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The Place of Art in Art Criticism

The knowing ones, those, I mean, who are always invited to music after tea, and often to supper after the ballet, seem now to agree that in art significant form is the thing. You are not to suppose that, in saying this, I am trying to make out that all these distinguished, or soon to ,^ distinguished, people have been reading my olc. On the contrary, I have the solidest grounds for believing that very few of them have done that: and those that have treat me no better than they treated Hegel. For, just as an Hegelian is not so much a follower of that philosopher as an expounder, one who has an interpretation of his own, and can tell you what Hegel would have said if Hegel had been endowed by The Absolute with the power of saying anything, so of those admirable people who agree, for the moment, that significant form is what matters, no two are quite agreed as to what significant form is.

Only as to what it is not is there an absolute consensus of opinion; though there is a tendency to come together on one or two positive points. It is years since I met anyone at a dinner party so bold as to deny that the literary and anecdotic content of a work of visual art, however charming and lively it might be, was mere surplusage. The significance of a picture, according to the cognoscenti, must be implicit in its forms: its essential quality is something which appeals directly to the sensibility of any sensitive person, and any reference to life to be of consequence must be a reference to that fundamental experience which is the common heritage of mankind. Thus, those who cannot bring themselves to accept the more austere definition of the term are willing to recognize as significant certain qualities which are not purely formal. They will recognize, for instance, the tragedy of Michael Angelo, the gaiety of Fra Angelico, the lyricism of Correggio, the gravity of Poussin and the romance of Giorgione. They recognize them as pertaining, not to the subjects chosen, but to the mind and character of the artist. Such manifestations in line and color of personality they admit as relevant, but they are quite clear that the gossip of Frith and the touching prattle of Sir Luke Fildes are nothing to the purpose.

And so we get a school of lenient criticism which takes account of an appeal to life, provided that appeal be to universal experience and be made by purely esthetic means. According to this theory we may be moved aesthetically by references to universal experience implicit in certain arrange-

ments of line and color, always provided that such references are expressions of the artist’s peculiar emotion and not mere comments on life and history or statements of fact or opinion. These by everyone are deemed unessential. No one seriously pretends that in a picture by a primitive of some obscure incident in the life of a minor saint there is anything of true esthetic import which, escaping the subtlest and most sensitive artist, is revealed to the expert hagiographer. Nor does anyone still believe that to appreciate Sung painting one must make oneself familiar with the later developments of Buddhist metaphysics as modified by Taoist mysticism.

Such is the prevailing critical theory. What of critical practice? It seems to me that even our best comes something short of their professions; and when I confess that I am going to pick a quarrel with such fine exponents of their craft as the critics of the Times and the Nation, readers will guess that for once I mean to take my confreres seriously. Lately we have seen a hot dispute, in which, unless I mistake, both these gentlemen took a hand, raging round a figure of Christ by Mr. Epstein. For me the only interesting fact that emerged from this controversy was that, apparently, most of the disputants had not so much as heard of the greatest living sculptor—I mean Mall- lol of course. Certainly, with the art of Maillol clearly in his mind, it is inconceivable that one so discriminating as the critic of the Nation should have said, as I think he did say, that Mr. Epstein now stands for European sculpture as Rodin, stood before him. Not only is Maillol quite obviously superior to Mr. Epstein, in the opinion of many he is a better artist than Rodin.

But it was not around such questions as these, vexatious, no doubt, but pertinent, that controversy raged. The questions that eminent critics, writers and dignitaries of divers churches discussed in public, while colonels, socialists and cultivated theosophical ladies wrangled over them at home, were, “Has Mr. Epstein done justice to the character of Christ?” and, “What was his character?” Was Christ intelligent or was he something nobler, and what has Mr. Epstein to say about it? Was he disdainful or was he sympathetic? Was he like Mr. Bertrand Russell or more like Mr. Gladstone? And did Mr. Epstein see him with the eyes of one who knew what for ages Christ has meant to Europe, or with those of a Jew of the first century? Questions such as these-—I will not swear to any particular one of them—were what the critics threw into the arena, and no one much blames the parsons and publicists for playing football with them. But the critics must have known that such questions are utterly irrelevant; that it matters not a straw whether this statue, considered as a work of art, represents Jesus Christ or John Smith.

This the critics knew; they knew that the appeal of a work of art is essentially permanent and universal, and they knew that hardly one word in their controversy could have meant anything to the most sensitive Chinaman alive, unless he happened to be familiar with the Christian tradition and Christian ethics. If there be no more in Mr. Epstein’s figure than what the critics talked about, then, should the Christian religion ever become obsolete and half-forgotten, Mr. Epstein’s figure will cease to exist. Most of us know next to nothing about Buddhism and Totemism, and only a little about Greek myths and Byzantine theology, yet works of art historically associated with these remain, by reason of their permanent and universal, that is to say their purely aesthetic qualities, as moving and intelligible as on the day they left their maker’s hands. About Mr. Epstein’s sculpture the important thing to discover is whether, and in what degree, it possesses these permanent and universal qualities. But on that subject the critics are dumb.

An instructive parallel in literary journalism occurs to me. I have noticed lately a tendency in the intellectual underworld—for here I take leave of first-class criticism—to belittle Ibsen with the object, apparently, of magnifying Chekhov, and always it is in the name of art that Ibsen is decried. Now if our literary ragamuffins cared twopence about art they would all be on their knees before Ibsen who is, I suppose, the finest dramatic artist since Racine. Few things are more perfect as form, more admirably consistent and self-supporting, than his later plays. It was he who invented the modern dramatic method of grasping a situation at the last point at which it can be grasped, and from there pushing it forward with impel” turbable logic and not one divagation. As an artist Ibsen is to a considerable extent the master of Chekhov, but as art is the last thing to which an English intellectual pays attention, this fact has been overlooked. What our latter-day intellectuals take an interest in is what interested their grandmothers—morals. They prefer Chekhov’s point of view to that of Ibsen, and so do I. They are vexed by the teaching implicit in Ibsen’s tendencious plays; so am I. Yet when I ask myself: “Is Ibsen’s moralizing worse than anyone else’s?” I am forced to admit that it is not. The fact is all moralizing is tedious, and is recognized as such by everyone the moment it becomes a little stale. Another generation with other ideals will be as much irritated by Chekhov’s ill-concealed propaganda as our generation is by Ibsen’s, and as Ibsen’s was by Tennyson’s. Make no mistake, by those young people in the next generation but one who talk loudest, wear the worst clothes, are most earnest about life and least sensitive to art Chekhov will be voted a bore. What is more, it will be in the name of art that they will cry him down.

Every now and then we hear eloquent appeals to the appropriate authorities, praying them to add to their school of journalism a department of art criticism. I hope and believe the appropriate authorities will do no such thing. Should, however, their sense of economy be insufficient to restrain them from paying this last insult to art, they will still find me waiting for them with a practical suggestion. Any student proposing to educate himself as a critic should be compelled to devote the first years of his course to the criticism of non-representative art. Set down to criticize buildings, furniture, textiles and ceramics, he will himself obliged to explore the depths of his esthetic experience. To explain honesty and precisely why he prefers this chair to that requires, he will find, a far more intense effort of the intellect and imagination than any amount of fine ing about portraits and landscape. It will force him to take account of his purely aesthetic emotions and to discover what exactly provokes them. He will be driven into that world of minute difference and subtle reactions which is the world of art. And until he knows his way about that world he would do well to express no opinion on the merits of pictures and statues.