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Not Learning to Read Finnegans Wake

An auction house worker poses for photographers between a 1961 Pablo Picasso painting, left, and an encaustic Stars and Stripes painting entitled 'Flag' , right, made between 1960-1966 by U.S. artist Jasper Johns, in central London, Friday, Feb. 5, 2010. Four pieces from the collection of late Michael Crichton, the mega-selling thriller writer behind 'Jurassic Park', and TV series "ER," and a passionate art collector went on display in London before being auctioned by Christie's auction house in New York on May 11. The sale also includes works by Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein and the auction house is valuing them collectively at 20 million british pounds (some 32 US million dollars). (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in AmericaTheater of WarGag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. This essay appears in the March 2010 issue of Lapham's Quarterly and is posted at TomDispatch.

Art as a medium of exchange is the gift in the hand of its creator, alive in the mind of its beholder, converting the private to a public good, and thereby adding it to the common store of human energy and hope. It's the embodiment of the spirit in the flesh to which Leo Tolstoy refers as "a means of communion among people… the capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of other people," by "feelings, the most diverse, very strong and very weak, very significant and very worthless, very bad and very good."

The supposition that art is a gift as opposed to a collectible, something that doesn't try to sell you anything, runs counter to our contemporary notions of what constitutes a meaningful exchange. If I couldn't deduce that fact from the price paid for Damien Hirst's shark afloat in formaldehyde, I was reminded of it some months ago when asked by the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan to mount a discussion about the role of the artist in postmodern American society.

The Y's auditorium serves as a trendsetting display case for the city's high-end cultural merchandise, and the booking agent requested participants -- an author, an actress, possibly a musician or a film director -- deserving the cost of ad space in the New York Times. I offered the names of several individuals apt to say something of interest on the topic, but none was deemed fit to print. What the participants said or didn't say was of no consequence. What was important was the magnitude of their celebrity, and the names on my list were rated as low-burning flames unable to convene a gathering of moths.

I can't say I was surprised. To a young writer who had asked for advice about advancing his literary career in the late 1960s, Gore Vidal had provided clear directions to Mt. Parnassus. "Never miss a chance," he said, "to have sex or appear on television." Forty years have passed, and these days a young writer applying for consultation with the muses assembled on East 92nd Street probably would be better advised to combine the two initiatives.

Not Learning to Read Finnegans Wake

The record shows that, throughout most of the country's history, the circumstances haven't been much different. John Adams associated the arts with "despotism" and "superstition." "To America," said Benjamin Franklin, "one schoolmaster is worth a dozen poets, and the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael." The Nobel Prizes awarded almost every year to American chemists and economists suggest that the inspired play of the American mind takes place in the theater of the sciences and the concert halls of money.

My own great expectation of the arts is an accident of birth, in San Francisco in 1935 in a household filled with books. At the age of six, attracted to the Rockwell Kent illustrations in the Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick, I persuaded my mother to read the novel aloud by agreeing that, if on any subsequent evening I couldn't remember where it was that the story had been left off -- Queequeg sharpening his harpoon, Ahab steadfast in his quest for vengeance -- she would close the book and move on to the travails of Peter Rabbit. The reading took the better part of the same year in which the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and by the time we'd come to the end of it -- the Pequod sunk, Ishmael tangled in the shroud of the Pacific Ocean -- I could imagine, sometimes almost see, if not the great goddess on the page, the looming of the great white whale in San Francisco Bay.

My early meeting with Melville's prose dates the formulation of my idea of what was to be construed as literature. Both at home and at school in the 1940s, I kept company with authors in whose writing I could hear the music in the words, in the novels of Joseph Conrad, Edward Gibbon's history of the Roman Empire, the poems of Coleridge and Kipling. I'm still subject to the predisposition.

On first opening a book that I'm not obliged to read for professional reasons, I'm content to let it pass by unless I can hear some sort of melodic line, even if the author offers to name the man who shot Jack Kennedy. With authors of great reputation, I blame myself for whatever fault can be found, and after a decent interval of years I return to the book in question in the hope that I've learned to hear what is being said. When I was 20 I didn't know how to read Ford Madox Ford or George Eliot. By the time I was 50 I no longer could read J. D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway. I've yet to learn how to read Finnegans Wake.

Regarding myself as neither art historian nor literary critic, I escape the chore of having to discern zeitgeists and deconstruct paradigms. At liberty to indulge my enthusiasms without apology or embarrassment, I'm free to take as much pleasure from the novels of Raymond Chandler and John le Carré as from the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Because I look for the value of the human currency ("very strong and very weak … very bad and very good"), I don't much care whether an author chooses for her mise en scène the court of Henry VIII or the roof of a Harlem tenement, whether the artist draws a bandit on the beach at Yokohama or paints an angel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In Goya's etchings of the Napoleonic Wars, I discover an enlarged state and sense of being of the same order as the one met with in the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 27 or in the sequence of images on exhibition in Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts." "Feelings, the most diverse" follow from the awakening of more than one mind to the excitement of simultaneous discovery, which is the means of communion that distinguishes the making of a work of art from the passive and single-minded consumption of a camera angle or an applause track.

To the generation coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, the distinction was important, maybe even bearing on what was to become of the American future. It was a generation infected with the idea that the arts were serious business, sharing with the late Walker Percy his novelist's belief that all fiction can be used as an instrument of exploration and discovery, that "the novelist or poet in the future might be able to go further, to discover or rediscover… how it is with man himself, who he is, and how it is between him and other men."

During the years of the Eisenhower administration, the portraits of novelists decorated the covers of Time magazine, the views of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer accorded the deference now placed at the feet of Warren Buffett. New plays on Broadway from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were as eagerly received as the musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Under the aegis of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, the CIA was deploying American art as a Cold War weapon of mass instruction. Although the Allies had won the war against Hitler (won it in the name of democratic freedom and Western civilization), they appeared to be losing the peace to Stalin and the systems of totalitarian repression, and what was afoot in the 1950s was a contest for the good opinion of mankind. The communist agitprop on offer in Europe in 1947 pictured the United States as a materialist wasteland inhabited by gum-chewing shoe salesmen, lynchers of negroes ignorant of the works of Gramsci and Lukács.

The CIA undertook to suppress the rumors, directing the tactical movement of art exhibits to Venice, music festivals to Rome. Not satisfied with the wholesale distribution of wholesome texts, the agency pressed forward into the no man's land of the avant-garde, seeking to show its prospective friends in Bremerhaven and Marseilles that American art was something more than a provincial reflection of European decadence.

No, by God, America was a great country, as rich in artists as it was in steel or corn, and here to prove it on the wall in Paris is the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock -- a real American from Cody, Wyoming, not a Hungarian refugee or a Princeton homosexual; virility incarnate, reckless and heavy-drinking, a fountain of acrylic orgasm; just the sort of fellow to represent the virtues of free enterprise, and whose paintings, nonfigurative and incoherent, embodied the antithesis of Soviet socialist realism. The aesthetic stamped with the seals of government approval matched the one embraced by the Beat poets howling in the California wilderness, marking out the road into an ecstatic future unregulated by death and taxes.