A few weeks ago, under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the city of Paris was treated to a large and, from all reports, extremely impressive festival of Western culture. Aside from the purely cultural aspects of this festival, however, there was clearly an impulse arising out of current international politics: to demonstrate the superiority of Western culture to that of the Communist world threatening it, and to affirm its continuing vitality against Communist charges of decadence and degeneration. HERBERT LUETHY here discusses whether such a purpose can be accomplished by such means, and offers an interesting report on the Parisian reception of the festival. The present article has been translated from the French by Lionel Abel.
This May, Paris was the scene of an international festival held under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It was a festival of “Masterpieces of the 20th Century,” and it proved to be one of the most dazzling expositions of modern art ever brought before the public, which was, in this case, asked to judge for itself whether the contemporary free culture of the West was alive or decadent.
Obviously, the organizers wanted the whole performance to be completely convincing; they took care to offer quantity as well as quality, they were as much concerned for abundance as for taste. It should suffice to name the most famous participants: the great French orchestras, the Boston Symphony, the Philharmonic of Vienna, the RIAS orchestra of Berlin, the orchestra and choral group of the Italian Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the orchestra of French Switzerland—all these directed by celebrated conductors and by some of the composers themselves; then the New York City Ballet, the Covent Garden Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, the American National Theatre and Academy. Outstanding works by more than sixty composers were performed, many of them for the first time in Paris. There were also literary discussions in which, among others, William Faulkner, W. H. Auden, André Malraux, Ignazio Silone, Allen Tate, and Stephen Spender took part.
All this was during the month of May, when Paris would be literally bursting with artistic activity and displays in any case. The New York City Ballet gave a last fillip to the regular ballet season; some fifty theaters of all sorts were mustering their forces to offer their final programs just before the season’s end; and the festival’s exhibition of “Art Masterpieces of the 20th Century,” organized by James Johnson Sweeney, had to compete with three or four exhibitions, comparable to it in scope and quality, that opened at the same time: “Fifty Years of French Painting from Cezanne to Matisse,” “Still Life Through the Ages,” “Italian Art in the Middle Ages,” “Two Thousand Years of Mexican Art”—not to mention the permanent exhibitions, the dozens of active galleries, and the interminable literary and artistic discussions carried on in the reviews and coteries.
In the end, everybody—organizers, performers, speakers, critics, and spectators—was simply worn out, and a good deal of the irritated feeling that gathered over the festival at moments can be explained by fatigue. Cities in the provinces lend themselves to such events with more grace than does Paris, where the feast is permanent.
The idea around which the whole affair was organized was an admirable one. The pundits of Stalinism have declared that Western civilization is corrupt, rotten, doomed, culturally bankrupt, unable to do more in art than continue to promote either cheap commercialism or parasitic snobbism. These accusations have been echoed in the West by the tired, the dispirited, and the ignorant. We will take up the challenge, said Nicolas Nabokov, the organizer of the festival; we shall appear at the trial of Western civilization and show, with concrete evidence, that our civilization is alive and, indeed, more vigorous and creative than ever. We shall mobilize in the face of the totalitarian empires—which have reduced art and thought to slavery and can now produce little more than massive postcards, busts of generals, and military marches—all the artistic and intellectual riches produced by the societies of the West through free research and spontaneous creation: the Masterpieces of the 20th Century! Let them come and see for themselves and, if they dare, measure their works against ours!
It was a noble and generous idea, and it was good to see so many contemporary works of value collected together in a single city for the space of a whole month. It would have been even better, perhaps, if there had been no advance ideological proclamations: effective propaganda does not label itself. Moreover, can the creations of a culture really be mobilized around a flag like soldiers, even if it is the flag of freedom? The spirit bloweth where it listeth, and seldom does a great art work make an ideological warrior. Does a painting necessarily speak for the conditions under which it was produced? Do the Sistine frescoes argue in favor of the conditions under which Michelangelo worked? Or the symphonies of Beethoven for the society of his time or country? Or, closer to us, does the work of Béla Bartók—whose sad fate Mr. Nabokov rightly chose to recall in the handsome issue of the monthly magazine Preuves that was devoted to the “Masterpieces of the 20th Century”—does it really speak for the society that let him die of poverty in a hospital ward in New York, after having condemned him to spend the creative energy of his last years seeking out a miserable living through private lessons and “lecture tours”? A very large, and most alive, part of contemporary work expresses revolt—whether justifiedly or unreasonably is beside the point—against the conditions under which it was created.
Our society has not, it is true, suppressed all such revolt, and dissident non-commercial works have been able to appear in obscurity and survive in drawers until their hour of tragically posthumous glory. The spirit, if unable to blow where it lists, has at least been allowed to leave a sign of its passage—it is in this sense, and only in this strictly limited sense, that the masterpieces of the 20th century can be said to testify for their time and place.
