Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A brisk trade in messages in bottles

Kenneth Burke on Art for Art's Sake, from Counter-Statement (1931):

"Closely allied with the 'mystification' of the new [Symbolist] movement, came the tour d'ivoire or 'pure' art movement. The most pretentious writing, that is, was done by men whose methods and preoccupations seemed certain to limit their reading public considerably. They were 'experts,' and nothing was more abhorrent to a civilization of specialists than artists who likewise were specialists … In any event, the rarity and electness of 'pure' art seemed — in an age of propaganda — negative, retiring, and powerless. What was the value of neglected excellence, when the world was glutted with crude fiction? Had not the spread of literacy through compulsory education made readers of people who had no genuine interest in literature? Would not this group henceforth form the majority of the reading public? And would not good books pale into insignificance, not because they had fewer readers than in the past (they had more) but because an overwhelming army of bad readers had been recruited? The Art for Art's Sake slogan now began to apply more specifically to the art of the minority, those writers for whom, so far as the vast public was concerned, the publication of a new work was like putting a bottle out to sea.

"A masterpiece, privately printed in a limited edition of two hundred copies, seemed to furnish some cause for derision. Yet The Little Review had a much larger circulation than the magazine published by Goethe and Schiller." (69-70)

This is a useful passage, I think, for understanding how the idea of Art for Art's Sake came about, why it made people at the time so angry, and — most important of all — how it obscured the real historical conditions of literary Modernism, making it seem as if obscure or radical literature had become less popular, when in fact it had an unprecedentedly large readership. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Lawrence Rainey.