Nietzsche and Art
Lecture I 1
Anarchy in Modern Art
"Concerning great things," said Nietzsche, "one should either be silent, or one should speak loftily: loftily, that is to say, cynically and innocently." 2
Art is a great thing. Maybe it is the greatest thing on earth. "Wherever and whenever Nietzsche speaks about it he always does so loftily, and with. reverence; while his position as an anchorite, and as an artist who kept aloof from the traffic for fame, allowed him to retain that innocence in his point of view, which he maintains is so necessary in the treatment of such a subject.
As the children of an age in which Art is rapidly losing its prestige, we modern Europeans may perhaps feel a little inclined to purse our lips at the
1 Delivered at University College on Dec. 1st, 1910.
2. W. P., Vol. I, p. 1.
Some there are, of course, who would repudiate this suggestion indignantly, and who would claim for Art a very high moral purpose. These moralists apart, however, it seems safe to say, that in the minds of most people to-day, Art is a thing which either leaves them utterly unmoved, or to which they turn only when they are in need of distraction, of decoration for their homes, or of stimulation in their thought.
Leaving the discussion of Nietzsche's personal view of Art to the next lecture, I shall now first attempt, from his standpoint, a general examination of the condition of Art at the present day, which, though it will be necessarily rapid and sketchy, will, I hope, not prove inadequate for my purpose.
Before I proceed, however, I should like to be allowed to call your attention to the difficulties of my task. As far as I am aware, mine is the first attempt that has been made, either here or abroad, to place an exhaustive account of Nietzsche's Art doctrine before any audience. But for one or two German writers, who have discussed Nietzsche the artist tentatively and hesitatingly, I know of no one who has endeavoured to do so after having had recourse to all his utterances on the subject, nor do I know of anybody who has applied his æsthetic
Many of you here, perhaps, are already acquainted with Nietzsche's philosophy, and are also intimately associated with one of the branches of Art. Nevertheless, let me warn you before I begin, that you may have to listen to heresies that will try your patience to the utmost.
I also am intimately associated with one of the branches of Art, and my traditions are Art traditions. I can well imagine, therefore, how some of you will receive many of the statements I am about to make; and I can only entreat you to bear with me patiently until the end, if only with the hope that, after all, there may be something worth thinking about, if not worth embracing, in what you are going to hear.
Two years ago, in this same hall, I had the honour of addressing an audience on the subject of Nietzsche's moral and evolutionary views, and, since then, I have wondered whether I really selected the more important side of his philosophy for my first lectures. If it were not for the fact that the whole of his thought is, as it were, of one single piece, harmoniously and consistently woven, I should doubt that I had selected the more vital portion of it; for it is impossible to overrate the value of his Art doctrine especially to us, the children of an age so full of perplexity, doubt and confusion as this one is.
Friends and foes alike have found themselves compelled to agree upon this point, that Nietzsche, whatever he may have been besides, was at least a great artist and a great thinker on Art.
On the ground that he was solely and purely an artist some have even denied his claim to the title Philosopher. Among the more celebrated of modern writers who have done this, is the Italian critic Benedetto Croce; 1 while Julius Zeitler declares that "Nietzsche's artistic standpoint should be regarded as the very basis of all his thought," and that "no better access could be discovered to his spirit than by way of his æsthetic." 2
Certainly, from the dawn of his literary career, Art seems to have been one of Nietzsche's most constant preoccupations. Even the general argument of his last work, The Will to Power, is an entirely artistic one; while his hatred of Christianity was the hatred of an artist long before it became the hatred of an aristocratic moralist, or of a prophet of Superman.
In The Birth of Tragedy, a book in which, by the bye, he declares that there can be but one justification of the world, and that is as an æsthetic phenomenon, 3 we find the following words
"To the purely æsthetic world interpretation . . .
1 Æsthetic (translation by Douglas Ainslie), p. 350.
2 Nietszches Æsthetik, p. 5.
3 B. T., p. 183.
Nietzsche's works are, however, full of the evidences of an artistic temperament.
Who but an artist, knowing the joy of creating, for instance, could have laid such stress upon the creative act as the great salvation from suffering and an alleviation of life? 2 Who but an artist could have been an atheist out of his lust to create?