There are committed, engagé artists who are enlisted in all sorts of causes good and bad, as are other citizens; but there is no committed art, for commitment would make it cease to be art at all. This is why there is something disturbing in any ideological mobilization of culture. It is justified only to the degree that the end in view is clearly understood to be the defense of the vital minimum of freedom which even the worst of past despotisms allowed to the creative spirit, and which is today nonexistent in the totalitarian states. The vital minimum of creative spirit that remains to the free societies is precisely the freedom to die of hunger; the right of the man sure of his pioneering and heretical vocation as an artist to persist in giving form to his vision, regardless of general indifference, concerned with posterity or with nobody, in poverty and scorn, despite and against everyone. Two of the most moving evenings of the festival, the Bartok concert and the Paris première of Alban Berg’s grim and brilliant Wozzeck—which opened the festival and was its crowning achievement—brought home the fact that both artists died before their works had acquired commercial value—if in fact their works have that even now.
The society that generously grants a vital minimum of freedom to create is wrong to congratulate itself on its generosity. One felt some terrible misunderstanding in the brilliant hall where the journalists were identifying the “celebrities,” the people with the Legion of Honor ribbons, or titles of nobility, the women wearing the latest creations of the designers and jewelers (the fashion magazine Elle had devoted a whole number to the question: “How dress for the Festival of the 20th Century?”); where the bediamonded Madame X and Countess Y were demonstrating their support for freedom of culture, and seemed to feel entitled to say, because Bartók and Berg had achieved fame, albeit posthumously, “This is our doing, thanks to us such works exist.” No, it was not thanks to them that such works existed; their sole, and much more modest, title to gratitude was for having tolerated these obscure creations without even knowing anything about them, for having tolerated them out of indifference. And the fact is that this kind of indifference, when compared with the ruthless vigilance of totalitarian regimes, does become the very condition o£ freedom. The two claims, the one made by the creative artist on the stage, and the other by the well-heeled in the salon, have little, or nothing, in common. Perhaps the worldly and fashionable element could not be kept away from such an affair; without it, how could the festival have been financed and organized? But this is why it is risky to hold ideological festivals.
This is a minor side. The other risk of an ideological program is in the fact that it can be realized only in part, and the idea of the festival was general to an extreme: “L’Oeuvre du XXe siècle”—the French title being even more comprehensive and definitive than the English. In actual fact it was almost exclusively a festival of contemporary music, and it would have been better to give it a less pretentious title.
As a festival of music it was incomparably rich and varied, and never perhaps had that large a public been made so intensely interested in modern music—music, by the way, seldom played in concert halls; many of these works, beginning with Mahler’s Lied von der Erie, dating from the end of last century, were having their first performance in Paris! Then in addition to the concerts, operas, and ballets, a splendid exhibition of painting and sculpture was offered. There were also lectures and literary discussions, and they were exactly what lectures and literary discussions could be expected to be when improvised as “poor relations” of the other arts—just to show that the organizers had taken care to include everything. The subjects were highly general: “the writer and the city,” “revolt and communion,” “diversity and universality,” about which almost anybody can say everything and nothing in a twenty-minute speech. Completely absent from the “Masterpieces of the 20th Century” were: the theater (most inexplicable of the omissions); the film, surely the most 20th-centuryish of all the arts (true, it is celebrated constantly in the many Parisian art-movie clubs); architecture (for good material reasons); and finally, all that our half-century has produced in the way of technics, science, philosophy, and social study. In the last analysis, the “Masterpieces of the 20th Century” were music—music that was a revelation to the public. The music students of Paris had a unique opportunity to hear the whole gamut of the musical creations of our times—from the neo-classics and neo-Wagnerians to the “concrete music” vulgarly called “noise”—executed by the best orchestras of the Western world.
But even as regards only music, the ambitiousness with which the festival was heralded had its liabilities. A choice had to be made, and the selection of works to be performed, comprehensive as it was, could not but seem arbitrary and partisan when presented as the balance sheet of a half-century.
Unavoidably, there was offense given to a great many groups and sects, to numerous reputations and national prides, for nowhere do cliques proliferate as in contemporary music. And so, for example, the music critic of Figaro accused the organizers of the festival of constituting one more coterie, or something even less, “since the gods were excluded from it. . . .” These quarrels harassed the festival right along, and no one who had any part in it will ever be able to forget the name “Florent Schmitt,” even though it did not appear on the program. After having begun by deploring the absence of at least a dozen other composers, all the French critics seem to have agreed to find the particular omission of Schmitt absolutely unpardonable.
But why not that of Sibelius? Or Franz Lehar?
