Their effect is especially pervasive and pernicious in respect of empires, as Clyde Wilson has cogently noted.  The American empire, at the opening of the 21st century, might be offered as Exhibit A.  In the political sphere, corruption is engendered by the magnitude of the stakes contended for; in the economic realm, greed is stimulated by imperial richesse unprecedented in the history of the world.  Wilson reminds us (in From Union to Empire), however, that imperialism is always much more than a political and balance-of-trade phenomenon.

The abandonment of responsibility to remote and abstract power is simultaneous with the decay of will and identity in nonpolitical institutions. . . . We no longer judge by result and results no longer depend upon will and effort.  In more and more areas of life success depends upon political manipulation, luck, and advantage.  Cunning and bluster, the hallmarks of politics, become more important than accomplishment in more and more areas of life, as these are increasingly politicized.

At the beginning of the 21st century, no area of American life is more politicized than the arts, for the very good reason that artistic success in the fabulously wealthy, and wholly secularized, society of today entails the salary of a business tycoon, the glamour of a film star, and the priestly aura of a demigod.  In the arts, as in presidential politics, the world itself seems up for grabs in a winner-take-all contest.  And so, in the arts as in politics, political manipulation, cunning, and bluster separate a very few—mostly untalented—winners from the great mass of losers, a good many of whom actually have talent, and few real genius.

In the ancient world, performing artists, while admired for their skill, were considered by the upper class to be socially inferior creatures, having dedicated their lives to a talent that, however pleasurable to behold, was nevertheless unworthy of a lifetime’s devotion.  In the medieval world, practitioners of the plastic and building arts were regarded, by themselves as by others, as essentially artisans, or skilled craftsmen.  Beginning in the early-modern period, and as late as the middle of the 19th century, the greatest geniuses, those in music particularly, were either employed by the churches (Palestrina, J.S. Bach), artistic institutions (Mozart), or princely courts  (Haydn, Beethoven, Richard Wagner).  Those painters lucky enough to secure commissions from admirers and patrons made out financially on an on-again-off-again basis; those less lucky were left to their own devices or to starve in a garret.  The latter was usually the fate of most authors (men of letters being notoriously against the government and the prevailing establishment), for example, Cervantes; a notable exception is Voltaire, who was royal historiographer to Louis XV and later the pampered pet of Frederick the Great.

Every artist, of course, has always hoped for success: fame, money, the love of beautiful women, earthly immortality.  A tiny majority has achieved all of these things, while the rest—sometimes deservedly, sometimes not—have gone begging or been forced to demote their vocation to an avocation.  For the minority and the majority alike, assuming they were true and deserving artists, the artistic ideal was a noble thing; the pursuit of it, heroic; its approximation in the form of an actualized work of art, an act of grateful humility rather than a vaunting show of self-glorification.  Until the beginning of the last century, and even for some time after that, the test of the genuine artist was his unshakable belief in himself and his talent, his steadfast and unswerving determination to carry on with his life’s work through thick or thin—failure, as the world knows it, or success.  That, however, was when the word artist still signified somebody who made something, as opposed to someone who was something, suggesting a vocation rather than a social position; before mass education and mass culture, the mass media, the publicity industry, and the fatal reconceptualization of art—including by many otherwise true and conscientious artists themselves—as the subjective exploration, expression, and celebration of the persona of the artist replaced the classic understanding of art as an objective discipline centered on an act of the practical intellect.  So it has been reserved, in the postbourgeois, postmodern era, to bourgeois philistinsim to subvert and all but destroy high art.  George F. Babbitt had nothing to do with it.  Pushy narcissists playing at being artists in their Hollywood-perfect designer “studios” from New York to Los Angeles probably had the most.  For the rest, we have the National Endowment for the Arts—in every respect a highly politicized institution—and its prodigious spawn to blame.  The problem is a double one, comprising two apparently paradoxical elements.  The first is the amateurization of art.  The second is its professionalization.  Between them, these developments have managed not quite to strangle but certainly to exclude genuine artistic endeavor—or its fruits, anyway—almost entirely from the public view.

In earlier times, the amateur artist was, for the most part, content to be just that.  Today, he is better described by the colloquial term wannabe.  The difference between them is that the amateur is content to practice his art as an avocation, in his spare time and in an essentially private capacity, for his own satisfaction and the delectation of a few friends.  The wannabe, by comparison, is ambitious for recognition as a public artist of genius and divine seer, commanding a mass audience and an income commensurate with it.  (Nothing less than the shouts accorded Dostoyevsky by the Russian crowds—“Hero! Genius! Saint!”—could ever satisfy him completely.)  For the wannabe, the work is incidental to both the reputation and the reward, flimsy in the degree to which he can expend as little effort as possible to pawn it off on today’s gullible, unsophisticated crowds, eager to celebrate the latest genius—and to be observed celebrating him, too.

