Albert Camus said, 'only artists have never harmed mankind.' For this our author scolds him as an overrated sentimentalist. 'The truth is' Barzun corrects Camus, 'we do art no honor and no justice when we represent it as invariably humane, heroic and disinterested in its intentions, not subject to reproach or accountability.' Art, in the modern world is a public institution possessed of the same economic means of production, fashion and reception as other goods in the free market. The First World War was heedless in its destruction of art and artists, the Second careful to preserve them, all according the whims of government program. Later in the century, there is no particular 'style' of art that characterizes the times; classics and primitives and abstracts reside in comfortable reproduction together in the average home. Barzun, with penetrating observation, sees in the mass creation and purchase of art both help and harm. His essay examines the intersections of art with destruction and redemption, with religion and science, and ends with the intriguing chapter, 'Art in the Vacuum of Belief.' Art is not benign, but powerful. The use or abuse we make of art impels us, as individuals, forward or back. If we see this confusion, yet keep on adoring art as an unconditional good, this well-meant dishonesty will retard both the individual and society.
An Eighth Day View:
The lecturer traces the historical development of attitudes toward the arts over the past 150 years, suggesting that the present is a period of cultural liquidation, nothing less than the ending of the modern age that began with the Renaissance.