English-American poet, playwright, critic, and librettist, W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was one of the leading literary figures of the twentieth century. He emigrated to the United States in 1939, where he taught at several universities and took US citizenship in 1946.
Reflections on freedom and art
“Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and never were and it is a good thing that they should be made to realize this,” writes W.H. Auden, dismissing the famous claim by English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here, in this text written in 1947, the English-American writer questions the limits of freedom and art, their potential and their interactions. Far from the Romantic vision of art that gives it more importance than it actually has, Auden advocates the Shakespearean vision: art holding a mirror to nature.
Wystan Hugh Auden
Freedom means freedom of choice. A man exercises his freedom when, confronted by two or more possible alternatives, he realizes one and excludes the rest. Free choices are definite choices. Liberal theologians were foolish to get excited over Heisenberg’s Principle. Vagueness of behaviour may be good enough for electrons, it is not good enough for free men.
Choices are of three kinds:
1) choices of action. A thirsty man in a desert is unfree, not because he cannot satisfy his craving for water, but because he cannot choose between drinking and not drinking.
2) choices of value judgement; good or evil, true or false, beautiful or ugly, absolute or relative, required or forbidden.
A man who has seen only one picture is unfree to decide whether it is beautiful or ugly. A man in a passion of anger or fear is unfree because he is no longer conscious of any alternative state and so cannot judge his anger or his fear.
3) choices of authority: this God or man or organization is to be believed or obeyed, that is not. Here again, if there is no consciousness or possible alternatives, there is no freedom.
The cravings of man’s spirit are totally unlike the appetites of his nature, such as hunger and sex. There are two of them: to be free from conditions and to be important. These can and often do conflict, for the former senses anything that is “given” whether by his own nature or by the world about him as a limitation on his freedom and longs to act gratuitously, yet it is precisely and only from the “given” that he can derive a sense of importance. Absolute arbitrariness would at the same time be absolute triviality.
Art as play
One of man’s attempts to satisfy both is the criminal acte gratuit, the breaking of a given law for the sake of breaking it, where the law supplies the importance, and the act of breaking it asserts the freedom. Another is play where the laws governing the game are kept by the player because they are chosen by him. At bottom, all art, all pure science, all creativity is play in this sense. The question What is Art? and the question Why does the artist create? are different questions.
It seems to me that the basic impulse behind creativity of any kind is the desire to do something that is quite necessary: the desire that the result should turn out to be important comes second.
The rules of a game give it importance to the player by making it difficult to play, a test and proof of an inborn gift or an acquired skill. Given that a game is morally permissible, then whether or not one should play it depends simply on whether or not it gives one pleasure, i.e., whether or not one is good at playing it. If one asks a great surgeon why he operates, if he is honest, he will not answer: “Because it is my duty to save lives” but “Because I love operating”. He may perfectly well hate his neighbour and nevertheless save his life because of the pleasure it gives him to exercise his skill.
One must say therefore that, in the profoundest sense, art and science are frivolous activities for they depend on the chance possession of special talents. The only serious matter is concerned with what every human being has alike, a will, namely that one shall love one’s neighbour as oneself. Here one cannot speak of a talent for love, nor in terms of pleasure and pain. If one asks the good Samaritan why he rescues the man fallen among thieves, he cannot answer, except as an ironical joke, “Because I like doing good” since pleasure or pain are irrelevant and the point is obeying the command: “Thou shalt love”.
A common love
There are three kinds of human groups.
1) Crowds, i.e., two or more individuals whose sole common characteristic is togetherness, e.g., four strangers in a railway carriage.
2) Societies, i.e., two or more individuals united for the purpose of carrying out an action which requires them all, e.g., a string quartet.
3) Communities, i.e., two or more individuals united by a common love for something other than themselves, e.g., a room full of music lovers.
