Looking at man and his arts; Jacques Barzun, Cultural historian and critic

"To bring order" -- this has been the motivating impulse behind the life of Jacques Barzun. Enjoying an exceptionally long career, Mr. Barzun has achieved eminence as a teacher, author, social and cultural historian, critic and savant of the arts and letters of civilized man, to a degree matched by hardly anyone else. Tracking down and clarifying the best of thought so that others may go on to use it in creating further order in their own lives, and transferring these principles to unpuzzling the arts, unraveling the pattern of the contemporary scene, helping to keep the language clear, improving the present view of the past -- these are the things which Mr. Barzun has done with consummate grace, deftness and skill. This has marked him as one of the leading and most distinguished 20th-century authorities on the very best that man has thought and accomplished.

Coming in his teens to the United States from his native France just after the First World War, Mr. Barzun began in the 1920s his 48-year teaching practice at Columbia University. Over the years, he has produced a prodigious number of books, essays, and articles dealing with the various aspects of the world of ideas and the arts. Among the books are "The Energies of Art," "Darwin, Marx, Wagner," "Classic, Romantic and Modern," and "The Use and Abuse of Art."

He places great faith in the idea of university as originally conceived. He is concerned that its role be preserved, in the purest pursuit of great ideas which in fact have immense practicality -- in enhancing the quality of one's thinking, as well as one's ability to learn, judge and organize. On this subject and others, he talked recently with David Owens, the Home Forum's assistant editor, in Mr. Barzun's office at the Scribner publishing house in New York City, where he acts as literary consultant.

Taking as a starting point your principles about education, what do you make of the differences between the old ideal of the university and what we have today?

The practical world, the business world, has created the "credentials society ," and beginning in the 40s and 50s it became a mania to qualify for a particular line, to have a certificate or a diploma in this, that, or the other thing, -- in many things that are not really subjects at all -- activities in the so-called real world which should be carried on by intelligent people but not necessarily by people who have taken a course. What is too bad is that people have very little faith in the value of intelligence, of general principles. They think that unless they have the proof of work done immediately at hand they are going to be lost. What it is a proof of, really, is the error that I've sought to attack, because if a person is lost when he hasn't the immediate answer, then he isn't much good in a world that is full of the unknown and the unexpected.

The successful person of the future, and of all times, really, is he who can execute sharp turns. . .

Yes, and retrain himself automatically in the face of any new condition.

In one of your recent articles, you state, "Literature is the art which makes out of commonplace words a new substance that is expressive in the same manner as music: it does not tell, it shows." It strikes me that there has been a great deal of attempt at persuasion in the arts of the modern age. It hasn't continued to "show" in the old sense any more, has it?

That's a tough question, as you very well know. The modern arts, I think, have taken on an additional duty -- that of destroying our artistic expectations and perceptions, based on the last 500 years of high art. I think many modern artists have been purposeful destroyers. Through jokes and parodies and shocks -- the whole surrealist movement in painting is a good example, or John Cage in music -- the arts tell us "you don't listen, you don't see, you're full of notions, you want nothing but copies of the great masterpieces, or derivatives from them: well, we're going to teach you better than that -- by fooling you, by shocking you, by making fun of you as audience." At least that accounts for a great deal of the art produced since 1920. I look upon this tendency as a kind of historical obligation the artists have felt, coming as they did at the end of a long period crowded with masterpieces -- masterpieces which cannot be copied and ought not to produce still more derivatives. So the artist had little else to do but remind us of the importance of the senses in appreciating art, and at the same time making us self-conscious about what we call Art. That's how we arrive at anti-art, minimal art, art that is to be disposed of, found on the beaches, or made of a discarded refrigerator door. All those things are fiercely pedagogical: they're trying to teach the modern world something. I think the lesson has been learned, and we're sick of it, but now there seems not much else to do. At least this leveling of the ground for future creation has gone on, and will go on until somebody says the ground ism level and we can put a new edifice of art on it, along lines that nobody can now predict or imagine.

Your comments in the chapter entitled "The Modern Ego" suggest to me that the 20th- century has effectively denied its capacity to arrive, to have genuine feelings.Do you still hold this view? What will artists of today have to do to reverse this trend?

I think self-consciousness in the bad sense is the disease of the age, and it's been brought on by bad experiences, beginning with the First World War, reinforced by the analytic method borrowed from science and applied to everything that is thought and felt. The general principle is, "It isn't as you think it is, it's something else." That idea undermines courage in people faster than anything else. That's why we have an age of anti-heroes, because the hero must have self-confidence, and the follower or admirer of the hero must in doing so be willing to take a chance.

