Mainstream: A Literary Quarterly

Eugene Almazov, “The ‘Tendentious’ in Literature” Mainstream magazine (1947):

The question, then, is not whether a writer is, or is not, tendentious; but rather what are the tendencies he follows. The antagonists of tendentious art in modern literature are people who remain aloof from the questions occupying the mind of our disturbed world. They are indifferent to the fate of the millions who want bread, work and conditions which will enable them to find delight in the beautiful.

S. Finkelstein, “National Art and Universal Art” Mainstream magazine (1947):

In its lesser, as well as its greater achievements, the national art of the nineteenth and twentieth century had qualities which made it a powerful force opposed to the art-for-art’s sake neo-classicism and the individualistic, anti-social, pessimistic and introspective individualism which dominated so much of the art of the times. One of these qualities was a vitality which came from the entrance into this art of the masses of people, through a language which they themselves have helped fashion. This quality may be seen in the sheer abundance of human beings who fill the pages of Dickens, Mark Twain and Gorky….

With the masses of people there entered into this art their philosophy of life, a realistic acceptance of the world reaffirmed in the face of its multitude of hardships. And so if we find irony and protest in the work of these folk-inspired and national artists, we also find the most full-throated laughter…great comic artists in complete contrast to the romantics’ emphasis on the “man alone,” his pseudo-tragic feeling caused by a self-imposed withdrawal from the real world.

Still another quality of this art was its imaginative use of whatever materials came to hand. While these artists fought for their integrity as honest artists, against censorship, they did not regard a practical use for their art as an intrusion upon their freedom. It was an intrusion only when its conventions were dictated by a ruling-class forcing its own fears of reality upon the artist. When a new medium for art brought these artists closer to  a mass audience, and allowed them to speak honestly with it, the medium itself set their ideas flowing. Thus Goya created his epic history and portrayal of the Spanish people in the etching and lithograph; Daumier did the same for the French people, between the 1830 revolution and the Commune, in the form of the lithograph and newspaper cartoon. Dickens grew on the penny serial, Mark Twain on frontier journalism, the Irish poets and prose artists on the Abbey Theatre.

This national art was and is highly experimental. Its experimental qualities were obscured in the later nineteenth century, when critics were enraptured by the one line of romanticist, impressionist, symbolist and expressionist experiments, the deliberate invention of ambiguities, the probing into dream and the subconscious. It remained for the twentieth century to discover the fresh and truly ground-breaking character of the national movement in the arts, and to carry this movement in the idioms of art the constantly changing aspect of the world and people, the search for new materials and media for art, which led to the scientific analysis of the languages of art, the vast enlightening study of ancient, folk, Asiatic, Indian and African cultures, which has made our own age, in the sheer knowledge of its tools, the most educated in history.

A new obscurantism has appeared in critical theory, clinically discussing the styles of such art with an ignorance of the search for greater realism and power in communication behind it. Whitman’s free verse is studied without Whitman’s democracy; Picasso’s cubism without his humanity; Bartok’s polytonality without his folk core. Such tendencies have been fostered by some of the artists themselves, such as Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein, who moved increasingly in their art away from human images and broad emotions, and by the small-minded imitators who far outnumber the genuine creative minds.

The most striking quality of national art is that almost alone among modern art movements it seeks to recreate the epic line. The bourgeoisie, who had raised the epic to such heights when they were battling against feudalism, almost destroyed the epic when faced by the struggles of the working class, fostering every theory that would remove art from a devotion to contemporary history and the fullness of society. The epic, except in false neo-classic imitations, is the study of human beings in terms of history, with human knowledge of nature and of social forces replacing the myths that had served such a function in ancient times….

A national art is one that operates simultaneously  on different levels: the small forms of immediate popular impact and daily use, the grand line of the social epic, the scholarly research into the past, the laboratory experiment. It is broad in its base, allowing the richest differentiation among the peoples and localities who make up the nation, and profiting from the wealth of idiom developed by the people through their active participation in cultural life.

The movement for a national art is now faced with the practical problem of having the political space in which to grow. In America, cultural as well as political democracy is under increasing attack by reaction. The artist who hires out his talents is forced to give up his integrity and to work hobbled by the most stifling restrictions of form and content. The great public realms of radio, newspaper, motion picture, magazine and book trade, as important to the public domain as education and food, are increasingly forbidden to artists who want to remain artists and to serve the public as honest masters of the means of human communication. The great areas of the American land, the working class and the national minorities who together make up the majority of Americans, are denied the cultural life through which their artists can grow and develop in home soil, speaking to audiences of their own people, rising in stature (as artists can only rise) through constant living contact with an audience. The great masses of people are robbed of the healthy folk and popular culture which can only come through the restoration of creative participation in art to the people. The growing monopoly of every public form of communication, of the means of production and distribution of art, has produced a grotesque mockery of a national cultural life. Yet the potentialities exist in America for a renaissance unequalled in history.

Today the working class is the leading force in the fight for democracy and for a thriving American nation that will serve the welfare of its people. The struggle of a national culture is part of this struggle for a democratic America, and just as the working class must realize the powerful ally it can have in the artist, so the artist striving to grow as an artist must understand that his ally is the working class. Art is the expression among people of their joy in life, their growth, their understanding and mastery of the world. It is the exchange of their experiences and ideas. The very variety of language and forms a national art can take makes for unity among peoples, for the very depth and insight with which art portrays the unique character of a people gives it the power to transcend national boundaries, becoming a force through which people can better understand one another, work together and build a world without exploitation of human beings and wars among states.

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