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Two Bits on Bad, or Ungreat, Art

Zest for my present coursework—an argument for the existence of God which is limited to four pages—has escaped me momentarily and, as I am separately reading “A Handful of Dust,” I picked up at the library a volume of Evelyn Waugh’s letters, as a distraction.

Here are two things for you to read. First, Nick Desai’s very fine editorial in the new Dartmouth Review, “Avante-Garde Sounds the Bugle of Retreat.”

Second, and quite related, this letter which Waugh submitted to The Times on December 18, 1945. I do not know whether it was published.

Sir, — Strong tea with what Mr. Dunlop describes as “a shot” of vodka is indeed a nauseating draught to those who are used to the fine wines of Titian and Velasquez. M. Saurat has the root of the matter but I think he does not draw the right conclusion: “mankind is disillusioned with itself,” realizes it is incapable of the great feats of its ancestors, but instead of patiently relearning the forgotten lessons turns meanly towards “something new.”

Senor Picasso’s painting cannot be intelligently discussed in the terms used of the civilized masters. Our confusion is due to his admirers’ constant use of an irrelevant aesthetic vocabulary. In the United States the adolescents, speaking of music, do not ask: “What do you think of So-and-so?” They say: “Does So-and-so send you?” Modern art, whether it is Nazi oratory, band leadership, or painting, aims at a mesmeric trick and achieves either total success or total failure. The large number of otherwise cultured and intelligent people who fall victims to Senor Picasso are not posers. They are genuinely ‘sent.’ It may seem preposterous to those of us who are immune, but the process is apparently harmless. They emerge from their ecstasy as cultured and intelligent as ever. We may even envy them their experience. But do not let us confuse it with the sober and elevating happiness which we derive from the great masters.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Evelyn Waugh.

For a while thereafter, Waugh included “Death to Picasso” as a post script in most of his personal letters.


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