ARTIST AND PUBLIC
In the history of art, as in the history of politics and in the history of economics, our modern epoch is marked off from all preceding epochs by one great event, the French Revolution. Fragonard, who survived that Revolution to lose himself in a new and strange world, is the last at the old masters; David, some sixteen years his junior, is the first of the moderns. Now if we look for the most fundamental distinction between our modern art and the art of past times, I believe we shall find it to be this: the art of the past was produced for a public that wanted it and understood it, by artists who understood and sympathized with their public; the art of our time has been, for the most part, produced for a public that did not want it and misunderstood it, by artists who disliked and despised the public for which they worked. When artist and public were united, art was homogeneous and continuous. Since the divorce of artist and public art has been chaotic and convulsive.
That this divorce between the artist and his public—this dislocation of the right and natural relations between them—has taken place is certain. The causes of it are many and deep-lying in our modern civilization, and I can point out only a few of the more obvious ones.
The first of these is the emergence of a new public. The art of past ages had been distinctively an aristocratic art, created for kings and princes, for the free citizens of slave-holding republics, for the spiritual and intellectual aristocracy of the church, or for a luxurious and frivolous nobility. As the aim of the Revolution was the destruction of aristocratic privilege, it is not surprising that a revolutionary like David should have felt it necessary to destroy the traditions of an art created for the aristocracy. In his own art of painting he succeeded so thoroughly that the painters of the next generation found themselves with no traditions at all. They had not only to work for a public of enriched bourgeois or proletarians who had never cared for art, but they had to create over again the art with which they endeavored to interest this public. How could they succeed? The rift between artist and public had begun, and it has been widening ever since.
If the people had had little to do with the major arts of painting and sculpture, there had yet been, all through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a truly popular art—an art of furniture making, of wood-carving, of forging, of pottery. Every craftsman was an artist in his degree, and every artist was but a craftsman of a superior sort. Our machine-making, industrial civilization, intent upon material progress and the satisfaction of material wants, has destroyed this popular art; and at the same time that the artist lost his patronage from above he lost his support from below. He has become a superior person, a sort of demi-gentleman, but he has no longer a splendid nobility to employ him or a world of artist artisans to surround him and understand him.
And to the modern artist, so isolated, with no tradition behind him, no direction from above and no support from below, the art of all times and all countries has become familiar through modern means of communication and modern processes of reproduction. Having no compelling reason for doing one thing rather than another, or for choosing one or another way of doing things, he is shown a thousand things that he may do and a thousand ways of doing them. Not clearly knowing his own mind he hears the clash and reverberation of a thousand other minds, and having no certainties he must listen to countless theories.
Mr. Vedder has spoken of a certain “home-made” character which he considers the greatest defect of his art, the character of an art belonging to no distinctive school and having no definite relation to the time and country in which it is produced. But it is not Mr. Vedder’s art alone that is home-made. It is precisely the characteristic note of our modern art that all of it that is good for anything is home-made or self-made. Each artist has had to create his art as best he could out of his own temperament and his own experience—has sat in his corner like a spider, spinning his web from his own bowels. If the art so created was essentially fine and noble the public has at last found it out, but only after years of neglect have embittered the existence and partially crippled the powers of its creator. And so, to our modern imagination, the neglected and misunderstood genius has become the very type of the great artist, and we have allowed our belief in him to color and distort our vision of the history of art. We have come to look upon the great artists of all times as an unhappy race struggling against the inappreciation of a stupid public, starving in garrets and waiting long for tardy recognition.
The very reverse of this is true. With the exception of Rembrandt, who himself lived in a time of political revolution and of the emergence to power of a burgher class, you will scarce find an unappreciated genius in the whole history of art until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The great masters of the Renaissance, from Giotto to Veronese, were men of their time, sharing and interpreting the ideals of those around them, and were recognized and patronized as such. Rembrandt’s greatest contemporary, Rubens, was painter in ordinary to half the courts of Europe, and Velazquez was the friend and companion of his king. Watteau and Boucher and Fragonard painted for the frivolous nobility of the eighteenth century just what that nobility wanted, and even the precursors of the Revolution, sober and honest Chardin, Greuze the sentimental, had no difficulty in making themselves understood, until the revolutionist David became dictator to the art of Europe and swept them into the rubbish heap with the rest.
