Art in America, July-August 1973


The July-August issue of Art in America contains the article “The Critics: Hartmann, Huneker, De Casseres” by Peter Plagens. I’ve transcribed the third section on DeCasseres, skipping the introduction and sections on the first two critics/artists.


Benjamin de Casseres comprised at once the best and worst of the three: the least substance (you get the feeling what he liked best about art was his own talking about it), and the best style. Two quotes give some idea of how sharp, overly cute, almost Timestyle, he was:

Turgenief’s characters are gripped in a vise. They go through life like somnambulists. Bazaroff is an arsenal of tendencies. Liza is a medieval nun that by some curious freak has been revamped for 19th century consumption.
The Comic View is exhilarating. It mounts the barricades of limitation with a hop, skip, and jump. It knows the value of all things. Science? Mere mumblings in a vacuum. Life? A parenthetical affirmative between two negatives. Honor? A bauble for babes. Love? Vascular excitation. Morality? A clever device of grafter princeps—the State. Tra-la! Hoop-la! Hold up your paper hoops, Master of Ceremonies, and see Merry Andrew dive through them and slit them into tissue shards.

De Casseres was, by his own admission a born writer, an anti-Semitic Jew and a direct descendant of Spinoza. He saw the artist as a transcendentally asocial (“only in a flurry of excess does one catch glimpses of immortal truth”), irrational (“creators should spurn reason as an eagle would a ladder”) individual. De Casseres’s most unsavory characteristic was his Nietzsche-derived social philosophy—the worst kind of might-makes-right social ethic. War, in his view, is inevitable and even honorable, since it sharpens the instincts for praying and conquest; a viable social system is only a mechanism which “pits one vice against another.” De Casseres also fabricated wrestling matches from criticism, e.g. Arthur Symonds vs. Kipling, or H. L. Mencken vs. Shaw. The latter (Mencken & Shaw, 1930) displays De Casseres at the height of his vindictive powers, going after G.B.S. with the most scurri­lous argumentum ad hominem because Shaw advocated Socialism (which terrified De Casseres, especially after the Russian Revolu­tion) while simultaneously amassing a personal fortune (driving De Casseres up his underpaid walls in envy), and, sub rosa, because Shaw was a near celibate.

The plutocratic fear of the Reds, which Mencken so finely but uncon­vincingly satirizes, is well founded. There is nothing more important than money—property—in the world. Every Red knows that; all Russians know that. In order to lick the world all Russia needs is money.
The plutocrats are all thieves; the Reds potentially or actually all thieves. There is no principle involved. To hell with ideals! I’m for protecting my bank account by upholding the Reigning Dynasty of Forty Thieves so long as they protect me.
. . . No strong man, no real man, no man with guts and brains wants to be equalized in his income with anyone else. All men are born unequal, and the battle will be always to the strongest and the race to the swiftest, no matter how sharp the giant gelding knife of Socialism becomes or how great the intermittent power of such group-predatory sentimentalists as George Bernard Shaw, superficially a dungaree Mephisto, but in his soul of souls a Cromwell and a social Borgia.

Shaw was a virgin until twenty-nine, and citing that fact is as close as De Casseres comes to allowing mitigating circumstances, for he believed, with Hunker, that rampant “individualism,” rampant “imperfection,” heroic excess and a sensual—read sex­ual—nature were the stuff of which artists are made . . . er, born. The arguments against De Casseres’s social esthetic now stand out embarrassingly. When he cites his “man” who disdains eco­nomic equality he means, whether he knows it or not, other privileged upper-middle-class whites like himself, with fancy edu­cations, who never struggled for anything more than the dinner check at Luchow’s. Even if “man” is predatory/competitive by nature, it doesn’t follow that a rational social system should encourage/reinforce it; rather, it ought to counterbalance it.
Shaw’s money does not taint his Socialism, only the reverse. Until the Revolution is won you’re going to have millionaires anyway, so it’s better they’re advocates-in-transit than robber barons. De Casseres, as a turn-of-the-century free-enterpriser, would certainly have Socialists be pauper saints and thus unheard voices. And De Casseres’s simplistic view of Socialism is of the undeserving mob trying to steal the fruits of society; he has no idea a la Marx or even a la Daniel Moynihan of the organism of society (i.e. you can’t let the workers starve without debilitating the whole thing). It’s the one question laissez faire advocates can never answer; what do we do with the losers? Camps? Mass graves? Slavery? Panhandling?

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