Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr / Podcast

Lady in a Veil


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.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
Bookmark and Share
Love this? Subscribe to Lapham's Quarterly today.

Comments Post a Comment »

  • Lewis, We love this! Can we repost at corpse.org? 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

Post a Comment

Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.

Published In
Arts & Letters
About the Author

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
Visual Aids
Rites of Passage Coming-of-age rituals from around the world.
Art, Photography, & Illustrations View a selection of art from our latest issue.
Charts & Graphs All of our charts and graphs, pulled from the pages of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Events & News
June 2 / Tickets for the DECADES BALL are available now. Join us at our yearly gala to celebrate the 1870s with readings from the Quarterly with stars of stage and screen. More

Vague Premonitions

The Great Beyond

Current Issue Youth Summer 2014

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Audio & Video
LQ Podcast:
Robert Weide
Robert B. Weide talks about his decades-long production of a documentary on Kurt Vonnegut due to be released in 2015.
Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
Recent Issues