It's Terrible, But Is It Art?:
by Deems Taylor
And that reminds me of a story-two in fact. Anecdote A runs as follows Some years ago, when Heywood Broun was dramatic critic of the New York Tribune, he wrote, in the course of reviewing a certain play: "Mr. Blank gave the worst performance I have ever seen on any stage." The injured actor promptly brought suit for libel, lese ma jeste, loss of services, mental cruelty, desertion, and whatnot, alleging that his career had been ruined. Whereupon in due time Mr. Broun found himself, a defendant, upon the witness stand.
"Did you say that Mr. Blank's performance was the worst you had ever seen?"
"The worst I had ever seen."
'Is that your sincere opinion?"
Whereupon the judge dismissed the case ruling that a critic is completely within his rights in expressing his honest opinion, provided he does not undertake to speak for anyone but himself.
The sequel to this incident has nothing to do with anything except the fact that I desire to relate it. A few weeks later the same actor appeared in another play, which Mr. Broun duly reviewed. He wrote: "Mr. Blank was not up to his usual standard."
Anecdote B. About two years ago a New York weekly magazine published an article on New York architecture, in the course of which the author referred to a recently coma pleted office building as looking "like a grain elevator"-among other compliments. Like the actor, the architect of the building brought suit, demanding $500,000 or so damages, on the ground that his career had been ruined. (Incidentally, anyone wishing to ruin the career of the author of this article for $500,000 will find his address in the telephone book.) The magazine, not wishing to risk the possible loss of the suit, compromised, paying the architect, I believe, $5,000 for his ruined career.
I have mentioned this case to numerous architects, and a disturbing percentage of to m think that the plaintiff was in the right. Their reasons resolve themselves into the following: First, the building had already been erected, so that no criticism could possibly alter it for better or worse; second, the building had cost a lot of money, and prospective tenants, reading the article in question, might refuse to rent offices in it, thereby impoverishing the builder; third, that the builder himself might read the article, get a hate on the architect, and go about telling other builders not to let him draw plans for them.
All of which strikes one layman as pretty childish. The argument that because a thing is expensive it is immune from criticism that might cost the purchaser money, is the same old cry that musical comedy producers have been raising ever since Shakespeare wrote As You Tile It: "I invested $60,000 in this show, and some damned critic wipes me out with a paragraph!" There are, I think, three valid answers to this argument. The first is that any
show so feeble, or any building so indefensibly ugly, that adverse criticism can seriously injure its commercial value, urgently needs to be injured. The second is that the "big investment" argument of architects, builders, producers, and other financial gentlemen would be much more convincing if it worked both ways. If saying publicly a building looks like a grain elevator injures an architect's career to the extent of $500,000, then saying that it compares favorably with the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon ought to benefit his career to an equal amount, and ought to be worth a commission-say 5%-to the critic. All those who can see a life-sized oil painting of any architect behaving like that will please report Friday morning at the office of the Lunacy Commission. (Besides, that would be bribery. The ethics of architectural criticism are: If the critic hurts your business you collect money damages from him; if he benefits it, you write him a note of thanks, provided you recall his name and address.)
The third answer, and the important one, is that if architecture is an art, as the architects say it is, rather than a trade, as they behave as if it were, then the money value of the work criticized is irrelevant. If a $4,000,000 skyscraper towers even above criticism, then a $1200 filling station is equally immune.... But perhaps the architects agree with me.
Free speech is met libel, necessarily. If the critic misrepresents facts-if he says that the artist stole his work, or that the architect's building is unsafe, or makes some analogous statement calculated to get the artist himself into legal trouble; if he waxes personal, calling the artist a drunkard or the architect a lunatic, or the author a wife-beater-under such circumstances I think it nothing less than the artist's duty to sue him, simply be cause he is telling lies. But to try to collect damages for the expression of an adverse opinion is both cowardly and dangerous.