Absurd as much of this criticism was, it must be admitted that the festival, while not excluding other aspects of the century, did concentrate on a very particular vision of our epoch.
A festival of Western civilization? One could with equal justice have called it a Russian festival. There were, of course, the works of composers of all sorts of tendencies and of every nationality, a third of them French (the presence of the latter being, for the most part, imposed by politeness rather than merit, their works were consigned to the margins of the gala evenings). But the great man whose ghost dominated the affair was Diaghilev: the whole thing brought to mind Diaghilev, his period, and his tremendous team; here were his scattered survivors and successors: the organizer Nabokov, Stravinsky and his ballet music, Balanchine and his company, the works that had been composed, the décors that had been painted, the librettos that had been written for the Russian ballets of Diaghilev. So that the most striking, if not the most valuable, aspect of the festival seemed to be a commemoration of the “great Parisian events” of “la belle époque,” the time, several decades back, when “life was beautiful.” Stravinsky’s Firebird was there with Chagall’s sets; Prokofiev’s Prodigal Son with sets by Rouault; the same Pierre Monteux, triumphantly directing Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring in the Théâatre des Champs Elysées, where, directing the same work in 1913, he had been hissed. Fifteen years ago Stravinsky himself had directed his Oedipus Rex, his opera-oratio set to a Latin text, and there had been hisses because Cocteau, author, reciter, and inventor of tableaux vivants with surrealist marionettes, had pulled the Parisian public’s leg a bit too openly; now applause greeted it.
All this made for a festival of nostalgia for the “good old days” so closely associated, in the minds of those who remember them, with the name of Sergei Diaghilev, that animator of the last Gesamtkunstwerk (total art-work) of our time—so much lighter, more elegant, and refined than Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk—linking music, dancing, painting, and poetry in the most fragile and ironically definitive ensemble. Here, too, nostalgia was expressed for the last genuine, heedless, and spontaneous cosmopolitanism as it had been incarnated in Diaghilev, amateur, connoisseur, and nobleman of a Russia that has disappeared. But how remote all that seems now! As remote, certainly, as the obsolete “1900” symbolism of the posters advertising the festival from the walls of Paris with a “trademark,” showing a lyre, laurel branch, and star, that had been cooked up by the most expensive and conventional commercial designer in Paris: symbol of a rearguard festival.
Stravinsky himself is still lively and alert, and his powerful, faunlike personality, full of intelligence and of immense, smiling competence, completely dominated the “show.” Solely by the fact of his presence, contemporary music seemed to divide into two schools, or, rather, into two directions and two temperaments: the way of Stravinsky—intellectual, eclectic, “Hellenistic,” master fully sending up fireworks in all styles and every sort of inspiration, capable of perfecting or parodying everything, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, by turns; on the other side were the “maniacs,” the atonalists and their school, stubbornly following wherever their will to innovate leads, continually striving to create a unified style and inspiration by multiplying prohibitions and constraints. The contrast between the “hedonists” and the “ascetics” was a thrilling one: both sides had their successes and failures. But, finally, the “demonstration of the vitality of the West” ended on a note of interrogation.
For it must be said that Stravinsky cannot testify unambiguously to that vitality: the West, or Western Europe at least, is sick of the Hellenistic, and can take no joy in the prospect of any further exploitation of a heritage that a master juggler like Stravinsky dominates easily, but in the face of which others become dizzy. And his most powerful antagonist was not Schoenberg with his Erwartung, which served as a counterbalance to Oedipus Rex, but Alban Berg with his posthumous Wozzeck, a tour de force wrought into the most limpid and coherent quality by the multiplication of formal constraints. Yet Wozzeck is an end, not a beginning—it can hardly start a tradition or a school. Perhaps every work of genius is a dead end, definitive, representing the end of a road nobody can travel further.
A festival cannot but be retrospective; at best, it is a sort of museum of masterpieces that have already been acquired; and no retrospective show can ever prove anything about the future. It proves and approves the real value of the past; and this one in Paris did demonstrate that the works which had scandalized the public twenty-five years ago have by now become part of the patrimony of our civilization, having proved as valid as those that shocked people fifty or a hundred years ago. But there was another question: was this civilization still living? And was it really necessary to stage this sort of defensive operation to prove that it was not dead? Livingness is not proved by a roll call, and a recapitulation, however brilliant, creates nothing. The question to which the festival addressed itself was, indeed, poorly put.