"For what could be created, if there were Gods!" cries Zarathustra. 3
But, above all, who save an artist could have elevated taste to such a high place as a criterion of value, and have made his own personal taste the standard for so many grave valuations?
"And ye tell me, my friends," says Zarathustra, "that there is to be no dispute about taste and tasting? But all life is a dispute about taste and tasting!
"Taste: that is weight at the same time, and scales and weigher; and alas for every living thing
1 B. T., pp. 9, 10.
2 Z., II, XXIV.
3 Z., II, XXIV.
But it is more particularly in Nietzsche's understanding of the instinct which drove him to expression, and in his attitude towards those whom he would teach, that we recognize the typical artist, in the highest acceptation of the word that is to say, as a creature of abundance, who must give thereof or perish. Out of plenitude and riches only, do his words come to us. With him there can be no question of eloquence as the result of poverty, vindictiveness, spite, resentment, or envy; for such eloquence is of the swamp. 2 Where he is wrath, he speaks from above, where he despises his contempt is prompted by love alone, and where he annihilates he does so as a creator. 3
"Mine impatient love," he says, "floweth over in streams, down towards the sunrise and the sunset. From out silent mountains and tempests of affliction, rusheth my soul into the valleys.
"Too long have I yearned and scanned the far horizon. Too long hath the shroud of solitude been upon me: thus have I lost the habit of silence.
"A tongue have I become and little else besides, and the brawling of a brook, falling from lofty rocks: downward into the dale will I pour my words.
"And let the torrent of my love dash into all
1 Z., II, XXXV. See also La Bruyère's reply to his countrymen's popular belief, "des goûts et des couleurs on ne peut discuter," in Les Caractères: Des ouvrages de l'esprit, Aph. 10.
2 Z., III. LVI.
3 Z., II, XXXIV.
"Verily, a lake lies within me, complacent and alone; but the torrent of my love draws this along with it, down into the ocean I
"New highways I tread, new worlds come unto me; like all creators I have grown weary of old tongues. No longer will my spirit walk on worn-out soles.
"Too slow footed is all speech for me: Into thy chariot, O storm, do I leap! And even thee will I scourge with my devilry.
"Thus spake Zarathustra." 1
Precisely on account of the disorder which now prevails in this department of life, sincere and honest people find it difficult to show the interest in it, which would be only compatible with its importance.
Probably but few men, to-day, could fall on their knees and sob at the deathbed of a great artist, as Pope Leo X once did. Maybe there are but one or two who, like the Taiko's generals,
1 Z., II, XXIII.
And yet, says the Japanese writer, Okakura-Kakuzo, "many of our favourite dramas in Japan are based on the loss and subsequent recovery of a noted masterpiece." 2
In this part of the world to-day, not only the author, but also the audience for such dramas is entirely lacking.
The layman, as well as the artist, knows perfectly well that this is so. Appalled by the disorder, contradictoriness, and difference of opinion among artists, the layman has ceased to think seriously about Art; while artists themselves are so perplexed by the want of solidarity in their ranks, that they too are beginning to question the wherefore of their existence.
Not only does every one arrogate to himself the right to utter his word upon Art; but Art's throne itself is now claimed by thousands upon thousands of usurpers each of whom has a "free personality" which he insists upon expressing, 3 and to whom severe law and order would be an insuperable barrier. Exaggerated individualism and anarchy are the result. But such results are everywhere
1 Okakura-Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, pp. 112, 113.
2 The Book of Tea, p. 112.
3 See in this regard B. T., pp. 54, 55.
"Knowest thou not who is most needed of all?" says Zarathustra. "He who commandeth great things.
"To execute great things is difficult; but the more difficult task is to command great things." 1
Direct commanding of any sort, however, as Nietzsche declares, has ceased long since. "In cases," he observes, "where it is believed that the leader and bell-wether cannot be dispensed with, attempt after attempt is made nowadays to replace commanders by the summing together of clever gregarious men: all representative constitutions, for example, are of this
Although, in this inquiry, the Fine Arts will be the subject of my particular attention, it should not be supposed that this is necessarily the department in modern life in which Nietzsche believed most disorder, most incompetence, and most scepticism prevails. I selected the Fine Arts, in the first place, merely because they are the arts concerning which I am best informed, and to which the Nietzschean doctrine can be admirably applied; and secondly, because sculpture and painting offer a wealth of examples known to all, which facilitates anything in the way of an exposition. For even outsiders and plain men in the street must be beginning to have more than an inkling of the chaos and confusion which now reigns in other spheres besides the Fine Arts. It must be apparent to most people
