Applying imagination to politics can lead to political wish-fulfillment fantasies or to the enlivening of real communities from within…
The topic “Politics and the Imagination” is at once larger and more restricted than “Politics and the Arts,” the theme of this Tocqueville Forum. It is more restricted because I mean to exclude the practical problem of the relation between the arts and public life. Indeed, by politics I mean here not the working processes by which public affairs are carried on, but a fundamental sphere of human interest, namely that which is concerned with the well–being of a civic community as a whole. I think that in this country even politicians in the narrow sense, who are absorbed in the machinations of power, have some inkling of this meaning of politics, while it plays a large role in the thinking of all people who regard themselves as citizens.
On the other hand, the topic “Politics and the Imagination” is larger than “Politics and the Arts” because, although almost all works of art are works of the imagination, not all imagining actually results in works of art; for example, dreams and daydreams have no actual product.
Imagination. I take the term for present purposes in the most basic of its usual senses, namely, as our ability for forming interior images, for envisioning eventful scenes and peopled places. Such interior sights must certainly be derived from exterior perceptions, but our imagination reshapes them and infuses them with feeling. This is not the place to pursue the fascinating philosophical analysis of our strange ability for forming an interior world, except to mention one of its important characteristics: the imagination is often thought of as a mediating faculty between our blind desires and our directed activity, a testing ground in which we shape our wishes into images and prepare them for execution as works in the material world.
This imaginative faculty seems to me to have a definite, although limited, relation to politics. Most political reflection is concerned with the relation between human passion and human reasoning, with what we want and how we contrive to get it. Of course, these activities often bring the imagination into play, but they are not specifically imaginative; they do not have their origin in the imagination.
It seems to me, however, that there are two definite ways in which the imagination as such has to do with politics, corresponding to the two aspects of the imagination as a place for shaping wishes and as a ground for planning works. In the first case, the image remains an unrealized dream, essentially interior; in the second case, it is externalized and becomes a work of art.
The first case is exemplified by that peculiarly political product of the wishful imagination, the utopia. A utopia is an imagined political community, where the emphasis is on the fact that it is imagined; it may be presented in words, but in words which depict, which are images. That is to say, a utopia is not a mere conception of reason (though its life may be presented as eminently reasonable), but the depiction of a wished-for community, communicated with as much vivid detail as the author can make plausible. It is a city painted in words.
A utopia will, of course, present itself as the imagined incarnation of the author’s ideas, but that is part of an illusionistic technique used by utopian authors: At bottom, it is not the image which follows the idea, but the idea which was distilled from a vivid dream.
Now insofar as the utopian image is written down in a book, the dream is, to be sure, externalized and worked up. Nonetheless, utopias are in their very nature not works of art, or at least they are not primarily such, for what is crucial about art works is that they are meant to be the final realization of the maker’s internal image, and fulfillments or ends in themselves. Most utopias, on the other hand, pretend to be nothing but beginnings, mere sketches or blueprints for communities to be wished for in the world. Although it is no proof, it is at least an indication of this fact that among the score or so of the best-known utopias only one is generally acknowledged to be a work of great literary distinction, namely, the book that gave its name to the genre, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. By and large, utopias give no more esthetic satisfaction than does an account of a daydream: the energy is in the wish, not in the work.
The first part of my talk will, therefore, be about that application of the imagination to politics which produces an imaginary community, a political wish-fulfillment.
However, while the utopian imagination shapes and encompasses imaginary communities, the art-producing imagination may inform real communities from within.
Thus, the second way the imagination and politics intersect is precisely insofar as the realized works of the imagination, that is to say, works of art, become of concern to a political community.
Yet the relation of art to politics seems to me to be of necessity primarily negative. Just as a gardener can only select the seeds and choose the site, and thereafter can only water and wait and weed out unwanted growth, so a community can wishfully choose and encourage certain kinds of art, but it can effectively only exclude and censor what it opposes. Again, a sign of this fact is the exceedingly modest role accorded to works of art in most utopias: Just as they are not generally themselves real works of art, so they admit such activity only in a very subdued fashion, for example, in encouraging styles in the crafts which are in harmony with the communal image. The grander arts, which depend more on individual gifts, are evidently considered to have too intractable a relation to the civic community.
