Art for All

March 6, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: How shall we regain the use of our experience in the world of mass culture. Robert Warshow, a critic for “Commentary” Magazine in the 1940’s and 1950’s, asked that question. It arises today in the context of a huge purchase.

William H. Gates, Bill Gates, the chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, has recently bought the Bettman Archives, perhaps the richest collection of photographs in the world. There are 17 million pictures in the archives.

Gates’s intention is to translate the photographs into digital form and reproduce them into software for personal computers. This will provide a vast database available for everyone. And, in fact, these famous Bettman photos, John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father’s casket as it passed in the funeral process, the Vietnamese children scorched by napalm running on a road, were made for reproduction.

Otto L. Bettman had that in mind when he fled Nazi Germany in 1935, carrying two trunks full of images. And ever since, until Gates’s purchase, his archive has provided photos for reproduction in magazines, newspapers, and on this screen. Now, Gates comes along, raising both the amount of reproduced material and a problem in a cultural appreciation.

This thought was expressed by Edward Rothstein in a “New York Times” article, and it offers a real puzzle. Is there a point, asks Rothstein, beyond which the reproduction of works of art destroys the pleasure we take in them?

We might add, does constant reproduction destroy the works of art, themselves, make them less attractive, less art? How many times can we look at reproductions of Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters,” for instance, or of the “Venus De Milo,” or of the “Mona Lisa,” before they become visual cliches? After staring at Edward Hopper’s “Diner” a couple of hundred times, do we grow weary of searching the painting for something new and personal, do we grow tired, does the painting grow tired?

To return to Robert Warshow’s question, “How shall we regain the use of our experience in the world of mass culture?”. The question, fundamentally, is about the compatibility of culture and democracy.

Unlike Renaissance Italy or Renaissance England, the American attitude towards works of art has always been the more people who receive them, the better off they and the works of art will be, bigger, wider, freer. In a sense, all American culture is popular culture. More art means equal art, art for everybody. Behold the Bettman Archive.

As soon as the photographs of the burning Hindenburg or the pointing Malcolm or the posing Betty is made for one, it is made for all. Photographs of the U.S. Presidents or millionaires or scoundrels, the more the merrier, the more democratic, but when does this incessant democratic reproduction take the spirit and the meaning out of art?

(Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in background)

When does Beethoven’s Fifth, repeated for the million and fifth time, begin to sound like a jingle? Mozart, who once had the reputation of a secret genius, now plays the back-up music for ads and movies. “Hamlet” is old hat.

ACTOR: To be or not to be, that is the question.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: His soliloquy an empty riddle. This proliferation is what America is all about, not only the more the more democratic, but also the richer. Bill Gates is doing what every American inventor/salesman has always done. Henry Ford makes a bundle by making a car for the masses.

Bill Gates does the same thing with the Bettman Archive. There is no way out of this fix, of course, no way to curtail the reproduction of beautiful things, nor would it be right or smart to do it. And if these things do become cliches, well, cliches are grounded in truth, so maybe it will make no difference how often we see these pictures.

The test will come when we are no longer moved by the Vietnamese children or by John Jr.’s salute. When the sight of such things no longer brings us to our knees, then Warshow’s question will become urgent. “How do we regain the use of our experience in the world of mass culture,” which is to ask, to be or not to be or not to be or not to be?

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.