1 Z., II, XLIV.
2 G. E., p. 121.
"Disintegration," says Nietzsche," that is to say, uncertainty is peculiar to this age: nothing stands on solid ground or on a sound faith. . . . All our road is slippery and dangerous, while the ice which still bears us has grown unconscionably thin: we all feel the mild and gruesome breath of the thaw-wind soon, where we are walking, no one will any longer be able to stand!" 1
We do not require to be told that in religion and moral matters, scarcely any two specialists are agreed the extraordinarily large number of religious sects in England alone needs but to be mentioned here; in law we divine that things are in a bad state; in politics even our eyes are beginning to give us evidence of the serious uncertainty prevailing; while in architecture and music the case is pitiable.
"If we really wished, if we actually dared to devise a style of architecture which corresponded to the state of our souls," says Nietzsche, "a labyrinth would be the building we should erect. But," he adds, "we are too cowardly to construct anything which would be such a complete revelation of our hearts." 2
However elementary our technical knowledge of
1 W. P., Vol. I, p. 55.
2 D. D., Aph. 169.
And, everywhere, we see recent requirements masked and concealed behind Greek, Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo, and Baroque embellishments, thrown together helter-skelter, and with a disregard of structural demands which must startle even the uninitiated. 9
Our streets are ugly in the extreme. 10 Only at night, as Camille Mauclair says, does the artificial
1 This is such a common fault that it is superfluous to give particular examples of it, but the New War Office in Whitehall is a good case in point.
2 Local Government Board building; Piccadilly Hotel (Regent St. side).
3 Piccadilly Hotel (Piccadilly side), and the Sicilian Avenue, Bloomsbury.
4 New Scotland Yard.
5 Gaiety Theatre; the new Y.M.C.A. building, Tottenham Court Road.
6 Local Government Board.
7 Gaiety Theatre.
8 Marylebone Workhouse.
9 See Fergusson's Introduction to his History of Modern Architecture.
10 See W. Morris's Address on the Decorative Arts, pp. 18, 19.
As to the state of modern music, this is best described perhaps, though with perfectly unconscious irony, by Mr. Henry Davey, in the opening words of his Student's Musical History.
"Music has indeed been defined," he says, "as 'sound with regular vibrations,' other sounds being called noise. This definition," the author adds, "is only suited to undeveloped music; modern music may include noise and even silence." 2
People are mistaken if they suppose that Nietzsche, in attacking Wagner as he did, was prompted by any personal animosity or other considerations foreign to the question of music. In Wagner, Nietzsche saw a Romanticist of the strongest possible type, and he was opposed to the Romantic School of Music, because of its indifference to form. Always an opponent of anarchy, despite all that his critics may say to the contrary, Nietzsche saw with great misgiving the decline and decay of melody and rhythm in modern music, and in attacking Wagner as the embodiment of the Romantic School, he merely personified the movement to which he felt himself so fundamentally opposed. And in this opposition he was not alone. The Romantic movement, assailed by many, will continue to be assailed, until all its evil influences are exposed.
1 Trois crises de l'art actuel, p. 243.
2 The Student's Musical History, p. 1.
Nietzsche has told us in his Wagner pamphlets what he demands from music, 3 and this he certainly could not get from the kind of music which is all the rage just now.
What it lacks in invention it tries to make up in idiosyncrasy, intricacy, and complexity, and that which it cannot assume in the matter of form, it attempts to convert into a virtue and a principle. 4
"Bombast and complexity in music," says P. von Lind, "as in any other art, are always a sign of inferiority; for they betray an artist's incapacity to express himself simply, clearly, and exhaustively three leading qualities in our great heroes of music (Tonheroen). In this respect the whole of modern music, including Wagner's, is inferior to the music of the past." 5
1 History of Music, Vol. II, p. 927. See also The Student's Musical History, by Henry Davey, p. 97. "Weakness of rhythm is the main reason of the inferiority of the romantic composers to their predecessors."
