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Put In Your Oar

The arts are not efficient. They are essential. That is something entirely different. Culture, in order to be vital, must be extravagant. At times there is fiscal extravagance. Inevitably, there is the extravagance of lives dedicated to what are the inherently impractical disciplines of art, literature, music, dance, and theater. There is no art—there is no culture—without enormous individual energies being expended to what are, by their very nature, uncertain ends. I once heard a famous poet, when asked how his work was going, shrug and say: “You just put in your oar. That’s all you can do.” The man was by no means modest. So the modesty of the remark was striking. On reflection, however, I am not sure if the remark was modest or immodest. Probably it was a combination of the two, a paradoxical combination characteristic of the artistic personality. It is rather immodest to say that, simply by putting in your oar, you are engaging in an enterprise of some considerable significance. And it is rather modest to say that you are engaging in an enterprise that is larger than you are. Every artist is extravagant and ascetic, immodest and modest. Efficiency can certainly sometimes be helpful in the arts. But it is basically beside the point.

I am not exactly sure why I have been thinking these thoughts of late. In part it may be because the obituary pages have been full of the lives of artists, of people who put in their oar. There was not only Cy Twombly, whose finest abstractions are elegantly scabrous and date from the 1950s and early 1960s, and Lucian Freud, who helped develop a particularly English brand of anti-abstract modernism, but also Alex Steinweiss, the graphic designer who revolutionized the packaging of 78 rpm records in the 1940s and whose witty visual inventions have a secure if small place in the mid-century imagination. Or maybe what has turned my thoughts in this direction is Congress, where once again there has been a threat, now apparently averted, of cuts to the already pathetically small budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Or maybe I’m worried that fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take a chance on a modest novel, much less an essay or poetry collection. Or I’m worried about the perilous state of the New York City Opera. Or the strange situation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where all the publicity surrounding “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” by no means an uninteresting show, threatens to eclipse memories of the one truly significant exhibition of recent months, “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.”

In perilous times, those who love the arts quite naturally go on the defensive. They try to prove that the arts are in fact cost effective. They are playing a dangerous game. Too much can too easily be reduced to crowds and numbers crunching. Some argue that public arts funding boosts tourism. Others theorize that arts education improves children’s brains. And in publishing, the defenders of the now-endangered mid-list author argue that you will only find the next bestseller if you take a chance on what may initially look like modest books. I am certainly not advocating fiscal or institutional irresponsibility. In my experience, creative people are among the more fiscally responsible citizens, simply because they cannot afford to be otherwise. But I think we must insist on the fundamental inefficiency of the arts, on their essential extravagance. To go back to what the poet said: “You just put in your oar.” Many people need to put in their oars so the whole great mysterious phenomenon that is culture can move along. People in positions of power must insist on the part that the imponderables play in the health of a culture. You do not necessarily know whose oar is doing what. The oars that push hardest or farthest may not look that way at the time. And one must allow for that. That must be part of one’s extravagant calculations.

Something I am working on led me this past week to the autobiography of the early-twentieth-century American art critic, Walter Pach, called Queer Thing, Painting, published in 1938. The book—which aside from its title doesn’t have anything to offer queer theorists—is a riveting account of a man who put in his oar, and is probably best remembered today for his involvement with the Armory Show, which brought the news of Fauvism, Cubism, and abstraction to America in 1913. Pach knew many of the great figures in Parisian artistic circles, and in New York was friends not only with the lyrical urban realist John Sloan, but also with the original anti-artist, Marcel Duchamp. What is fascinating about Queer Thing, Painting is the heterogeneity of the cultural world as Pach describes it. Here is Robert Henri, the realist who “did not see things as finally settled,” who always regretted that as a young man in France he had not learned of the work of Cézanne and Gauguin, and proclaimed of his painterly portraits: “My work is pure abstraction.” And here is Albert Pinkham Ryder, the great eccentric of late nineteenth century art, “living in one of the very poor neighborhoods of New York’s lower West Side,” “an almost legendary personage: so few knew him, though I never heard of his making difficulties for anyone who wished to call at his studio.” Tastes are unpredictable. Pach reports that, at the time of the Armory Show, an old Irishman, who had been a carpenter and was now working as a bartender, when asked his opinion of Duchamp’s futuristic Nude Descending a Staircase, a famously scandalous work, responded: “Well, that fellow certainly knows how to paint.” As for Duchamp himself, when Pach asked him, I gather some years after the Armory Show, what he thought of the new art being done in Paris, he replied: “Commercialism—from top to bottom.” And Sloan is quoted as saying: “I am not so much interested in the man who is paid to paint as I am in the man who pays to paint.”

The phrase “queer thing, painting” comes from the English landscape painter Turner, who, according to Pach, said it “at the end of a Royal Academy banquet, a hundred years ago. There had been long speeches about the history of art, the theory of art, the future of art, and who knows what more, but those three words of the famous landscapist, with their implied statement that art is not a finite but an infinite thing, get deeper into the matter than all the erudition that was poured forth by those orators, their predecessors and successors, in treating the theme.” What Turner was speaking about, nearly two hundred years ago, was another version of the inefficiency of the arts, the inability of the arts to finally submit to any kind of analysis, and certainly not to a cost/benefit analysis. “Queer thing, painting”—indeed. The costs are unimaginable. And so are the benefits. Not everything that is not efficient is inefficient. Not everything that is extravagant is wasteful. So put in an oar. And if you have put in your oar—keep it there.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.