ESSAYS ON ART
METHUEN & CO. LTD. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C.
First Published in 1919
These essays, reprinted from the Times Literary Supplement with a few additions and corrections, are not all entirely or directly concerned with art; but even the last one—Waste or Creation?—does bear on the question, How are we to improve the art of our own time? After years of criticism I am more interested in this question than in any other that concerns the arts. Whistler said that we could not improve it; the best we could do for it was not to think about it. I have discussed that opinion, as also the contrary opinion of Tolstoy, and the truth that seems to me to lie between them. If these essays have any unity, it is given to them by my belief that art, like other human activities, is subject to the will of man. We cannot cause men of artistic genius to be born; but we can provide a public, namely, ourselves, for the artist, who will encourage him to be an artist, to do his best, not his worst. I believe that the quality of art in any age depends, not upon the presence or absence of individuals of genius, but upon the attitude of the public towards art.
Because of the decline of all the arts, especially the arts of use, which began at the end of the eighteenth century and has continued up to our own time, we are more interested in art than any people of the past, with the interest of a sick man in health. To say that this interest must be futile or mischievous is to deny the will of man in one of the chief of human activities; but it often is denied by those who do not understand how it can be applied to art. We cannot make artists directly; no government office can determine their training; still less can any critic tell them how they ought to practise their art. But we can all aim at a state of society in which they will be encouraged to do their best, and at a state of mind in which we ourselves shall learn to know good from bad and to prefer the good. At present we have neither the state of society nor the state of mind; and we can attain to both not by connoisseurship, not by an anxiety to like the right thing or at least to buy it, but by learning the difference between good and bad workmanship and design in objects of use. Anyone can do that, and can resolve to pay a fair price for good workmanship and design; and only so will the arts of use, and all the arts, revive again. For where the public has no sense of design in the arts of use, it will have none in the "fine arts." To aim at connoisseurship when you do not know a good table or chair from a bad one is to attempt flying before you can walk. So, I think, professors of art at Oxford or Cambridge should be chosen, not so much for their knowledge of Greek sculpture, as for their success in furnishing their own houses. What can they know about Greek sculpture if their own drawing-rooms are hideous? I believe that the notorious fallibility of many experts is caused by the fact that they concern themselves with the fine arts before they have had any training in the arts of use. So, if we are to have a school of art at Oxford or Cambridge, it should put this question to every pupil: If you had to build and furnish a house of your own, how would you set about it? And it should train its pupils to give a rational answer to that question. So we might get a public knowing the difference between good and bad in objects of use, valuing the good, and ready to pay a fair price for it.
At present we have no such public. A liberal education should teach the difference between good and bad in things of use, including buildings. Oxford and Cambridge profess to give a liberal education; but you have only to look at their modern buildings to see that their teachers themselves do not know a good building from a bad one. They, like all the rest of us, think that taste in art is an irrational mystery; they trust in the expert and usually in the wrong one, as the ignorant and superstitious trust in the wrong priest. For as religion is merely mischievous unless it is tested in matters of conduct, so taste is mere pedantry or frivolity unless it is tested on things of use. These have their sense or nonsense, their righteousness or unrighteousness, which anyone can learn to see for himself, and, until he has learned, he will be at the mercy of charlatans.
I have written all these essays as a member of the public, as one who has to find a right attitude towards art so that the arts may flourish again. The critic is sure to be a charlatan or a prig, unless he is to himself not a pseudo-artist expounding the mysteries of art and telling artists how to practise them, but simply one of the public with a natural and human interest in art. But one of these essays is a defence of criticism, and I will not repeat it here.
A. CLUTTON-BROCK July 30, 1919 FARNCOMBE, SURREY
"THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI" 1
LEONARDO DA VINCI 13
THE POMPADOUR IN ART 27
AN UNPOPULAR MASTER 37
A DEFENCE OF CRITICISM 48
THE ARTIST AND HIS AUDIENCE 58
WILFULNESS AND WISDOM 74
"THE MAGIC FLUTE" 86
PROCESS OR PERSON? 97
THE ARTIST AND THE TRADESMAN 110
PROFESSIONALISM IN ART 120
WASTE OR CREATION? 132
ESSAYS ON ART
"The Adoration of the Magi"
There is one beauty of nature and another of art, and many attempts have been made to explain the difference between them. Signor Croce's theory, now much in favour, is that nature provides only the raw material for art. The beginning of the artistic process is the perception of beauty in nature; but an artist does not see beauty as he sees a cow. It is his own mind that imposes on the chaos of nature an order, a relation, which is beauty. All men have the faculty, in some degree, of imposing this order; the artist only does it more completely than other men, and he owes his power of execution to that. He can make the beauty which he has perceived because he has perceived it clearly; and this perceiving is part of the making.
The defect of this theory is that it ends by denying that very difference between the beauty of nature and the beauty of art which it sets out to explain. If the artist makes the beauty of nature in perceiving it, if it is produced by the action of his own mind upon the chaos of reality, then it is the very same beauty that appears in his art; and if, to us, the beauty of his art seems different from the beauty of nature, as we perceive it, it is only because we have not ourselves seen the beauty of nature as completely as he has, we have not reduced chaos so thoroughly to order. It is a difference not of kind, but of degree; for the artist himself there is no difference even of degree. What he makes he sees, and what he sees he makes. All beauty is artistic, and to speak of natural beauty is to make a false distinction.
Yet it is a distinction that we remain constantly aware of. In spite of Signor Croce and all the subtlety and partial truth of his theory, we do not believe that we make beauty when we see it, or that the artist makes it when he sees it. Nor do we believe that that beauty which he makes is of the same nature as that which he has perceived in reality. Rather he, like us, values the beauty which he perceives in reality because he knows that he has not made it. It is something, independent of himself, to which his own mind makes answer: that answer is his art; it is the passionate value expressed in it which gives beauty to his art. If he knew that the beauty he perceives was a product of his own mind, he could not value it so; if he held Signor Croce's theory, he would cease to be an artist.
And, in fact, those who act on his theory do cease to be artists. Nothing kills art so certainly as the effort to produce a beauty of the same kind as that which is perceived in nature. In the beauty of nature, as we perceive it, there is a perfection of workmanship which is perfection because there is no workmanship. Natural things are not made, but born; works of art are made. There is the essential difference between them and between their beauties. If a work of art tries to have the finish of a thing born, not made, if a piece of enamel apes the gloss of a butterfly's wing, it misses the peculiar beauty of art and is but an inadequate imitation of the beauty of nature. That beauty of the butterfly's wing, which the artist like all of us perceives, is of a different kind from any beauty he can make; and if he is an artist he knows it and does not try to make it. But all the arts, even those which are not themselves imitative, are always being perverted by the attempt to imitate the finish of nature. There is a vanity of craftsmanship in Louis Quinze furniture, in the later Chinese porcelain, in modern jewelry, no less than in Dutch painting, which is the death of art. All great works of art show an effort, a roughness, an inadequacy of craftsmanship, which is the essence of their beauty and distinguishes it from the beauty of nature. As soon as men cease to understand this and despise this effort and roughness and inadequacy, they demand from art the beauty of nature and get something which is mostly dead nature, not living art.
We can best understand the difference between the two kinds of beauty if we consider how beauty steals into language, that art which we all practise more or less and in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to imitate the finish of natural beauty. There is no beauty whatever in sentences like "Trespassers will be prosecuted" or "Pass the mustard," because they say exactly and completely all that they have to say. There is beauty in sentences like "The bright day is done, And we are for the dark," or "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well," because in them, although they seem quite simple, the poet is trying to say a thousand times more than he can say. It is the effort to do something beyond the power of words that brings beauty into them. That is the very nature of the beauty of art, which distinguishes it from the beauty of nature; it is always produced by the effort to accomplish the impossible, and what the artist knows to be impossible. Whenever that effort ceases, whenever the artist sets himself a task that he can accomplish, a task of mere skill, then he ceases to be an artist, because he no longer experiences reality in the manner necessary to an artist. The great poet is aware of some excellence in reality so intensely that it is to him beauty; for all excellence when we are intensely aware of it is beauty to us. There is that truth in Croce's theory. Our perception of beauty does depend upon the intensity of our perception of excellence. But that intensity of perception remains perception, and does not make what it perceives. That the poet and every artist knows; and his art is not merely an extension of the process of perception, but an attempt to express his own value for that excellence which he has perceived as beauty. It is an answer to that beauty, a worship of it, and is itself beautiful because it makes no effort to compete with it.
