Monday, February 14, 2011

Prime Passage: Lionel Trilling (1952)

From Trilling's "The Situation of the American Intellectual at the Present Time" (1952), his contribution to a Partisan Review symposium on the subject. Prophetic?

“For purposes of the artist’s salvation, it is best not to speak of the artist at all. It is best to think of him as crazy, foolish, inspired—as an unconditionable kind of man—and to make no provision for him until he appears in person and demands it. Our attitude to the artist is deteriorating as our sense of his need increases. It seems to me that the more we think about doing something for the artist, the less we think of him as Master, and the more we think of him as Postulant or Apprentice. Indeed, it may be coming to be true that for us the Master is the not the artist himself, but the great philanthropic Foundation, which brings artists into being, whose creative act the artist is. All signs point toward our desire to institutionalize the artist, to integrate him into the community. By means of university courses which teach the ‘technique’ of writing, or which arrange for the communication of the spirit from a fully initiated artist to the neophyte, by means of doctoral degrees in creativity, by means of summer schools and conferences, our democratic impulses fulfill themselves and we undertake to prove that art is a profession like another, in which a young man of reasonably good intelligence has a right to succeed. And this undertaking, which is carried out by administrators and by teachers of relatively simple mind, is in reality the response to the theory of more elaborate and refined minds—of intellectuals—who conceive of the artist as the Commissioner of Moral Sanitation, and who demand that he be given his proper statutory salary without delay. I do not hold with the theory that art grows best in hardship. But I become uneasy—especially if I consider the nature of the best of modern art, its demand that it be wrestled with before it consents to bless us—whenever I hear of plans for its early domestication. These plans seem to me an aspect of the modern fear of being cut off from the social group even for a moment, of the modern indignation at the idea of entering the life of the spirit without proper provision having been made for full security.”