Editors' Note: J. Paul
Getty was the richest man alive in his day, a powerful
oil magnate and a famous art collector who donated his
private collection, valued at over $200 million, to the
so his collection would
be freely available to the public. Wallace Shawn, who
co-wrote and performed in the film
Dinner With Andre,
is an actor, playwright, and acerbic
social critic of much more modest wealth. Both men have
strong, and strikingly different, views about how fine
art can challenge or mask our relationship to the barbarous
acts of the modern world. While their statements below
may seem shocking, extreme, and even offensive to some
readers, we believe they raise difficult issues that deserve
as a Challenge to Barbarism
Excerpted from J. Paul
Getty's autobiography As I See It,
: Prentice Hall, 1976 The
difference between being a barbarian and a full-fledged
member of a cultivated society is in the individual's
attitude toward fine art. If he or she has a love of art,
then he or she is not a barbarian. It's that simple, in
Tragically, fifty percent
of the people walking down any street can be classed as
barbarians according to this criterion. They will cut
down any tree, no matter how old or lovely (and healthy),
tear down beautiful old buildings, ravage any work of
art or architecture. They will, of course, argue that
their vandalism and destructions are committed in the
name of modernization or progress or find some other handy
rationalization. None the less, they are no less barbarians
than those of the Dark Ages who dressed in animal skins
and wore horned helmets.
cannot be transformed into cultured, civilized human beings
until they acquire an appreciation and love for art. The
transformation cannot take place until they have had the
opportunity to be exposed to fine art--to see, begin to
understand and finally savor and marvel.
as a Mask for Barbarism
Excerpts from Wallace Shawn's
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
You see, I like Beethoven.
I like to hear the bow of the violin cut into the string.
I like to follow the phrase of the violin as it goes on
and on, like a deep-rooted orgasm squeezed out into a
rope of sound. I like to go out at night in a cosmopolitan
city and sit in a dark auditorium watching dancers fly
into each other's arms.
Yet, suppose that certain
people--certain people whose hearts admittedly are filled
with love--are being awakened suddenly at night by groups
of armed men. Suppose that they are being dragged into
a stinking van with a carpet on the floor and stomped
by boots till their lips are swollen like oranges, streaming
with blood. Yes, I was alive when those things were done,
I lived in the town whose streets ran with the blood of
good hearted victims, I wore the clothes which were pulled
from the bodies of the victims when they were raped and
But I love the violin.
I love the music, the dancers, everything I touch, everything
Shouldn't we decorate our
lives and our world as if we were having a permanent party?
Shouldn't there be bells made of paper hanging from the
ceiling, and paper balls, and white and yellow streamers?
Shouldn't people dance and hold each other close? Shouldn't
we fill the tables with cake and presents?
Yes, but we can't have
celebrations in the very same room where groups of people
are being tortured, or groups of people are being killed.
We have to know, Where are we, and Where are the ones
who are being tortured and killed? Not in the same room?
No--but surely--isn't there any other room we can use?
Yes, but we still could hear the people screaming. Well,
then--can't we use the building across the street? Well,
maybe--but wouldn't it feel strange to walk by the window
during our celebrations and look across at the building
we're in now and think about the blood and the death and
the testicles being crushed inside it.
Certain things cannot be
questioned. The coffee has to be there on the shelf, and
no thought may enter your mind if it conflicts with the
assumption that you--yes, you--are a decent person.
Faces of Patronage: Charlotte Mason and the Harlem Renaissance
In the early decades of
this century, African-American artistic expression flowered
in what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance. In
that one hamlet of New York City, black novelists, poets,
essayists, muralists, artists, singers, and jazz musicians
gathered and created an enduring artistic legacy. The
emergence of this "New Negro" seeking to create art "without
fear or shame" was supported by a handful of wealthy white
patrons. Among the most influential of these was the elderly
widow Charlotte Osgood Mason, whose family's wealth went
back so many generations that she considered the Vanderbilts
Mason was drawn to support
African-American art by a deep revulsion against the decadence
of "white Western civilization." She hoped to see a new
sensibility emerge from the spiritual experience of the
peoples that whites had long oppressed. As she once wrote,
"I had the mystical vision of a great bridge reaching
from Harlem to the heart of Africa, across which the Negro
world, that our white United States had done everything
to annihilate, [could] recover the treasure their people
had in the beginning of African life on the earth."