Thus in the beauty of art there is always value and wonder, always a reference to another beauty different in kind from itself; and we too, if we are to see the beauty of art, must share the same value and wonder. To enter that Kingdom of Heaven we must become little children as the artist himself does. Art is the expression of a certain attitude towards reality, an attitude of wonder and value, a recognition of something greater than man; and where that recognition is not, art dies. In a society valuing only itself, believing that it can make a heaven of itself out of its own skill and knowledge and wisdom, the difference between the beauty of nature and the beauty of art is no longer seen, and art loses all its own beauty. The surest sign of corruption and death in a society is where men and women see the best life as a life without wonder or effort or failure, where labour is hidden underground so that a few may seem to live in Paradise; where there is perfect finish of all things, human beings no less than their clothes and furniture and buildings and pictures; where the ideal is the lady so perfectly turned out that any activity whatever would mar her perfection. In such societies the artist becomes a slave. He too must produce work that does not seem to be work. He must express no wonder or value for patrons who would be ashamed to feel either. What he makes must seem to be born and not made, so that it may fit a world which pretends to be a born Paradise populated by cynical angels who own allegiance to no god. In such a world art means, beauty means, the concealment of effort, the pretence that it does not exist; and that pretence is the end of art and beauty in all things made by man. There is a close connexion between the idea of life expressed in Aristotle's ideal man and the later Greek sculpture. The aim of that sculpture, as of his ideal man, was proud and effortless perfection. Both dread the confession of failure above all things—and both are dull. In Aristotle's age art had started upon a long decline, which ended only when the pretence of perfection was killed, both in art and in life, by Christianity. Then the real beauty of art, the beauty of value and wonder, superseded the wearisome imitation of natural beauty; and it is only lately that we have learnt again to prefer the real beauty to the false.
Men must free themselves from the contempt of effort and the desire to conceal it, they must be content with the perpetual, passionate failure of art, before they can see its beauty or demand that beauty from the artist. When they themselves become like little children, then they see that the greatest artists, in all their seeming triumphs, are like little children too. For in Michelangelo and Beethoven it is not the arrogant, the accomplished, the magnificent, that moves us. They are great men to us; but they achieved beauty because in their effort to achieve it they were little children to themselves. They impose awe on us, but it is their own awe that they impose. It is not their achievement that makes beauty, but their effort, always confessing its own failure; and in that confession is the beauty of art. That is why it moves and frees us; for it frees us from our pretence that we are what we would be, it carries us out of our own egotism into the wonder and value of the artist himself.
Consider the beauty of a tune. Music itself is the best means which man has found for confessing that he cannot say what he would say; and it is more purely and rapturously beauty than any other form of art. A tune is the very silencing of speech, and in the greatest tunes there is always the hush of wonder: they seem to tell us to be silent and listen, not to what the musician has to say, but to what he cannot say. The very beauty of a tune is in its reference to something beyond all expression, and in its perfection it speaks of a perfection not its own. Pater said that all art tries to attain to the condition of music. That is true in a sense different from what he meant. Art is always most completely art when it makes music's confession of the ineffable; then it comes nearest to the beauty of music. But when it is no longer a forlorn hope, when it is able to say what it wishes to say with calm assurance, then it has ceased to be art and become a game of skill.
Often the great artist is imperious, impatient, full of certainties; but his certainty is not of himself; and he is impatient of the failure to recognize, not himself, but what he recognizes. Michelangelo, Beethoven, Tintoret, would snap a critic's head off if he did not see what they were trying to do. They may seem sometimes to be arrogant in the mere display of power, yet their beauty lies in the sudden change from arrogance to humility. The arrogance itself bows down and worships; the very muscle and material force obey a spirit not their own. They are lion-tamers, and they themselves are the lions; out of the strong comes forth sweetness, and it is all the sweeter for the strength that is poured into it and subdued by it. What is the difference, as of different worlds, between Rubens at his best and Tintoret at his best? This: that Rubens always seems to be uplifted by his own power, whereas Tintoret has most power when he forgets it in wonder. When he bows down all his turbulence in worship, then he is most strong. Rubens, in the "Descent from the Cross," is still the supreme drawing-master; and painters flocking to him for lessons pay homage to him. But, in his "Crucifixion," it is Tintoret himself who pays homage, and we forget the master in the theme. We may say of Rubens's art, in a new sense, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." The greatest art is not magnificent, but it is war, desperate and without trappings, a war in which victory comes through the confession of defeat.
Man, if he tries to be a god in his art, makes a fool of himself. He becomes like God, he makes beauty like God, when he is too much aware of God to be aware of himself. Then only does he not set himself too easy a task, for then he does not make his theme so that he may accomplish it; it is forced upon him by his awareness of God, by his wonder and value for an excellence not his own. So in all the beauty of art there is a humility not only of conception, but also of execution, which is mere failure and ugliness to those who expect to find in art the beauty and finish of nature, who expect it to be born, not made. They are always disappointed by the greatest works of art, by their inadequacy and strain and labour. They look for a proof of what man can do and find a confession of what he cannot do; but that confession, made sincerely and passionately, is beauty. There is also a serenity in the beauty of art, but it is the serenity of self-surrender, not of self-satisfaction, of the saint, not of the lady of fashion. And all the accomplishment of great art, its infinite superiority in mere skill over the work of the merely skilful, comes from the incessant effort of the artist to do more than he can. By that he is trained; by that his work is distinguished from the mere exclamation of wonder. He is not content to applaud; he must also worship, and make his offerings in his worship; and they are the best he can do. It was not only the shepherds who came to the birth of Christ; the wise men came also and brought their treasures with them. And the art of mankind is the offering of its wise men, it is the adoration of the Magi, who are one with the simplest in their worship—
Wise men, all ways of knowledge past, To the Shepherd's wonder come at last.
But they do not lose their wisdom in their wonder. When it passes into wonder, when all the knowledge and skill and passion of mankind are poured into the acknowledgment of something greater than themselves, then that acknowledgment is art, and it has a beauty which may be envied by the natural beauty of God Himself.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous men in history—as a man more famous than Michelangelo or Shakespeare or Mozart—because posterity has elected him the member for the Renaissance. Most great artists live in what they did, and by that we know them; but what Leonardo did gets much of its life from what he was, or rather from what he is to us. Of all great men he is the most representative; we cannot think of him as a mere individual, eating and drinking, living and competing, on equal terms with other men. We see him magnified by his own legend from the first, with people standing aside to watch and whisper as he passed through the streets of Florence or Milan. "There he goes to paint the Last Supper," they said to each other; and we think of it as already the most famous picture in the world before it was begun. Every one knew that he had the most famous picture in his brain, that he was born to paint it, to initiate the High Renaissance; from Giotto onwards all the painters had been preparing for that, Florence herself had been preparing for it. It makes no difference that for centuries it has been a shadow on the wall; it is still the most famous painting in the world because it is the masterpiece of Leonardo. There was a fate against the survival of his masterpieces, but he has survived them and they are remembered because of him. We accept him for himself, like the people of his own time, who, when he said he could perform impossibilities, believed him. To them he meant the new age which could do anything, and still to us he means the infinite capacities of man. He is the Adam awakened whom Michelangelo only painted; and, if he accomplished but little, we believe in him, as in mankind, for his promise. If he did not fulfil it, neither has mankind; but he believed that all things could be done and lived a great life in that faith.