The point I am making, that the arts are related to politics most determinately through censorship, is not quite the same as a familiar argument made by David Hume when he lays it down as a principle that it is impossible for the arts and sciences to arise among a people that is not blessed with free government, claiming that monarchy is positively injurious to the arts. He himself says that this theory cannot account for a Homer, and no more can it account for Shakespeare or any great poet who takes for his subject the incomparably great. So I am not arguing that political freedom is necessary to art—a manifest falsehood—but, on a different level, that a political community can never produce art: it can only prevent it from coming on the public scene. If politics interests itself in art positively, it must perforce be by way of censorship.
Accordingly, the second part will be concerned with censorship of the arts in various political settings.
Utopia. A utopia is, as I have defined it, an imagined and imaginary political community, envisioned rather than conceived, a desire-filled depiction of a well-shaped communal life.
The name “Utopia” was invented by Thomas More and is the title of his little book, written in the beginning of the sixteenth century, the first full-blown utopia. It is a Greek formation and means “No-place.” Utopias are no place in two senses: First, they are inaccessible. More’s Utopia is an island in the New World, but the playful claim is that its coordinates have been lost; it is, of course, a fantasy island. Second, it is no place because it is a community which never could and, as surely, never should be realized. The author comments at the end of his fictional narrator’s report that, while some Utopian features are rather to be wished for than expected in England, yet others are absurd and in themselves unacceptable. It is not hard to discover what features More built into his fantasy city which are either unrealizable or undesirable or both. For example, the Utopians live in handsome houses which are reallocated every decade, since there is no private property on the island. Now there are passages in the Utopia itself and in More’s other works which make it clear that he regarded communism as unsanctioned by religion and impractical in this world. But More’s most serious reservations concern not what the Utopians do but what they are; namely, cheerful pagans, unwitting Epicureans, unphilosophical followers of all natural, reasonable pleasures. They worship Mithras, an ancient Persian sun god, while practicing religious toleration to the point of indifference. Now More was a devout Christian and a devoted reader of philosophy who could not and did not approve of these easy opinions and loose practices for a living polity.
When then did he invent the fantasy? The answer is that his Utopia is a subtle and revealing exercise in delineating delightfully a community which might be good if human beings were natural rather than spiritual beings, if they had only enemies worse than themselves, if they had no pride and knew nothing of original sin. It is instructive to imagine the kind of community such people might have, and part of the instruction is the faint repulsion we are expected to feel at the lives of weightless beings who do not share the fallen condition of real human creatures. More gives the narrator and discoverer of the island a Greek name meaning the “Babbler,” Hythloday, but behind his babble stands the discerning imagination of the author.
The word “utopia” is, as a prefatory letter to Utopia explains, to be heard also in a second way. Utopia means not only “no-place,” but also the “good place,” eu-topia (as in “eulogy”). For, on the surface, life on the island, with its fifty square-walled hillside cities in which each house has a garden, cities watered by pure fresh rivers fronted by solid piers and spanned by splendid bridges, is secure, pleasant, and good.
This second aspect of utopia comes to be preponderant in later utopias which are no longer half-ironic images, but real wish-projections, indulgences of the author’s fancy; these are, for all their intended charm, slightly repellent, as imaginary spaces dominated by someone else’s dreams of perfection always will be.
A fine example of such latter-day utopias is William Morris’s News from Nowhere, written at the end of the last century. This Victorian Nowhere takes place right in England, and instead of being unreachable in place it is inaccessible in time; it is set in the future, but a future shaped by Morris’s nostalgia for a medieval past. It is, in fact, a pre-Raphaelite dream, a future to return to. (I might observe here that writers of utopias naturally always play with the two necessary coordinates of reality, space and time, and, having more or less run out of uncharted lands on earth, they go to future times, and latterly to outer space; the first futuristic utopia is Mercier’s Memoirs de L’An 2440 of 1770.)
The chief feature of this future-past is the achievement of a perfect integration of human beings and nature, a machineless but productive pastoral, in which work is pleasure. In fact, one of the mild worries of the Nowhereans is that they may use up their share of work too quickly. Work is either of the type called “easy-hard,” namely, healthy outdoor labor, or it is craftsmanship. The country is gently and tolerantly anti-intellectual. Children may read books avidly if they must, but this bookwormish affliction is expected to disappear in maturity. Books were for a time when intelligent people could take no pleasure in life but had to rely on the imagination of others. The genuinely amusing work is house-building, gardening and producing craftsmanlike objects. The Nowhereans are uncompromisingly egalitarian and look back with a shudder at the old ways when machines were used for ordinary work while the intelligent elite followed the higher forms of art.
