What I Think of Artistic Freedom?

What I Think of Artistic Freedom?

This article has an interesting origin, and may yet, have a small history. It was requested of several American writers including myself by Melvin Lasky, editor of “Der Monat” in West Berlin, and there is a chance that Bert Brecht, the playwright and poet now in East Germany, will agree to answer it in the pages of “Der Monat.” If this happens, the agreement is that my article will in turn be printed in some East German publication. It is highly unlikely of course but the opportunity was too good to pass by. Writing it, however, was a little like trying to follow a movie with one’s eyes closed for I had very little “sense” or “feeling” of the people who would read if, especially the ones I was most interested in reaching—to wit, those German Stalinists whose faith might be fluttering. Hence the decision to write it the way I did. — N.M.


To say anything about “artistic freedom” in a few pages is of course almost impossible. One has the doubtful choice of making a few private remarks or else listing a series of platitudes. If I choose the second procedure it is because the platitude for all its obvious disadvantages has nonetheless a particular advantage we are too likely to forget—in every cliche is buried a truth, and to contemplate a cliche, to explore it, to search for its paradoxes and attempt to resolve them is a most characteristic activity of thought if indeed it is not thought itself, for in a very real sense every word in a language is a small cliche flattening the variety of experience it attempts to illumine. And some words are large cliches, meaningless to some, infinite to others; we need only think of “God,” “Life,” “Adventure,” “Color,”—whichever word one chooses.

There is one further preface I must make. For years I have been alternately attracted to Marxism and Anarchism, and in the tension between the two I suppose I have found the themes for my novels. So I do not write this credo with any idea of being a champion of America or the West. As a practical matter, and one can hardly scorn such an important practical matter, there is more liberty to express unpopular, radical, “useless,” or dangerous ideas in the United States than there is in the Soviet Union or the “Eastern Democracies.” Nonetheless it is done at one’s disadvantage if not one’s outright danger, and the advertisers of America’s artistic liberties often neglect to mention that our unpopular ideas are invariably buried in tangential newspapers and magazines whose circulation is pitifully small. Still, this is better than total zero. Stalinism, in its churchly wisdom, has recognized for decades that nothing is more difficult to anticipate than the movement and growth of ideas; therefore it permits no expression beyond the most clearly defined limits.

There was a peri...