Another Florentine almost equals him in renown. Men watched and whispered when Dante passed through the streets of Florence; but Dante lives in his achievement, Leonardo in himself. Dante means to us an individual soul quivering through a system, a creed, inherited from the past. Leonardo is a spirit unstraitened; not consenting to any past nor rebelling against it, but newborn with a newborn universe around it, seeing it without memories or superstitions, without inherited fears or pieties, yet without impiety or irreverence. He is not an iconoclast, since for him there are no images to be broken; whatever he sees is not an image but itself, to be accepted or rejected by himself; what he would do he does without the help or hindrance of tradition. In art and in science he means the same thing, not a rebirth of any past, as the word Renaissance seems to imply, but freedom from all the past, life utterly in the present. He is concerned not with what has been thought, or said, or done, but with his own immediate relation to all things, with what he sees and feels and discovers. Authority is nothing to him, whether of Galen or of St. Thomas, of Greek or mediaeval art. In science he looks at the fact, in art at the object; nor will he allow either to be hidden from him by the achievements of the dead. Giotto had struck the first blow for freedom when he allowed the theme to dictate the picture; Leonardo allowed the object to dictate the drawing. To him the fact itself is sacred, and man fulfils himself in his own immediate relation to fact.
All those who react and rebel against the Renaissance have an easy case against its great representative. What did he do in thought compared with St. Thomas, or in art compared with the builders of Chartres or Bourges? He filled notebooks with sketches and conjectures; he modelled a statue that was never cast; he painted a fresco on a wall, and with a medium so unsuited to fresco that it was a ruin in a few years. Even in his own day there was a doubt about him; it is expressed in the young Michelangelo's sudden taunt that he could not cast the statue he had modelled. Michelangelo was one of those who see in life always the great task to be performed and who judge a man by his performance; to him Leonardo was a dilettante, a talker; he made monuments, but Leonardo remains his own monument, a prophecy of what man shall be when he comes into his kingdom. With him, we must confess, it is more promise than performance; he could paint "The Last Supper" because it means the future; he could never, in good faith, have painted "The Last Judgment," for that means a judgment on the past, and to him the past is nothing; to him man, in the future, is the judge, master, enjoyer of his own fate. Compared with his, Michelangelo's mind was still mediaeval, his reproach the reproach of one who cares for doing more than for being, and certainly Michelangelo did a thousand times more; but from his own day to ours the world has not judged Leonardo by his achievement. As Johnson had his Boswell so he has had his legend; he means to us not books or pictures, but himself. In his own day kings bid for him as if he were a work of art; and he died magnificently in France, making nothing but foretelling a race of men not yet fulfilled.
Before Francis Bacon, before Velasquez or Manet, he prophesied not merely the new artist or the new man of science, but the new man who is to free himself from his inheritance and to see, feel, think, and act in all things with the spontaneity of God. That is why he is a legendary hero to us, with a legend that is not in the past but in the future. For his prophecy is still far from fulfilment; and the very science that he initiated tells us how hard it is for man to free himself from his inheritance. It seems strange to us that Leonardo sang hymns to causation as if to God. In its will was his peace and his freedom.
O marvellous necessity, thou with supreme reason constrainest all efforts to be the direct result of their causes, and by a supreme and irrevocable law every natural action obeys thee by the shortest possible process.
Who would believe that so small a space could contain the images of all the universe? O mighty process, what talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as thine? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily none. This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things.
[Footnote 1: The sayings of Leonardo quoted in this article are taken from Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks, by E. M'Curdy. (Duckworth, 1906.)]
To Leonardo causation meant the escape from caprice; it meant a secure relation between man and all things, in which man would gain power by knowledge, in which every increase of knowledge would reveal to him more and more of the supreme reason. There was no chain for him in cause and effect, no unthinking of the will of man. Rather by knowledge man would discover his own will and know that it was the universal will. So man must never be afraid of knowledge. "The eye is the window of the soul." Like Whitman he tells us always to look with the eye, and so to confound the wisdom of ages. There is in every man's vision the power of relating himself now and directly to reality by knowledge; and in knowing other things he knows himself. By knowledge man changes what seemed to be a compulsion into a harmony; he gives up his own caprice for the universal will.
That is the religion of Leonardo, in art as in science. For him the artist also must relate himself directly to the visible world, in which is the only inspiration; to accept any formula is to see with dead men's eyes. That has been said again and again by artists, but not with Leonardo's mystical and philosophical conviction. He knew that it is vain to study Nature unless she is to you a goddess or a god; you can learn nothing from reality unless you adore it, and in adoring it he found his freedom. How different is this doctrine from that with which, after centuries of scientific advance, we intimidate ourselves. We are threatened by a creed far more enslaving than that of the Middle Ages. If the Middle Ages turned to the past to learn what they were to think or to do, we turn to the past to learn what we are. They may have feared the new; but we say that there is no new, nothing but some combination or variation of the old. Causation is to us a chain that binds us to the past, but to Leonardo it was freedom; and so he prophesies a freedom that we may attain to not by denying facts or making myths, but by discovering what he hinted—that causation itself is not compulsion but will, and our will if, by knowledge, we make it ours.
No one before him had been so much in love with reality, whatever it may be. He was called a sceptic, but it was only that he preferred reality itself to any tales about it; and his religion, his worship, was the search for the very fact. This, because he was both artist and man of science, he carried further than anyone else, pursuing it with all his faculties. In his drawings there is the beauty not of his character, but of the character of what he draws; he does not make a design, but finds it. That beauty proves him a Florentine—Duerer himself falls short of it—but it is the beauty of the thing itself, discovered and insisted upon with the passion of a lover. He draws animals, trees, flowers, as Correggio draws Antiope or Io; and it is only in his drawings now that he speaks clearly to us. The "Mona Lisa" is well enough, but another hand might have executed the painting of it. It owes its popular fame to the smile about which it is so easy to write finely; but in the drawings we see the experiencing passion of Leonardo himself, we see him feeling, as in the notebooks we see him thinking. There is the eagerness of discovery at which so often he stopped short, turning away from a task to further discovery, living always in the moment, taking no thought either for the morrow or for yesterday, unable to attend to any business, even the business of the artist, seeing life not as a struggle or a duty, but as an adventure of all the senses and all the faculties. He is, even with his pencil, the greatest talker in the world, but without egotism, talking always of what he sees, satisfying himself not with the common appetites and passions of men, but with his one supreme passion for reality. If Michelangelo thought him a dilettante, there must have been in his taunt some envy of Leonardo's freedom.
Yet once at least Leonardo did achieve, and something we should never have expected from his drawings. "The Last Supper" is but a shadow on the wall, yet still we can see its greatness, which is the greatness of pure design, of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesa. Goethe and others have found all kinds of psychological subtleties in it, meanings in every gesture; but what we see now is only space, grandeur, a supreme moment expressed in the relation of all the forms. The pure music of the painting remains when the drama is almost obliterated; and it proves that Leonardo, when he chose, could withdraw himself from the delight of hand-to-mouth experience into a vision of his own, that he had the reserve and the creative power of the earlier masters and of that austere, laborious youth who taunted him. If it were not for "The Last Supper" we might doubt whether he could go further in art than the vivid sketch of "The Magi"; but "The Last Supper" tells us how great his passion for reality must have been, since it could distract him from the making of such masterpieces.
That passion for reality itself made him cold to other passions. We know Michelangelo and Beethoven as men in some respects very like other men. They were anxious, fretful, full of affections and grievances, and much concerned with their relations. Leonardo is like Melchizedek, not only by the accident of birth, for he was a natural son, but by choice. He never married, he never had a home; there is no evidence that he was ever tied to any man or woman by his affections; yet it would be stupid to call him cold, for his one grand passion absorbed him. Monks suspected him, but in his heart he was celibate like the great monkish saints, celibate not by vows but by preoccupation. It is clear that from youth to age life had no cumulative power over him; as we should say in our prosaic language, he never settled down, for he let things happen to him and valued the very happening. He was always like a strange, wonderful creature from another planet, taking notes with unstaled delight but never losing his heart to any particular. Sex itself seems hardly to exist for him, or at least for his mind. Often the people in his drawings are of no sex. Rembrandt draws every one, Leonardo no one, as if he were his own relation. Women and youths were as much a subject of his impassioned curiosity as flowers, and no more. He is always the spectator, but a spectator who can exercise every faculty of the human mind and every passion in contemplation; he is the nearest that any man has ever come to Aristotle's Supreme Being.