Morris’s Nowhere has in common with More’s Utopia those features which seem to belong to the very nature of an imaginative polity: Its life is somewhat subdued, pastel-colored, so to speak. Morris acknowledges that passionate extremities may suddenly intrude into the peaceful pastoral, but these are incidents to be quickly resolved. Evidently, when the imagination applies itself to shaping a perfected political community, it naturally excludes just those eruptions of human extraordinariness which are the chief occasions for grand art. And, of course, that makes good sense, since the utopian imagination means to impose a certain coherence of atmosphere, a pervasive communal tranquility which naturally excludes private outbursts. The political imagination can not help but bleach out the passions and contract the private sphere.
Accordingly, most utopias are communitarian: More’s Utopia is a tightly organized, rather herdlike, communist republic. (At least one of its magistracies is an assimilation of an English office to Plato’s pig city: the lowest title is that of “sty-ward,” that is, steward.) Morris’s Nowhere is an idyllic socialist anarchy, which is to say that there is really no political structure to speak of: all problems are regarded and solved as social problems.
Again, the ways of utopia are apparently inevitably anti-philosophical, and this feature, too, lies in the nature of the genre, first, because the imagined city is often dreamed precisely in opposition to the harsh and difficult reasonings of the philosophers, and, second, because its idyllic internal life alleviates those human predicaments which give rise to troubled quests. Of course, something similar holds for religion: utopian religions are by and large exceedingly tranquil since the suffering which intensifies religious feeling has been eliminated. The inventor has, so to speak, pre-empted all the passion and has led his creatures into the promised land.
Where the two utopias differ most fundamentally is in the attitude of their authors towards them. More himself appears in his book as the somewhat skeptical listener, and as author his stance is one of ironic delight. Morris, on the other hand, depicts himself as literally dreaming the dream in which he enters Nowhere, and, when he awakes from it, his heart is heavy with nostalgia for a time that never was. Most post-Morean utopias are, then, unironic political dreams, and the dream politics may consist precisely in dreaming of a community beyond politics.
As political dreams, utopias are naturally shaped about the intimate preoccupations of their authors, and one among these is almost intrinsic to utopian imagining. Since utopian writers are themselves inventors and contrivers of human nature and human environments, their imaginations are particularly drawn to inventions and contrivances, in short to technology, which they see sometimes as a sinister spoiler and sometimes as the bright savior of political communities.
There are then, first, the wholeheartedly optimistic utopias of technological process, whose optimism can be either complexly serious or simple-mindedly shallow. Early in the seventeenth century, Bacon wrote the first of the positive technological utopias, the New Atlantis. It is the prototype of a research polity. Its management is surrounded with slightly sinister mystifications, but Bacon’s insider’s awe before the human mastery of nature which is in the offing is palpable. In the early twentieth century, on the other hand, H.G. Wells wrote A Modern Utopia which lightheadedly celebrates an international technocracy, endlessly on the move but strictly controlled by an ascetic elite called, infelicitously, the “Samurai.”
Morris’s News from Nowhere was, in fact, one sort of reaction to utopian celebrations of technology, namely the pastoral. But there is also a very different kind of anti-technological utopia, an imaginary community which is not a dream but a nightmare. This kind of anti-utopia is not an invention of modern times. Plato depicts such a place, the mythical island of Atlantis, whose image Bacon meant to correct in his New Atlantis. The old Atlantans are the ancient enemies of Athens, corrupt half-descendants of Poseidon, the god of oceans and earthquakes and city walls. They inhabit a geometrically circular island surrounded by concentric ditches and built over with square castles with fantastically devised walls. These earthmovers keep elephants for bulldozers. Their island is amazing and awful.
In this century the fear of a now successful technology, combined with the horror of totalitarian politics, gives rise to a new political image, an image of the perversion of the polis, namely a collection of isolated, terrorized, technologically manipulated, lost souls. By the middle of our century, the number of published utopias stood at about two hundred and fifty, and the most serious of these belonged to the new type, which was labeled “dys-topia” or “bad-place.” The most famous of these are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which imagines an England genetically manipulated and controlled by an orgiastic drug, and George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, which imagines a thoroughgoing totalitarianism in which privacy has become a persecuted political sin: there is no sanctuary from Big Brother’s spying eye.
1984 has come and gone. Decades have passed since the publication of 1984 and “dystopia” has not been realized, at least not in the West. It seems to me that the dystopias themselves have had a small but effective part in this blessed fact, perhaps primarily by causing intellectuals, whose political imaginations are notoriously weak, to imagine terror and to learn to cherish what political blessings they have. Indeed the type of dystopia cannot help but be in general more effective than utopia because while utopias are intimate hopes to which an author tries to win converts, dystopias are projections of real, fearful possibilities to which the author tries to open the world’s eyes.