2 History of Music, p. 1195. See also P. v. Lind, Moderner Geschmack und moderne Musik, in which the author complains of the excessive virtuosity, want of faith and science of modern music, while on p. 34 he, too, calls all modern musicians romanticists.
3 See especially C. W., pp. 59, 60.
4 W. P., Vol. II, p. 276.
5 Moderner Geschmack und moderne Musik, p. 54.
Briefly what he complains of in the music of the day is its want of form, 2 its abuse of discord, 3 its hundred and one different artifices for producing nerve-exciting and nerve-stimulating effects, 4 its predilection in favour of cacophonous instruments, 5 its unwarrantable sudden changes in rhythm or tempo within the same movement, 6 its habit of delaying the solving chord, as in the love-death passage of Tristan and Isolde, 7 and, finally, its realism, of which a typical example is Strauss's "By a Lonely Brook" all purely Nietzschean objections!
Well might Mr. Allen cry out: "Oh for the classic simplicity of a bygone age, the golden age of music that hath passed away!" 8 But the trouble does not end here; for, if we are to believe a certain organ-builder, bell-founder and pianoforte-maker of ripe experience, it has actually descended into the sphere of instrument-making as well. 9
1 Der Impressionismus in Leben und Kunst.
2 Ibid., pp. 53, 57.
3 Ibid., pp. 64.
4 Ibid., p. 67.
5. Ibid., pp. 69.
6. Ibid., p. 74.
7 Ibid., p. 61.
8 The Fallacy of Modern Music, p. 10.
9 A Protest against the Modern Development of Unmusical Tone, by Thomas C. Lewis.
The Fine Arts. 1. The Artists.
In this branch of Art, chaos and anarchy are scarcely the words to use. The condition is rather one of complete and hopeless dissolution. There is neither a direction, a goal, nor a purpose. Slavish realism side by side with crude conventions, incompetence side by side with wasted talent, coloured photography side by side with deliberate eccentricity, and scientific principles applied to things that do not matter in the least: these are a few of the features which are noticeable at a first glance. Going a little deeper, we find that the whole concept of what Art really is seems to be totally lacking in the work of modern painters and sculptors, and, if we were forced to formulate a Broad definition for the painting and sculpture of our time, we should find ourselves compelled to say that they are no more than a field in which more or less interesting people manifest their more or less interesting personalities.
There is nothing in this definition which is likely to offend the modern artist. On the contrary, he would probably approve of it all too hastily. But, in approving of it, he would confess himself utterly ignorant of what Art actually is, and means, and purposes in our midst.
Or to state the case differently: it is not that the modern artist has no notion at all of what Art is; but, that his notion is one which belittles, humiliates and debases Art, root and branch.
Whether one look on a Sargent or on a Poynter, on a Rodin or on a Brock, on a Vuillard or on a Maurice Denis, on an Alfred East or on a Monet, the question in one's heart will be; not, why are these men so poor? but, why are they so modest? why are they so humble? why, in fact, are their voices so obsequiously servile and faint? One will ask: not, why do these men paint or mould as they do? but, why do they paint or mould at all?
Ugliness, in the sense of amorphousness, one will be able to explain. Ugliness, in this sense, although its position in Art has not yet been properly accounted for, one will be able to classify perfectly well. But this tremulousness, this plebeian embarrassment, this democratic desire to please, above all, this democratic disinclination to assume a position of authority, these are things which contradict the very essence of Art, and these
But, as a matter of fact, to do artists justice, beneath all the tremendous activity of modern times in both branches of the art we are discussing, there is, among the thinking members of the profession, a feeling of purposelessness, of doubt and pessimism, which is ill concealed, even in their work. The best of these artists know, and will even tell you, that there are no canons, that individuality is absolute, and that the aim of all their work is extremely doubtful, if not impossible to determine. There is not much quarrelling done, or hand-to-hand scuffling engaged in; because no one feels sufficiently firm on his own legs to stand up and oppose the doctrine that "there is no accounting for tastes." A clammy, deathlike stillness reigns over the whole of this seething disagreement and antagonism in principles. Not since Whistler fired his bright missiles into the press has the report of a decent-sized gun been heard; and this peace in chaos, this silence in confusion, is full of the suggestion of decomposition and decay.