But we must not suppose that he went solemnly through life living up to his own story, that he was mysterious in manner or in any respect like a charlatan. Rather, he lived always in the moment and overcame mankind by his spontaneity. He had the charm of the real man of genius, not the reserve of the false one. The famous statement of what he could do, which he made to Ludovico Sforza, is not a mere boast but an expression of his eagerness to do it. These engines of war were splendid toys to him, and all his life he enjoyed making toys and seeing men wonder at them. His delight was to do things for the first time like a child, and then not to do them again. Again and again he cries out against authority and in favour of discovery. "Whoever in discussion adduces authority," he says, "uses not intellect but rather memory"; and, anticipating Milton, he observes that all our knowledge originates in opinions. Perhaps some one had rebuked him for having too many opinions. We can be sure that he chafed against dull, cautious, safe men who wished for results. He himself cared nothing for them; it was enough for him to know what might be done, without doing it. He was so sure of his insight that he did not care to put it to the test of action; that was for slower men, whether artists or men of science. His notebooks were enough for him.
In spite of the notebooks and the sketches, we know less about the man Leonardo than about the man Shakespeare. Here and there he makes a remark with some personal conviction or experience in it. "Intellectual passion," he says, "drives out sensuality." In him it had driven out or sublimated all the sensual part of character. We cannot touch or see or hear him in anything he says or draws. The passion is there, but it is too much concerned with universals to be of like nature with our own passions. He seems to be speaking to himself as if he had forgotten the whole audience of mankind, but in what he says he ignores the personal part of himself; he is most passionate when most impersonal. "To the ambitious, whom neither the boon of life nor the beauty of the world suffices to content, it comes as a penance that life with them is squandered and that they possess neither the benefits nor the beauty of the world." That might be a platitude said by some one else; but we know that in it Leonardo expresses his faith. The boon of life, the beauty of the world, were enough for him without ambition, without even further affections. He left father and mother and wealth, and even achievement, to follow them; and he left all those not out of coldness, or fear, or idleness, but because his own passion drew him away. No cold man could have said, "Where there is most power of feeling, there of martyrs is the greatest martyr." It is difficult for us northerners to understand the intellectual passion of the South, to see even that it is passion; most difficult of all for us to see that in men like Leonardo the passion for beauty itself is intellectual. We, with our romanticism, our sense of exile, can never find that identity which he found between beauty and reality. "This benign nature so provides that all over the world you find something to imitate." To us imitation means prose, to him it meant poetry; science itself meant poetry, and illusion was the only ugliness. "Nature never breaks her own law." It is we who try to find freedom in lawlessness, which is ignorance, ugliness, illusion. "Falsehood is so utterly vile that, though it should praise the great works of God, it offends against His divinity." There is Leonardo's religion; and if still it is too cold for us, it is because we have not his pure spiritual fire in ourselves.
The Pompadour in Art
It is an important fact in the history of the arts for the last century or more that in England and America, if not elsewhere, the chief interest in all the arts, including literature, has been taken by women rather than by men. In the great ages of art it was not so. Women, so far as we can tell, had little to do with the art of Greece in the fifth century or with the art of the Middle Ages. There were female patrons of art at the Renaissance, but they were exceptions subject to the prevailing masculine taste. Art was and remained a proper interest of men up to the eighteenth century. Women first began to control it and to affect its character at the mistress-ridden Court of Louis XV. But in the nineteenth century men began to think they were too busy to concern themselves with the arts. Men of power, when they were not working, needed to take exercise and left it to their wives to patronize the arts. And so the notion grew that art was a feminine concern, and even artists were pets for women. The great man, especially in America, liked his wife to have every luxury. The exquisite life she led was itself a proof of his success; and she was for him a living work of art, able to live so because of the abundance of his strength. In her, that strength passed into ornament and became beautiful; she was a friendly, faithful Delilah to his Samson, a Delilah who did not shear his locks. And so he came to think of art itself as being in its nature feminine if not effeminate, as a luxury and ornament of life, as everything, in fact, except a means of expression for himself and other men.
This female control of art began, as I have said, at the mistress-ridden Court of Louis XV, and it has unfortunately kept the stamp of its origin. At that Court art, to suit the tastes of the Pompadour and the Du Barri, became consciously frivolous, became almost a part of the toilet. The artist was the slave of the mistress, and seems to have enjoyed his chains. In this slavery he did produce something charming; he did invest that narrow and artificial Heaven of the Court with some of the infinite beauty and music of a real Heaven. But out of this refined harem art there has sprung a harem art of the whole world which has infested the homes even of perfectly respectable ladies ever since. All over Europe the ideals of applied art have remained the ideals of the Pompadour; and only by a stern and conscious effort have either women or men been able to escape from them. Everywhere there has spread a strange disease of romantic snobbery, the sufferers from which, in their efforts at aesthetic expression, always pretend to be what they are not. Excellent mothers of families, in their furniture and sometimes even in their clothes, pretend to be King's mistresses. Of course, if this pretence were put into words and so presented to their consciousness, they would be indignant. It has for them no connexion with conduct; it is purely aesthetic, but art means to them make-believe, the make-believe that they live an entirely frivolous life of pleasure provided for them by masculine power and devotion.
Yet these ladies know that they have not the revenues of the Pompadour; they must have their art, their make-believe, as cheap as possible; and it has been one of the triumphs of modern industry to provide them with cheap imitations of the luxury of the Pompadour. Hence the machine-made frivolities of the most respectable homes, the hair-brushes with backs of stamped silver, the scent-bottles of imitation cut-glass, the draperies with printed rose-buds on them, the general artificial-floweriness and flimsiness and superfluity of naughtiness of our domestic art. It expresses a feminine romance to which the male indulgently consents, as if he were really the voluptuous monarch whose mistress the female, aesthetically, pretends to be. In this world of aesthetic make-believe our homes are not respectable; they would scorn to be so, for to the romantic female mind, when it occupies itself with art, the improper is the artistic.
But this needs a more precise demonstration. We wonder at our modern passion for superfluous ornament. We shall understand it only if we discover its origin. The King's mistress liked everything about her to be ornamented, because it was a point of honour with her to advertise the King's devotion to her in the costliness of all her surroundings. He loved her so much that he had paid for all this ornamentation. She, like Cleopatra, was always proving the potency of her charms by melting pearls in vinegar. Like a prize ox, she was hung with the trophies of her physical pre-eminence. In all the art which we call Louis Quinze there is this advertisement of the labour spent upon it. It proclaims that a vast deal of trouble has been taken in the making of it, and we can see the artist utterly subdued to this trouble, utterly the slave of the mistress's exorbitant whims. This advertisement of labour spent, without the reality, has been the mark of all popular domestic art ever since.
The beautiful is the ornamented—namely, that which looks as if it had taken a great deal of trouble to make. The trouble now is taken by machinery, and so, with the cost, is minimized; and what it produces is ugliness, an ugliness which could not be mistaken for beauty but for the notion that it does express a desirable state of being in those who possess it. And this desirable state is the state of the King's mistress, of a siren who can have whatever she desires because of the potency of her charms. How otherwise can we explain the passion for superfluous machine-made ornament which makes our respectable homes so hideous? The machine simulates a trouble that has not been taken, and so gives proof of a voluptuous infatuation that does not exist. The hardworking mother of a family buys out of her scanty allowance a scent-bottle that looks as if it had been laboriously cut for a King's mistress, whereas really it has been moulded by machinery to keep up the delusion, unconsciously cherished by her, that she lives in a world of irresistible and unscrupulous feminine charm. And her husband endures indulgently all this superfluous ugliness because he, too, believes that it is the function of art to make the drawing-room of the mother of a family look like the boudoir of a siren.