But while it is, in general, the case that utopias have had minimal political effect, there is a small scale exception to this observation. In the nineteenth century there flourished in this country, in the New World where Thomas More and Francis Bacon had once located their utopias, scores of utopian communities. There were not, of course, utopias exactly in my sense, both because they were not, strictly speaking, independent political communities—they had the American Republic as their political ground—and because they were not imaginary but very much flesh and blood. Yet they were usually based on utopian blueprints, such as those devised by Owen, Fourier, Cabet. Most of these realized dreams were brief; many ended in disaster. In fact, the more successful and long-lived settlements were usually religious foundations and not primarily social or political utopias; as I mentioned, the latter were usually rather insipidly religious.
Before concluding the section about utopias, I should say that, once the utopian genre had become established, it was used to clothe with imagined shapes all sorts of notions and speculations. There are, for instance, cosmological utopias in which the community mirrors a hypothesis of the heavens, psychological utopias which embody a theory of human control, and ideological utopias based on issues such as feminism or ecology. The genre is irrepressible.
Yet, a short generation ago, utopia was declared dead. It had been discredited too long and in too many ways: In the nineteenth century by the failures of its many attempted realizations, and, more severely, by the Marxist attack mounted against “utopian” socialism in behalf of “scientific” historic principles of revolutionary development. Utopias are but small-scale editions of the New Jerusalem, the Communist Manifesto says sarcastically. Thus in our century its decline has been mourned; bloodied by the Marxist critique, it was said to have been killed off by that political pessimism which caused utopia to be displaced by dystopia. But these reports of utopia’s demise are premature. The genre is, as I said, irrepressible. Although the best known recent utopias are rational constructs, (for example Nozick’s libertarian utopia), romantic, imaginative utopias continue to be written, and even the founding of utopian communities still goes on.
Prolific as the utopian genre is and, no doubt, will continue to be, it has not, I have argued, and it cannot have much political potency. The reason is inherent in its origin in the wishful imagination. That makes utopias finally rather private, even idiosyncratic, and certainly ungeneralizable constructions. The products of the imagination stand each alone; it is only the intellect which can discover universals. And therefore, even when there is wide-spread utopian activity, it cannot have the unity or coherence of an intellectual movement. Utopian visions do not reinforce one another, nor can one imagine utopian politics arising except under the aegis of a political framework based on more universal principles, as was the case for the utopian communities in the United States. That is not to say that utopian activity is not, just in itself, therapeutic and vivifying. However, an activity which matters as an activity, rather than because of its content, is precisely what we call play, and, in the last analysis, that is what utopianism is: the imagination at play, as irrepressible and as salutary as play is a political recreation.
I want to conclude by mentioning a role the imagination plays in politics in which it is not so spontaneously inventive as in the construction of imaginary communities, but perhaps correspondingly more powerful. I mean its role as imaginative memory, which contains our common past and our common beliefs. Most people, citizens and politicians, who love their country have a vision compounded of its founding myths, its pristine principles and its historical high-points, which at crucial moments informs their political action. This vision is precisely not utopian because it is not inherently nowhere; on the contrary, it is the ideal behind the here and now, the potent, practical image of a living political community.
Censorship. When a strong imagination becomes productive and by means of an adequate technique realizes it works for their own sake, its products are works of art. Such works, in turn, affect and shape the imagination of others. Thus art, intentionally or unintentionally, enters politics insofar as politics is the sphere of concern with the community as a whole.
Now I have argued that communities are powerless to elicit the art which seems to them to preserve and strengthen them, for the productive imagination is simply not at their disposal. Communities can do but one thing directly and effectively: They can proscribe aberrant artists and their art.
The classical justification for the control of works of the imagination is to be found in Plato’s dialogue The Republic, written in the earlier fourth century B.C. It is a twelve-hour-long conversation mainly between Socrates and Plato’s two brothers. In the course of it, they find occasion for devising a small political community such as the Greeks called a polis, a city. (In Greek the dialogue is actually called Politeia, meaning “political framework,” or “city-constitution.”)
