As I Please

in Tribune

8 September 1944

George Orwell

FOR a book of 32 pages, Sir Osbert Sitwell’s A Letter to My Son contains a quite astonishing quantity of invective. I imagine that it is the invective, or rather the eminence of the people it is directed against, that has led Sir Osbert to change his publisher. But in among passages that are sometimes unfair and occasionally frivolous, he manages to say some penetrating things about the position of the artist in a modern centralized society. Here, for instance, are some excerpts:

The true artist has always had to fight, but it is, and will be, a more ferocious struggle for you, and the artists of your generation, than ever before. The working man, this time, will be better looked after, he will be flattered by the press and bribed with Beveridge schemes, because he possesses a plurality of votes. But who will care for you and your fate, who will trouble to defend the cause of the young writer, painter, sculptor, musician? And what inspiration will you be offered when theatre, ballet, concert-hall lie in ruins, and, owing to the break in training, there are no great executant artists for several decades? Above all, do not underestimate the amount and intensity of genuine ill-will that people will feel for you; not the working man, for though not highly educated he has a mild respect for the arts and no preconceived notions, not the few remaining patricians, but the vast army between, the fat middle classes and the little men. And here I must make special mention of the civil servant as enemy . . . . At the best, you will be ground down between the small but powerful authoritarian minority of art directors, museum racketeers, the chic, giggling modistes who write on art and literature, publishers, journalists and dons (who will, to do them justice, try to help you, if you will write as they tell you)—and the enormous remainder who would not mind, who would indeed be pleased, if they saw you starve. For we English are unique in that, albeit an art-producing nation, we are not an art-loving one. In the past the arts depended on a small number of very rich patrons. The enclave they formed has never been re-established. The very name ‘art-lover’ stinks . . . . The privileges you hold today, then, as an artist, are those of Ishmael, the hand of every man is against you. Remember, therefore, that outcasts must never be afraid.

These are not my views. They are the views of an intelligent Conservative who underrates the virtues of democracy and attributes to feudalism certain advantages which really belong to capitalism. It is a mistake, for instance, to yearn after an aristocratic patron. The patron could be just as hard a master as the B.B.C., and he did not pay your salary so regularly. François Villon had, I suppose, as rough a time as any poet in our own day, and the literary man starving in a garret was one of the characteristic figures of the eighteenth century. At best, in an age of patronage you had to waste time and talent on revolting flatteries, as Shakespeare did. Indeed, if one thinks of the artist as an Ishmael, an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped from the patron and not yet been captured by the bureaucrat. He could—at any rate a writer, a musician, an actor, and perhaps even a painter could—make his living off the big public, who were uncertain of what they wanted and would to a great extent take what they were given. Indeed, for about a hundred years it was possible to make your livelihood by openly insulting the public, as the careers of, say Flaubert, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, and even Dickens, show.

But all the same there is much in what Sir Osbert Sitwell says. Laissez-faire capitalism is passing away, and the independent status of the artist must necessarily disappear with it. He must become either a spare-time amateur or an official. When you see what has happened to the arts in the totalitarian countries, and when you see the same thing happening here in a more veiled way through the M.O.I., the B.B.C. and the film companies—organizations which not only buy up promising young writers and geld them and set them to work like cab-horses, but manage to rob literary creation of its individual character and turn it into a sort of conveyor-belt process—the prospects are not encouraging. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilization perishes. I have never yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.

.     .     .     .     .

I HAVE before me an exceptionally disgusting photograph, from the Star of 29 August, of two partially undressed women, with shaven heads and with swastikas painted on their faces, being led through the streets of Paris amid grinning onlookers. The Star—not that I am picking on the Star, for most of the press has behaved likewise—reproduces this photograph with seeming approval.

I don’t blame the French for doing this kind of thing. They have had four years of suffering, and I can partially imagine how they feel towards the collaborators. But it is a different matter when newspapers in this country try to persuade their readers that shaving women’s heads is a nice thing to do. As soon as I saw this Star photograph. I thought, ‘Where have I seen something like this before?’ Then I remembered. Just about ten years ago, when the Nazi régime was beginning to get into its stride, very similar pictures of humiliated Jews being led through the streets of German cities were exhibited in the British press—but with this difference, that on that occasion we were not expected to approve.

Recently another newspaper published photographs of the dangling corpses of Germans hanged by the Russians in Kharkov, and carefully informed its readers that these executions had been filmed and that the public would shortly be able to witness them at the news theatres. (Were children admitted, I wonder?)

There is a saying of Nietzsche which I have quoted before (not in this column, I think), but which is worth quoting again: ‘He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself: and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee.’

‘Too long’, in this context, should perhaps be taken as meaning ‘after the dragon is beaten’.

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