It goes without saying that the Mitterrand government's conference at the Sorbonne earlier this month on "Creation and Development" was a preposterous undertaking, but it may not have been totally devoid of redeeming value: It provided conclusive evidence that the only proper relationship between art and politics is one of mutual skepticism, if not indeed hostility, and thus it may have hastened the end of America's brief infatuation with what Robert Frost described as "a golden age of poetry and power."
This of course was not the intention of President Mitterrand or his deputy, Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture. They organized the conference in the hope of stirring up Great Ideas, reaffirming France's "great tradition of art and culture," and, in Lang's felicitous words, marshaling "a real crusade against--let's call things by their name--this financial and intellectual imperialism that no longer grabs territory, or rarely, but grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living"--in a word, Amerika. So they brought to Paris a conclave of some 300 artists and intellectuals--the French taxpayers picked up the tab for their transportation and lodgings--and handed over this grave assignment to them.
The only trouble was that the artists and intellectuals promptly proceeded to make jackasses of themselves. Knees jerking in reflexive unison, they prattled on for hours about the "imperialism" of American culture; having nothing better or more inspired to do, they spent much of their time in an attack on what one participant, in a letter to this newspaper, called "the aesthetic and moral brutality" of the television program "Dallas," which is greatly admired by the French masses, whose tastes Jack Lang and company evidently would elevate. News reports indicate that, apart from a thoughtful speech by Graham Greene, the participants contributed little to the intellectual tone of Gay Paree except hot air; the result was that Mitterrand and Lang--as well as many of their invited guests--found themselves the objects of international ridicule.
This was as it should be. A handy and reliable rule of thumb is that politicians know nothing about art, and artists know nothing about politics, and almost any effort to mix the two will produce unsolicited hilarity and mutual embarrassment. The point is addressed, obliquely but perceptively, by John Le Carre' in his forthcoming novel, "The Little Drummer Girl." Its central character is a young actress of stridently simplistic political views whose agent remarks, to a man questioning those views:
"Dash it all, she's an actress! Don't take her so seriously. Actors don't have opinions, my dear chap, still less do actresses. They have moods. Fads. Poses. Twenty-four-hour passions. There's a lot wrong with the world, damn it. Actors are absolute suckers for dramatic solutions."
So too are novelists and poets and painters and intellectuals. To say this is not to condescend to them--though undoubtedly it seems so--but to acknowledge that artists and politicians inhabit sharply different worlds. The artist, dealing as he does with private visions and large moral issues, tends to see the problems of the world in naive and sentimental generalizations; the politician, dealing as he does with the petty clashes of cynical self-interest, tends to see those problems as ignoble but necessary compromises to be struck.
The politician also tends to see the artist as someone practically begging to be exploited. It is a characteristic of the artist, even the successful one, to feel unappreciated and abused, and thus to be fair game for the politician who offers a stroking hand; as Frost put it in the opening lines of his inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy, "Summoning artists to participate/ In the august occasions of the state/ Seems something artists ought to celebrate." Especially in this country, where artists and intellectuals feel themselves scorned by the culture of commercialism, their yearning to be accepted and praised by those in power is intense.
Nobody understood this better than John Kennedy, and no American politician has manipulated artists, writers and professors more skillfully and productively than he did. Making his run for the Democratic nomination in 1960, he needed to overcome the suspicion with which he was generally regarded by the party's liberal brain trust; as part of his campaign to do so he rigged up an image for himself as an intellectual and a friend to intellectuals.
It helped that he had published a couple of books and had won a Pulitzer Prize for the second, "Profiles in Courage"; only now do we know, thanks to the researches of Clay and Joan Blair and Herbert S. Parmet, that his claim to complete authorship of both books was highly suspect and that the Pulitzer came his way after backstage maneuverings, the precise nature of which is still unclear. But Kennedy went beyond merely representing himself as philosopher-statesman; he also surrounded himself with a retinue of certifiably respectable eggheads in whose reflected glory he comfortably, and profitably, basked.
He gave them, in return, the illusion of power and influence but almost none of the actuality. They were admitted into his presence from time to time aboard the "Caroline" or, after the election, in the White House, and permitted moments of imagined intimacy; they were allowed to turn their fine hands to the drafting of campaign utterances and, later, presidential proclamations; they were bedecked with PT-109 pins and, when the power to bestow them became available to him, Medals of Freedom. But they were always on the periphery, never on the inside; Sorensen's counsel was crucial, Schlesinger's was not.
Kennedy knew full well that he had far more to offer his pet intellectuals than they had to offer him, but he permitted them--encouraged them--to dwell in the illusion that they mattered. In so doing he not merely fooled them; for a time at least, he fooled most of us whose interest in artistic and intellectual affairs is sufficiently great so as to persuade us that those who practice them have something of value to offer to the larger society. The idea of what Frost celebrated as "the glory of a next Augustan age" appealed to us as much as it did to those priests of culture with whom Kennedy surrounded himself, and our fascination with the prospect of a marriage of poetry and politics outlived him by many years; only with the passage of time could we begin to understand how cynically he had used them, and how painfully they had demeaned themselves by collaborating in their own exploitation.
The business of artists is not politics, but art. It is one thing for them, as citizens, to have political opinions and to express them; not merely are they entitled to those opinions, but from time to time what they believe can have some merit, just as can the opinions of haberdashers and sales clerks. The problems arise when the artists and intellectuals persuade themselves that because they are artists and intellectuals, those opinions should be of particular interest and moment to those who govern. The cold fact, as the Sorbonne made embarrassingly clear, is that by and large their opinions are no more interesting or useful than yours or mine.