I should point out here that the city of Plato’s Republic is not strictly a utopia. To be sure, it too is “nowhere” on earth; Socrates refers to it as a “pattern laid up in heaven!’ (In fact, Plato wrote another work containing a “second-string” constitution meant more for practical application.) But the city of the Republic differs from a utopia in not being an imagined place; indeed, it is severely lacking in imagined detail. It is rather, as Socrates says, a city “in reason,” an intellectual construct. One of Thomas Mores friends, who recognized Utopia as being in a kind of respectful competition with the Republic, made just this point in his prefatory poems: Plato’s city, he says, is a philosophical invention and full of philosophy while No-place, its successful rival, embodies its philosophy in an unphilosophical way (namely, as a flesh-and-blood fiction).
The case must be put more strongly. Not only is the city of Republic not a city of the imagination, but its very building is framed by two massive and deep attacks on all works of the imagination and on the imagination itself.
In Platonic dialogues where a point is made often determines its interpretation, so let me give a rapid sketch of the structure of the work, which is, in fact, rather strictly symmetrical. There are ten books. In the first of these are brought out the depths and the difficulties of the controlling question: “What is justice and what is its worth in itself, apart from rewards?” Next, it is decided that justice is better investigated “writ large.” That is to say, instead of searching for justice in its original seat, the human being, the interlocutors will construct a perfectly just political community and then articulate the meaning of justice. Several books are devoted to the developmental stages of this city which correspond to the progressively higher parts of the soul as Socrates discerns them. The high point of the construction occurs right in the middle books, the fifth and sixth. It consists first in the scandalous notion that the governors of the city, corresponding as they do to the rational part of the soul, should be philosophers, and then in the detailed description of the philosophical education of these philosopher kings. There follows an account of the stages of decline and fall such a city is subject to and their causes in the souls of the citizens. The Republic ends with a cosmic myth displaying an answer to the question whether justice is a worth in itself.
The imagination and its works are discussed twice: on the way to the perfect city (Books II-III) and again, symmetrically, after its fall (Book X). This last treatment is the most radical and most fundamental attack on imagining and on art that I know of. It could only make sense where it occurs, namely, after the philosophical education of the governors has been set out, for this education is explicitly founded on a view of our world as being but an image of true being; indeed the whole realm of things present to us is a hierarchy of images from shadows and mirror images through the natural objects which they copy and which are in turn only images of their ideal originals. Accordingly, the education of the guardians of the city begins by turning the “bringing-up” of the young into a “bringing-around” (the Greek words are agoge and peri-agoge), by wrenching them away from absorption in the multitude of seemingly vivid images to those unique, substantial thought-originals, which will teach them to keep the city harmonious and unified. In the light of this philosophical understanding of the world, image-making, in general, is a distracting and falsifying activity. Since visual images are the exemplary images, Socrates attacks particularly painters and, by implication, sculptors. One may well ask what possible political harm could be done, for instance, by the Parthenon frieze, a severely choreographed depiction of the sacred procession celebrating the goddess of the city of Athens, in which human beings are shown in decorous beauty and the gods, reverently depicted a little larger than men, watch graciously from Olympus. The answer is that Socrates is here attacking not the subject or style of any art, but art itself as diverting the attention by a procession of images from those self-same unities of thought whose contemplation keeps a community whole.
It is necessary to say that this radical proscription of the imagination is to be taken in its context. Socrates himself is, as I have mentioned, about to launch into the telling of a magnificent myth, a huge and brilliant cosmic image. The attack on the imagination is intended seriously enough within the intellectual exercise he and Plato’s brothers are engaged in: The thinking out of a city which would realize a philosopher’s understanding of the human soul and which would, therefore, be safe for philosophy. But it is not, I think, meant for practical political implementation.
The censorship which is closer to possible political practice is the one discussed earlier in the dialogue, at the beginning of the building of the city, in connection with the upbringing of the children. Socrates, first and last, aims at the epic poetry of Homer—a bold and scandalous attempt, since the Homeric poems were the great primers of Greek education. What Socrates blames Homer for is primarily the portrait of the gods to which he has accustomed the Greeks: They are lustful, quarrelsome, unstable, mendacious, and unjust—a fact, incidentally, to delight and puzzle a post-Christian reader. Furthermore, the Homeric heroes are indecently woebegone and fearful of death; both gods and men are intemperate in laughing and weeping. The tragedians are attacked in addition for the very form of their poetry: Its dramatic format requires the actors to do all but turn themselves into the person of the drama and so to lose their dignity and selfhood in histrionics. All these productions are to be banished from the city. Music too is to be purged of all those modes which are not tonic but relax and slacken the soul. What is left are tales of human excellence and reverent hymns. This precisely delineated call for a civic censorship of the form and content of the arts may not seem to be so radical as that subsequent attack on the imagination itself which I have just summarized. Yet that is not really the case, for what Socrates here criticizes about the arts is what it is in their very nature to be and to do: They absorb and inform the participant; they are concerned with what is human-all-too-human even when imaging the divinities; and above all, they burst the bounds of tranquil dailiness in depicting what is extreme, excruciating, and passionate. The subdued decorum that dominates utopias and that Socrates too recognizes as a condition of civic tranquility is rarely a cause of a theme or a characteristic of art.
