The Charlotte News

Wednesday, June 29, 1938

Feature Editorial

Utopia For The Artist


Associate Editor Of The News

Site Ed. Note: In one of Cash's rare by-lined pieces for the editorial page, this one extended from a non-bylined editorial from the day before, "Pap for the Arts". It is one which, at first glance, might suggest Cash as being one of those who would scoff at the National Endowment for the Arts or PBS or the like in more modern times--in short, a supercilious, conservative Republican.

Probably not.

It was true in the Thirties that it was far easier to be published or seen generally as an artist than it was by, say, the 1960's and since. The cost of publishing has gone so high in the past couple of decades that publishers are only rarely willing to take a chance on an unknown author, banking instead on the vanity books turned out by the scores by celebrities who become celebrities in some field first, be it glorious or notorious, and then write a book, with a commanding advance, about their engrossing or loathsome particular adventure. The artist in today's market is often left to sweep up crumbs and rarely will see widely distributed print unless already established or happens by quirk of fate to find recognition. That said, the internet has provided some democratization, slow as it is becoming, to the process once again.

So, with that bit of adjustment to the times, you may read this bit of carping with an appropriately jaundiced eye for the generally fat times then for artists, perhaps cringing a little in the process at the seeming condescension in play. Cash's parsimonious, nearly hair-shirt existence during his twenties and early thirties, not too much better by 1938 at $50 a week, (though not much less in those days than a local judge of the Superior Court received), made him always leery of the overly endowed struggling young artist. He believed that a little starvation went a long way toward kindling what creative spark there might be for the simple reason that he had faced the practical equivalent for a decade while in Boiling Springs and Shelby.

And, perhaps contributing to the tilt of the type exhibited here, as we have pointed out before, he sought and was denied in the mid-Thirties a job as an editor with the Federal Writers' Project, to which he offered occasionally in the editorial column little more approbation than the back of his hand. Praise be for that particular rejection slip or we would not have this store of editorial lights by which to muse and educate ourselves on events and ideas of both yesterday and today.

The rest of this date's editorials are here.

MR. AUBREY WILLIAMS, I see by the papers, thinks that his WPA art projects are going to usher in a Utopia for talented boys and girls in which they won't anymore have to go a-begging "to a few stuffed shirt philanthropists for help before they can write a book or paint a picture or organize a symphony."

But I have some doubts. In the first place, I have never encountered or heard of any talented boys and girls who had to go begging to stuffed shirts to write a book or a play or paint a picture or confer their symphonies upon an ungrateful world. For that matter, I'm positive than I have never encountered a stuffed shirt in these United States who was minded to play the philanthropist after the fashion Mr. Williams indicates. And if I have ever heard of him, the matter slips my memory--which somehow seems unlikely. Mr. Williams, indeed, appears to be suffering from some disorder of the time and space sense, whereunder he imagines himself to be living in Europe in the eighteenth-century or earlier. In those days, such stuffed shirts as he indicates actually existed in some considerable numbers. They called them patrons. And if it was not absolutely necessary that you have one to write or paint or compose, it was best if you wanted to get any notice or to be properly rewarded for your effort in behalf of the race.


But there was a revolution in the nineteenth century. All sorts of people began to learn how to read and to buy books. And because that created a market for books in commercially profitable quantities, the patron gave way to the modern publisher. The same thing went on to some extent in the graphic and plastic arts, too. Even in music, for that matter. Patrons were and still are necessary for symphony orchestras, which cost a great deal of money and which most people, rich and poor, still regard as a pain in the neck.

But by and large, it is supremely easy for anybody with any talent to get recognition. More than 10,000 books are published in the United States each year, the publishers employ huge armies of spies to comb the woods for geniuses in hiding, and the discovery of a talent no bigger than a wee louse excites a joy in publishing offices like that which reigns in heaven when the lost sheep comes home to the fold. And the fact that the author's opinions or his approach may shock and terrify stuffed shirts has no bearing at all on the question of his being published. Communists Edmund Wilson and Granville Hicks see the light as easily as the arch-Bourbons. Mark Sullivan and Frank Kent--may be a little easier, for they write better. Anybody who has anything of any sort on the ball can, and I believe almost invariably, does, get into print.


The same thing holds pretty well for the other arts. The depression has hurt the market for the graphic arts, certainly. But no painter with much capacity is likely now to have to struggle any harder for recognition than has always been the rule. And with symphony enormously expanded in recent years, the available opportunities actually far outrun the number of really conpetent composers, musicians and conductors.

But now I am overlooking something? Granting all this, the fact remains that it is often difficult for the beginner to execute his masterpiece? He has to eat, and in addition to providing for his belly, has to find time and energy for his dream-child? True. But men with such capacities are only very rarely driven to the relief rolls, only rarely require such aid as WPA offers. Jesse Stuart, the Kentucky hillbilly, didn't require it. Nor did Jim Tully, or a hundred others I might name.


I think it is true that these WPA projects now and then incidentally help people who have genuine ability but who are just beginning to master the art of writing or painting or composing, or have trouble clarifying their own objectives. I know that it sometimes also provides aid for good men who need it temporarily--that some of the State directors at least are men of proved ability. And the Federal Theater, as it has developed in New York at least, seems to have a good deal to be said for it. But by and large, the simple fact is that most WPA art projects are not really art projects at all, and that most of the people who work on them are artists under any conceivable standard, but merely people who can't do anything and who think it genteel and wonderful to be called artists.

I'm not sneering at them. Most of them need relief, and I am thoroughly in favor of their having it. I don't mind their working on guide books and painting nice little daubs either. It is as good a way as any to save their self-respect and keep them occupied. But it is perfect nonsense to pretend that these projects are generally so significant for the arts that they deserve to be continued in their own right, or to suggest that they constitute a haven for the really talented from oppression by non-existent patrons got up as stuffed shirts.

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