There seems to be a nascent revival of Romanticism in the air these days, Romanticism being defined as a reaching out for the infinite capacities of individual man. Doesn't this reaching out for more tried forms of artistic expression offer us some hope that art will do better in the important matters?

I think the reaching out ism there.The question is whether it is genuine, in the sense of being grounded in strong impulses and convictions, and not solely in the desire for a kind of restfulness, which modern art and modern life do not provide. What I'm assuming is that good art, great art, is a strong affirmation. It isn't a search for a lotus-eaters' land. Then, I am also prepared for the fact that new tendencies in the arts always begin as affectation. Take, for example, the return of the liking for Gothic architecture. It began during the mid-1700s with people picking up a few fragments and having artificial ruins built in their back yards. We laugh at that, but they were doing the work of re-recognition.m Later on, the thing becomes genuine. The same goes with the so-called revival of learning in the 14 th and 15th centuries in Italy: valuing every scrap of the ancient classics and trying to put up buildings like theirs, thinking that everything contemporary was no good and that everything ancient was perfect. I call that affectation. Perhaps it's the only way in which people can move from one position to another. It's something which literally is "put on," to see if it fits.

Have you picked up any manifestations of new, strong impulses?

I can't think of any, except one that happens to be a peculiar interest of mine: I should like to see electronic music develop forms and attach them in some purely musical way to the pattern of human feeling and perception. If it did that, if the composers managed it in a natural way, then we would have a new art, an unexampled kind of art. I see very little else in the other arts that holds out the same promise of genuine freshness. Because for quite a while now, novelty in the arts has simply been doing the opposite of the usual, doing the topsy-turvy, the offbeat, both to attract attention in a market glutted with artists and to bypass the need for inspiration in the face of the flood of masterpieces for they are now more and more on top of us -- through museums, reproductions, the long-playing record, and paperback books -- in a way the artist in past ages never knew. He never had to contend with so much glaring and obvious competition from the art which preceded him.

People in bygone times had the ability to put aside, as they needed to,m the impositions of the masters around and before them, while at the same time, as they desired,m within limits, they could and would study them and learn much from imitating them. Whereas today, there is a lack of a sense of history although at the same time we are awed (to a pathologic degree) by what's come before. And we seek to exploit shock as a reaction to that.

Yes. You can say it in a simple syllogism: Great new art in the past has been shocking. Therefore, if I shock I am producing great new art now. Also, shock attracts attention, and attention is what the artist needs. You can't blame him for wanting to be seen or heard or published. And if he writes something apparently mild, however strong in fact, the performance does not single him out.

The place of art in the past, in human feeling, is so complex that no matter how conscientious one is in searching out the facts and comparing them, one ends convinced that every statement one makes about art, culture and society is a guess, a tentative hypothesis. History, if we may personify it for a moment, has a way of turning corners very sharply and facing the world with entirely new and -- sometimes -- attractive things.

Is art a mirror of its generation, or can its energies transmute its surroundings, the times which produce it?

It's not a mirror in the sense of being a perfectly faithful account of what went on or what people were like. What art shows is an inescapable relation which needs interpreting. For example, there have been artists who went counter to everything that surrounded them, but they too were influenced by the age, for when you're fighting something it leaves its imprint, and it occasions your resistance or rejection just as much as if one were a faithful mirror. And then there's always the individual distortion. Students who think they can read the novels of the 1840s and have some idea of how women and children were treated then are making a great mistake. There's no way of telling whether the particular novels on which they base their conclusions idealize or were purely fanciful or reflected a conventional position which very few people actually acted out. Such conclusions are laid upon quicksand.

One of the most popular questions asked about art is whether or not it has failed to mirror, or to change, its surroundings.

Yes. Well, I'm not sure we ought to say that art has such-and-such functions and is doing well, or is barely passing with a C-minus grade. Art isn't something like a responsible public institution that we can criticize for not doing what we want. We've got to leave it to the artists; they have a hard enough time as it is, finding themselves, finding subjects, patrons -- feedingm themselves.

But the state of the art doesm concern the artists themselves. In a way, they are fish swimming in a stream that could be more, or less, polluted.

Yes, but individually they filter out what doesn't concern them. After all, the complete works of Jane Austen do not contain any reference to the French Revolution or its violent consequences in England. It's an isolated world, and yet critics find moral issues of the time very deftly handled in them. So, as I've said, mirror is a very ambiguous word which every user will interpret differently. The simple-minded will want the event and the record, either on canvas or in a book. As for music, the connection is there just as much. But it's not definable -- you can't point to it and command it. You can't say, "Mr. Beethoven, I want something about Napoleon in one of your smphonies."