These arguments for political control of the arts are above all remarkable in that they constitute a testimonial to the knowledgeable seriousness with which Plato and his Socrates take the arts (although they make little of the artist himself). They share this attitude with their fellow Greeks. For example, the public importance of music, the power of its various modes to dispose the soul and shape the schemata of the body, was recognized throughout the Greek cities, where music and dance were part of the city’s life. Thus Aristotle ends his great book on politics with a disquisition about the function of the musical modes in citizen training. What is peculiar to Plato, and where he differs from Aristotle, is his view of the effect of very intense experiences on the soul. While Aristotle supposes that attendance at a tragic performance will work a purgation and transformation of the passions, Plato thinks that it will stimulate and excite them and lead to boisterousness followed by lassitude in the citizens. Plato’s Socrates deems the arts politically indigestible.
The second remarkable fact is that the problems Socrates raises are very much our own. It is, for example, a much-debated problem of our time whether the images children see affect their behavior and whether the shows they watch work their feelings off or work them up. Similarly, some of us wonder what the social effects of our popular modes of music and dancing really are: How, to try a comical experiment of the imagination, would our public life change if we made every seven-year-old learn to dance the minuet? So the Socratic problems are much alive even if his solutions are out of tune with our society.
Plato’s Republic has been seen as a prototype of totalitarianism, for several reasons; because Socrates’ intellectual exercise has been mistaken for a practical proposal, because Socrates’ city is not a democracy (as if no decent third possibility between totalitarianism and democracy was thinkable), but—most weightily—just because of those censorship provisions we are discussing.
Totalitarian states do, of course, have censorship of the arts—and all sorts of other censorship Socrates never proposes. I shall very briefly sketch the nature of the censorship practiced in the two chief totalitarian states of our century to show how utterly different it is from the classical case.
I mean, of course, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The two cases differ in one important way: Nazi censorship appears to have been devoid of articulable rational foundations, and appealed instead to misty but emotion-loaded semi-ideas and watchwords, while Soviet censorship is rigidly based on an ideological frame, shifting only as the Central Committee of the Communist Party declares changes in interpretation. The documents of both are scoldingly rancorous and brutally threatening toward offending artists, although the Nazi literature on censorship exceeds the Soviet documents in a vulgarity that is scarcely communicable in English. The human plane of either is simply incommensurable with Socrates’ gently ironic proposal to anoint and crown the poets and politely speed them on their way to another city.
I should mention that the previous observation concerning the inability of states to engender art is borne out by the censorship literature itself: there are continuous small-voiced complaints that politically pure art of real stature which is to replace the censored art has failed to appear.
The explicit object of Nazi censorship was to purge the arts of all elements not conducive to readiness for sacrifice, obedience to Adolf Hitler, and the submersion of the self in the totality, the State, the Race. For this last purpose a new subject, called “race-style-science” (Rassenstilkunde) was invented, and Nazi estheticians debated whether the tango or the minor mode or chamber music might be admitted as Germanic while proscribing atonal music for its rootless intellectualism and internationally popular hits for their supra-national cosmopolitanism. Effeminacy, decadence and the Jewish spirit were to be rooted out in all the arts. Bookstores were required to remove proscribed books on pain of being blacklisted. Of course, the most notorious early act of censorship was the government-supported book burning of 1933. As the books were consigned to the flames a speaking chorus of brown-shirted students would call such lines as “For discipline and morality in Family and State I give to the flame the writings of . . .” and supply the name of the blacklisted authors, mostly novelists.
As for Soviet censorship, Lenin set the tone long before the revolution by proclaiming that all literature is party-literature, and that literature is not an individual concern but belongs to the proletariat: “Down with nonpartisan literature, down with literary supermen.” The creation of art was to be organized, for art is, above all, the organization of the emotions of persons, groups, classes, nations. Stalin later summarized this view in a much-quoted phrase to the effect that writers are the engineers of the human soul. In 1920, Lenin sketched out resolutions for Prolelkult, the bureaucracy in charge of the new proletarian culture: There are, he said, to be no new and special ideas but the traditional culture is rather to be appropriated by Marxist ideology. There are manifestos stating that the working class has the leadership in literature; fellow travelers may be tolerated for their expertise in technique, but all appearances of counter-revolutionary ideas are to be ruthlessly eradicated. Under Stalin followed attacks (which have, incidentally, been lately revived) against formalism or so-called abstract art, for example, in behalf of socialist realism. Socialist realism demands that art always display a proud and life-affirming optimism, while works with no edifying content, which divorce art from socialist truth, are declared undesirable.
