I have never considered myself to be an artistic person; perhaps that’s why I’m studying mechanical engineering. Once, when I was younger, I painted what was most likely the single most greatest image of a choo-choo train ever created. It was so good; in fact, that my mother displayed it in our kitchen and my younger brother slowly vandalized it over a period of days because he was jealous of my superior artistic skills. I think this is why I hated my brother and why I never perused a future in art. Thankfully, something like this never happened to Walt Whitman. His book “Song of Myself” is a collection of poems about himself. I believe that Whitman’s form of poetry conflicts with what Herbert Marcuse believes art should be.
One of the most interesting poems in Whitman’s book is in section 6 on page 4. It begins “A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?.... I do not know what it is any more than he.”
Whitman then begins to discuss not only what grass is, but what life is. He calls grass “the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and rememberancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark and say Whose?” This could be interpreted as Whitman saying that grass is the work of God, and that it covers the Earth so that we may gaze upon it and as ourselves where it came from and who put it there.
Whitman continues to make more observations about grass. He states that it is hieroglyphic and that it grows everywhere and among everyone. I believe that Whitman is trying to say that the grass had hidden messages for us and that he admires it because it does not discriminate.
Later, Whitman compares the life cycle of grass to the life cycle of humans. He says “What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere; the smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was it lead forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and cease the moment life appeared. All goes onward and outward… and nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
This passage reminds me of the song “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. What Whitman is saying is that death is not necessarily the end; in fact, it’s necessary for the continuation of life, just like how dead grass fertilizes new grass seeds. It’s interesting how Whitman says that dying is different and luckier than what any one has supposed.
Of course, the question begs to be asked; what would Herbert Marcuse think about Whitman’s poetry? In 1972, Herbert Marcuse wrote an article titled “Art as Form of Reality” which was originally published in New Left Review. In it he wrote “if art is still anything at all, it must be real, part and parcel of life - but of a life which is itself the conscious negation of the established way of life, with all its institutions, with its entire material and intellectual culture, its entire immoral morality, its required and its clandestine behaviour, its work and its fun.” (Marcuse, Art as Form of Reality)
Chapter three of Marcuse’s book, “One-Dimensional Man” portrays Marcuse’s views about the roles of art and high culture. He illustrates that art has gone through a change with the institution of one-dimensional realities. This is because art use to depict characters that went against the society and were fighting for their own rights. Those same characters are now going along with what society is doing, and supporting what is believed to be normal. Marcuse believes that it is necessary for art to return to its old ways of challenging the social norm instead of illustrating propaganda in order to give more of a voice to the people.
It appears that Marcuse is challenging the traditional conservative nature of art in this passage. Marcuse seems to believe that art should challenge all aspects of our culture, from our moralities and our behavior to the work that we do and what we do in our free time.
There are certainly aspects of Whitman’s poetry that challenge our culture. For instance, it has been widely speculated that Whitman may have been a homosexual, and there are many passages in his poems that could certainly be interpreted as alluding to homosexuality. One such passage lies within the poem that I was discussing earlier.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had know them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from
offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
(Whitman, Song of Myself, p.5)
Perhaps I’m over analyzing this passage, but I see that the words “tenderly “breasts,” “young men” and “loved” were all used within three lines of each other. If this was my poem I would have chosen different words in order to avoid giving the reader the impression that I wanted to tenderly love the breasts of young men. I believe that this was a clever way for Whitman to make the reader stop and think about what he was trying to say.
There are also passages in Whitman’s poems that express his support for minorities such as blacks and women.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
(Whitman, Song of Myself, p.18)
The message in this passage is isn’t as obscure as some of the messages in his other passages; in fact, it’s pretty obvious. In an era in American history before women’s suffrage where men and women were far from being treated as equal, I think that it would have certainly been challenging to American culture to say that “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.”
Upon my analysis of these passages from one of Whitman’s poems, It would appear that he is challenging the behavior and moralities of the culture from his period in history by discussion homosexuality and women’s rights. Therefore, I believe that Marcuse would at the very least approve of some portions of Whitman’s poems.
There are; however, portions of Whitman’s poems that Marcuse would most likely not consider to be art. Many passages from Whitman’s poems praise the American culture for its freedom and its diversity.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nations, the nation of many nations – the smallest the same and
the largest the same
(Whitman, Song of Myself, p.14)
This passage appears to be praising America for its diversity. When he says stuffed with the stuff that is “coarse” and “fine” I believe that he is making a point about how diverse America is and how it is made up of people that are poor and rich, stupid and smart, and rugged and sophisticated. I also interpret the phrase “the smallest the same and the largest the same” as meaning that everyone is treated equally.
Although it may not have been entirely true that everyone was treated equally in America when Whitman wrote this poem; I believe that it’s safe to say that the citizens of America had far more liberty and equality than any other country on Earth during Whitman’s time, just as they do today.
It would appear that there is no room for the praising of society in Marcuse’s definition of art. While Whitman’s poetry could be considered to be criticizing society in some of his poetry, it could also be argued that some of his poetry also praises American culture. This contrast in the message of his poems certainly conflicts with what Herbert Marcuse believes art should be.
Personally, I would have to disagree with Marcuse’s view of what art should be. I don’t believe that art should be critical of society just for the sake of being critical of society. Regardless of whether art is critical or supportive of society, the important factor is whether or not the art is inspirational. I believe that good art should be inspiration on two fronts. First, it should have been inspiration for the artist who created it. Secondly, it should be inspirational for the individual that experiences the art. Walt Whitman was inspired by America and its diversity. He was also inspired by the shortcomings of American society. What makes his poems good is not what they have to say about society. They were good poems because of the way that he was inspired to write them, just like my painting of a choo-choo train was good because I was inspired by choo-choo trains.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Brooks Edition, 1993.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
Marcuse, Herbert. Art as Form of Reality, 1972.