"Art appears to be surrounded by the magic influence of death," says Nietzsche, "and in a short time mankind will be celebrating festivals of memory in honour of it." 1
With but one or two brilliant exceptions, that which characterizes modern painting and modern sculpture is, generally speaking, its complete lack of Art in the sense in which I shall use this word in my next lecture. This indeed, as you will see,
1 H. A. H., Vol. I, pp. 205, 206.
They are too dependent upon environment, upon Nature, to give a direction and a meaning to their exalted calling; they are too disunited and too lawless to be leaders; they are in an age too chaotic and too sceptical to be able to find a "wherefore" and a "whither" for themselves; and, above all, there are too many pretenders in their ranks too many who ought never to have painted or moulded at all to make it possible for the greatest among them to elevate the Cause of Art to its proper level.
No æsthetic canon is to be seen or traced anywhere; nobody knows one, nobody dares to assert one. The rule that tastes cannot be disputed is now the only rule that prevails, and, behind this rule, the basest, meanest and most preposterous individual claims are able to make their influence felt.
Certainly, it is true, there is no accounting for tastes; but, once a particular taste has revealed itself it ought to be possible to classify it and to point out where it belongs and whither it is going to lead. Undoubtedly a man's taste cannot be taken from him, because its roots are in his constitution; but, once he has identified himself with a particular form of taste, it ought to be possible to identify him too, that is to say, to realize his rank and his value.
If it is impossible to do this nowadays, it is
Meanwhile, however, the inquiry into the present condition of the Fine Arts must be continued; and this shall now be done by taking up the public's standpoint.
The Academy, The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, The Royal Society of British Artists, The New English Art Club, The Salon des Artistes Français, and the Salon des Beaux Arts, are all alike in this; and the International's scorn of the Academy, 1 or the Academy's scorn of it, is as ridiculous as the Beaux Arts' scorn of the Salon, or vice versâ. It is quite foolish, therefore, to inveigh against
1 For some amusing, and, at the same time, shrewd, remarks concerning the International Society, I would refer the reader to Mr. Wake Cook's Anarchism in Art (Cassell & Co.). I agree on the whole with what Mr. Wake Cook says, but cannot appreciate his remarks on Whistler.
We know the torments of the modern lay student of Art, when he asks himself uprightly and earnestly whether he should say "yes" or "no" before a picture or a piece of sculpture. We know the moments of impotent hesitancy during which he racks his brains for some canon or rule on which to base his judgment, and we sympathize with his blushes when finally he inquires after the name of the artist, before volunteering to express an opinion.
At least a name is some sort of a standard nowadays. In the absence of other standards it is something to cling to; and the modern visitor to an Art exhibition has precious little to cling to, poor soul!
Still, even names become perplexing in the end; for it soon occurs to the lay student in question that, not only Millais, but also Leighton, Whistler, Rodin, Frith, Watts, Gauguin, John, and Vuillard have names in the Art world.
Now, it is generally at this stage that such a student of Art either retires disconcerted from his first attempts at grappling with the problem, and takes refuge in indifference; or else, from the depth of his despair, draws a certain courage which makes him say that, after all, he knows what he
And thus is formed that large concourse of people who set up what they like and dislike as the standard of taste. It is in vain that painters and sculptors deplore the existence of this part of their audience. It is they themselves who are responsible for its existence. It is the anarchy in their own ranks that has infected the bravest of their followers.
The taste of the masses, endowed with self-confidence in this way, is now a potent force in European Art, and among those so-called artists who do not suffer under the existing state of affairs, there are many who actually conform and submit to this mob-rule. In my next lecture I shall show how even the art-canons of the lay masses have been adopted by some painters and sculptors in perfect good faith.
"Too long have we acknowledged them to be right, these petty people," says Zarathustra. "Thus we have at last given them power as well; and now they teach that ' good ' is only what petty people call good.'" 1
It is on this account that many sincere and refined natures turn reluctantly away from Art altogether nowadays, and begin to doubt whether it serves any good purpose in the world at all. They grow weary of the humbug of the studios, the affectation of gushing amateurs, and the snobbery of the lionizing disciple of one particular
1 Z., IV, LXVII.
And yet, it is in thus turning away with contempt from modern Art, that sincere people tacitly acknowledge how profoundly serious the question is on which they have turned their backs. For, it is the horror of its disorder that makes them disconsolate: they could continue facing this disorder only if the matter were less important.