Now let me point out the elements in which Socratic censorship differs from totalitarian censorship.
First, whereas the totalitarian censorship enforces on living people a dogmatic pseudo-myth of race or an ideology of class, Socrates proposes his constraints on the poets as a philosophical exercise, a possibility to be considered on the basis of an ever-renewable inquiry into the conditions of a political community; the issue is, therefore, not this or that work or style, but the very nature of art and its relation to communal life. The Socratic attack on poetry is far more radical in thought and far less disruptive in deed than totalitarian censorship.
Second, there is a deep difference between a totalitarian state and a political community in Socrates’ sense. In the former the dubious bond of race or class if considered to underlie, precede, and supercede the relations of individuals, while the very device on which Socrates builds his city, namely that of a soul writ large, displays his assumption that a city is ultimately shaped and determined by the souls within it, and that the political bond is one of individuals: “psychology” precedes politics. A totalitarian state is, or means to be, a different whole than is a Greek city, whether it philosophical or actual. The former is, so to speak, an embodied abstraction which attempts to pervade life totally from the top-down and absorbs rather than bonds its individual elements; strictly speaking, its relations are not political at all because they are that of an amalgam or a collective and not of persons. Its censorship tries to reinforce this condition: the aim is not, as in the Socratic city, to shape self-possessed citizens, but to meld a people into a fervent mass.
The third point of difference lies in the contrasting conceptions of the virtues that the arts are to be made to instill. To cite just the Nazi list of affirmations as revealed in the watchwords recurring incessantly in the marching songs which were the most voluminous product of the revised arts: loyalty, obedience, flag, flame, race, blood, bullet, drum, submission and the love of death. Compare to these the virtues of Socrates’ citizens: courage stemming from a knowledge of what is truly to be feared, temperance understood as a proper self-adjustment of the soul, justice interpreted as a knowledge of one’s proper part in the community, and wisdom to be attained in the course of a long effort of learning.
The object of this comparison of obnoxious totalitarian and benign Socratic censorship is to point out what it seems to me we sometimes forget: That a certain kind of political community may have a defensible concern with controlling and even excluding some arts for the sake of its own integrity. For these cities a decent censorship is conceivable, and Socrates initiates the discussion of its rationale. A prime example of such a debate in more modern times is the open letter, published in 1758, which Jean Jacques Rousseau sent to d’Alembert in response to his article in the Encyclopedie advising the Republic of Geneva to establish a theatre. Rousseau wrote as a citizen of this small republic, and his chief argument, which was directly influenced by Plato’s Republic, is that such an alien and sophisticated amusement will undermine the simple and close communal life of the Genevans. Rousseau, like Socrates, recognized an irreconcilable conflict between the arts and the political community, a conflict perhaps less deep but correspondingly more extensive in modern times when the drama is no longer a great sacred public occasion but a mere amusement. For it is just such a diversion which by its agile worldliness, its artful excitations and its isolating spectatorship may loosen the bonds of a small community.
What then about censorship of the arts in our own political community, in a national representative democracy? It seems to me that it has no place whatsoever with us. Indeed it is a dead, or at least a dormant, issue (except with respect to pornography; and acknowledged pornography, which is for the sake of sexual arousal, does not come under my definition of art as a product of the imagination which is not primarily an instrument of anything). As its censoring role in the arts ought to be nil, so the government’s positive function can be only minimal. It can and should encourage the arts in general, for example, by modest funding, but it can never rightly make itself responsible for furthering a specifically communal, a truly political, art. In short, the proper attitude of democratic governments to art seems to be friendly tolerance or supportive indifference.
How can it be that an intense and critical relation between politics and the arts is justifiable in classical communities while in our democracy a loose and tolerant relation is required? The answer seems to me to lie in the change of meaning both terms, politics and art, underwent in the century just before the founding of the American Republic. Let me briefly outline the related changes without attempting to articulate their deep common root.