It is not until the beginning of what is known as the Romantic movement, under the Restoration, that the misunderstood painter of genius definitely appears. Millet, Corot, Rousseau were trying, with magnificent powers and perfect single-mindedness, to restore the art of painting which the Revolution had destroyed. They were men of the utmost nobility and simplicity of character, as far as possible from the gloomy, fantastic, vain, and egotistical person that we have come to accept as the type of unappreciated genius; they were classically minded and conservative, worshippers of the great art of the past; but they were without a public and they suffered bitter discouragement and long neglect. Upon their experience is founded that legend of the unpopularity of all great artists which has grown to astonishing proportions. Accepting this legend, and believing that all great artists are misunderstood, the artist has come to cherish a scorn of the public for which he works and to pretend a greater scorn than he feels. He cannot believe himself great unless he is misunderstood, and he hugs his unpopularity to himself as a sign of genius and arrives at that sublime affectation which answers praise of his work with an exclamation of dismay: “Is it as bad as that?” He invents new excesses and eccentricities to insure misunderstanding, and proclaims the doctrine that, as anything great must be incomprehensible, so anything incomprehensible must be great. And the public has taken him, at least partly, at his word. He may or may not be great, but he is certainly incomprehensible and probably a little mad. Until he succeeds the public looks upon the artist as a more or less harmless lunatic. When he succeeds it is willing to exalt him into a kind of god and to worship his eccentricities as a part of his divinity. So we arrive at a belief in the insanity of genius. What would Raphael have thought of such a notion, or that consummate man of the world, Titian? What would the serene and mighty Veronese have thought of it, or the cool, clear-seeing Velazquez? How his Excellency the Ambassador of his Most Catholic Majesty, glorious Peter Paul Rubens, would have laughed!
It is this lack of sympathy and understanding between the artist and his public—this fatal isolation of the artist—that is the cause of nearly all the shortcomings of modern art; of the weakness of what is known as official or academic art no less than of the extravagance of the art of opposition. The artist, being no longer a craftsman, working to order, but a kind of poet, expressing in loneliness his personal emotions, has lost his natural means of support. Governments, feeling a responsibility for the cultivation of art which was quite unnecessary in the days when art was spontaneously produced in answer to a natural demand, have tried to put an artificial support in its place. That the artist may show his wares and make himself known, they have created exhibitions; that he may be encouraged they have instituted medals and prizes; that he may not starve they have made government purchases. And these well-meant efforts have resulted in the creation of pictures which have no other purpose than to hang in exhibitions, to win medals, and to be purchased by the government and hung in those more permanent exhibitions which we call museums. For this purpose it is not necessary that a picture should have great beauty or great sincerity. It is necessary that it should be large in order to attract attention and sufficiently well drawn and executed to seem to deserve recognition. And so was evolved the salon picture, a thing created for no man’s pleasure, not even the artist’s; a thing which is neither the decoration of a public building nor the possible ornament of a private house; a thing which, after it has served its temporary purpose, is rolled up and stored in a loft or placed in a gallery where its essential emptiness becomes more and more evident as time goes on. Such government-encouraged art had at least the merit of a well-sustained and fairly high level of accomplishment in the more obvious elements of painting. But as exhibitions became larger and larger and the competition engendered by them grew fiercer, it became increasingly difficult to attract attention by mere academic merit. So the painters began to search for sensationalism of subject, and the typical salon picture, no longer decorously pompous, began to deal in blood and horror and sensuality. It was Regnault who began this sensation hunt, but it has been carried much further since his day than he can have dreamed of, and the modern salon picture is not only tiresome but detestable.
