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The New International, December 1934


Thomas Cotton

Art and Action

From New International, Vol. I No. 5, December 1934, pp. 158–159.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


With Other Essays

by Max Eastman
227+iv pp. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00.

By and large, Max Eastman’s critical work is among the most sensible and illuminating that our time has produced. It is therefore especially disappointing to find that his latest essay is based on conceptions which can be called nothing less than academic and – for all Eastman’s devotion to the scientific method, for all his attack on the Hegelian residue in Marxism – essentially idealistic. Further, the political implications which lie beneath its surface are at once naive and dangerous.

So far as Art and the Life of Action offers a practical program for the relation of artist and revolutionary party, it is excellent. Eastman believes that art and the party cannot be related organizationally. If the individual artist desires to don an (actual) uniform and become an active revolutionary, that is admirable; but Eastman adjures him not to put on the emotional uniform of party when he sets to his creative task. On the other hand, he bids the party refrain from censorship of art so long as it avoids actual counter-revolution. Eastman himself, in Artists in Uniform has amply prove how justified this advice is. He also points – though not with sufficient emphasis – to the danger of art’s giving to the party a “sense of something done when nothing has been done”. Surely one of the greatest ironies of American Stalinism is the ludicrous disproportion between its elegant façade of novels and its shabby interior of political ineffectuality.

But when simple common sense has agreed to this and we turn to Eastman for a theory that shall be Marxist and free of the gross errors of Stalinism, all his academicism and all his idealism appear. There is, he declares, no revolutionary function for art. Art is self-justified, self-maintaining. Art, by its nature, is pure. True, no work of art can be completely pure, and, true, it is often convenient for the artist to deceive his muse into believing that he is concerned with a passionate purposive activity. But for the consumer of art the attitudes in any given work of art do not matter and art is lovable for itself. The Rockefellers admire Rivera; Lenin enjoyed Turgeniev and Beethoven (and La Dame aux Camilles). Art is free of any social function. Its sole end is to heighten consciousness: it arrests the “brain’s purposive flight while consciousness itself spreads wing”.

Eastman, of course, is talking not about, art in reality but about some essence of art that he has conceived; he is telling us what art must be if that essence is to be perceived. Herein lies his idealism. His academicism lies in his strange and perverse refusal to see what art is in actual use, in the experience of people.

Thus, Eastman scorns previous aesthetic speculation because it has been able only to arrive at the following multifarious and frequently mutually exclusive functional definitions of art:

“Education, recreation, revelation of God, representation of nature, relief from pain, diffusion of pleasure, compensation for reality, integration of reality, propagation of emotion, escape from emotion, embodiment of reason, objectification of will, manifestation of law, liberation from law, organization of attitudes, elevation above attitudes, prophecy, recollection, purification, publicity, propaganda.”

For all of these Eastman would substitute the function, “heightening of consciousness”. But however mutually contradictory the functions in the list may be, the only fault to be found with any one of them is that it has been offered as the sole function of art. In actual use, in the experience of people, art has served as all these things and continues to do so. Any fertile and non-academic thought about art, any thought that avoids sterile definitions, must understand that art serves not one but many functions as various needs arise.

Eastman cannot but understand this fact but he hides his understanding under the desire to change it. He does not want art to do anything save to heighten consciousness. (He really does not mean consciousness at all but a kind of abstraction of consciousness, a non-intellectual, anti-purposive, half-dream state: awareness divorced from attitudes.) He does not want art to do anything to the mind that has any relation to action because he wants science to do everything. Attitudes must be the work of science and he is so jealous for a still Utopian science that he will change the very nature of art to keep it from poaching on science’s preserve. All this, it is obvious, is the direct outcome of Eastman’s conception of the “social engineer”, of revolution and socialism as strictly the work of science.

Art, he declares, has always had a “sanction”, that is, a purposive human activity which it subserved and which included it. Magic, religion and craftsmanship were such sanctions. But scientific mass production drove art from the making of objects. (This is certainly questionable.) Science destroyed art’s sanctions of magic and religion. Art became independent, pure. But the artist feared and shirked this independence, sought for a new sanction and found it in education. Then science advanced again and took over education. Again sanctionless, the artist looked for a new sanction and found it in social action. But the artist was blind to the fact that social action is the sphere of the social engineer, of science. And so, Eastman declares, the last possibility of a sanction is removed. The alliance with social action is shattered. Art, in effect, ceases to be the mate and helpmate of the social intellect and becomes the girl it keeps in a little apartment near the Elysian Fields, a charming creature, full of the joy of life, but not very intelligent.

In some part it may be that Eastman has got to this position by allowing himself to be provoked by the excesses of the Stalinist critics. And much of what he says must be admitted. There is surely, as he says, the propensity in most intelligent art-consuming people to love art for its own sake, to find delight in experiences that do not confirm their values and desires, despite the canon of Stalinist criticism of which Michael Gold’s grossly misinformative squib about Henry James (Daily Worker, Oct. 29) is so representative. And the heightening of consciousness is surely the sine qua non of art. It is fortunate that someone has again asserted these simplicities, unfortunate that Eastman has bound up his assertion with a confused and dangerous political theory.

For the full purport of Eastman’s aesthetic is, as I have tried to indicate, his theory of the revolution made and developed by the social engineer, by science. The implications of this theory do not, perhaps, need to be shown again, but it is interesting to see them appear in a new connection. Eastman makes a sharp dichotomy between the artist and the engineer. They are of different nature and function and must not allow their paths to cross. But considered politically, the social engineer represents power and control; the artist represents the feelings, the desires, the ideas, the reactions – of people. Thus, the rigid separation of art and science which Eastman desires has an obvious political meaning. It means the separation of leadership from masses, of control from democratic will. It means, in short, a bureaucratic tyranny, tempered perhaps, but more likely strengthened, by science.

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Last updated on 26 February 2016