Passing over that unfortunately large percentage
1 In a Times leader of the 20th December, 1909, the writer puts the case very well. After referring to the heated controversy which was then raging round the Berlin wax bust that Dr. Bode declared to be a Leonardo, the writer goes on to say: "... it is amusing to see how the merit of the work is forgotten in the dispute about its origin. It seems to be assumed that if it is by Leonardo it must be a great work of art, and if by Lucas nothing of the kind. . . . This fact proves what needs no proving, that there are many wealthy connoisseurs who buy works of art not for their intrinsic merit, but for what is supposed to be their authenticity. . . . This state of things reveals an extraordinary timidity in buyers of works of art. If they all trusted their own taste" [that is to say, if they had a taste of their own based upon some reliable canon] "names would have no value. The intrinsic merit of a work of art is not affected by the name it bears. . . . Yet in the market the name of a great painter is worth more than the inspiration of a lesser one. . . . Hence many people believe that it is far more difficult to understand pictures than literature. . . . But there is no more mystery about pictures than about literature. It is only the market that makes a mystery of them, and the market does this because it is timid." In other words: because it does not know.
Now, if by chance, one of the last-mentioned people, having grown disgusted at the prevailing degeneration of Art, should start out in quest of a canon, or a standard whereby he might take his bearings in the sea of confusion around him, what are we to suppose would await him?
Unfortunately, we know only too well what awaits him!
He may turn to the art-critics the class of men which society sustains for his special benefit in art matters, or he may turn to the philosophers. He may spend years and years of labour in studying the Art and thought of Antiquity, of the Middle Ages, and of the Renaissance; but, unless he have sufficient independence of spirit to distrust not only the Art, but every single manifestation of modern life, and to try to find what the general corrosive is which seems to be active everywhere, it is extremely doubtful whether he will ever succeed in reaching a bourne or a destination of any sort whatsoever.
He will still be asking: "What is a good poem?" "What is good music?" and, above all, "What is a good picture or a good statue?"
The general need, then, I repeat, is a definite canon, 1 a definite statement as to the aim and purpose of Art, and the establishment of an order of rank among tastes. Once more, I declare that I have attempted to arrive at these things by the principles of Nietzsche's Æsthetic; but, in order to forestall the amusement which an announcement of this sort is bound to provoke nowadays, let me remind you of two things: First, that any artistic canon must necessarily be relative to a certain type of man; and secondly, that the most that an establishment of an order of rank among tastes can do for you, is to allow you the opportunity of exercising some choice a choice of type in manhood, therefore a choice as to a mode of life, and therefore a choice of values, and the customs and conditions that spring from them.
At present you have no such choice. You certainly have the option of following either Rodin and Renoir, or Whistler and Manet, or Sargent and Boldini, or John and Gauguin, or Herkomer and Lavery; but not one of you can say, "If I follow
1 On this point see Questionings on Criticism and Beauty, by the Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour. (Oxford University Press.) Mr. Balfour entirely agrees that to-day we are driven to a kind of anarchy of individual preferences, and he acknowledges that he is not satisfied to remain in this position. He does not seem to recognize, however, how curiously and almost perfectly this anarchy in Art coincides with a certain anarchy in other departments of life, and thus, although it displeases him, lie sees in it no imminent danger, or no hint that Art and life react in any way upon each other.
It is possible to point to one or two, and even so, in doing this, one is prompted more by a sense of kindness than by a sense of accuracy. Some Continental critics, Camille Mauclair and Muther among them, and here and there an English critic like R. A. M. Stevenson, occasionally seem to hit a nail on the head; but as a rule, one can say with Coventry Patmore: "There is little that is conclusive or fruitful in any of the criticism of the present day." 1
For the most part it is written by men who know absurdly little of their subject, and who, if they do know it, are acquainted much more with its chronological and encyclopædic than with its philosophical side. There is not much conscience either, or much acumen, in these men; and they are as a rule concerned with questions that are irrelevant to the point at issue. Like a certain kind of insect, as Nietzsche
1 Principles in Art, p. 4.
They are, perhaps, less to blame than the artists themselves for the state of affairs that exists to-day; but, while the artists have betrayed only themselves, the critics have betrayed the reading public. They have neither resisted nor condemned the flood of anarchy that has swept over the art-world; they have rather promoted it in every way in their power, abetting and applauding artists in their lawlessness. In fairness to some of them, however, it should be said, that in encouraging the confusion and disorder around them they very often acted with almost religious sincerity. This reservation applies to Ruskin, for instance, and to many other critics writing for the better-class papers.