The salon picture, in its merits and its faults, is peculiarly French, but the modern exhibition has sins to answer for in other countries than France. In England it has been responsible for a great deal of sentimentality and anecdotage which has served to attract the attention of a public that could not be roused to interest in mere painting. Everywhere, even in this country, where exhibitions are relatively small and ill-attended, it has caused a certain stridency and blatancy, a keying up to exhibition pitch, a neglect of finer qualities for the sake of immediate effectiveness.
Under our modern conditions the exhibition has become a necessity, and it would be impossible for our artists to live or to attain a reputation without it. The giving of medals and prizes and the purchase of works of art by the state may be of more doubtful utility, though such efforts at the encouragement of art probably do more good than harm. But there is one form of government patronage that is almost wholly beneficial, and that the only form of it which we have in this country—the awarding of commissions for the decoration of public buildings. The painter of mural decorations is in the old historical position, in sound and natural relations to the public. He is doing something which is wanted and, if he continues to receive commissions, he may fairly assume that he is doing it in a way that is satisfactory. With the decorative or monumental sculptor he is almost alone among modern artists in being relieved of the necessity of producing something in the isolation of his studio and waiting to see if any one will care for it; of trying, against the grain, to produce something that he thinks may appeal to the public because it does not appeal to himself; or of attempting to bamboozle the public into buying what neither he nor the public really cares for. If he does his best he may feel that he is as fairly earning his livelihood as his fellow workmen, the blacksmith and the stonecutter, and is as little dependent as they upon either charity or humbug. The best that government has done for art in France is the commissioning of the great decorative paintings of Baudry and Puvis. In this country, also, governments, national, State, or municipal, are patronizing art in the best possible way, and in making buildings splendid for the people are affording opportunity for the creation of a truly popular art.
Without any artificial aid from the government the illustrator has a wide popular support and works for the public in a normal way; and, therefore, illustration has been one of the healthiest and most vigorous forms of modern art. The portrait-painter, too, is producing something he knows to be wanted, and, though his art has had to fight against the competition of the photograph and has been partially vulgarized by the struggle of the exhibitions, it has yet remained, upon the whole, comprehensible and human; so that much of the soundest art of the past century has gone into portraiture. It is the painters of pictures, landscape or genre, who have most suffered from the misunderstanding between artist and public. Without guidance some of them have hewed a path to deserved success. Others have wandered into strange byways and no-thoroughfares.
The nineteenth century is strewn with the wrecks of such misunderstood and misunderstanding artists, but it was about the sixties when their searching for a way began to lead them in certain clearly marked directions. There are three paths, in especial, which have been followed since then by adventurous spirits: the paths of æstheticism, of scientific naturalism, and of pure self-expression; the paths of Whistler, of Monet, and of Cézanne.
Whistler was an artist of refined and delicate talent with great weaknesses both in temperament and training; being also a very clever man and a brilliant controversialist, he proceeded to erect a theory which should prove his weaknesses to be so many virtues, and he nearly succeeded in convincing the world of its validity. Finding the representation of nature very difficult, he decided that art should not concern itself with representation but only with the creation of “arrangements” and “symphonies.” Having no interest in the subject of pictures, he proclaimed that pictures should have no subjects and that any interest in the subject is vulgar. As he was a cosmopolitan with no local ties, he maintained that art had never been national; and as he was out of sympathy with his time, he taught that “art happens” and that “there never was an artistic period.” According to the Whistlerian gospel, the artist not only has now no point of contact with the public, but he should not have and never has had any. He has never been a man among other men, but has been a dreamer “who sat at home with the women” and made pretty patterns of line and color because they pleased him. And the only business of the public is to accept “in silence” what he chooses to give them.
This kind of rootless art he practised. Some of the patterns he produced are delightful, but they are without imagination, without passion, without joy in the material and visible world—the dainty diversions of a dilettante. One is glad that so gracefully slender an art should exist, but if it has seemed great art to us it is because our age is so poor in anything better. To rank its creator with the abounding masters of the past is an absurdity.