Yet and still, many feel this to be a burning issue: what modern art says to man, and what he says about himself.

Yes and no. Temperamentally I dislike the idea of expecting art to produce something for our good. Where did we get this notion that art was our servant in an institutional manner? I can criticize the post office because it doesn't deliver letters, or delivers them to the wrong place, or costs too much, but I am not disposed to say to art, wherever "it" might be found, "See here, you haven't been fulfilling your contract and I'm going to sue."

But isn't the artistic experience something like a contract?

True, but only after the fact. I want artists to do and produce what they want, and let them take the brickbats or the praise once they've done it. That differs from another system which is no longer ours -- commissioningm an artist and sitting on top of him and making him justify his ideas from the point of view of our needs.But with a remote artist, I can neither direct him nor any of his confreresm to give me something. I have only the right of rejection.

Precisely. But isn't art supposed to endeavor to show us something about ourselves, that we may not have thought of before?

I don't know that it has any such obligation. I think that it generally doesm show that -- and it will.m

Instead of "obligation," perhaps we can use the word "function," and back up to describe what function art really has. Or perhaps "function" is too didactic a word; maybe "effect" is more in order.

We can always complain of the effect. When art and religion were related, as I think in the best periods they have been, then the function can be more or less defined and even dictated. But we are secular and pluralistic, today. You can have a portrait of your young daughter with golden curls, looking just like life, if you want, or you can have an Albers series of squares within squares, called "Young Daughter." So pluralism, like the supermarket, gives us every brand, every kind, size, color. We go and shop.

I didn't have anything so specific in mind as "intervention."

I know, but that would be the only device by which you could exert a demand. Nowadays, perhaps our exercise of the right of rejection ought to be greater than it is. We've been hypnotized by the importance of art with a capital "A." But, even saying that it should mirror, or that it should show us something, teach us something about ourselves -- that's as bad, or as futile, as saying that it should please and entertain us. We've given up the latter, by the way: we don't want to be pleased, and people suspectm entertainment.

In the guise of art?


Shall we ever see a good cross-pollinated vocabulary of the arts? Are there enough real cognates among the arts that could be hooked up so that, when we talk, we say what we truly mean when calling a symphony "literary," a sculpture "full of movement," a painting "musical"?

It's the job of the critic to set his house in order, beginning with the vocabulary. In a highly literary age like the 19th-century, it was perfectly natural that musicians and painters should take what they called "literary subjects" but which, as I've tried to show, do not remove their work from the realm of music or painting. Rodin was interested in history. All right, he took historical subjects, biographical subjects. Choice has to be natural and spontaneous. I don't think we can teach a painter to read if he doesn't feel like it. The essence of what he does remains, whether he reads or not.

This desire is very strong among artists, to communicate across the boundaries of their arts.

It's difficult. Painters tend to be inarticulate, because they think in shapes and colors, and they've never paid attention to words. Though some of them talk a great deal, unaware that what they say contradicts what they do, or is impossible to believe.

I was reading a statement recently by Henry Moore which in effect advised the artist never to talk about what he was doing because this would contaminate the artistic impulse and take his thoughts away from the nonverbal things going through his head. It's fascinating, because there are some artists who seem to have the need for chattering on at great length about what they're doing.

The modern world wants an explanation of everything, usually in quasi-technical terms. Earlier artists did their jobs and went on to the next ones without writing paragraphs of blather in the exhibition catalogs. The prose in these latter-day catalogs is an exhibit in itself of mistaken intention , of "notions." The painter who paints a good picture should leave it at that. It's sometimes interesting to know what an artist has meant to do, or is looking for, but even that has to be interpreted, because when artists, including literary artists, are often unpracticed in the craft of systematizing ideas, you have to read what they say as clues and hints rather than as literal statements.

Robert Schumann was a very good music critic, and so were Bernard Shaw and Berlioz; Delacroix in painting; and a good many literary men, beginning with Dante. But, generally speaking, criticism is a different mode of thought; as you say Moore points out, it's nonverbal creation. Let others rattle on, and let the creator create.

I've been touched by what you have written about the Modern movement and its stoppage by the First World War.

Yes, I think that's being confirmed day by day -- that we go back to that prewar decade or to nothing.We need the honesty of that time in modern art, its example of health, genuineness and affirmation in every innovative gesture of art. It contains in germ form everything we've done since. We've elaborated, we've teased out and analyzed, but it's still the seminal period in all the modern arts.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.