campbell’s Soup cans, and the several forms of expression previously known as the “lively arts” were melted down into the alloy of the “media.” By the time President Ronald Reagan danced onto the White House stage in 1981, politics was fashion, news was entertainment, celebrity was art, literature a regional dialect spoken only in the universities. Two texts in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly give dates for the change in mood and tone. Barbara Rose names the evening of October 18, 1973, the art world ending “not with a whimper, but with a bid” at Sotheby Parke Bernet, the high prices paid at auction for works by Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns testifying not to the value of the art but to the vanity of the buyers seeking to transform themselves into “living sculpture.” Jamie James suggests November 1972, the month that Ezra Pound died, as the end of poetry as conceived by Goethe, the global language that is “the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men.”
It isn’t that the country now lacks for painters painting pictures or poets writing poems; nor is it to say that stores of human energy and hope aren’t to be found in the novels of Elmore Leonard or the songs of Bruce Springsteen. It is to say that 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. Once again, as had been customary throughout most of the country’s history, art was seen as an embodiment of the good, the true, and the beautiful only to the extent that it could be exchanged for money.
If in the 1950s the young and aspiring writer hoped to become a novelist or a playwright, thirty years later the ambition had been replaced with the thought of becoming a critic, a journalist, or a policy intellectual, possibly a television talking head. Instead of addressing George Orwell’s concern for the safety of the English language, the conversations revolved around the names of Hollywood agents and the grooming of resumés fit for the favor of a foundation grant. The generation of writers weaned on Cold War propaganda and CIA subsidy adopted the trade craft of literary realpolitik to variant doctrines of political correctness, the combatants on both the left and right construing culture as ideology, the frivolous adjective modifying the sober noun—cultural identity, cultural diversity, cultural policy-objective. The love of language once inherent in a distinctive literary style not only fell out of favor but was placed under suspicion as an un-American activity. Among New York editors it was assumed that a writer who clogged the data streams with arresting turns of phrase could not be trusted to impart the truth.