In their efforts to escape from the dead-alive art of the salon picture, Monet and the Impressionists took an entirely different course. The gallery painter’s perfunctory treatment of subject bored them, and they abandoned subject almost as entirely as Whistler had done. The sound if tame drawing and the mediocre painting of what they called official art revolted them as it revolted Whistler; but while he nearly suppressed representation they could see in art nothing but representation. They wanted to make that representation truer, and they tried to work a revolution in art by the scientific analysis of light and the invention of a new method of laying on paint. Instead of joining in Whistler’s search for pure pattern they fixed their attention on facts alone, or rather on one aspect of the facts, and in their occupation with light and the manner of representing it they abandoned form almost as completely as they had abandoned significance and beauty.
So it happened that Monet could devote some twenty canvases to the study of the effects of light, at different hours of the day, upon two straw stacks in his farmyard. It was admirable practice, no doubt, and neither scientific analysis nor the study of technical methods is to be despised; but the interest of the public, after all, is in what an artist does, not in how he learns to do it. The twenty canvases together formed a sort of demonstration of the possibilities of different kinds of lighting. Any one of them, taken singly, is but a portrait of two straw stacks, and the world will not permanently or deeply care about those straw stacks. The study of light is, in itself, no more an exercise of the artistic faculties than the study of anatomy or the study of perspective; and while Impressionism has put a keener edge upon some of the tools of the artist, it has inevitably failed to produce a school of art.
After Impressionism, what? We have no name for it but Post-Impressionism. Such men as Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh recognized the sterility of Impressionism and of a narrow æstheticism, while they shared the hatred of the æsthetes and the Impressionists for the current art of the salons. No more than the æsthetes or the Impressionists were they conscious of any social or universal ideals that demanded expression. The æsthetes had a doctrine; the Impressionists had a method and a technic. The Post-Impressionists had nothing, and were driven to the attempt at pure self-expression—to the exaltation of the great god Whim. They had no training, they recognized no traditions, they spoke to no public. Each was to express, as he thought best, whatever he happened to feel or to think, and to invent, as he went along, the language in which he should express it. I think some of these men had the elements of genius in them and might have done good work; but their task was a heart-breaking and a hopeless one. An art cannot be improvised, and an artist must have some other guide than unregulated emotion. The path they entered upon had been immemorially marked “no passing”; for many of them the end of it was suicide or the madhouse.
But whatever the aberrations of these, the true Post-Impressionists—whatever the ugliness, the eccentricity, or the moral dinginess into which they were betrayed—I believe them to have been, in the main, honest if unbalanced and ill-regulated minds. Whatever their errors, they paid the price of them in poverty, in neglect, in death. With those who pretend to be their descendants to-day the case is different; they are not paying for their eccentricity or their madness, they are making it pay.
The enormous engine of modern publicity has been discovered by these men. They have learned to advertise, and they have found that morbidity, eccentricity, indecency, extremes of every kind and of any degree are capital advertisement. If one cannot create a sound and living art, one can at least make something odd enough to be talked about; if one cannot achieve enduring fame, one may make sure of a flaming notoriety. And, as a money-maker, present notoriety is worth more than future fame, for the speculative dealer is at hand. His interest is in “quick returns” and he has no wish to wait until you are famous—or dead—before he can sell anything you do. His process is to buy anything he thinks he can “boom,” to “boom” it as furiously as possible, and to sell it before the “boom” collapses. Then he will exploit something else, and there’s the rub. Once you have entered this mad race for notoriety, there is no drawing out of it. The same sensation will not attract attention a second time; you must be novel at any cost. You must exaggerate your exaggerations and out-Herod Herod, for others have learned how easy the game is to play, and are at your heels. It is no longer a matter of misunderstanding and being misunderstood by the public; it is a matter of deliberately flouting and outraging the public—of assuming incomprehensibility and antagonism to popular feeling as signs of greatness. And so is founded what Frederic Harrison has called the “shock-your-grandmother school.”
