restricted access Fiddlers and Fribbles or Is Art a Separate Reality? (1986)
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Fiddlers and Fribbles or Is Art a Separate Reality? I Of his Puritan ancestors, Hawthorne had this to say: "No aim that I have ever cherished would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine ... would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. 'What is he?' murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. 'A writer of story-books! What kind of business in life-what mode of glorifying God or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation, may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!lIIl No sharper dichotomy could be drawn between the exterior world of the practical, of the everyday "business in life," and the interior world of the artist, of the work of vision and the uses of imagination. As Hawthorne tells it, his Puritan ancestors were firm in the conviction that the exercise of energy and will in forms of external action, including"glorifying God," was the only proper "business in life" to which one should devote oneself, therefore the only reality. Fiddling away one's time and energy writing stories was a falling away from this reality into sheer worthlessness and even degeneracy. But the cultural scenario is different now; and the scales of worth and worthlessness in human activity, of being "serviceable to mankind in" one's own "day and generation," have been weighted, where art is concerned, toward a better balance since the time of Hawthorne's forebears. Despite this, the problem of what reality is-whether it lies outside or inside human consciousness-remains with us; and, if anything, the experience of twentieth-century America would seem to confirm an even stronger belief in an exterior reality than ever the Puritans held. We show a marked preference for the hard evidence of facts and figures, data and statistics, percentages and probabilities over the softer, more inconclusive reports emanating from within the flux of personal consciousness. There would still appear to be an uneasiness with, a lack of trust in what rises to the surface from the dark depths of the psyche, despite our immersion in and fascination with the various psychologies that hold forth today. Our own insecurities and uncertainties dog us; and we rush, pell-mell, from one "saving" cult or religion to another, all the while hungering to grasp reality and hold it fast. And should it turn out that the pursuit of one or another mind- or soul-redeeming way of grasping life's meaning fails us, there is always 145 146 THE AES1HETICS OF SURVIVAL the safehavenofexternal realitywaitingto gather us backin, to put a firmer frame of secure "values" around our wavering lives. II All this was forcibly brought home to me-and not without a deep feeling of disquiet and even a momentary loss ofequilibrium-in the late 1960s. Iwas in Berkeley visiting friends. The morning I was to leave, one of the university buildings was set on fire. The student revolt was in high gear. Just before the news came I had been whiling away the time playing through some Debussy songs-I was staying at the home of a singer friend whose husband was a social scientist. When I telephoned another friend, a political scientist, a little later to say good-bye, I told him how distressed I was at this latest news of student violence and tried to express something of my sense of futility in the face of what was happening out there in the world, the sudden renewal of an old sense of the unreality of being a composer living outside of, away from the immediacy ofcrises and crucial events. I told him I felt completely useless. "No," he assured me, "What you are doing, what you are involved in is real, more real than burning buildings. What is happening is deplorable but it will pass. What you are doing will stay. It is the only reality. The rest is illusory." "The rest is illusory." A remark like that sets Hawthorne's Puritan ancestors ' view of reality on its ear. In its way, a remark like that turns the world most people live in and believe in (however uncertainly) upside down and inside out. My friend's meaning was incontestably clear, although the statement itself was not a little anomalous-considering that his own work involved gathering and measuring data on the nature of political beliefs in America. Reality was interior; and the expression of that interiority in art...


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