Fired by this vision, Mason
wrote thousands of dollars worth of checks for monthly
stipends to support the work of such creative luminaries
as poet Langston Hughes, folklorist and novelist Zora
Neale Hurston, muralist and illustrator Aaron Douglas,
sculptor Richmond Barthe, and painter Miguel Covarrubias.
For many of these young artists, Mason seemed like an
angel, sitting in a throne-like chair in her large penthouse
apartment on 399 Park Avenue. As Hughes wrote of their
first meeting: "In the living room after dinner, high
above Park Avenue with the lights of Manhattan shining
below us, my hostess asked me about my plans for the future,
my hopes, my ambitions, and my dreams. I told her I wanted
to write a novel. She told me she would make it possible
for me to write that novel."
Mason's relationships with
these gifted artists was hardly idyllic, however. She
was known for being patronizing and tyrannical. She insisted
that the artists she supported call her "Godmother." She
also demanded extremely detailed accounting of how they
spent their money, including itemizing each item of groceries
Perhaps more troubling,
Mason also interfered with the artists' work. Hurston,
whose patronage contract did not allow her to publish
her writing without Mason's permission, once angrily wrote
to Hughes of their "guard-mother who sits in the twelfth
heaven and shapes the destinies of the primitives." Hughes
came to agree after Mason pressured him to remove several
passages in his novel
Not Without Laughter
wanted her "children" to write about the "mystery and
mysticism and spontaneity" of black folks and not about
their poverty, oppression, or political activism for change.
"She wanted me to be primitive," Hughes wrote in his autobiography,
"but I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and
Broadway and Harlem."
Afraid of losing his monthly
stipend, Hughes put up with her censorship for awhile.
Yet, it ate at him. Riding in the back of Mason's limousine,
noticing poor folks on the street, Hughes once reflected,
"I could very easily and quickly be there, too, hungry
and homeless on a cold floor, any time Park Avenue got
tired of supporting me."
Ultimately, Hughes broke
with Mason and published a "socialist" poem about the
building of a luxury hotel in an impoverished urban neighborhood.
In the poem, Hughes wrote:
Have luncheon there this
afternoon, all you jobless.
Dine with some of the men
women who got rich off of your
who clip coupons with clean
white fingers because your
hands dug coal,
drilled stone, sewed garments,
poured steel to let other people
draw dividends and live easy.
Mason was deeply hurt and
could not understand why Hughes, her "most precious child,"
would turn from spiritual primitivism to political engagement.
She felt her vision of primitivism as a force of cultural
regeneration for the civilized world was sound and that
politics was sordid and common.
Mason's story points to
the central dilemma of the patronage system. Without patrons,
much creative work would never be completed or made available
to the world. One historian of the Harlem Renaissance
goes so far as to argue that "it is impossible to say
that the art produced by black Americans between 1920
and 1932 would have ever made it into print without the
support of rich whites." Yet, patronage can subtly, and
sometimes not so subtly, reshape the work itself, taking
it out of the hands of the artists.
Amy Knot Kirschke, Aaron
Douglas' biographer, states the problem well: "Artists
today of any race, like the black artists of the Harlem
Renaissance, are forced to create works in response to
the tastes of those who are able to pay for their work
and support them financially... The real issue is whether
the patron's influence is so overbearing that it prevents
an artist from achieving any real autonomy or creativity
in his or her work."
--Steve Chase, managing
What right has anyone to
That I must throw out pieces of
My heart for pay?
For bread that helps to make
My heart beat true,
I must sell myself
A factory shift's better,
A week's meager pay,
Than a perfumed note asking,
What poems today?
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