Art and Pioneer Psychology

When I was a boy, any young man who took the trouble to learn how to play the violin was considered a sissy, if not a pervert. Over Southwest Texas it was not so bad to play fiddle, but the violin—Good Lord! In the early part of the century one of the strange things was the aversion of all classes of people to any form of sentimentality, music, art, or culture.

I have never found the difference between a fiddle and a violin, except that you are supposed to play classical music on the violin, to have long hair and either be a foreigner or act like one. But if you play a fiddle, you have short hair, wear boots with very high heels, sit cocked back in a buckskin chair. Also, with your fiddle, you make screechy sounds and play such things as "Turkey in de Straw."

Playing a piano in those days, especially a grand piano, was considered an outright sin. It was not so bad to play an upright piano and a sort of honky-tonk music, but should anybody be caught with a roll of Beethoven, he was ruined forever. A piano player was tolerated, but a pianist was not.

I personally know numerous men who have been hounded almost to death because they had a desire to paint or to be artistic in some way.

There was a reason for all this. The average pioneer, in the first place, had no artistic training. If he made money, he could hire and buy his art easier than he could do it himself, or let his children or relatives do it. Our pioneer had to be rough and ready. He had to talk big, act big, and swagger around. He certainly couldn't swagger with a violin.

Having been over most of the states of the Union and having soldiered from every part of the United States in the Army, I have an idea that this has been, and probably still is, true of the whole country. We are outwardly a hard-boiled people; we don't know how to be sincerely sentimental or sincerely artistic.

So if we do get to be artistic at all, we have to make a big noise about it, a big pioneer noise and snort about it. If we go at art, we go at it like digging an oil well, or digging for gold in the Klondike.

We, as Americans, or as individuals, have roughly three adult stages in life: first, the college stage, where we get to be either agnostics or atheists, argue about religion, and decide that we don't believe in the Divinity of Christ; second, the superficially religious and artistic period when we join a noonday luncheon club and try to be jolly with all the boys; then third, we come to the period when all of such argumentation is nonsense and we have some respect for God Almighty and humanity and the country and can appreciate art without bellowing like a bull, and can listen to an orchestra, or a band, or to someone playing the violin, without gasping how "wonderful" it is.

I cannot tell exactly what stage most of us are in. There is so much discordant opinion, so much variability of thought, that no one can tell. However, there is definite evidence that the pioneer intolerance is moderating. And though Liberty Leaguers will choke with rage when I say this, one of the greatest factors in bringing about some decent concept of life in America is the Works Progress Administration.
America must learn to use its leisure time.
For years real artists have been starved and abused. There have been literally thousands of them, free-born, blue-eyed Americans, and not born either in Greenwich Village or Russia. They have come from the small town, the farms, from the land of the corn and the cattle.

Now, these artists have been discovered, or given a break, by the Works Progress Administration. The American public never before knew there was art in a gas station, a delicatessen shop or a city street. These new pictures are of modern life, of drugstores, elevated trains, houses, hideous share-croppers' shacks, beautiful hillsides, pretty girls, sick and starving mothers, snappy kids going to school—pictures of America, and not of fat burghers drinking beer four hundred years ago.

In times past, there were "patrons of art"—the De Medicis, and a string of others. It is likely the rich people had enough both of power and wealth, and could not invest in the stock market, or probably they could not push world trade further. So they underwrote such great artists and rascals as Benvenuto Cellini, and brought into service such brilliant minds as Leonardo Da Vinci. Of course the artists did not ride the pie-car free and easy. They got red-lighted and kicked off the train enough to know it was no easy life at that.

These patrons of art have bobbed up when commercial families have enjoyed all they wanted of the physical conveniences of wealth, and the result was the building of culture. But in pioneer commercial periods, art and culture have always been set back by the contempt of the "successful."

The rising tide of the pioneer period in America is an example. Hack down the forest! Gold! Up the trail to Abilene! Railroads, across deserts and mountains!

There was a place, in pioneer days, to hang a saddle if you would work and were not a bandit or a cow-thief. But there was no place to hang a painting or to hold classes in art. Neither was there any place for bowing and scraping for the schottische and the minuet; the place for ladies was scrubbing children, giving birth to more children, feeding the hands, and practicing thrift.

And the time came—roughly, I suppose, around the turn of the century, a few years after the Spanish War—when two things happened. We became a great nation; our bankers, merchants, cotton brokers and munition makers spider-webbed the world. But the jig of the pioneer was up: he had to learn a new dance. And these bankers and merchants and cotton brokers, our amateur spiders, pioneered in the great web of war, and the people of America, with the same spirit, joined in. They were for making a bigger and better web. They only trouble was, we got caught in our own web. We went to war.

We did not face the facts then, and do not face them now. We have needled ourselves into "prosperity" a couple of times, and now the needle hurts and does no good; it makes us angry.

In the minds of our stuffed shirts it is still a disgrace to be caught boon-doggling, and it is much more honorable to be dirty, sweaty and hungry (for someone else). But sensible people know that America has time on her hands, and that she might as well spend it on painting pictures and playing music and singing songs, and teaching all this not only to the kids, but to those of us who never knew any relaxation when we were young.
We simply cannot work long hours as we did before—the machines will not let us. So let man use his machines for relief from soul-breaking toil. Then let us use our time to build soul and enjoy life.
We must all live. Some of us live poorly in old street cars, some in mansions like kings. But I do both, for I live like a king in a street car, and it is my mansion. More, it is upon royal lands. Let us clang forth.