What does E. M. Forster say about the duties that the artist, as a citizen, has to the community?

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As a fierce individualist Forster is deeply skeptical, not to say, scathing, of the very idea that an artist has any specific duty to the state or society. For him, an artist will always be an "outsider," a "parasite," even a "rat"! Among other things, this means that there is...

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As a fierce individualist Forster is deeply skeptical, not to say, scathing, of the very idea that an artist has any specific duty to the state or society. For him, an artist will always be an "outsider," a "parasite," even a "rat"! Among other things, this means that there is no reciprocal relationship between the artist and the state beyond that of any one other citizen of a given territory. The artist owes nothing to the state, just as the state owes nothing to the artist. Any claims to the contrary are based on a profound misunderstanding of both the artist and the state.

According to Forster, art, with its internal harmony, has a unique capacity to impose some semblance of order on the chaos of worldly existence. Empires may come and go, nations rise and fall, but amidst the endless ups and downs of history there is always art, providing humankind with a model of stability. If the artist had to serve the state or society, as some claim, then he or she would be abandoning their artistic calling and adding to the chaos around them instead of alleviating it through their work.

The artist has but one duty, and that's to artistic integrity. For Forster, artistic integrity is greater than moral integrity because art is more enduring than man-made orders, including codes of morality. It is because of art's separation from the state and society—indeed, it is only because of this—that it is able to transcend the recurring spirit of fear and hatred that manifests itself throughout all historical epochs.

Forster has in mind the First World War, but he could just as easily have been talking about Renaissance Italy, with its endless wars and bloodshed. In both cases, artistic endeavor represents a triumph of human intention over the impersonal forces of fate.

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