American Indifference

Camera Work, July 1909

No. 27, pp. 24-25

IN artistic matters, the crime of the American is indifference. Squat on her haunches, sucking at the dripping dugs of the Golden Calf, Columbia would use a Monet or a Whistler for a seat—if they were not worth gold. Stupidity and Vulgarity, thy name is America!

The rare, the strange, the beautiful, the new—whether in art or literature—is taboo to the American mind. No word exalts the American mind like the word Respectability. It is its shibboleth. Poe was its most famous victim.

The average American passes dumbly, hat in hand, before the Accepted Names as though he had entered a fane dedicated to Mammon. In the paradise of cowards, he is the tetrarch.

On the waxed and shining ramparts of this Eden of Indifference struts Conformity dressed like a flunky. Behind him shambles the lackey Hypocrisy, muffled in gold-leaf. From beyond the walls, from deep within this laboratory of the vulgar, the stupid, the mediocre, the bourgeois, is blown a sickening odor. It comes from those millions upon millions of beings whose souls are without drainage.

This giant conspiracy of mediocrity, this race-thesaurus of the average, has in all ages been the sworn enemy of all that is new, radical, anti-academic, in art. Artistic respectability is the crime of the American. In the sphere of morals this spirit invents anti-vice societies to protect its own mind against its own pornographic instincts. In the sphere of art it shuns genius like a plague. It has never given the world a brave act, a big thought, a beautiful idea, a great poem, a great picture, a great book. Food and sex—they are the axes on which indifference and respectability turn; for it, life is only significant below the navel.

In this country it is impossible to compute the number of artistic geniuses that have been chloroformed in the House of Indifference. Bribed, beaten, threatened, crushed under debt and poverty, the spark of artistic and mental revolt has been extinguished in these minds; and so they have continued to exist in this House of the Great Garlic Stench and have died with the chaplet of the ordained virtues on their brows, pews paid up to date, the coffin neatly beflowered by opera subscribers.

At birth, handed iron lances to fling at the sun, they have come to cut them into darning needles and book-cutters. Foundlings of ideas, pregnant with dreams, they farmed themselves out to Rote, their dreams paling to ashy fears. Their hands outstretched toward the open seas of the Strange, the Beautiful, the Unknown, they have felt in their muscles the palsy of witlessness before the giant icy hand of Indifference or the croonings of senile Respecability. The fine purple coat of artistic and moral rebellion has become a seedy house jacket and the sandals of fire are exchanged for carpet slippers that convey one noiselessly over the plush conventions.

[24] And behold the wealthy American patrons of the arts! Ring Olympus with thy laughter! They carry their exhausted souls to Europe and buy “art objects,” the great money value of which is the only thing they were made to appreciate. While the American artist who has an original note, who has seceded in order to preserve the inviolability of his own artistic genius, rots in his rags in his hole of a studio. These “patrons” (or should we call them padrones?) ransack museums, purchase old palaces, bragging with the brazenness of all vulgarity of the enormous prices they paid for them. They are the Medusas of Indifference, the exposed guts of Respectability.

What can these Medusas of Indifference know of the eternal renascence in art of the rebel? The epiphany of a Rodin—it is, in truth, the instinct to live. The rebel is the eternal knocker at the door of the House of Indifference, the Voice that calls in all centuries to the pursuit of the Intangible. Revolt is the cloven flame that consumes age after age the citadels of authority and their dull commanders sheathed cap-à-pie in their ethical petticoats.

In the United States it is the hardest thing in the world to preserve your artistic individuality. The Horla of Indifference will absorb you at last. Threatening missives are borne to you upon every wind and the hint of penalties falls on your ears from the moment you pronounce that word sacred to all genius—I. You will have visions of the bread line. Fear—the obscene bird—circles over your soul like a kite amorous of carrion. The cabals of Indifference and Respectability are always in session; and your inspiration begins to flutter like a candle in its fetid breath. The insinuative imps of temptation swarm in and out of your clay. Bread line or automobile? You must decide. You are in the United States. You will, if you are not of the Viking strain, end a mush of concessions.

 Benjamin De Casseres.