First, the notion of Art. I have been using the word as if its connotations for us were the same as in the classical context—misleadingly, for just about the time this country was founded there came to a climax a development which transformed the meaning of the term. Its original unpretentious sense was that of craft, of know-how, of the ability to manage and produce objects of all sorts. In the later eighteenth century the notion of a “pure artwork” came to the fore. Such a work of art was thought to originate in the independent esthetic realm of the radically free imagination, a world not bound to ordinary given reality, a world of free play and autonomous illusion. Correlatively the craftsman was elevated into the “Artist,” the godlike creator of this world, a genius, an extraordinary being. And instead of the work of art as a skillfully made object there arose “Art” simply, namely, that especially precious class of objects which is the product of the artist’s absolutely self-determined imagination. Naturally this new artist claimed great authority for himself and his imaginative realm. The German poet Schiller, for instance, proposed that the problems of politics could be solved if mankind were given an “aesthetic education,” so that human beings might live in the mode of an artist, by the free play of the imagination (though without themselves producing art). But although the artist’s claim becomes one of universal human authority, it is not hard to see that this new understanding makes art essentially private. The final source and the final arbiter not only for the form, but, above all, for the matter of his products is the artist’s own solitary imagination; such works of private creation are not made to be put in the service of the community and its divinities—the artist would consider anathema any attempt at control (as, for example, the ordinance of the Second Council of Nicea proclaiming that the substance of religious scenes is not left to the initiative of the craftsman but that the craft alone belongs to the painter). So just as the American republic was born, art became an essentially personal enterprise, and the artistic mode came to be privately over-valued and, with good cause, publicly ignored.
In a parallel development that conception of a political community which was to underlie the formation of the American republic had been formed, and formed in conscious contrast to the classical model. In an ancient city, the primary bond is the political bond, and public life is not only a means to human fulfillment but its very end. The modern model, however, interposes between private and political life a social realm, “society,” a word of far more weight with us than politics. Political bonds are between the individual and a determinate ideal whole, namely the laws, traditions and public spaces of the community. Social relations, on the other hand, are between individual and individual; society as a whole is an indeterminate abstraction. It is in terms of social relations that the bulk of our life, and especially our religious life, takes place. Accordingly, the political sphere is not, for most of us, the place of our fulfillment. It is rather reduced to administration, that is to say, to essentially negative governmental functions which are meant precisely to protect the private and social realms from disturbance and intrusion. A political sphere which is so restricted and which is, by a special provision of the constitution, devoid of any legitimate religious dimension, is not naturally going to give rise to a very extensive or elevating art though such a thing is not impossible: the major speeches of Abraham Lincoln constitute a political art of real grandeur. But while we may always hope for more such works, especially for a renewal of great political rhetoric, we scarcely expect it. John Dewey, for example, who is, after all, the proponent par excellence of a democratic fulfillment of life, wrote a book called Art as Experience, devoted to bringing art back from the estheticism I described before into ordinary life. But he never remotely considers the possibility of a public art celebrating our free political institutions. For him, art belongs altogether to the social realm.
Of course, the fact that our art is rarely political does not mean that it cannot be thoroughly and characteristically democratic and American. Tocqueville, after whom this forum is named, foresaw in 1835, with marvelous acuity, what the sources of poetry in a democratic land might be: how when faith in positive religion is shaken the idea of providence and historical destiny assumes a more imposing appearance; how when life is crowded with petty business the march of the American people across the continent subduing nature on the way is invested with special romance; how the democratic poet concentrates more on passions and ideas than on concrete individual men, always looking to the inner soul—in short how American poetry is suspended between grand massive movements and the most private passions of men. Is this not a near-perfect anticipation of Walt Whitman? Yet one would not claim that Whitman played the role in America that the tragedians, say, played in Athens. He is the poet of America as a democracy rather than as a republic; he celebrates a social rather than a political fellowship.
To conclude. If the privatization of art and the socialization of politics cut the ground from under a communal art, is there then no public place left for the arts? Not so.
I have been speaking of politics in the largest sense, meaning the national political community. But in this country, the actual business of life is largely carried on in the cities, and it is in the cities that a civic life in the fulfilling, antique, sense is to be found. The cities too are the natural seats of the arts, because they are the communities in which the arts are cherished and in which the artists flourish, and so it is the cities which have the symphony halls, the art centers, and the theatres. Therefore, it is in the cities that the arts and civic life still intersect, and here too those classical dilemmas concerning the divergences of the judgment of the citizen and the imagination of the artist may on occasion come to life.
This essay was originally published here in July 2012, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Republished with gracious permission from The St. John’s Review (Volume 36, No. 1, 1985).
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