It is with profound regret that one must name as one of the founders of this school an artist of real power, who has produced much admirable work—Auguste Rodin. At the age of thirty-seven he attained a sudden and resounding notoriety, and from that time he has been the most talked-of artist in Europe. He was a consummate modeller, a magnificent workman, but he had always grave faults and striking mannerisms. These faults and mannerisms he has latterly pushed to greater and greater extremes while neglecting his great gift, each work being more chaotic and fragmentary in composition, more hideous in type, more affected and emptier in execution, until he has produced marvels of mushiness and incoherence hitherto undreamed of and has set up as public monuments fantastically mutilated figures with broken legs or heads knocked off. Now, in his old age, he is producing shoals of drawings the most extraordinary of which few are permitted to see. Some selected specimens of them hang in a long row in the Metropolitan Museum, and I assure you, upon my word as a lifelong student of drawing, they are quite as ugly and as silly as they look. There is not a touch in them that has any truth to nature, not a line that has real beauty or expressiveness. They represent the human figure with the structure of a jellyfish and the movement of a Dutch doll; the human face with an expression I prefer not to characterize. If they be not the symptoms of mental decay, they can be nothing but the means of a gigantic mystification.
With Henri Matisse we have not to deplore the deliquescence of a great talent, for we have no reason to suppose he ever had any. It is true that his admirers will assure you he could once draw and paint as everybody does; what he could not do was to paint enough better than everybody does to make his mark in the world; and he was a quite undistinguished person until he found a way to produce some effect upon his grandmother the public by shocking her into attention. His method is to choose the ugliest models to be found; to put them into the most grotesque and indecent postures imaginable; to draw them in the manner of a savage, or a depraved child, or a worse manner if that be possible; to surround his figures with blue outlines half an inch wide; and to paint them in crude and staring colors, brutally laid on in flat masses. Then, when his grandmother begins to “sit up,” she is told with a grave face that this is a reaction from naturalism, a revival of abstract line and color, a subjective art which is not the representation of nature but the expression of the artist’s soul. No wonder she gasps and stares!
It seemed, two or three years ago, that the limit of mystification had been reached—that this comedy of errors could not be carried further; but human ingenuity is inexhaustible, and we now have whole schools, Cubists, Futurists, and the like, who joyously vie with each other in the creation of incredible pictures and of irreconcilable and incomprehensible theories. The public is inclined to lump them all together and, so far as their work is concerned, the public is not far wrong; yet in theory Cubism and Futurism are diametrically opposed to each other. It is not easy to get any clear conception of the doctrines of these schools, but, so far as I am able to understand them—and I have taken some pains to do so—they are something like this:
Cubism is static; Futurism is kinetic. Cubism deals with bulk; Futurism deals with motion. The Cubist, by a kind of extension of Mr. Berenson’s doctrine of “tactile values,” assumes that the only character of objects which is of importance to the artist is their bulk and solidity—what he calls their “volumes.” Now the form in which volume is most easily apprehended is the cube; do we not measure by it and speak of the cubic contents of anything? The inference is easy: reduce all objects to forms which can be bounded by planes and defined by straight lines and angles; make their cubic contents measurable to the eye; transform drawing into a burlesque of solid geometry; and you have, at once, attained to the highest art. The Futurist, on the other hand, maintains that we know nothing but that things are in flux. Form, solidity, weight are illusions. Nothing exists but motion. Everything is changing every moment, and if anything were still we ourselves are changing. It is, therefore, absurd to give fixed boundaries to anything or to admit of any fixed relations in space. If you are trying to record your impression of a face it is certain that by the time you have done one eye the other eye will no longer be where it was—it may be at the other side of the room. You must cut nature into small bits and shuffle them about wildly if you are to reproduce what we really see.
Whatever its extravagance, Cubism remains a form of graphic art. However pedantic and ridiculous its transformation of drawing, it yet recognizes the existence of drawing. Therefore, to the Futurist, Cubism is reactionary. What difference does it make, he asks, whether you draw a head round or square? Why draw a head at all? The Futurist denies the fundamental postulates of the art of painting. Painting has always, and by definition, represented upon a surface objects supposed to lie beyond it and to be seen through it. Futurism pretends to place the spectator inside the picture and to represent things around him or behind him as well as those in front of him. Painting has always assumed the single moment of vision, and, though it has sometimes placed more than one picture on the same canvas, it has treated each picture as seen at a specific instant of time. Futurism attempts systematically to combine the past and the future with the present, as if all the pictures in a cinematograph film were to be printed one over the other; to paint no instant but to represent the movement of time. It aims at nothing less than the abrogation of all recognized laws, the total destruction of all that has hitherto passed for art.