The farcical impression of a Russian festival was reinforced by the many sectarian quarrels, the most violent of which involved two successors of Diaghilev: Serge Lifar and Balanchine. A humorous Paris paper called the whole ferocious struggle “Slav Family Linen.” The motives for a series of “open letters” to Mr. Nabokov with which Serge Lifar, master of the Opéera ballet, opened fire on the festival were perfectly clear: Balanchine’s New York City Ballet had just appeared at the Opéra, while Lifar’s Opéra ballet was not to perform with the other “Masterpieces of the 20th Century.” But the issue had to be elevated into something more than a question of personal rivalry, and here was Serge Lifar, who had collaborated so shamelessly during the Occupation and been so useful to the Germans (for three years after the war all political parties and all Resistance groups had unanimously opposed his return to the Opéra)—here was this same Lifar mounted on the stuffed horse of French patriotism: the prestige of France was at stake. And Combat, once a great newspaper of the Resistance, did not shrink from setting in big type Lifar’s incredible closing statement: “Gentlemen, I think you are mistaken; on the plane of culture, or civilization, of the spirit, FRANCE DOES NOT TAKE COUNSEL FROM ANYONE: SHE TEACHES OTHERS’.”
Ridiculous as this appears, it was quite in tune with the general reaction of the Parisian press. The “American” festival, too rich, too lavish, and its publicity often lacking in modulation and tact, provoked an outburst of embittered and small-minded chauvinism of the worst kind—of cultural chauvinism. There is no point in taking up the vomitings of the Communist press on the “festival of the criminals of germ warfare.” But the welcome from other quarters was not much more cordial. Combat, which considers itself the organ of the intellectual “left,” devoted a political editorial to the “Festival of NATO,” in which, of course, much reference was made to poorly educated barbarians from Alabama and Idaho, and to lynched Negroes in the South. But it was not so much the direct frontal attacks; it was rather the constant pinpricks, the bad humor, the little incidents that colored the atmosphere; and these expressed the reaction of a country—or rather, of its intellectual elite—that has always considered its own civilization to be the one unique and universally valid civilization extant, and which, having invented “cultural propaganda” and practiced it with the most remarkable effectiveness since the 17th century, all the more violently resents any enterprise in which it thinks it can discern the “cultural propaganda” of another country.
There were countless expressions of this wounded self-esteem, some touchingly naive. Figaro welcomed the Boston Symphony: “The Americans have landed, but under the command of a Frenchman” (Charles Munch); this was followed by a news story whose only point was the fact that twenty-three of the musicians in this magnificent orchestra were French. The “Florent Schmitt affair” is explained by the same obsession: whereas in most other countries artists coming from abroad would be expected to demonstrate the character and quality of their own culture, in France they are only expected to confirm the idea that everything valuable is French. In other countries a foreign writer present as a guest is expected to speak of his work, of his country, and his tradition; in France he is never expected to do more than express his admiration for Paris, for France, and for the French classics. And even then it will be held against him if he shows that he knows these too well. Thus Figaro Littéraire, which, from the political point of view, is as “Western” and “Atlantic” as you could want, spoke of the pictures shown among “Masterpieces of the 20th Century” with a disdainful air, referring to the “painting of the 20th century that is to the American taste”; yet at least three-fourths of the works presented had been painted by Frenchmen. The reply, this time, came from an unexpected quarter: the neutralist Paris weekly l’Observateur remarked drily: “To speak of American taste in connection with an exhibition which has brought works to Paris that were for the most part painted here, and which our officials allowed to leave the country, and before which certain of our officials still turn up their noses . . . is surely ridiculous”; and added that the exhibition expressed “what is healthiest in the American attitude that is to say, its innate sense of the ‘virginal and the always alive,’ and the instinctive feeling for beauty that has not yet stopped being beautiful. . . . In short, the present exhibition testifies to an unconditional freedom in art quite above and outside any political tendency. . . .”
Here the positions were reversed: Ameri a, anti-academic and avant-garde in matters of art, rejoined the tradition of the French “left,” and ran up against the official, conservative, academic France represented by Figaro. Here, again, the two questions at issue remained separate. Even more pronounced than the bad feeling was the confusion that surrounded the festival. The most absolute art was mixed up with the most realistic politics, and far too many people wondered whether their approval—or disapproval—would be entered to the account of Arnold Schoenberg or General Ridgway.
Was the festival a failure or a success? It is too early to judge the more permanent effects. When the ruffled feelings are soothed, and the sectarian quarrels forgotten, what will remain? This brilliant show revealed no new inspiration, not one unknown talent, nothing not already consecrated; but it paid ample homage to what the half-century had achieved. Perhaps it made possible a deepened awareness of the richness of our civilization, a deeper feeling of there being a living heritage to defend, not so much because somebody came to prove and demonstrate this—anyone with eyes to see could observe the presence of this heritage, at every moment and on every street corner, in this city of Paris better than anywhere else—but because someone came with enough publicity to force recognition of the fact. For a while the chatter about the “decadence of the West” will be less tolerated simply because somebody dared to contradict it. Perhaps even the truth needs a Barnum.