Sunday, November 29, 2015
What is Art? by John C Van Dyke 1910
WHAT IS ART? by John C Van Dyke 1910
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What constitutes art in a book, a picture, or a marble is a question that comes up with each new generation. It has been argued out and settled scores of times, but it will not stay settled. The last group of artists to arrive possibly does something novel, something that it thinks should change definitions and boundary lines. It demands a revision that shall include its own work and possibly exclude that of its predecessors. Here, for example, is a young crop of writers, just come to glory, insisting that "literature" (which is the literary equivalent of "art") lies in the novel, the poem, or the drama, and that any form of writing that teaches or preaches, or has any practical or valuable information behind it, may be history or philosophy or science, but it is not "literature." And here is a new band of painters who will have it that the picture is a "nocturne" or a "symphony"— something decorative in tone or color—and that anything illustrative or representative, or in any way informing, is outside the pale of art. Some of the band even arrive at the violent conclusion that when the brains are out, when the subject is reduced to a veiled shadow, when there is a wrestle with form and color to say something about nothing, then and then only is the real article of art produced.
This, to the critic who made elementary distinctions a few generations ago founded on nineteenth-century art, is not only startling but revolutionary. He had it written down that literature had something to do with substance, with morals and life, even with subject and the form in which it was cast. The great poems of the world were the long poems, the ones that required "sustained effort"— for example, the epics of Homer and Dante. Did not Byron make a bid for immortality with twenty-four cantos of "Don Juan" following Pulci and Ariosto? And did not most of his contemporaries burst into song, one volume or more long, recounting the adventures of Marmions and Thalabas and Lalla Rookhs? Length, the romantic subject, and the historical setting had much to do in those days with what constituted poetry. A lyric by Shelley, an ode by Keats, or a few stanzas by Burns were accepted condescendingly as pretty fragments, but not to be ranked with things done in the grand style.
Something of the same critical attitude was assumed toward the drama and the novel. A tragedy was placed above a melodrama, a melodrama above a comedy, a comedy above a farce. Anything that smacked of the classic world or that dealt with the history of gods or great conquerors was supposed to be infinitely superior to contemporary incidents. The dust of half-forgotten kings was dramatic in itself. The novelists, as well as the dramatists, scored successes by framing up antiquity into three-volume stories. The historical setting of the tale with the exalted pose of the characters made the "literature." How otherwise shall we account for the vogue of the bombastic novel of Walter Scott's times and after? Everybody read it for the story—the thing said. No one at that time cared much about how it was said.
In that same day painting, too, was supposed to consist largely in the dramatic incident or the history portrayed. Did not David in exile exhort his favorite pupil, Gros, to stop painting contemporary subjects and to search his Plutarch for a great historical theme? Did he not make Gros believe that posterity would say of him: "This man owed us a 'Death of Themistocles?'" Across the Channel were Reynolds, Hoppner, Lawrence, and their followers, worried to the end of their days trying to produce the historical picture in the "grand style" of Raphael. Romney, as an old man, removed to his large house on Hampstead Heath where, surrounded by casts from antique sculpture, he was to make a final effort at the great historical picture, is a pathetic figure. Art consisted then of a twenty-foot canvas with half a hundred figures attitudinizing for posterity, and half a page of history explanatory of their doings tacked on the frames. Raphael's "Transfiguration" and Michael Angelo's "Last Judgment"— about the worst things they ever painted— were spoken of with bated breath, and Poussin with his pantheon of make-believe gods was an acknowledged master. The classic or historic subject was the thing. As for the fine portraits of David and Ingres, they were esteemed merely as "the painting of buttons and cocked hats"—to quote David—the perfunctory drudgery done in the studio to keep the wolf from the door. No one talked then about Raphael's "Julius II" or his "Leo X." The "School of Athens" and the "Heliodorus" exemplified the grand style and drew the crowd their way.
Now behold a new point of view and the other end of the seesaw. The bothersome younger set, disturbing the conclusions of its predecessors, insists that the historical or romantic setting is great rubbish, that the grand style is theatrical and untrue, that length or breadth or size has nothing to do with the case. It still believes that literature is found only in the novel, the poem, and the drama, and it has a hazy idea that great painting requires a more elastic field for the imagination than the portrait offers; but it talks much about "character drawing" in the novel and the characteristic and the significant in the picture, as though the subject were somehow still a fetching feature. Its position is quite opposed to the classic or romantic tradition, but is it nearer the truth? It is quite sure that it is right—like all the generations before it— but is one end of the seesaw nearer a balance than the other end? There is evidently room for some difference of opinion here; and perhaps also an opportunity for making elementary distinctions on our own account.
