– Spring/Summer 2000

Art and Social Responsibility: The Ideology of Romanticism

Alex Comfort

Pieter Bruegel, (The Elder) The Triumph of Death, Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm, 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Pieter Bruegel, (The Elder) The Triumph of Death, Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm, 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Partisan Review, published in New York, advertised this year1 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.

I do not believe that the conflict between human beings and society is the product of the Industrial Revolution, socialism, fascism, or any other contemporary

  1. 1942

  2. I am surprised that Fromm (The Fear of Freedom) and other psychologists do not make more of this. The fear of death is probably at root the fear of isolation, rather than of a cessation of experience. Total isolation is reached only in 'deteriorated' schizophrenia and in death, but one of the chief artistic grounds for attacking contemporary societies is that they produce a false sense of community while, in reality, they destroy the individual's true relation with his fellows and substitute a relationship to a fictitious dummy, the Group.

  3. Singularly enough, some critics again attempt to depict this view as a form of religious mysticism, largely because it uses the term 'human nature' and discusses the relationship of man to the universe. Except in so far as philosophical pessimism is a 'religion', it is difficult to see in what way a romantic interpretation of history is any more 'religious' than a Marxist or physiochemical interpretation. It certainly rejects every form of supernaturalism. As to Whitehead's conception of romanticism as a revolt against science, the romantic conception of metaphysics and politics is constituted in the same way as any scientific hypothesis - by reference to the observed facts of history or of psychology. Its interpretation may be fallible, but its method is surely above reproach, even from the rationalists, whose notion of the economic reform of society has no historical evidence to support it. I would have placed the romantic awareness high in the list of causes of scientific progress.

  4. In view of criticisms which have been made of this remark, it needs qualifying. I do not say that all groups are bad, any more than I say that because all men have stomachs they are all dyspeptics. The tendency to degenerate into irresponsibility is inherent in every group, once its members cease to act as individuals, and transfer their responsibility from their fellow men to the group. Where I use the word 'Society' in a derogatory sense, I mean a society in which this change for the worse has taken place.

  5. Lewis Mumford, Culture of Cities, IV, 9, p.256.