It is cowardly, because any artist worthy of the name expresses in his work, however humble, his artistic convictions. Adverse criticism may dishearten him temporarily, but it can never affect his convictions, provided they amount to anything; and if he retains any capacity for learning, it may occasionally teach him something. To resent criticism is to confess his terror of hearing what might be the truth about his work. Granted that adverse criticism might conceivably interfere with his income; a true artist practices his art primarily because he must, not because it offers a chance to clean up financially. If money is the big thing in his life, he is no artist, and would better stop pretending to be one. And if he does not at least claim to be an artist, he ought not to be entrusted with the designing of conspicuous buildings.
But this damage-suit form of resentment is also highly prejudicial to the common good. It is fundamentally an attempt to suppress the free expression of opinion; and if any
one still retains some slight belief in the feasibility of a democratic world, the right of any man to say publicly what he honestly thinks is the most sacred of any he possesses The past ten years in these United States should have been enough to convince anyone that there are already in the world too man plausible pretexts for suppressing opinion without inventing new ones.
But we were discussing art. And is architecture an art? It used to be. Giotto's campanile, Brunelleschi's dome, the Parthenon, Amboise, and Sainte Chapelle must have been designed by men whose major preoccupation was not the amount of their fees-let alone the chances of collecting money from a journalist. Today-I don't know. I don't think the architects know. In this country particular the cult of the skyscraper has placed the profession of architecture in the class of big business. A successful American architect can hope to make almost as much money as a successful American movie star. The consiquence is that the average architectural firm has three partners: an architect, who looms after the art side of the business; an engineer who takes care of the steel work and that concrete; and a diplomat, who gets the business. Sometimes the three are one; but three there always are. I
This is fair enough. The trouble, and the real trouble with American architecture, is that partner Number Three is the senior Number Two is the junior, and poor Number One is lucky to be even a silent one. The more American business structures I see, the morn sure I am that the engineer and the business-getter take care of the plans, the elevations, and the construction, the architect being allowed to design the main entrance and possibly the mail chutes.
Of all the arts, architecture is most greatly in need of untrammelled criticism, for the very reasons that architects cite against criticism-namely, that buildings are expensive' and permanent. The fact that an edifice, once completed, cannot be radically altered is the best reason in the world why we should be reasonably sure that it is not an eyesore_ before we put it up. The awful thing about the Philadelphia City hall, the capitol at Albany (most state capitols, in fact), and the New York federal building is the fact that there they are. They cost a heap of money, and it is therefore no trifling task to try to get rid of them. Not only should architecture be subject to public criticism, but it should be criticized before, not after construction before it is too late for the criticism to do any good.
Who should be the critics? Certainly not other architects. They are too preoccupied with formal and technical problems, too completely committed to their own favorite styles! to be trustworthy. If you want to know what I mean, ask almost any architect past a certain age what he thinks of the Ziegfeld Theatre
and the American Radiator Building in New York.
Who then? Other artists possibly- painters, sculptors. Even writers and music fans frequently have an instinctive feeling for structure, proportion, and appropriateness. The principal critics, however, should be the public After all, they are the people who are going to have to look at the buildsing, once it is erected, who are-even without knowing exactly why-going to be thrilled or depressed by it. Along with the zoning laws there should be eyesore laws. There should be a law, for example, providing that whenever a real estate owner projects a building more than seven stories in height, the architect thereof shall be required to exhibit, in several public places (say, the city hall, the main post-office, the main public library, and the railway terminals), a coloured scale model of the proposed building, together with a perspective drawing showing the structure in relation to its environment Every citizen shall
he invited to express his opinion of this project-either at length or by voting Yes or No-and shall record his vote either on voting machines conveniently and permanently located for the purpose, or by mailing his vote, postage flee, to the Art Commission (still another law would be needed to bring that into existence. Cod knows who the members would
Voting would continue for two weeks. At the the end of that time either the builder would be permitted to start work, or the architect would be required to re-submitt his de signs, if public opinion were against him. The whole scheme is probably socialism or worse, and the results would occasignally be deplorable. In the main they would be goad; and cven at their worst, it would be far better to let the public approve its own eyesore, instead of having to look at one dictated by two bank directors, a general sales manager, and a renting agent.