Do you recall the story of the man who tried to count a litter of pigs, but gave it up because one little pig ran about so fast that he could not be counted? One finds oneself in somewhat the same predicament when one tries to describe these “new movements” in art. The movement is so rapid and the men shift their ground so quickly that there is no telling where to find them. You have no sooner arrived at some notion of the difference between Cubism and Futurism than you find your Cubist doing things that are both Cubist and Futurist, or neither Cubist nor Futurist, according as you look at them. You find things made up of geometrical figures to give volume, yet with all the parts many times repeated to give motion. You find things that have neither bulk nor motion but look like nothing so much as a box of Chinese tangrams scattered on a table. Finally, you have assemblages of lines that do not draw anything, even cubes or triangles; and we are assured that there is now a newest school of all, called Orphism, which, finding still some vestiges of intelligibility in any assemblage of lines, reduces everything to shapeless blotches. Probably the first of Orphic pictures was that produced by the quite authentic donkey who was induced to smear a canvas by lashing a tail duly dipped in paint. It was given a title as Orphic as the painting, was accepted by a jury anxious to find new forms of talent, and was hung in the Salon d’Automne.
In all this welter of preposterous theories there is but one thing constant—one thing on which all these theorists are agreed. It is that all this strange stuff is symbolic and shadows forth the impressions and emotions of the artist: represents not nature but his feeling about nature; is the expression of his mind or, as they prefer to call it, his soul. It may be so. All art is symbolic; images are symbols; words are symbols; all communication is by symbols. But if a symbol is to serve any purpose of communication between one mind and another it must be a symbol accepted and understood by both minds. If an artist is to choose his symbols to suit himself, and to make them mean anything he chooses, who is to say what he means or whether he means anything? If a man were to rise and recite, with a solemn voice, words like “Ajakan maradak tecor sosthendi,” would you know what he meant? If he wished you to believe that these symbols express the feeling of awe caused by the contemplation of the starry heavens, he would have to tell you so in your own language; and even then you would have only his word for it. He may have meant them to express that, but do they? The apologists of the new schools are continually telling us that we must give the necessary time and thought to learn the language of these men before we condemn them. Why should we? Why should not they learn the universal language of art? It is they who are trying to say something. When they have learned to speak that language and have convinced us that they have something to say in it which is worth listening to, then, and not till then, we may consent to such slight modification of it as may fit it more closely to their thought.
If these gentlemen really believe that their capriciously chosen symbols are fit vehicles for communication with others, why do they fall back on that old, old symbol, the written word? Why do they introduce, in the very midst of a design in which everything else is dislocated, a name or a word in clear Roman letters? Or why do they give their pictures titles and, lest you should neglect to look in the catalogue, print the title quite carefully and legibly in the corner of the picture itself? They know that they must set you to hunting for their announced subject or you would not look twice at their puzzles.
Now, there is only one word for this denial of all law, this insurrection against all custom and tradition, this assertion of individual license without discipline and without restraint; and that word is “anarchy.” And, as we know, theoretic anarchy, though it may not always lead to actual violence, is a doctrine of destruction. It is so in art, and these artistic anarchists are found proclaiming that the public will never understand or accept their art while anything remains of the art of the past, and demanding that therefore the art of the past shall be destroyed. It is actual, physical destruction of pictures and statues that they call for, and in Italy, that great treasury of the world’s art, has been raised the sinister cry: “Burn the museums!” They have not yet taken to the torch, but if they were sincere they would do it; for their doctrine calls for nothing less than the reduction of mankind to a state of primitive savagery that it may begin again at the beginning.
