Robert Heinlein on Contemporary Art

I just finished reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time. I loved the ideas it presented, but will admit getting a bit bored by the narrative. In any case, there’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through where one of the main characters, Jubal Harshaw, who acts as a sort of stuck-in-his-ways-but-intensely-insightful-and-quite-lovable father figure (that’s a reduction), muses about contemporary art and its place in society.

I don’t wholly agree with his take, but I find a lot of food for thought in it, especially regarding new music and classical music’s place in universities and non-profit organizations, and the less talented artists who often follow in the steps of masters without really knowing what they’re expressing (see: a lot of abstract art that followed Pollock and Rothko, a lot of uptown NY serialism from back in the day.)

Here’s the passage. It’s on page 399 of the unabridged version.

“…Jubal, why isn’t there stuff like this around where a person can see it?”

“Because the world has gone nutty and contemporary art always paints the spirit of its times. Rodin did his major work in the tail end of the nineteenth century and Hans Christian Andersen antedated him by only a few years. Rodin died early in the twentieth century, about the time the world started flipping its lid…and art along with it.

“Rodin’s successors noted the amazing things he had done with light and shadow and mass and composition—whether you see it or not— and they copied that much. Oh, how they copied it! And extended it. What they failed to see was that every major work of the master told a story and laid bare the human heart. Instead, they got involved with ‘design’ and became contemptuous of any painting or sculpture that told a story—sneering, they dubbed such work ‘literary’—a dirty word. They went all out for abstractions, not deigning to paint or carve anything that resembled the human world.”

Jubal shrugged. “Abstract design is all right—for wall paper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which is not abstract at all but very human. What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation…whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce—render emotional—his audience, each time. These laddies who won’t deign to do that—and perhaps can’t—of course lost the public. If they hadn’t lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago. Because the ordinary bloke will not involuntarily pay for ‘art’ that leaves him unmoved. If he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him, by taxes or such.”

And, on the next page (and again, I don’t necessarily agree with this, but it makes for some compelling internal debate):

One does have to learn to look at art, just as you must know French to read a story printed in French. But in general it’s up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code like Pepys and his diary. Most of these jokes don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn…they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything—obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence

Here’s the book on Amazon, if you’re curious:

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  1. Josh on June 1, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    I love this book. Very good insight into religions/cults as well.

    Your right. It’s very interesting to think about. And kind of true. If music (contemporary music) becomes so seperated from a public, the only means for it to stay alive is just as he said, through subsidies or taxing everyone. This sort of flies in the face of what Babbit said in “who cares if you listen.” Where he mentions the role of the musician should be likened to that of a role of the scientist furthering his research and discovering novel ideas.

    Where I kind of agree with Heinlein and disagree with Babbit, is just at that point. Music is not science. Per se. It is predominantly dealing with emotion (and to a lesser extent, intellectualism). Beethoven, though a pioneer of his time was not trying to necessarily discover the “new” in so much as he was trying to write good music (that would sell and keep him afloat.) And even look at Bach. He was practically antiquated in his own lifetime, but created some of the most amazing and intellectually stimulating music to date.

    Anyway.Thanks for the post, I had forgotten about Stranger in a Strange Land until you just now reminded me.


    Josh Sanders

    • Nick on June 1, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      Thanks for the reply Josh. I’d only respond that, while Heinlein clearly disagrees with Babbit here, putting musical invention in the university—which Babbit recommends in that article—is exactly what Heinlein accuses modern artists of.

      For what it’s worth, my MM thesis is titled “I Care If You Listen,” and, following my beliefs at the time, pretty strongly takes Heinlein’s side here. Here it is:

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