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Art and Social Responsibility: The Ideology of Romanticism

BRUEGEL THE ELDER, The Triumph of Death, 1562-1563. Courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Partisan Review, published in New York, advertised this year a number to be devoted to exposing the ‘New Failure of Nerve’ in Western liberalism. The advertisement catalogued a series of tendencies which the editors regarded as retrograde, obscurantist, reactionary. They included the abandonment of the historical for the metaphysical approach to politics and ethics, a return to the idea of Original Sin, and the appearance once again of the semi-deterministic conception of sociology. It struck me that so many of these concepts were, in fact, the principles of thought and art which are tending more and more to guide artists who have begun to appear publicly since the war broke out; belonging to that generation, I am perfectly aware of the influence of such ideas myself. I have examined them fairly often, and whether out of personal prejudice or out of conviction I must refuse to admit that they are in essence obscurantist principles. We have just passed through a period of classicism in English poetry which has no parallel in American work, except where that work has felt the influence of English writers, and we have seen a few of its limitations. History has driven us from classicism to romanticism, and the migration has been almost universal among sensitive writers.