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The Alibi of Art

What Baudelaire, Nabokov and Quentin Tarantino Have in Common

April 26, 1998|ROGER SHATTUCK | Roger Shattuck is the author of several books, including "The Banquet Years: The French Avant-Garde Before World War I," "Forbidden Knowledge" and "The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature & the Arts." His essay is a revised version of the second annual Irving Howe Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at the Center for the Humanities, City University of New York

Twenty centuries ago, Horace in his brief and celebrated lines in "The Art of Poetry" suggested that art at its best fulfills a double purpose: to instruct and to delight. These two factors lived and worked together for centuries. Today, however, a third factor--art for art's sake--complicates the picture. We now have to deal with three positions that, taken together, have presented us with a most peculiar and difficult moral predicament.

First, through both its infectious and cathartic powers, art can be didactic, not only in the domains of knowledge and morality but also politically, through engagement, social reform and bearing witness. Second, through its treatment of beauty in a very broad sense, now encompassing the grotesque, the comic, the unexpected and even the ugly, art can please and entertain us. And third, through its capacity to lift us out of ordinary selfish interests and to refocus our attention on the purely sensuous and formal qualities of a poem or a painting or a piece of music, art can assume for its own sake alone an autonomous aesthetic condition independent of all other considerations.

The harmony to which we respond in, say, the works of Moliere and of George Eliot are rooted in Horace's twin factors, delight and instruction. When, in the 19th century, the third factor--art for art's sake--entered the picture, it demanded superior rank. Oscar Wilde gave perhaps the most haughty pronouncement of this principle when he declared that "aesthetics is higher than ethics." The conflict among the three elements can be seen, to choose among many possible examples, in Charles Baudelaire's writings, in Vladimir Nabokov's contradictory statements about "Lolita," in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and in our stumbling debates about violence and obscenity in the media. We shall not rest until we find a new balance among these three elements. For, in some areas, the aesthetic has usurped the kingdom of art.

How did we come to this pass?


Our story begins in 1830 in France. Two contrasting revolutions jarred the nation that fateful year. In the preceding 40 years, the country had lived through the Great Revolution, the First Republic, the Terror, Napoleon the Emperor and his wars, humiliating defeats and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815. Then, 15 years later, France was bubbling again, culturally and politically. In February 1830, at the first night of Victor Hugo's Spanish melodrama "Hernani" at the Comedie Francaise, the troops of the young liberal faction out-shouted the conservatives. Romanticism won its first major battle in France, thanks in part to the dedicated antics of a 19-year-old painter-poet with long hair and a flamboyantly red vest. Theophile Gautier soon published his first collection of poems and a volume of stories about the new generation. "Les Jeunes-France," as he called the volume, something like "France's New Generation," both celebrated and satirized romantic excesses in a style more impudent than that of Murger's "Scenes de la vie de boheme," which appeared 20 years later. In the 1830s, there was no Puccini to immortalize Gautier's tales of artists in their garrets. "Les Jeunes-France" left little mark. But Gautier was on his way.

The second 1830 revolution came in July--violent, political and very brief. It established Louis Philippe as king of the French with a liberal constitution in writing and with a furled umbrella in his bourgeois hand. Among other changes, censorship was lifted. But when the citizen-king began to betray his liberal principles and when the great cartoonists Philipon and Daumier filled the popular press with devastating lithographic caricatures of a pear-headed monarch devouring and then evacuating his own people, the royal victim could not take the heat. And the conservative press was crying out for the disciplining of the young Romantics; their manners, their morals and their dreadful versification could not be tolerated. By 1834, censorship loomed again. Gautier, not yet 23, found himself under bitter attack for having written a sympathetic essay on the late medieval poet and thief, Francois Villon. One critic called Villon "depraved and lubricious." Gautier replied with spirit, calling his own essay "a work of art" and proclaiming that whatever is adopted by art and science "becomes chaste."

But Gautier had greater reason to worry. The novel he was writing in 1834, called "Mlle. de Maupin" contained anti-religious declarations, perverted and transvestite behavior and graphic sex scenes exceeding anything else then sold on the open market. Both the aristocratic aesthete-hero and his mistress fall in love with an ardent young woman, like Shakespeare's Rosalind masquerading as a man, and both enjoy her favors in passages Shakespeare would never have written. A pretty pageboy adds the theme of pedophilia to that of androgyny.

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