George Jean Nathan Mocks the Moral Arguments for Government Funding of the Arts
George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was one of the great theatre critics. Here are some brief selections from his writings mocking the same moral arguments that are today used to justify government funding of the Arts.
George Jean Nathan, Materia Critica (New York: Knopf, 1924), p. 60.
If the combined aim and object of art lies in the stirring of the emotions, and is praiseworthy, why should the similar aim and object of the vices be regarded as meretricious? If the Madonnas of Raphael, Holbein, Murillo and Da Vinci are commendable in that they stir the imagination to the contentments of faith, why are not the whiskeys of Dewar, Macdonald, Haig and Macdougal commendable for the same reason? If a Bach fogue is praised for stimulating the mind, why not a Corona Corona? If the senses are commendably excited by Balzac and Zola, why shouldn’t they be excited, and equally commendably, by means that may be described as being somewhat less literary?
George Jean Nathan, The Autobiography of an Attitude (New York: Knopf, 1925), p. 138.
To speak of morals in art is to speak of a clergyman in a bawdy-house. This is perhaps why the argument for morals in art is considered by its numerous sponsors to be so credible.
And George Jean Nathan’s House of Satan (New York: Knopf, 1926) begins:
It has always been the mission of the theatre to reduce, in so far as it lay within its power, the manners and morals of the community. Obviously, I do not speak of the debased, uncivilized theatre, but of the theatre that is artistically on the highest and finest level. …
When I speak of the theatre as a corrupter of morals, it is of course as a synonym for drama. And when I speak of drama, I speak at the same time of most of the other arts, for the accomplishment, if perhaps not always the intention, of all art is the lowering of human virtue, in the commonly accepted sense of the word, and the conversion of men from metaphysical and emotional Methodism to metaphysical and emotional Paganism. To believe the contrary, to believe that great art is an inspirer of virtue, is to be so vealy as to believe that “Tristan” makes its auditor feel like St. Francis of Assisi, that Byron and Swinburne conjure up Sunday-school memories, that the Venus of Cnidus makes one think of entering a monastery, and that “Lysistrata” is the most eloquent argument for continence ever written. Only the fly-blown and ignorant, however, longer suffer any delusions about the purposes of art. Such mammals hit upon a few obvious kindergarten exceptions to the general and seek to build their case upon them. Unacquainted with nine-tenths of the world’s best music, literature, painting, sculpture, poetry and drama, they imagine that all art has the same effect upon the human spirit as Chopin’s E flat major nocturne or the slow movement of his B flat minor sonata, Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet if art were what these imbeciles imagine, it would have died from the cosmos hundreds of years ago. It has been kept alive by man’s unregenerate sinfulness alone. Its greatest patron saints, the men who with power and gold and favor have encouraged and assisted its craftsmen, have almost without exception been the more dissolute kings and emperors, lechers and millionaire crooks, fleshpot fanciers and followers of Pan. And its greatest lovers and stoutest champions have ever been the men who most truly appreciated that under its pretense of divine origin there curled a red and forked tail.
Art ennobles? Then tell me what, precisely, is the ennobling nature of — and how, precisely, one is made to feel Corpsbruder to the angels by — “Macbeth,” Rembrandt’s portrait of his sister, “Madame Bovary” or Richard Strauss’ “Salomé.” The simple truth, of course, is that, aside from a purely critical gratification, “Macbeth” exalts the cultured and intelligent man just about as much as a modern Edinburgh bathtub, that the chief thought that enters the man’s mind when he gazes upon the Rembrandt portrait is that it would be charming to give the old boy’s sister a hug, and that Flaubert and Strauss induce in the reader and auditor much less an overwhelming desire to lead a better and nobler life than a worse and more lamentably agreeable one.