Lest this be considered as an overstatement of the case, hear what one of these men himself actually says concerning his own profession I Mr. Frank Rutter, writing in 1907, expressed himself as follows:
"In olden days the press used to lead public opinion; now it meekly follows because its courage has been sapped by servile cringing to the advertiser, because its antics and sensational inaccuracy have brought it into contempt. No longer commanding the authority of a parent or guardian, it seeks to attract attention by the methods of the cheap-jack. The few exceptions surviving only prove the rule." 2
1 H. A. H., Vol. II, Aph. 164.
2 The Academy, August 24th, 1907. Article, "The Pursuit of Taste."
Now, while Mr. Clutton Brock seems perfectly justified in deprecating these tactics on the part of some of his brother critics, and while Mr. Rutter seems quite wrong in upholding them, the question which naturally arises out of the controversy is: what is there left to the critic to talk about?
If he is no longer able to judge of the general tendency and teaching of a play, and if he is no longer able to regard it æsthetically, what can he do but analyse the playwright's grammar, and seek out the latter's split infinitives, his insufficient use of the subjunctive mood, his Cockney idioms and Cockney solecisms?
We agree with Mr. Clutton Brock that . . . "the public has no concern with the process of production but only with. the product"; and that "if Art were in a healthy state 1 the public would know this and would not ask for technical criticism." We also agree that "the critic's proper business is with the product, not with the process of production; to
1 The italics are mine.
But, while we agree with all this, we cannot help sympathizing with the late R. A. M. Stevenson and his admirer Mr. Frank Rutter; for their dilemma is unique.
When Monsieur Domergue of the French Academy assured his friend Beauzée confidentially that he had discovered that Voltaire didn't know grammar, Beauzée very rightly replied with some irony: "I am much obliged to you for telling me; now I know that it is possible to do without it." 2
And this is the only reply that ought to be made to any criticism which analyses the technique of a real work of Art; since it is obvious, that if technical questions are uppermost, the work is by implication unworthy of consideration in all other respects. 3
1 The Academy, Oct. 26th, 1907. Article, "The Hypochondria of Art."
2 Monsieur de Saint Ange's Reception Speech, 1810.
3 There is, however, a further excuse for Mr. Rutter and his school of critics, and that is, that in an age like this one, in which Amateurism is rampant, the critic very often performs a salutary office in condemning a work on purely technical grounds. I, for my part, am quite convinced that the morbid attention which is now paid to technique is simply a result of the extraordinary preponderance of the art-student element in our midst.
Quite recently the art-world has been staring with something akin to amazement, not unmingled here and there with indignation, at the work of one Augustus John, in whose pictures they have found at once a problem and an innovation.
Now, without for the present wishing to express any opinion at all upon Mr. John's work, this at least seemed quite clear to me when I first saw it; namely, that it challenged profound analysis. Unconsciously or consciously, Mr. John seemed to re-question a whole number of things afresh. The direction of Art, the purpose of Art, the essence of Art, the value of Art these are some of the subjects into which he provoked me to inquire.
Here was an opportunity for the more wise among the critics to show their wisdom. This was essentially a case in which the public required expert guidance. Augustus John comes forward with a new concept of what is beautiful. He says pictorially this and that is beautiful. Are we to follow him or to reject him?
Hear one or two critics:
Commenting upon one of Mr. Max Beerbohm's caricatures in the Spring Exhibition of the New English Art Club, 1909, the Times critic writes as follows
And this, let me assure you, is a comparatively able criticism!
But, what guidance does it give? Why is it so timid and non-committing? And, where it is committing, why is it so vague? The words "beautiful model" mean absolutely nothing nowadays. How, then, can the critic employ them without defining
1 The Times, May 22nd, 1909.
I examined this picture of Mr. John's, as also the one at the Grafton. Both of them were full of his personal solution of the deepest problems associated with the ideas of Art and beauty; but how can we know whether to accept these solutions unless they are made quite plain by our critics? It may be suggested that Mr. John's solutions of these problems is not sufficiently important. Why, then, discuss them at all?
