David Caute The Antioch Review - Essay

The Antioch Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beginning with the hesitantly expressed premise that art can affect the way in which people see their societies and the possibilities for social change, Caute attempts to redeem the role of the artist [in The Illusion]. Following Brecht, he argues for a self-conscious art in which the artist's presence and his doubts prevent a therapeutic or cathartic identification with a self-contained and illusory "reality," and instead create sufficient distance between the work of art and the audience to enable critical reflection, possibly leading to thoughtful action. (And yet, isn't some degree of empathy necessary simply to understanding?) As against that curiously undialectical focus of that most dialectical strand of Marxism, Caute emphasizes that the artist is engaged in praxis. Not simply mediators, and even less passive recipients of external stimuli, artists contribute to shaping their environment, and their own understanding of their enterprise is a crucial part of their contribution. Thus Caute, himself a novelist and playwright, would break down the distinction between critic and artist, holding the latter responsible for understanding the social context out of which he creates, and for anticipating, to the extent possible, the social effects of his creations. In attempting to redress the balance, Caute may have polarized the argument, for he ignores the Marxist insight that social conditions pre-define the range of options open to the artist. Caute's political focus is not that of the agitator; he aims not at immediate political mobilization, but rather at questioning attitudes and critical perspectives. It is a weakness of this otherwise well-conceived book that those perspectives are never well defined. In discussing what he views as positive examples, Caute looks primarily at questions of technique semi-divorced from political content, a disjunction not fully smoothed over by the self-consciously glib aphorism "the product is the process." (pp. 503-04)

A review of "The Illusion: An Essay on Politics, Theatre, and the Novel," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1973 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. XXXII, No. 3, June, 1973, pp. 503-04.