In the first place art, strictly speaking, whether in the book, the picture, the marble, or the coin, is not the thing said but rather the manner of its saying. That which is said may be history or mythology or pathos or patriotism; it may be a plot or a passion, a sensation or a sentiment, and yet have no art about it wanting a style in its saying. Even great thoughts—the thoughts that make us think— are not art, save by the manner of their expression. Hegel and Darwin were thinkers, but their thoughts did not result in literature; and that not because science and philosophy are inimical to literary expression, but because Hegel and Darwin were not artists. Arnold wrote criticism, Hooker wrote ecclesiastical polity, Carlyle wrote history, and all of them made literature out of their themes. Why? Because they handled them in a literary manner; they themselves were literary artists, creators of literature, notwithstanding their use of other forms of expression than the novel and the poem.
Many are the poets sown by nature yet wanting the accomplishment of verse. A number of people would be disposed to place Walt Whitman with the many, or, at least, deny him high rank in literature. Would such a judgment be based upon his being a commonplace thinker? Certainly not; but because of his being a commonplace artist in language. Why is it that Poe is so emphatically written down a poet both at home and abroad? Are his poems freighted with great themes or thoughts, or are they merely artistically executed? There is the picture by Watts of "Love and Death," with its very impressive thought, allegory, moral—what you will—but it is a wretched piece of form and color, and really a failure as a work of art. In the next room to it, in the National Gallery of British Art, is the same painter's "Life's Illusions," a much earlier picture, which has no apparent thought or allegory about it, no idea that is of any importance, but it is a superb work of art, splendidly seen, planned and executed. Millet's "Angelus" and his "Man with a Hoe" have both received an undue share of public attention, one because of its pathetic story and the other because of its supposed socialistic teaching; but the "Angelus" is inferior art because it is lacking in drawing, values, light, and color, while the "Man with a Hoe" is good art because the figure is convincingly drawn and well placed in its atmospheric envelope. The "Gleaners," by the same painter, is better than either of them.
Now the absence of great thought, theme, or subject in art is no more of an advantage than its presence. Whitman and Watts and Millet were not handicapped by having a "message" or an allegory or a story to tell. Great thoughts of themselves will not make art, but they will not prevent it. Nor will little thoughts or the trifling incident or the meagre subject produce it. Mr. James has somewhere in his "Partial Portraits" suggested that a lady standing by a table, with her hand resting upon it, is a sufficient incident for literature if properly seen and artistically treated. The degree of interest, he avers, will depend upon the skill of the artist. Pieter de Hooch, Jan Vermeer, Terburg, Alfred Stevens, have shown us the lady in painting more than once and with superb results. There is not a particle of doubt about her sufficiency as an incident, ay, even a subject. But again the art does not lie in the lady, but in the skill of the painter. Many masters, both old and new, have tried to make pictures of her and failed. And many again have not confined themselves to such simple materials. The limitation is not necessary. Add another figure by the table or fireplace or lying on a couch, put in a room for a background and setting, call the two Rebecca and Ivanhoe in the castle, she at the window reporting the progress of the fight, and can any one imagine that the scene is harmed either for fiction or for painting?
Mr. Whistler would say that it was harmed, because forsooth he himself was averse to story-telling with the paint brush. But no one has ever heard Botticelli's "Spring" or Carpaccio's St. Ursula pictures or Paolo Veronese's "Venice Enthroned" criticised because their subjects handicapped them as art. In the same breath Mr. Whistler would sweep the "foolish sunset" out of art; but Turner, in his "Ulysses and Polyphemus" and also in the "Fighting Temeraire," has proved its right to a place there. Turner, no doubt, would have retorted in kind by excluding twilights on the Thames with warehouses and towers in a half light, or nocturnes with figures and buildings in muffled mystery; but Whistler has made beautiful art out of them. Each chooses what pleases him best and each perhaps produces from it something artistic. Neither the bigness nor the littleness of the theme is of deciding importance. The art shows chiefly in the manner of treatment and emanates from the man behind the brush.
This is not to argue that it makes no difference what you say as long as you say it well, and that the only thing worth looking for in novel, poem, or painting is the technique. On the contrary, it is to make the distinction that the thought or subject may be as wide as Tintoretto's "Paradise" or as narrow as Mr. Whistler's "Falling Rocket"; but the art significance of either comes only with a style of seeing or doing. Of course, every one likes at times to imagine what great effect might be produced by a combination of the exalted theme with the master technician. Could one, for instance, set Jan Vermeer to painting "Love and Death" or Mr. James to writing "Ivanhoe," what masterpieces might result! Yes; but Vermeer would probably do the Love in blue and the Death in yellow, and his precise drawing and little dabs of paint
that look so effective on the small panel would be wholly inadequate for the larger canvas; and Mr. James would probably analyze and dissect the Rebeccas and the Ivanhoes to the point of niggling the whole group. The combination of excellences—eclecticism—has never turned out the virile quality of art in either literature or painting.