The Daily Telegraph also contained a so-called criticism of Mr. John. After commenting, as the previous critic did, upon Mr. Max Beerbohm's caricature and the words accompanying it, the writer proceeds: "How true to give the most obvious of all instances with respect to Wagner! And yet Mr. Max Beerbohm, the satirist, is as regards the actual moment, not quite, quite up to date. To-day, for fear of being accused of a Botian denseness, we hasten to acclaim, if not necessarily to enjoy, Cézanne, Maurice Denis, the neo-Impressionists, etc., etc." 1
"For fear of being accused of Botian denseness!" Yes, that is the whole trouble! Apparently, then, if we are to believe the Daily Telegraph critic, Mr. John has been acclaimed, simply in order that his critics may escape the gibe of being classically dense!
Possessing neither the necessary knowledge, nor the necessary values, nor yet the necessary certainty, to take up a definite stand for or against,
1 The Daily Telegraph, May 31st, 1909.
But what ought to be said to the implied, ingenuous and perfectly unwarrantable assumption, that that which posterity endorses must of necessity have been right all along? Why should Wagner be vindicated simply because an age subsequent to his own happens to rave about him? Before such posthumous success can vindicate a man, surely the age in which it occurs must be duly valued. In the event of its being more lofty, more noble, and more tasteful than the age which preceded it, then certainly posthumous fame is a vindication; but if the case be otherwise, then it is a condemnation. In an ascending culture the classic of yesterday becomes the primitive of to-morrow, and in a declining culture the decadent of yesterday becomes the classic of to-morrow. Thus in valuing, say, Michelangelo, it all depends whence you come. If you come from Egypt and walk down towards him, your opinion will be very different from that of the man who comes from twentieth-century Europe and who walks up towards him.
But we are not ascending so rapidly or so materially if we are ascending at all as to make posthumous success a guarantee of excellence. In fact, precisely the converse might be true, and men who are now quickly forgotten, may be all the greater on that account alone. In any case, however, the
Perhaps, in order to be quite fair, I ought now to refer to other critics, as well as to other criticisms concerning John written by the critics already quoted. True, in the Times for October 14th, 1905, there appears a more elaborate discussion of Mr. John's powers. (I say more elaborate, but I mean more lengthy!) And the Daily Telegraph has also given us more careful views, as, for instance, in their issues of October 17th, 1905, and November 23rd, 1909. I doubt, however, whether it could be honestly said that one really understands any better how to place Mr. John after having read the articles in question, though, in making this objection, I should like it to be understood, that I regard it as applying not only to the art-criticism of the two particular papers to which I have referred, but to art-criticism in general. 1
Most of what we read on this matter in the sphere of journalism is pure badinage, and little besides entertainingly and ably written it is true, but generally very wide of the fundamental principles at stake, and of that consciousness of dealing with a deeply serious question, which the subject Art ought to awaken.
1 A further example of what I mean can be found in the Morning Post's article (4th April), on the International Society's 1910 Show. Here the writer's only comments on a Simon Bussy (No. 149), which really required serious treatment, or no treatment at all, are: "Could any English tourist at Mentone see that resort in the terms of M. Bussy?" And his comments on an important Monet (No. 133) are: "What happy Idler at Antibes other than a Frenchman could record the particular impression of Monet (No. 133), even in enjoying the hospitalities of Eilenroe?"
When one says these things nowadays, people are apt to regard one as a little peculiar, a little morbid, and perhaps a little too earnest as well. Only two or three months ago, a certain critic, commenting upon a sentence of mine in my Introduction to Nietzsche's Case of Wagner, 1 in which I declared that "the principles of Art are inextricably bound up with the laws of Life," assured the readers of the Nation that "the plainest facts of everyday life contradict this theory of non-artistic philosophers in their arm-chairs." 2 And thus the fundamental questions are shelved, year after year, while Art withers, and real artists become ever more and more scarce.
"I loathe this great city," cried Zarathustra.
"Woe to this great city! And I would that I already saw the pillar of fire in which it will be consumed !
"For such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide. But this hath its time and its own fate." 3
1 Dr. Oscar Levy's Authorized English Edition of Nietzsche's Complete Works.
2 The Nation, July 9th, 1910.
3 Z., III, LI.