Most of this make-believe remains unconscious. We are all so used to it that we do not see in it the expression of the dying harem instinct in women. Yet it persists, even where the harem instinct would be passionately repudiated. It persists often in the dress of the most defiant suffragette, in outbreaks of incongruous frivolity, forlorn tawdry roses that still whisper memories of the Pompadour and her triumphant guilty splendour.
But besides all this unconscious feminine influence upon art, there is the influence of women who care consciously for art; and it also has an enervating effect on the artist. For the female patron of art, just because there are so few male patrons of it, is apt to take a motherly interest in the artist. To her he is a delightful wayward child rather than a real man occupied with real things, like her husband or her father or her brother: not one who can earn money for her and fight for her and protect her, but rather one who needs to be protected and humoured in a world which cares so little for art. To her, with all her passion for art, it is something in its nature irrational, and, like a child, delightful because irrational. It is an escape from reality rather than a part of it. And so she will believe whatever the artist tells her because he is an artist, not because he is a man of sense; and she encourages him to be more of an artist than a man of sense. She encourages him to be extravagantly aesthetic, and enjoys all his extravagance as a diversion from the sound masculinity of her own mankind. There is room in her prosperous, easy world for these diversions from business, just as there is room for charity or, perhaps, religion. The world can afford artists as it can afford pets; as it can afford beautiful, cultivated women. And that also is the view of her husband, if he is good-natured. But to him, just because art and artists are the proper concern of his wife, they are even less serious than they are to her. She may persuade herself that she takes them quite seriously, but he pretends to do so only out of politeness, and as he would pretend to take her clothes seriously. For him the type of the artist is still the pianist who gives locks of his over-abundant hair to ladies. Even if the artist is a painter and cuts his hair and dresses like a man, he still belongs to the feminine world and excites himself about matters that do not concern men. Men can afford him, and so they tolerate him; but he is one of the expenses they would cut down if it were necessary to cut down expenses.
Well, it is necessary to cut down expenses now; and yet in ages much sterner and poorer than our own art was the concern of men, and they afforded it because it was not to them a mere feminine luxury. They afforded the towering churches of the Middle Ages because they expressed the religious passion of all mankind; and have we nothing to express except a dying harem instinct and the motherliness of kind women to a neglected class? We ought to be grateful to this motherliness, which has kept art alive in an age of ignorance; but we should see that it is only a pis-aller, and women should see this as well as men. The female attitude towards art has been itself the result of a wrong relation between women and men, a relation half-animal, half-romantic, and therefore not quite real. This relation, even while it has ceased to exist more and more in fact, has still continued to express itself aesthetically; and in art it has become a mere obsolete nuisance. One may care nothing for art and yet long to be rid of the meaningless frivolities of our domestic art. One may wish to clear them away as so much litter and trash; and this clearance is necessary so that we may purge our vision and see what is beautiful. We are almost rid of the manners of the King's mistress, and most women no longer try to appeal to men by their charming unreason. It is not merely that the appeal fails now; they themselves refuse to make it, out of self-respect. But they still remain irrational in their tastes; or at least they have not learned that all this aesthetic irrationality misrepresents them, that it is forced upon them by tradesmen, that it is as inexpressive as a sentimental music-hall song sung by a gramophone. But now that men have given women the vote, and so proved that they take them seriously at last, they have the right to speak plainly on this matter. The feminine influence upon art has been bad. Let us admit that it has been the result of a bad masculine influence upon women, that it has been supreme because men have become philistine; but the fact remains that it has been bad. Art must be taken seriously if it is to be worth anything. It must be the expression of what is serious and real in the human mind. But all this feminine art has expressed, and has tried to glorify, something false and worthless. Therefore it has been ugly, and we are all sick of its ugliness. We look to women, now that they are equalled with men by an act of legal justice, to deliver us from it. They disown the Pompadour in fact; let them disown her in art.
An Unpopular Master
Nicholas Poussin is one of the great painters of the world; yet it is easier to give reasons for disliking him than for liking him. After his death there was a war of pamphlets about him; the one side, led by Lebrun, holding him up as a model for all painters to come, the other side, under de Piles, calling him a mere pedant compared with Rubens. Here is a passage from a poem against Poussin:—
Il scavoit manier la regle et le compas, Parloit de la lumiere et ne l'entendoit pas; Il estoit de l'antique un assez bon copiste, Mais sans invention, et mauvais coloriste. Il ne pouvait marcher que sur le pas d'autruy: Le genie a manque, c'est un malheur pour luy.
Now this is just what the criticism of yesterday said about him, the criticism of the eighties and nineties, when it was supposed that Velasquez had discovered the art of seeing, and with it the art of painting. It sounds plausible, but not a word of it is true. And yet it remains difficult to show why it is not true, to distinguish between the genius of Poussin and the pedantry of his imitators, to convince people that he was not a bad colourist, and that he did not imitate the antique.
This difficulty is connected with the age in which he happened to live. Nobody calls Mantegna a pedant nowadays; yet one might say against him most of the things that have been said against Poussin. But Mantegna lived in a century that we like, and Poussin in one that we dislike. The seventeenth century is for us a time of pictorial platitude; there was nothing then to discover about gesture or expression, and painters, even the best of them, used stock gestures and stock expressions without any of the eagerness of discovery. Now Poussin is, or appears to be, in many of his works a dramatic painter, and for us his drama is platitudinous. Take the "Plague of Ashdod," in the National Gallery. There are the gestures that we are already a little weary of in Raphael's cartoons. The figures express horror and fear with uplifted hands or contorted features; but their real business seems to be to make the picture. The drama is thrust upon us, and we cannot ignore it; yet we feel that it is no discovery for the artist, but something that he has learnt like a second-rate actor—that he has, in fact, a "bag of tricks" in common with all the Italian painters of his time, and that he is only pretending to be surprised by his subject. Now every age has its artistic platitudes; but these platitudes of dramatic expression are peculiarly wearisome to us because they have persisted in European painting up to the present day, and because most great painters in modern times have struggled in one way or another to escape from them. We associate them with mediocrity and insincerity; and we do not understand that for many of the better painters of the seventeenth century they were only a basis for discoveries of a different kind. Il Greco, for instance, is often as dramatically platitudinous as Guido Reni, but he also was making discoveries in design which happen to interest us now, so that we overlook his platitudes. He was trying to express his emotions not so much by gesture and the play of features as by a rhythm really independent of those, a rhythm carried through everything in the picture, to which all his platitudes are subject. And because this rhythm is new to us now we hardly notice the platitudes. Poussin was playing the same game, but his rhythm has been imitated by so many dull painters that we are tempted to think it as platitudinous as his drama, and that is where we are unjust to him.
Poussin had a mind that was at once passionate and determined to be master of its passions. He would not suppress them, but he would express them with complete composure; and as Donne in poetry tried to attain to an intellectual mastery over his passions by means of conceits, so Poussin in painting tried to attain to the same mastery through the representation of an ideal world. Each was enthralled with his experience of real life; but each was dissatisfied with the haphazard, tyrannous nature of that experience, and especially with the divorce between passion and intellect, which in actual experience is so painful to the man who is both passionate and intelligent. So each, in his art, tried to make a new kind of experience, in which passion should be intelligent and intellect passionate. This, no doubt, is what every artist tries to do; but the effort was peculiarly fierce in Donne and Poussin because in them there was a more than common discord between passion and intelligence, because they were instantly critical both of what they desired and of their own process of desire. Donne, at the very height of passion, asked himself why he was passionate; and he could not express his passion without trying to justify it to his intelligence. So in his poetry he endeavoured to experience it again with simultaneous intellectual justification which in that poetry was a part of the experience itself. Poussin aims not so much at an intellectual justification of passion as at an expression of it in which there shall be also complete intellectual composure. He aims in his art at an experience in which the intellect shall be free from the bewilderment of the passions and the passions also free from the check of the intellect; and to this he attains by the representation of an ideal state in which the intellect can make all the forms through which the passion expresses itself. He is, in fact, nearer than most painters to the musician; but still he is a painter and appeals to us through the representation of objects that we can recognize by their likeness to what we have seen ourselves. His intellect desires to make its forms, not to have them imposed upon it by mere ocular experience, since ocular experience for him is full of the tyrannous bewilderment of actual passion. But at the same time those forms which his intellect makes must be recognized by their likeness to what men see in the world about them. So he found a link between his ideal forms and what men see in what is vaguely called the antique.
