Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Subsidized Art*


 

It is reported that Mr. Booth Tarkington contemplated introducing a bill into the Indiana legislature to provide for certain yearly prizes for native authors. So many apocryphal stories gain currency in an alert and volatile society that it is impossible to tell just how much truth there may be in the report. The suggestion, nevertheless, brings up a question of interest. It shows, first of all, that we are somehow aware that the rewards of art are not what they should be, and further than that a praiseworthy wish that the conditions of art production were more favorable than they are.

For all that, however, I believe any such effort is wrong, because it is sure to be ineffectual. It is on a par with all charity. What every writer and every artist wants is not charity, but honesty. If Mr. Tarkington would introduce a bill into his legislature making it a crime to indulge in the remunerative trade of piratical publishing, he would be doing a real service to American letters and to our badly smutched American honor.

If a workman makes a pair of shoes, we recognize them as his property. [At least we profess to do so. Of course, as a matter of fact, the landlord grabs them, and tosses the man a pittance for his labor. But that is another tale.] And we allow him to dispose of them at any price he chooses. More than that, if any one comes along and filches the shoes, we call it a misdemeanor, and the arm of the people overtakes the thief and punishes him.

But when Mr. Tarkington writes a book that is worth many thousands of dollars we don't recognize it as his property in that way at all. We make him conform to a lot of red tape regulations before he can claim any right whatever in the new and valuable piece of wealth he has created. Our miserable copyright law is as full of holes as a sieve; but when the author has conformed to it he has no protection from the state for his new property. He must defend it himself with expensive lawsuits. To rob a writer is no crime in the United States. You might remember that when you are tempted to congratulate yourself on the civilization of the twentieth century.

Of course, enfringement of copyright should be a criminal offense. And the mere registration of a new work in any country should be enough to secure its copyright in all civilized nations. That does not seem a very complicated nor difficult proposition. It is the least that common honesty demands. But we don't seem to be able to secure it. Our sense of profit is still too strong for our sense of honor. The way to improve American literature is not by pauperizing its authors, but by liberating its readers. There will always be encouragement enough of literature and art among people who are really free. For where people are free they work with spirit and pleasure, and even the humblest work is done with zest and has some artistic merit. So that the commonest mechanic has some pride in his own work, and a consequent sympathetic understanding with all creative work. But under our system a workman is not his own master; he has neither choice nor time; it is absurd to ask him to have any sense of beauty left when his last ounce of energy is needed to keep him from starvation.

No, we shall never have any general national sense of the beautiful, any widespread feeling for the art, any universal appreciation of the best things in literature until we rectify our miserable slave-making industrial conditions. Certainly no amount of education will serve to give us these qualities. How absurd it is to educate a child or a man, and then fling him into the slave-shed to toil the rest of his days under the lash of necessity. The more you educate him, the worse off he is, of course. But men would educate themselves, if they didn't have to work to death. If we want to be an intelligent, educated people, we must make ourselves free people first of all. President Eliot seems to be discouraged at the puny results of education in the Unites States. He doesn't see that education in America is an acorn planted in a flower pot. The young oak cannot break the pot, because there isn't enough soil to feed it. We must smash the flower pot and plant the acorn in the ground. Then it will grow all right. We have heard not a little lately of child labor in the south. But logically it is not a bit worse than man labor everywhere. It offends our sentiment and appeals to our sympathy; that's the only difference. What we need is freedom, not education.

If Mr. Tarkington can persuade his constituents that the state of Indiana belongs to the people who live in it, to the people who have given it value by their labor, and not merely to the speculator, the monopolist and the landlord, he will not need to offer paltry prizes to mendicant scribblers. He will be the founder of the first free republic in the world. Doubtless he will not believe this; but if he ever heard of it, would smile genially as at the jabber of a maniac; and we shall all go on a while longer (an age or two, I suppose) enjoying our self-imposed slavery, our offensive charities, and our servile sense of mistaken gratitude.


"Subsidized Art," galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]