The Public Interest

Art and anxiety: the writing on the museum wall

Mark T. Lilla

Winter 1982

AMERICANS have seldom been able to approach high culture with any great degree of comfort. Like Christopher Newman in Henry Jamess The American, we seem to examine and consume” the arts with a high sense of purpose and method, constantly learning and improving ourselves without being able to relax and enjoy ourselves much. Where else but in America could such a large battalion of critics, advisors, courses, and magazines be supported to advise on everything from art, music, and literature, to dress, decoration, and cuisine? And we still seem highly vulnerable to the critical reproval of Europeans, whether it be Mrs. Trollope trying to “reline” our manners, or George Steiner advising that we abandon hope of producing an authentic, independent high culture or of becoming anything more than a repository of European culture, an “archive of Eden.”

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