But he did not go to the antique out of any artistic snobbery or because he distrusted his own natural taste. The antique was not for him an aristocratic world of art that he tried to enter in the hope of becoming himself an aristocrat. He showed that he was perfectly at ease in that world by the manner in which he painted its subjects. When, for instance, he paints Bacchanals, he is really much less overawed by the subject than Rubens would be. Rubens, who was a man of culture and an intellectual parvenu, tried desperately to combine his natural tastes with classical subjects. When he painted a Flemish cook as Venus he really tried to make her look like Venus; and the result is a Flemish cook pretending to be Venus, an incongruity that betrays a like incongruity in the artist's mind. Poussin's Venus, far less flesh and blood, does belong entirely to the world in which he imagines her—indeed, so intensely that, if we have lost interest in that world, she fails to interest us. The Venetians have done this much better, we think; and why, if Poussin was going to paint like Titian, did he not use Titian's colour? The answer is, Because his mood was very far from Titian's, because he makes a comment that Titian never makes upon his Venuses and Bacchanals. Rubens makes no comment at all: his attitude towards the classical is that of the wondering parvenu. Titian through the classical expresses the Renaissance liberation from scruple and fear. But Poussin gives us a mortal comment upon this immortal carelessness and delight. Whether his figures are tranquil or rapturous, there is in his colour an expression of something far from their felicity. Indeed, however voluptuous the forms may be, the colour is always ascetic. It is not that he seems to disapprove of those glorified pleasures of the senses, but that he cannot satisfy himself with his own conception of them, as Titian could. Titian represents a world in which all the mind consents to delight. His figures are not foolish, but they are like dancers or dreamers to the music of their own pleasure. He makes us hear that music to which his figures dance or dream; but, with Poussin, we do not hear it, we only see the figures subject to it as to some influence from which we are cut off; and that which cuts us off is the colour.
Most painters, if they wished to paint a scene of voluptuous pleasure, would conceive it first in colour; for colour is the natural expression of all delights of the senses. But Poussin never allows the delight that he paints to affect his colour at all. That is always an expression of his own permanent mind, of a mind that could not dance or dream to the music of any pleasure possible in this world. For him the ideal world was not merely one of perpetual, intensified pleasure, but one in which all the activities of the mind should work like gratified senses and yet keep their own character, in which passion should be freed from its bewilderment and intellect from its questioning. That was what he tried to represent; and his colour was a comment, half-unconscious perhaps, upon its impossibility. For the everlasting conflict between colour and form does itself express that impossibility. Whatever he might represent, Poussin could not, for one moment, lose his interest in form or subordinate it to colour. His figures, whatever their raptures, must express his own intellectual mastery of them; and it was impossible to combine this with a colour that should express their raptures. But Poussin, knowing this impossibility, was not content with a compromise. He might have used a faintly agreeable colour that would not be incongruous with their raptures; but he chose rather to express his own exasperation in a colour that was violently incongruous with them, but which at the same time heightens his emphasis upon form. So, though there is an incongruity between the subject itself and the mood in which it is treated, there is none in the treatment. Poussin himself seems to look, and to make us look, at a mythological Paradise, with the searching, mournful gaze of a human spectator. This glory is forbidden to us not merely by our circumstances but by the nature of our own minds. It is, indeed, one of our own conceptions of Heaven, but inadequate like all the rest; and Poussin, by making the conception clear to us, reveals its inadequacy.
He paints the subjects of the Renaissance like a man remembering his own youth, and sad, not because he has lost the pleasures of youth, but because he wasted himself upon them. Here are these deities, he seems to tell us, but there must be a secret in their felicity that we do not understand. The joy they seem to offer is below us, and he will not pretend to have caught it from them in his art. For that art is always sad, not with a particular grief nor with mere low spirits, but with the incongruity of the passions and the intellect; and this noble sadness is expressed by Poussin as no other painter has expressed it. He was himself a melancholy man to whom art was the one happiness of life; but he did not use his art to talk of his sorrows. He used it to create a world of clear and orderly design, and satisfied his intellect in the creation of it. In his art he could exercise the composure which actual experience disturbed; he could remake that reality so troubled by the conflict of sense, emotion, and understanding; but, even in remaking it, he added the comment that it was only his in art. And that is the reason why his art seems so impersonal to us, why there is the same cold passion in all his pictures, whether religious or mythological. In all of them he expresses a sharp dissatisfaction with the very nature of his actual experience. A painter like Rubens is entranced with his own actual vision of things; but Poussin tells us that he has never even seen anything as he wanted to see it. He is not a vague idealist dissatisfied with reality because of the weakness of his own senses or understanding. Rather he seems to cry, like Poe, of everything that he draws—
O God, can I not grasp Them with a tighter clasp?
It is the very substance and matter of things that he tries to master; and that so intensely that he never sees them flushed or dimmed by any mood of his own. Nor does he allow the passions of his figures to affect his representation of them or of their surroundings. He is cold, himself, towards these passions, for to him they are only a part of the bewilderment of actual experience. But in making forms he escapes from that bewilderment and shows us matter utterly subject to mind. Yet in this triumph there is always implied the sadness that such a triumph is impossible in life, that the artist cannot be what he paints. The Renaissance had failed, and Poussin's art was a bitterly sincere announcement of its failure.
A Defence of Criticism
The only kind of critic taken seriously in England is the art critic; and he is taken seriously as an expert, that is to say, as one who will tell us not what he has found in a work of art, but who produced it. His very judgment is valued not on a matter of art at all, but on a matter of business. No one wants to know whether a certain picture is good or bad. The question is, Was it painted by Romney? It might well have been and yet be a very bad picture; but that is not the point. Experts are called to say that it is by Romney; and they are proved to be wrong. Thereupon Sir Thomas Jackson writes to the Times and says that if people learned to think for themselves the profession of art critic would be at an end. The art critic, for him, is one who tells people what to think. And then he proceeds—
It is only for the public he writes; he is of no use to artists. I doubt whether any man in any branch of art could be found who would honestly say he had ever learned anything from the art critic, who, after all, is only an amateur. The criticism we value, and that which really helps, is that of our brother artists, often sharp and unsparing, but always salutary and useful. And if useless to the artist, art criticism is harmful to the public, who take their opinion from it at second hand. Were all art criticism made penal for ten years lovers of art would learn to think for themselves, and a truer appreciation of art than the commercial one would result, with the greatest benefit both to art and to artists. It is the artist and not the professional critic who should be the real instructor of the public taste.
Here there seems to be an inconsistency; for if we are to think for ourselves we do not need to be instructed by artists any more than by critics. But Sir Thomas Jackson may mean that the artist is to instruct the public only through his works. Still, the question remains, How is the artist to be recognized? There is a riddle—When is an artist not an artist? and the answer is—Nine times out of ten. Certainly the opinions of artists about each other will not bring security to the public mind; and does Sir T. Jackson really believe that artists always value the criticism of brother artists? Does an Academician value the criticism of a Vorticist, or vice versa? The Academician, of course, would say that the Vorticist was not an artist—and vice versa. The artist values the opinion of the artist who agrees with him; and at present there is less agreement among artists than among critics. They condemn each other more than the critics condemn them.