Fortunately, they are not sincere. There may be among them those who honestly believe in that exaltation of the individual and that revolt against all law which is the danger of our age. But, for the most part, if they have broken from the fold and “like sheep have gone astray,” they have shown a very sheep-like disposition to follow the bell-wether. They are fond of quoting a saying of Gauguin’s that “one must be either a revolutionist or a plagiary”; but can any one tell these revolutionists apart? Can any one distinguish among them such definite and logically developed personalities as mark even schoolmen and “plagiarists” like Meissonier and Gérôme? If any one of these men stood alone, one might believe his eccentricities to be the mark of an extreme individuality; one cannot believe it when one finds the same eccentricities in twenty of them.
No, it is not for the sake of unhampered personal development that young artists are joining these new schools; it is because they are offered a short cut to a kind of success. As there are no more laws and no more standards, there is nothing to learn. The merest student is at once set upon a level with the most experienced of his instructors, and boys and girls in their teens are hailed as masters. Art is at last made easy, and there are no longer any pupils, for all have become teachers. To borrow Doctor Johnson’s phrase, “many men, many women, and many children” could produce art after this fashion; and they do.
So right are the practitioners of this puerile art in their proclaimed belief that the public will never accept it while anything else exists, that one might be willing to treat it with the silent contempt it deserves were it not for the efforts of certain critics and writers for the press to convince us that it ought to be accepted. Some of these men seem to be intimidated by the blunders of the past. Knowing that contemporary criticism has damned almost every true artist of the nineteenth century, they are determined not to be caught napping; and they join in shouts of applause as each new harlequin steps upon the stage. They forget that it is as dangerous to praise ignorantly as to blame unjustly, and that the railer at genius, though he may seem more malevolent, will scarce appear so ridiculous to posterity as the dupe of the mountebank. Others of them are, no doubt, honest victims of that illusion of progress to which we are all more or less subject—to that ingrained belief that all evolution is upward and that the latest thing must necessarily be the best. They forget that the same process which has relieved man of his tail has deprived the snake of his legs and the kiwi of his wings. They forget that art has never been and cannot be continuously progressive; that it is only the sciences connected with art that are capable of progress; and that the “Henriade” is not a greater poem than the “Divine Comedy” because Voltaire has learned the falsity of the Ptolemaic astronomy. Finally, these writers, like other people, desire to seem knowing and clever; and if you appear to admire vastly what no one else understands you pass for a clever man.
I have looked through a good deal of the writings of these “up-to-date” critics in the effort to find something like an intelligible argument or a definite statement of belief. I have found nothing but the continually repeated assumption that these new movements, in all their varieties, are “living” and “vital.” I can find no grounds stated for this assumption and can suppose only that what is changing with great rapidity is conceived to be alive; yet I know nothing more productive of rapid changes than putrefaction.
Do not be deceived. This is not vital art, it is decadent and corrupt. True art has always been the expression by the artist of the ideals of his time and of the world in which he lived—ideals which were his own because he was a part of that world. A living and healthy art never has existed and never can exist except through the mutual understanding and co-operation of the artist and his public. Art is made for man and has a social function to perform. We have a right to demand that it shall be both human and humane; that it shall show some sympathy in the artist with our thoughts and our feelings; that it shall interpret our ideals to us in that universal language which has grown up in the course of ages. We have a right to reject with pity or with scorn the stammerings of incompetence, the babble of lunacy, or the vaporing of imposture. But mutual understanding implies a duty on the part of the public as well as on the part of the artist, and we must give as well as take. We must be at the pains to learn something of the language of art in which we bid the artist speak. If we would have beauty from him we must sympathize with his aspiration for beauty. Above all, if we would have him interpret for us our ideals we must have ideals worthy of such interpretation. Without this co-operation on our part we may have a better art than we deserve, for noble artists will be born, and they will give us an art noble in its essence however mutilated and shorn of its effectiveness by our neglect. It is only by being worthy of it that we can hope to have an art we may be proud of—an art lofty in its inspiration, consummate in its achievement, disciplined in its strength.
Categories: English Literature