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Ben Shahn last night attacked modern "conformism" as a threat to artistic expression, and stressed that "nonconformity is a precondition for art."
Speaking before a near capacity audience in the New Lecture Hall, Shahn delivered his fourth talk in the series of six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, entitled "Image and Idea." The artist gave his first three lectures during November.
The spirit of conformity arises partly, said Shahn, from the existence of citizen groups which create a distrustful atmosthereby criticizing modern art forms as a "plot to undermine morality." Another influence against non-conformity was described as "the irresistable urge to be in the avant-garde," which encourages imitation.
Shahn explained art's need for nonconformity by pointing to the artist's need for detachment from society. The artist can observe contrasts, tensions, and emotions only from such a detached view-point.
But, added Shahn, the artist must feel as well as see, and must become emotionally involved.
Shahn, did not, however, criticize the necessity for conservative artistic elements, which "keep the treasure of the past." He emphasized that the "visionary artists" and the conservatives must reach mutual rapport and balance.
The lecturer backed his criticism of conformity by asserting that conforming artists are forgotten or ignored. "It is always in the future that the course of art lies," stated Shahn. He wondered if the "weeping face is to become a trenchant line."
Shahn analyzed the modern spirit of conformity as a "retreat from controversiality," and satired its pervasive influence: "We are the organization man, we cannot create something better than that which was before ... I don't give a damn about my peer group and don't believe in satistical man or Riesman."
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