The second Lynd Ward volume from the Library of America contains two short works and his masterpiece Vertigo. For this post, I will look at the two short works Prelude to a Million Years and Song without Words. These two works, combined contain around 50 wood cut plates. These two works have a common theme: what is the purpose of creativity in a world gone to shit?
Prelude to a Million Years (1933) was, according to Ward, a sequel to Gods’ Man in that it considered the fate of the artist in a fallen world. He also acknowledged that he was a product of his times, a participant in the New Deal culture of artist as voice of the people. The same spirit that gave us “This Land is Your Land” gave us Lynd Ward’s later works. (To be pedantic, Prelude to a Million Years) was put together two years before the WPA, but I see a similar energy and question at work.) “There were still some artists living in ivory towers, still totally immersed in the never-solved problems of an essentially private aesthetic, and still able to ignore the tremors that were moving in sucessive shock waves across the country and shaking the foundations of philosophic systems as well as of corporate structures.” (642)
The story begins with the artist within his “private aesthetic.” His inspiration for a new sculpture emerged from his mind, as if from a flower. He begins work on his masterpiece but like the Buddha is confronted with several scenes from life. The first is a chest of his mementos. Next he sees his neighbor beating his wife while she is completing her domestic drudgery. Next he is mugged, then he comes across a strike action, which descended into violence. Next, he comes across a patriotic march, praising the military and the violence of the state. Finally, he goes to the house of an old girlfriend and sees her naked and drunk. Dejected, the artist returns home. The abused neighbor woman is on the ground and the iron she was working with started a fire. The artist embraces his half-completed statue and apparently dies as the house burns down.
There are two ways to read this little tale. In one, we can imagine Ward saying that the artist’s failing was his inability to speak to the horrors of the world around him through art. Another reading is that it is futile to even try. The artistic aesthetic cannot speak in the brutal language of the real world. I prefer the first reading, because Ward himself seems to prove the second interpretation false.
The creation of Prelude to a Million Years also suggests that Ward believed that artists could be involved in positive change in the world. Prelude was published by Equinox, which was a small, artist-owned and ran, cooperative. It published a couple dozen works in the 1930s, including a biography of John Reed (which Ward illustrated). Every book they produced was hand-made. We have seen other examples of these anarchist publishers, who embraced democratic decision-making and cooperative systems of work. Equinox provided a model that others would follow. More than democratcy and collective ownership, Equinox emphasized the craft of book making. According to Ward: “What this meant was a return to the basics. What that meant was a reaffirmation of handiwork, a somewhat mystical belief that to touch directly the materials and processes of the making of a book would result in a better book.” (646)
Song without Words is the shortest of his novels, at only 21 plates. The story, such as it is (Ward called it “prose”), involved a couple preparing to give birth to a child. The mother looks around the world and sees the rise of fascism, hunger, greed, violence, and death and must decide whether it is a good idea to create new life. In the end, the mother decides to create new life as an act of resistance against these dark forces. Unlike the artist in Prelude, this mother chooses creation as a weapon against evil.
We live in a world no less uncertain. The upcoming environmental catastrophe is as dangerous to the world as fascism was. Many of us ask the same question. Should we create new life? Governments have actively dis-invested in creativity for years, preferring the training of a new class of technocrats that can at worst be the next generation of bosses and at best mitigate the ecological crisis through a new technocracy. For millions, labor is less about creativity and more about sustaining gigantic institutions. Neo-Malthusians preach the need for low fertility rates as the only path to post-scarcity. Ward is not of our time, but he asserts that hope expresses itself only in the courage to create in a world where we are uncertain of the future.