But these are minor points. What I am concerned with is Sir T. Jackson's notion of the function of criticism. For him, as for most Englishmen, the critic is one who tells people what to think; and the value of his criticism depends upon his reputation; we should pay no heed to art critics, because they are not artists. But the critic, whether of art or of anything else; is a writer; and he is to be judged not by his reputation either as artist or as critic, but by what he writes. Sir T. Jackson thinks that he is condemning the critic when he says that he writes only for the public. He might as well think that he condemned the artist if he said that he worked only for the public. Of course the critic writes for the public, as the painter paints for the public; and he writes as one of the public, not as an artist. Further, if he is a critic, he does not write to tell the public what to think any more than he writes to tell the painter how to paint. Just as the painter in his pictures expresses a general interest in the visible world, so the critic in his criticism expresses a general interest in art; and his justification, like that of the painter, consists in his power of expressing this interest. If he cannot express it well, it is useless to talk about his reputation either as artist or critic; one might as well excuse a bad picture of a garden by saying that the painter of it was a good gardener and therefore a good judge of gardens.
It is a misfortune that the word critic should be derived from a Greek word meaning judge. A critic certainly does arrive at judgments; but the value of his criticism, if it has any, consists not in the judgment, but in the process by which it is arrived at. This fact is seldom understood in England, either by the public or by artists. The artist cares only about the judgment and complains that a mere amateur has no right to judge him. He would rather be judged by himself; and, being himself an artist, he must be a better judge. But the question to be asked about the critic is not whether he is an amateur as an artist, but whether he is an amateur as a critic; and that can be decided only by his criticism. The greatest artist might prove that he was an amateur in criticism; and he could not disprove it by appealing to his art. Sir Joshua Reynolds, for instance, thinks like an amateur in some of his discourses; and it is amateur thinking to defend him by saying that he does not paint like one.
Certainly much of our criticism consists of mere judgments, and is therefore worthless as criticism. But much of our art consists also of mere judgments; it tells us nothing except that the artist admires this or that, or believes that the public admires it; and it also is worthless as art. But no critic therefore writes to the papers to say that, if only the public would learn to feel for themselves, the profession of artist would be at an end. We know that the business of an artist is not to tell the public what to feel about the visible world, or anything else, but to express his own interest in the visible world or whatever may be the subject-matter of his art. We do not condemn art because of its failures. Those who know anything at all about the nature of art know that it has value because it expresses the common interests of mankind better than most men can express them; and for this reason it has value for mankind and not merely for artists. For this reason, also, criticism has value for mankind and not merely for artists or for critics. But the value of it does not lie in the judgment of the critic any more than the value of art lies in the judgment, taste, preference of the artist. The value in both cases lies in power of expression; and by that art and criticism are to be judged.
Needless to say, then, criticism is not to be judged by the help it gives to artists. One might as well suppose that philosophy was to be judged by the help it gives to the Deity. The philosopher does not tell the Deity how He ought to have made the universe; nor do we read philosophy for the sake of the judgments at which philosophers arrive. We do not want to know Kant's opinion because he is Kant; what interests us is the process by which he arrives at that opinion, and it is the process which convinces us that his opinion is right, if we are convinced. So it is, or should be, with criticism. It ought to provoke thought rather than to suppress it; and if it does not provoke thought it is worthless.
But in the best criticism judgment is rather implied than expressed. For the proper subject-matter of criticism is the experience of works of art. The best critic is he who has experienced a work of art so intensely that his criticism is the spontaneous expression of his experience. He tells us what has happened to him, as the artist tells us what has happened to him; and we, as we read, do not judge either the criticism or the art criticized, but share the experience. The value of art lies in the fact that it communicates the experience and the experiencing power of one man to many. When we hear a symphony of Beethoven, we are for the moment Beethoven; and we ourselves are enriched for ever by the fact that we have for the moment been Beethoven. So the value of the best criticism lies in the fact that it communicates the experience and the experiencing power of the critic to his readers and so enriches their experiencing power. If he is futile, so is the artist. If we cannot read him without danger to our own independence of thought, neither can we look at a picture without danger to our own independence of vision. But believe in the fellowship of mankind, believe that one mind can pour into another and enrich it with its own treasures, and you will know that neither art nor criticism is futile. They stand or fall together, and the artist who condemns the critic condemns himself also.
There remains the contention, half implied by Sir T. Jackson, that the critic's experience of art is of no value because he is not an artist. Now if it is of no value to himself because he is not an artist, then art is of no value to anyone except the artist, and the artist who practises the same kind of art; music is of value only to musicians, and painting to painters. It cannot be that mere technical training gives a man the mysterious power of experiencing works of art; for, as we all know, it does not make an artist. No artist will admit that anyone through technical training can become a member of the sacred brotherhood of those who understand the mystery of art. Therefore they had all better admit that there is no mystery about it, or, rather, a mystery for us all. Either art is of value to us all, and our own experience of it is of value to us; or art has no value whatever to anyone, but is the meaningless activity of a few oddities who would be better employed in agriculture.
But if our own experience of art is of value to us, then it is possible for us to communicate that experience to others so that it may be of value to them; as it is possible for the painter to communicate to others his experience of the visible world. If he denies this, once again he denies himself. He shuts himself within the prison of his own arrogance, from which he can escape only by a want of logic. But, further, if our experience of art is of value to ourselves, and if it is possible for us to communicate that experience to others, it is also possible for us to arrive at conclusions about that experience which may be of value both to ourselves and to others. Hence scientific or philosophic criticism, which is based not, as some artists seem to think, upon a fraudulent pretence of the critic that he himself is an artist, but upon that experience of art which is, or may be, common to all men. The philosophic critic writes not as one who knows how to produce that which he criticizes better than he who has produced it, but as one who has experienced art; and his own experience is really the subject-matter of his criticism. If he is a philosophic critic, he will know that his experience is itself necessarily imperfect. As some one has said: "We do not judge works of art; they judge us"; and the critic is to be judged by the manner in which he has experienced art, as the painter is to be judged by the manner in which he has experienced the visible world. All the imperfections of his experience will be betrayed in his criticism; where he is insensitive, there he will fail, both as artist and as philosopher; and of this fact he must be constantly aware. So if he gives himself the airs of a judge, if he relies on his own reputation to make or mar the reputation of a work of art, he ceases to be a critic and deserves all that artists in their haste have said about him. Still, it is a pity that artists, in their haste, should say these things; for when they do so they, too, become critics of the wrong sort, critics insensitive to criticism. They may think that they are upholding the cause of art; but they are upholding the cause of stupidity, that common enemy of art and of criticism.
The Artist and his Audience
According to Whistler art is not a social activity at all; according to Tolstoy it is nothing else. But art is clearly a social activity and something more; yet no one has yet reconciled the truth in Whistler's doctrine with the truth in Tolstoy's. Each leaves out an essential part of the truth, and they remain opposed in their mixture of error and truth. The main point of Whistler's "Ten o'clock" is that art is not a social activity. "Listen," he cries, "there never was an artistic period. There never was an art-loving nation. In the beginning man went forth each day—some to battle, some to the chase; others again to dig and to delve in the field—all that they might gain and live or lose and die. Until there was found among them one, differing from the rest, whose pursuits attracted him not, and so he stayed by the tents with the women, and traced strange devices with a burnt stick upon a gourd. This man, who took no joy in the ways of his brethren, who cared not for conquest and fretted in the field, this designer of quaint patterns, this deviser of the beautiful, who perceived in Nature about him curious curvings, as faces are seen in the fire—this dreamer apart was the first artist."
Then, he says, the hunters and the workers drank from the artists' goblets, "taking no note the while of the craftsman's pride, and understanding not his glory in his work; drinking at the cup not from choice, not from a consciousness that it was beautiful, but because, forsooth, there was none other!" Luxury grew, and the great ages of art came. "Greece was in its splendour, and art reigned supreme—by force of fact, not by election. And the people questioned not, and had nothing to say in the matter." In fact art flourished because mankind did not notice it. But "there arose a new class, who discovered the cheap, and foresaw fortune in the manufacture of the sham." Then, according to Whistler, a strange thing happened. "The heroes filled from the jugs and drank from the bowls—with understanding.... And the people—this time—had much to say in the matter, and all were satisfied. And Birmingham and Manchester arose in their might, and art was relegated to the curiosity shop."