Societies have a definite size and a definite structure and the character of the whole is different from the simple sum of the characters of the parts. Consequently the will of the individual member is subordinate to the general will of the society, however that is established. Someone in the string quartet must have the authority to decide whether it is to play Mozart or Beethoven and the rest must obey whether they agree with the choice or not. A society may at the same time be a community but not necessarily. It is quite possible that the cellist of our quartet hates music and only plays to earn his living. A society is a free society as long as the member who exercises authority does so with the free consent of the other members. Societies function best when they are free, but in certain cases coercion can, and indeed must, be applied to compel a recalcitrant member to contribute his partial function, the moral justification depending on two factors:
1) the importance of the function the society discharges
2) the degree to which the recalcitrant member can or cannot be replaced by another more willing individual.
Communities, like crowds, have no definite size. It is impossible therefore to speak of the “general will” of a community since the individuals who belong to it cannot disagree; they are a community precisely becausIn Time Magazine, of June 23, Mr Vladimir Koretsky was reported as having said at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights: “Man should have no rights that place him in opposition to the community. Man opposed to the community is nothing”. If the translation is correct, Mr Koretsky was talking nonsense.e as individuals they all love the same thing (unlike members of crowds who have no love in common).
An individual can be in opposition to a society, e.g., if the cellist plays out of tune, but if the rest of the quartet love the music of Mozart and he detests it, this simply means that there are two communities, a community of Mozart lovers and a potential community of Mozart haters, for a community can begin with a single individual, while a society cannot exist until all its members are present and correctly related.
There are two kinds of communities: closed or unfree, and open or free. The members of a closed community have a common love but they have not chosen it for they are unaware of any other love which they could prefer to, or reject for, the love they have. The members of an open community have consciously chosen their love out of two or more possible loves.
Art as looking glass
If I understand either the myth of Orpheus or Aristotle’s doctrine of catharsis correctly, the Greeks held what is, to me, a false theory of art which has plagued the world ever since, namely, that art is a magic device for arousing desirable emotions and expelling undesirable emotions, and so leading to right action. If this were so, then I think Plato’s censures of art in The Republic and Tolstoy’s in What is Art? are unanswerable.
For me the correct definition is Shakespeare’s holding the mirror up to nature, i.e., art does not change my feelings but makes me conscious of what I have in fact felt or what I might feel, and of actual or possible relations between my feelings. The world of art is a looking-glass world, i.e., a possible image of the actual world where emotions are observed, divorced from their origin in immediate passion. It is the business of the artist to make a mirror which distorts the world as little as possible and reflects as much of the world as possible. Bad art distorts; minor art reflects only a small or trivial corner of the world.
Art does not judge
Art has two values: firstly it gives pleasure, the pleasure of idle curiosity; secondly, it enlarges the field of freedom. If man had no imagination, he could not make a choice between two possible courses of action without taking both, or make a value judgement about a feeling of his until he had felt the opposite.
Art does not and cannot influence the choice or judgement man actually makes, it only makes it more of a conscious choice.
Reading Macbeth, for instance, cannot prevent a man from becoming a murderer, but the man who has read Macbeth knows more about what becoming a murderer would be like than the man who hasn’t, so that, if he chooses to become one, he is more responsible.
Art, in other words, is never a means for converting a bad community into a good one, it is one of the great means by which closed communities are turned into open communities.
Art can do harm in two ways. Firstly by failing to be good art and giving the wrong kind of pleasure thereby. If the reflection of the world which it offers is distorted, if it flatters the spectator by omitting the possibilities of evil or draws him to despair by denying the possibilities of good (which, surprisingly enough, can also give pleasure), then it injures him.
Secondly and more seriously, because the better the art the greater the danger, it may ensnare the spectator in the luxurious paralysis of self-contemplation so that, like Hamlet, he fails to choose at all. The danger of great art is narcissism. Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it was beautiful but because it is his own in all its endless possibilities.
One can tell the myth in another way: Narcissus was a hydrocephalous idiot; catching sight of himself in the pool, he cried: “On me it looks good”. Or again: Narcissus was neither beautiful nor ugly but as commonplace as a Thurber husband*; catching sight of himself in the pool, he said: “Excuse me, but haven’t we met before some place?”