Far more often than not, of course, he never succeeds in realizing more than a small fraction of his ambition.  But it is enough—and there are enough of him—to drive out real art and real artists, according to a literary version of Gresham’s Law.  And this is the case especially when to his efforts are added those of another wannabe type, what Mencken called the “self-bamboozled artist”—more principled in his way and more sincere, from his deluded sense of himself as an underappreciated genius devoted to the cultivation of an aesthetic whose recondite and supersophisticated nature restricts it to the reach of a coterie art, with which he professes himself satisfied.  Taken together, the mass wannabes and the coterie wannabes have pretty much corralled the resources of (for instance) the literary publishing business—commercial, academic, and small press alike—by convincing them that they are not wannabes at all but the genuine article.

Today’s publishers and editors take their cue from semiliterate in-house readers, the recommendations of go-along-to-get-along, you-plug-my-book-and-I’ll-plug-yours types from the organized and aggressive creative-writing cells in university English departments, and their own lazy and timid marketing and promotion departments, always more than satisfied to stick with copycat publishing (“We’re looking for the next John Grisham!”), the tried-and-true (“novels about young, disillusioned urban sophisticates always sell”), and the line of least resistance (“Some readers wouldn’t understand”; “Certain people would be offended”).  Finally, in respect of “literary” and “first” fiction, editors are consumed by the desire to sign a book that will gain critical attention more than popular acclaim, win a professional award—usually with results similar to the National Book Award committee’s selection in 2004 of five postmodernist novels, largely indistinguishable from one another and all but one of them written by women, as runners-up for the fiction prize: an act of egregious literary fatuity that moved even the New York Times to protest.

Of course, the deformation of literature by the aggressive amateur, the overencouraged artist, and coterie art is nothing new in the world, differing only in degree from earlier times.  A newer, more corruptive, and vastly more dangerous development is the professionalization of literature and of the arts in general.  Professionalization equals organization, meaning politicization: not (necessarily) in the ideological sense of the word but in terms of the never-ending battle to promote and publicize one’s work and oneself, one’s friends and their work—always, if possible, at the expense of other people and other work, usually by ensuring that the “competition” is ignored but also by seeing to it that such publicity as it does receive is of the hostile, or merely negative, sort.  Whether or not zero-sum theory applies to economics, modern artists—and their underwriters and promoters—are clearly convinced that it accurately describes the art business, where the competition today is as cutthroat as it is in corporate warfare or electoral politics.  Under the imperial system, trade follows the flag—the trades of novel-writing, poetry, and music as much as the manufacturing and commodities industry.  Why should it not, the arts having become—potentially, at least, at their humblest level, and always in the upper commercial reaches—an industry itself in which, as in every other worldly enterprise, success is determined less by talent, taste, refinement, an appropriate dignity, and the seclusion and detachment necessary to the peace and silence required for serious artistic work, and more—much more—by the powerfully vulgar formula “balls and bull”?

In a totally industrialized society, art must inevitably be industrialized as well—as Donald Davidson argued in the 1920’s.  Yet industrialization seems not to be the whole explanation for the phenomenon we experience today.  It is, rather, the old, old story of destroying a good thing by overvaluing it—and the newer one of devaluing that thing, first by making it appear desirable to the mass of men, and then by rendering it accessible to the mass.  Democracy, John Lukacs has noted, is inflationary.  Lukacs is entirely right about that; but imperialism is more inflationary still, as Clyde Wilson understands.  Finally, add the modern democratic ideal of the paramount importance of the individual to the imperial attribute of hubris, and you get what Quentin Anderson, the American literary historian, called “the imperial self”—a construct he traced, in a book of the same name, to that period in American letters coinciding with the fetish of rugged individualism and the rise of American empire in the late 19th century.  In contemporary terms, it is a matter of the “me generation,” coincident with the affluent society, that has provided nearly everyone so inclined with the leisure to devote to “art,” the vanity that permits him to believe he is capable of producing something recognizable as artistic work, and  the “death of God” atheology that urges him to aspire to the priestly role of the artist, along with the glamorous one of the celebrity.  Attempt to divinize what is not in itself holy, and you will begin by trivializing, and end by marginalizing, it.

As for the type of politicization that is driven by ideological rather than by commercial competition, this is assuredly not a postmodern phenomenon, though it has certainly progressed over the last several centuries as the West and its culture have become sclerotic with age.  Whether the case can be made for it, too, being at once a sign and a fruit of the imperial syndrome is an interesting question.  My guess is that it can, for the reason that empire, which is aggregation abroad, amounts to diversity at home, while diversity is the foremost cause of the cultural fragmentation that is the most obvious aspect of America’s artistic wasteland.  Four generations ago, anyone interested in contemporary American literature could be presumed to have read the novels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.  Nowadays, there are readers—I would guess a fair number of them—who conscientiously refuse to read A Farewell to Arms on the ground that Catherine Barkley is not a feminist’s female; The Sound and the Fury, because Dilsey restrains herself from murdering the Compson family in their beds overnight; and The Great Gatsby, for the reason that, for politically correct people, the old WASP establishment is unworthy of their time, their attention, or their recognition.  Could this state of affairs, too, have some connection with the new imperial America?  Of course, imperial eras have historically been periods of artistic decadence, succeeding socially and politically simpler Golden Ages.  Alternatively, it is conceivable that the mental and moral corruption required to justify, defend, and promote the transformation of American society over the past half-century has had the effect of rendering the national intelligence mentally negligible (as Reginald Jeeves would say).