All values are human values, relative values, in art as wellas elsewhere. Yet there does seem to have been more or less ofa general agreement among the cultivated of mankind over the agesas to what is good art and what bad. Taste has varied, but notbeyond certain limits; contemporary connoisseurs agree with theeighteenth-century Japanese that Hokusai was one of the greatestartists of his time; we even agree with the ancient Egyptiansthat Third and Fourth Dynasty art was the most worthy of beingselected as their paragon by those who came after. We may havecome to prefer Giotto to Raphael, but we still do not deny thatRaphael was one of the best painters of his time. There has beenan agreement then, and this agreement rests, I believe, on a fairlyconstant distinction made between those values only to be foundin art and the values which can be found elsewhere. Kitsch, byvirtue of a rationalized technique that draws on science and industry,has erased this distinction in practice.
Returning to our Russian peasant for the moment, let us supposethat after he has chosen Repin in preference to Picasso, the state'seducational apparatus comes along and tells him that he is wrong,that he should have chosen Picasso -- and shows him why. It isquite possible for the Soviet state to do this. But things beingas they are in Russia -- and everywhere else -- the peasant soonfinds the necessity of working hard all day for his living andthe rude, uncomfortable circumstances in which he lives do notallow him enough leisure, energy and comfort to train for theenjoyment of Picasso. This needs, after all, a considerable amountof "conditioning." Superior culture is one of the mostartificial of all human creations, and the peasant finds no "natural"urgency within himself that will drive him toward Picasso in spiteof all difficulties. In the end the peasant will go back to kitschwhen he feels like looking at pictures, for he can enjoy kitschwithout effort. The state is helpless in this matter and remainsso as long as the problems of production have not been solvedin a socialist sense. The same holds true, of course, for capitalistcountries and makes all talk of art for the masses there nothingbut demagogy.
The avant-garde's specialization of itself, the fact that itsbest artists are artists' artists, its best poets, poets' poets,has estranged a great many of those who were capable formerlyof enjoying and appreciating ambitious art and literature, butwho are now unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation intotheir craft secrets. The masses have always remained more or lessindifferent to culture in the process of development. But todaysuch culture is being abandoned by those to whom it actually belongs-- our ruling class. For it is to the latter that the avant-gardebelongs. No culture can develop without a social basis, withouta source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde,this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that societyfrom which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it hasalways remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold. The paradoxis real. And now this elite is rapidly shrinking. Since the avant-gardeforms the only living culture we now have, the survival in thenear future of culture in general is thus threatened.
Because it can be turned out mechanically, kitsch has becomean integral part of our productive system in a way in which trueculture could never be, except accidentally. It has been capitalizedat a tremendous investment which must show commensurate returns;it is compelled to extend as well as to keep its markets. Whileit is essentially its own salesman, a great sales apparatus hasnevertheless been created for it, which brings pressure to bearon every member of society. Traps are laid even in those areas,so to speak, that are the preserves of genuine culture. It isnot enough today, in a country like ours, to have an inclinationtowards the latter; one must have a true passion for it that willgive him the power to resist the faked article that surroundsand presses in on him from the moment he is old enough to lookat the funny papers. Kitsch is deceptive. It has many differentlevels, and some of them are high enough to be dangerous to thenaive seeker of true light. A magazine like the ,which is fundamentally high-class kitsch for the luxury trade,converts and waters down a great deal of avant-garde materialfor its own uses. Nor is every single item of kitsch altogetherworthless. Now and then it produces something of merit, somethingthat has an authentic folk flavor; and these accidental and isolatedinstances have fooled people who should know better.
No more lost-tampon essays, in other words, in the age of Donald Trump. And yet I find myself missing aspects of the personal-essay Internet that the flashiest examples tended to obscure. I still think of the form as a valuable on-ramp, an immediate and vivid indication of a writer’s instincts—one that is accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections. The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things. But I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.
Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.
He, who Supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg'd with Coolness tho' he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.
Our Criticks take a contrary Extream,
They judge with Fury, but they write with Fle'me:
Nor suffers Horace more in wrong Translations
By Wits, than Criticks in as wrong Quotations.
LEARN then what MORALS Criticks ought to show,
For 'tis but half a Judge's Task, to Know.
'Tis not enough, Taste, Judgment, Learning, join;
In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine:
That not alone what to your Sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your Friendship too.
Some valuing those of their own, Side or Mind,
Still make themselves the measure of Mankind;
Fondly we think we honour Merit then,
When we but praise Our selves in Other Men.
Parties in Wit attend on those of State,
And publick Faction doubles private Hate.
Pride, Malice, Folly, against Dryden rose,
In various Shapes of Parsons, Criticks, Beaus;
But Sense surviv'd, when merry Jests were past;
For rising Merit will buoy up at last.
Might he return, and bless once more our Eyes,
New Blackmores and new Milbourns must arise;
Nay shou'd great Homer lift his awful Head,
Zoilus again would start up from the Dead.
Envy will Merit as its Shade pursue,
But like a Shadow, proves the Substance true;
For envy'd Wit, like Sol Eclips'd, makes known
Th' opposing Body's Grossness, not its own.
When first that Sun too powerful Beams displays,
It draws up Vapours which obscure its Rays;
But ev'n those Clouds at last adorn its Way,
Reflect new Glories, and augment the Day.
But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song,
And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
In the bright Muse tho' thousand Charms conspire,
Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire,
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear,
Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair,
Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there.
These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.
Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In ev'ry Work regard the Writer's End,
Since none can compass more than they Intend;
And if the Means be just, the Conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial Faults, is due.
As Men of Breeding, sometimes Men of Wit,
T' avoid great Errors, must the less commit,
Neglect the Rules each Verbal Critick lays,
For not to know some Trifles, is a Praise.
Most Criticks, fond of some subservient Art,
Still make the Whole depend upon a Part,
They talk of Principles, but Notions prize,
And All to one lov'd Folly Sacrifice.
Nevertheless, if the masses were conceivably to ask for avant-gardeart and literature, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would not hesitatelong in attempting to satisfy such a demand. Hitler is a bitterenemy of the avant-garde, both on doctrinal and personal grounds,yet this did not prevent Goebbels in 1932-1933 from strenuouslycourting avant-garde artists and writers. When Gottfried Benn,an Expressionist poet, came over to the Nazis he was welcomedwith a great fanfare, although at that very moment Hitler wasdenouncing Expressionism as . This wasat a time when the Nazis felt that the prestige which the avant-gardeenjoyed among the cultivated German public could be of advantageto them, and practical considerations of this nature, the Nazisbeing skillful politicians, have always taken precedence overHitler's personal inclinations. Later the Nazis realized thatit was more practical to accede to the wishes of the masses inmatters of culture than to those of their paymasters; the latter,when it came to a question of preserving power, were as willingto sacrifice their culture as they were their moral principles;while the former, precisely because power was being withheld fromthem, had to be cozened in every other way possible. It was necessaryto promote on a much more grandiose style than in the democraciesthe illusion that the masses actually rule. The literature andart they enjoy and understand were to be proclaimed the only trueart and literature and any other kind was to be suppressed. Underthese circumstances people like Gottfried Benn, no matter howardently they support Hitler, become a liability; and we hearno more of them in Nazi Germany.