Art can encourage the formation of two kinds of bad communities, the community of those with false pictures of themselves, and the parody of a free community in which the knowledge of good and evil is turned against the will, till it becomes too weak to choose either.
Every work of art is the focus of the potential community of those individuals who love it or could love it. Such a community is free if the artist could have created something else but chose to create this work, and vice versa, the spectators or readers could have chosen to look at or read another work but chose to look at or read this. If the artist creates a work which no one but he appreciates or a spectator cannot find any work which he likes, there is no lack of freedom, but simply no community. Freedom can be curtailed in two ways; the artist may be forced to alter his work so that the character of the community is other than it would have been if he were left alone; or people may be prevented from becoming acquainted with his work so that the community is smaller than it might have been.
Censorship can be of two kinds, an unplanned economic censorship where the artist cannot afford to create as he wishes or the public cannot afford to become acquainted with his work, and the planned censorship of authority. Economically the freedom of art is best attained if there is as great a variety of publishers, booksellers, libraries, galleries, etc. as possible and if some, but not all, of these are large-scale organizations. If there are too new agencies, above all, if there is a state monopoly, the variety of works distributed invariably declines even if there is no deliberate censorship. If all are on a small scale, costs are too high for some of the potential public.
The obstacle on which liberalism has so often come to grief is the fact that we find it easier to respect the freedom of those to whom we are indifferent than the freedom of those we love. A parent or a government who believes something to be good or true knows well enough that it is possible for their children or their people to choose what, to them, is evil or false, and that, if the wrong choice is made, those they love will suffer and they themselves will suffer with them; further, they and those they love will no longer belong to the same community.
However, to love one’s neighbour as oneself means precisely to be willing to let him make his own mistakes and suffer with him when he suffers for them, for no man can himself consciously wish not to be responsible for his thoughts and actions, at whatever cost. Every man knows for himself that right and duty are not identical, that he has a duty to choose the good, but a right to choose the evil, that, as Kafka says: “A man lies as little as he can when he lies as little as he can, not when he is given the smallest possible opportunity to lie”.
Authorities who are more concerned that their charges should do the right thing than that they should choose it are always tempted to look for a short cut. In the short run, a man in a passion acts quicker and more effectively than a man who has reached the reflective stage of desire. Usually therefore, authorities would like the artist to arouse in others a passion for the good instead of making them conscious of good and evil; they would turn him, if they could, into Plato’s Noble Liar.
Art has hardly ever been censored for aesthetic reasons because artists have rarely been in authority, which is perhaps just as well. In my own daydream state, for example, people caught reading Shelley or listening to Brahms are sentenced to the salt mines, and the possession of a juke-box is a capital offence.
The usual reasons for censorship are two: either that the work is immoral, i.e., will incite the public to act immorally or illegally so that society ceases to function properly; or that it is heretical, i.e., will induce the public to adopt other values than those held by the authorities, causing them to desert the latter’s community for a new one. Censorship always implies two things: that there is a potential public for the work and that its members are incapable of making a responsible choice. It is therefore only permissible under two conditions: for minors who are legally presumed to be as yet incapable of responsible choice; and for adults who have chosen their censor and are free to disregard him if they cease to believe in his authority. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not violate the freedom of its members by putting books on the index, because no one is obliged to be a Roman Catholic and to choose to be one necessarily implies believing in the authority of the Church to decide what the faithful may read.
No State has such a right because one becomes a member of a political society by being born, an act of chance, not a choice.
Revolutions and human freedom
Each major revolution in history is concerned with some particular aspect of human freedom, and has its representative human type. Each establishes its kind of freedom once and for all. The success of each is threatened by its own false claim to be the revolution, i.e., that the aspect of freedom with which it is concerned is the only freedom that matters.
Since the particular aspect with which any revolution is concerned is one conspicuously ignored by the revolution before it, it is apt in its just criticism of the latter’s failing to be hostile to the freedom for which it fought. Nevertheless the fates of all revolutions are bound up with each other; they stand or fall together: if the preceding revolution had not won its battle, its successor could not be fighting its own. In any revolution, therefore, the gains of the revolutions before it have to be defended if the present revolution is to succeed.