Whistler does not explain why, if no one was aware of the existence of art except the artist, those who were not artists began to imitate it. If no one prized art, why should sham art have come into existence? According to him it was the sham that made men aware of the true; yet the sham could not exist until men were aware of the true. But the account he gives of the decadence of art is historically untrue as well as unintelligible. We know little of the primitive artist; but we have no proof that he was utterly different from other men, or that they did not enjoy his activities. If they had not enjoyed them they would probably have killed him. The primitive artist survived, no doubt, because he was an artist in his leisure; and all we know of more primitive art goes to prove that it was, and is, practised not by a special class but by the ordinary primitive man in his leisure. Peasant art is produced by peasants, not by lonely artists. Some, of course, have more gift for it than others, but all enjoy it, though they do not call it art. Whistler saw himself in every primitive artist; and seeing himself as a dreamer apart misunderstood by the common herd, he saw the primitive artist as one living in a primitive White House, and producing primitive nocturnes for his own amusement, unnoticed, happily, by primitive critics.
But his view, though refuted both by history and by common sense, is still held by many artists and amateurs. They themselves make much of art, but do not see that their theory makes little of it, makes it a mere caprice of the human mind, like the collecting of postage stamps. If art has any value or importance for mankind, it is because it is a social activity. If no one but an artist can enjoy art, it seems to follow that no art can be completely enjoyed except by him who has produced it; for in relation to that art he alone is an artist. All other artists, even, are the public; and, according to Whistler, the public has nothing to do with art; it flourishes best when they are not aware of its existence. He is very contemptuous of taste. All judgment of art must be based on expert knowledge, for art, he says, "is based upon laws as rigid and defined as those of the known sciences." Yet whereas "no polished member of society is at all affected by admitting himself neither engineer, mathematician, nor astronomer, and therefore remains willingly discreet and taciturn upon these subjects, still he would be highly offended were he supposed to have no voice in what clearly to him is a matter of taste." So to Whistler art has no more to do with the life of the ordinary man than astronomy or mathematics. His mention of engineering is an unfortunate slip, for, although we are not engineers we all knew, when the Tay Bridge broke down and threw hundreds of passengers into the water, that it was not a good bridge. We are all concerned with engineering in spite of our ignorance of it, because we make use of its works. Whistler assumes that we make no use of works of art except as objects of use; and since pictures, poems, music are not objects of use, we can have no concern with them whatever—which is absurd.
But here comes Tolstoy, who tells us that all works of art are merely objects of use and are to be judged therefore by the extent of their use. A work of art that few can enjoy fails as much as a railway that few can travel by. "Art," Tolstoy says, "is a human activity, consisting in this—that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." So it is the essence of a work of art that it shall infect others with the feelings of the artist. Now certainly a work of art is a work of art to us only if it does so infect us, but Tolstoy is not content with that. The individual is not to judge the work of art by its infection of himself. He is to consider also the extent of its infection. "For a work to be esteemed good and to be approved of and diffused it will have to satisfy the demands, not of a few people living in identical and often unnatural conditions, but it will have to satisfy the demands of all those great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life."
The two views are utterly irreconcilable. According to Whistler the public are not to judge art at all because they have no concern with it, and it flourishes most when they do not pretend to have any concern with it. According to Tolstoy the individual is to judge it, not by the effect it produces on him, but by the effect it produces on others, "on all those great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life."
Now, if we find ourselves intimidated by one or other of these views, if we seem forced to accept one of them against our will, it is a relief and liberation from the tyranny of Whistler's or Tolstoy's logic to ask ourselves simply what does actually happen to us in our own experience and enjoyment of a work of art. The fact that we are able to enjoy and experience a work of art does liberate us at once from the tyranny of Whistler; for clearly, if we can experience and enjoy a work of art, we are concerned with it. It is vain for Whistler to tell us that we ought not to be, or that we do injury to art by our concern. The fact of our enjoyment and experience makes art for us a social activity; we know that our enjoyment of it is good; we know also that the artist likes us to enjoy it; and we do not believe that either the primitive artist or the primitive man was different from us in this respect. There is now, and always has been, some kind of social relation between the artist and the public; the only question is how far that relation is the essence of art.
Tolstoy tells us that it is the essence of art, because the proper aim of art is to do good. This is implied in his doctrine that art can be good only if it is intelligible to most men. "The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people, is extremely unjust; and its consequences are ruinous to art itself." The word unjust implies the moral factor. I am not to enjoy a work of art if I know that others cannot enjoy it, because it is not fair that I should have a pleasure not shared by them. If I know that others cannot share it, I am to take no account of my own experience, but to condemn the work, however good it may seem to me. From this logic also I can liberate myself by concerning myself simply with my own experience. Again, if I experience and enjoy a work of art, I know that my experience of it is good; and, in my judgment of the work of art, I do not need to ask myself how many others enjoy it. I may wish them to enjoy it and try to make them do so, but that effort of mine is not aesthetic but moral. It does not affect my judgment of the work of art, but is a result of that judgment. And, as a matter of fact, if I am to experience a work of art at all, I cannot be asking myself how many others enjoy it. Judgments of art are not formed in that way and cannot be; they are, and must be, always formed out of our own experience of art. If art is to be art to us, we cannot think of it in terms of something else. There would be no public for art at all if we all agreed to judge it in terms of each other's enjoyment or understanding. Each individual of "the great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life" would also have to ask himself whether the rest of the masses were enjoying and understanding, before he could judge; indeed, he would not feel a right to enjoy until he knew that the rest were enjoying. That is to say, no individual would ever enjoy art at all. The fact is that art is produced by the individual artist and experienced by the individual man. Tolstoy says that it is experienced by mankind in the mass, and not as individuals; Whistler that it is not experienced at all, either by the mass or by the individual. Each is a heretic with some truth in his heresy; what is the true doctrine?
It is clear that every artist desires an audience, not merely so that he may win pudding and praise from them, nor so that he may do them good; none of these aims will make him an artist; he can accomplish all of them without attempting to produce a work of art. It is also clear that his artistic success is not his success in winning an audience. Those "great masses of people who are situated in the natural conditions of laborious life" are a figment of Tolstoy's mind. No conditions are natural in the sense in which he uses the word; nor do any existing conditions make one man a better judge of art than another. There is no multitude of simple, normal, unspoilt men able and willing to enjoy any real art that is presented to them. The right experience of art comes with effort, like right thought and right action; and no Russian peasant has it because he works in the fields. Nor, on the other hand, are there any artists who are mere "sports" occupied with a queer game of their own self-expression which no one else can enjoy. There is a necessary relation between the work of art and its audience, even if no actual audience for it exists; and the fact that this relation must be, even when there is no audience in existence, is the paradox and problem of art. A work of art claims an audience, entreats it, is indeed made for it; but must have it on its own terms. Men are artists because they are men, because they have a faculty, at its height, which is shared by all men. In that Croce is right; and his doctrine that all men are artists in some degree, and that the very experience of art is itself an aesthetic activity, contains a truth of great value. But his aesthetic ignores, or seems to ignore, the fact that art is not merely, as he calls it, expression, but is also a means of address; in fact, that we do not express ourselves except when we address ourselves to others, even though we speak to no particular, or even existing, audience. Yet this fact is obvious; for all art gets its very form from the fact that it is a method of address. A story is a story because it is told, and told to some one not the teller. A picture is a picture because it is painted to be seen. It has all its artistic qualities because it is addressed to the eye. And music is music, and has the form which makes it music, because it is addressed to the ear. Without this intention of address there could be no form in art and no distinction between art and day-dreaming. Day-dreaming is not expression, is not art, because it is addressed to no one but is a purposeless activity of the mind. It becomes art only when there is the purpose of address in it. That purpose will give it form and turn it from day-dreaming into art. Even in an object of use which is also a work of art, the art is the effort of the maker to emphasize, that is, to point out, the beauty of that which he has made. It is this emphasis that turns building into architecture; and it implies that the building is made not merely for the builder's or for anyone else's use, but that its aim also is to address an audience, to speak to the eye as a picture speaks to it. Art is made for men as surely as boots are made for them.