The Papal Revolution of the eleventh and the twelfth centuries established the freedom of an individual to choose between loyalties, his right to leave one community and join another, his right to belong to two communities at the same time. Its typical figures are the contemplative international priest and the activist local soldier.
The revolution of the Reformation in the sixteenth century established the freedom of the individual to choose his career, his right to leave the society to which his father belonged and join another. Its typical figure is the professional man.
The French and Industrial Revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries established the freedom of the individual man of talent to develop himself freely and compete for public attention, the right of the individual mind to change the community or lead a society if he can. The typical figure is Figaro. L’esprit seul peut tout changer. / De vingt rois que l’on encense / Le trépas brise l’autel / Et Voltaire est immortel. (Only wit can make a difference. / Out of twenty kings who wear a crown / Death breaks the altar, / But Voltaire is immortal.).
One of the world crowd
Our revolution of the twentieth century is trying to establish the freedom of the individual body to determine its satisfactions, to grow and be healthy. Its typical figure is the anonymous naked man with a dog-tag number, not yet a member of any society or any community, but simply one of the world crowd.
Hence the preoccupation of our time with medicine and economics, its activism, its hostility to the achievement of the French Revolution, freedom of speech and thought, which it sees as a threat to unanimous action. At the physical level all are really equal in their needs and individual differences of temperament or talent are irrelevant.
In our revolution, therefore, focused on winning freedom from physical want**, all the freedoms gained by preceding revolutions are threatened as never before. The French Revolution is denied wherever there is a controlled press and a censorship of art and science; the Reformation is denied wherever a state dictates what career an individual citizen shall follow; the Papal Revolution is denied wherever a monolithic state claims unconditional authority.
The talented individual today is being punished for the airs he gave himself in the past two centuries. Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world and never were and it is a good thing that they should be made to realize this. Those who preached a doctrine of Art for Art’s sake or Art as a luxury were much nearer the truth, but they should not then have regarded the comparative frivolity of their vocation as a proof of their spiritual superiority to the useful untalented worker. In actual fact, the modern censor and the romantic artist are alike in thinking art more important than it is.
What role for the poet?
“Once he looked rosy, now he looks blue. / Nurse is wondering What shall I do?” sings the poet in the sick room. If patient or nurse were to say to him “For God’s sake, stop humming and fetch some hot water and bandages” it would be one thing. But neither says this. The nurse says: “Tell the patient I am the only one who can cure him and I will give you a passport, extra ration cards, and free tickets to the opera. If you tell him anything else, I shall call the police”. And the poor delirious patient cries: “Persuade me that I am looking and feeling fine and I will give you a duplex apartment and a beautiful mistress. If you can’t do that, I shan’t listen to you”.
Perhaps the poet, if he really loved the patient and the nurse as himself, would be silent and fetch the hot water, but as long as he continues singing, there is one commandment which his song must obey, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”.
“Reflections on Freedom and Art” by W. H. Auden is reprinted in the UNESCO Courier by permission of the Estate of W. H. Auden.
This text is the writer's response to UNESCO's 1947 survey on the philosophical foundations of human rights. The survey featured in the Wide Angle section of the Courier’s October-December 2018 issue: Human Rights: Back to the Future.
“Reflections on Freedom and Art” was first published in 2018, in Letters to the Contrary: A Curated History of the UNESCO Human Rights Survey, by Mark Goodale.
* “The Thurber husband” refers to several weak and harried male characters who figure in the work of the American writer and humorist James Thurber (1894-1961).
** Freedom from want was the primary objective that needed to be addressed if Britain’s major social and economic challenges were to be resolved, according to the British economist and reformer William Beveridge. The 1942 Beveridge report paved the way for the British welfare state; a series of reforms were introduced by Clement Attlee's Labour government in the years after the Second World War.