The contention has been definitely settled, in painting at least, that the story, the moral, the history, with love, faith, patriotism, or romance, are not necessary to the making of the picture. Paint the figure piece, the genre, the portrait, the landscape, the still-life—what you please—and provided you see it, feel it, handle it rightly the result will be a work of art. There is no distinction attaching to size or subject. Titian's portrait of the so-called "Duke of Norfolk" is better as art than his much-praised but labored "Assumption" at Venice; whereas, on the contrary, Botticelli's portraits are not up to his large allegory of "Spring." If you would measure the art of a canvas, first discount the theme, the scale, and all that. Diaz and Fantin-Latour could reveal the finest kind of art in a bunch of roses or pinks; the Japanese show it in the trunk of a tree or a trailing branch against the sky.
If this contention will apply to books as to pictures, what becomes of the youthful obsession that literature is to be found only in the novel, the poem, and the drama? Is literature a quality of "the best sellers" or the best-thumbed books, and do the novels of Flaubert and Daudet put Taine and Michelet out of the literary running? Do Ibsen and Shaw who supply the stage with dramas produce more pure literature than did Cardinal Newman writing a sermon or a lecture or a defence of his life? And because we have the very enjoyable poetry of Swinburne or Stephen Phillips shall we have no more description from Pierre Loti or criticism from Brunetiere? What matters it the kind of material that falls to the artist's hand? If he is an artist he can fashion it into the form of art; if he is not an artist he can do as little with one material as with another.
Is the subject then so unimportant that it does not enter into the problem? Is the thing said so absolutely divorced from the manner of saying that art is wholly in the one and not at all in the other? Hardly. They may merge one into another. Any one might search his Plutarch and concoct a "Death of Themistocles" as he might imagine a "Cupid and Psyche," a "Cleopatra," a "Hope," or a "Spring." Again, every one is said to have the materials for a novel in his own life; and almost every one at some time in his career has written poetry containing sufficient subject and sentiment at least to make a lyric or a ballad. Why then are there not more results in painting and literature? Is it not because the necessary skill is wanting? Yet skill does not mean merely a cleverness of hand in drawing and handling, in piling up sentences, in cutting up language into poetic feet. The way of seeing is somewhat, and besides there is the mood of mind produced by contemplation of the subject. Either of them may transform the theme into something quite new and strange, lend it imagination, mystery, color, light, splendor.
Now unfortunately for the majority of us we have no artistic way of seeing things, no peculiar point of view whereby we may transform plain facts into finer fancy. Possibly that accounts for our not making novels out of the incidents of our lives, that our poems are not poetic, and that our "Deaths of Themistocles," our "Cleopatras," and our "Hopes" are unspeakably hopeless and commonplace. Just so with that lady standing by the table or fireplace. We have seen her a thousand times, but we never saw her as in a picture-frame or thought of her as in a novel. It takes a Vermeer or a Flaubert for that. How wonderful the transformation as seen through their eyes! To Vermeer she is a marvel of color standing in a drift of light and surrounded by a blue envelope of air—a figure perhaps as innately noble and refined as a duchess and yet as lacking in consciousness as a school-girl. To Flaubert, or even to Mr. James himself, she might be an epitome of womankind, a summary of the gayety or winsomeness of the sex, a mingling of all the passions or emotions, a something coldly intellectual, flippantly fanciful, or merely a curiosity for artistic analysis. The possibilities for either the painter or the novelist would be practically unlimited. The material is there to be moulded as the artist may see or feel or desire.
Again the mood of mind means quite as much as the artistic vision. Every one has seen the sky of evening and morning—seen it thousands of times—but how does it happen that no one ever saw it quite as Corot. Were his eyes peculiarly set in his head that he should have such a charming point of view? Not exactly. Tradition tells us that Corot never spent much time working directly from nature. Try to locate his many landscapes of "Lake Nemi" or "Ville d'Avray" and You will be disappointed. He painted them in his studio and "out of his head," as the painters say. In other words, he was painting a mood of mind. After long contemplation of morning and evening light he had come to see it in his mind's eye as a vision of loveliness—a light half real and half romantic, but highly poetic, incomparably beautiful, serenely splendid. Change from this vision of the dawn or the twilight to one of full sunlight and you have Turner's mood of mind. Change again to the dusk of evening and you have Whistler's mood of mind. In each case it was a mood, an emotion, a feeling as well as a manner of seeing and doing that found its way on canvas.
Does any one doubt that Turner's great advocate, Ruskin, wrote about pictures and sunsets and mountains in a similar frame of mind? One can hardly say that he wrote "Modern Painters" "out of his head," for it is full of actual observation, yet as a whole neither painters nor art critics can follow it. It is five volumes of passion, emotion, feeling about art and nature. Take it under your arm to the Turner room in the National Gallery and apply it to the pictures and you will be disappointed: sit down in your quiet library and read it and you will be delighted. It is not the soberest or sanest art criticism in the world. There is too much mood and frenzy in it. But because of that very condition of mind, what a piece of literature it is! It was an entirely different mood that resulted in "Vanity Fair"; but, be it remembered, it was a mood—a mental attitude toward hypocrisy, a feeling about the emptiness of social life, a disgust, perhaps, at the frailty of human nature rather than any direct noting of the actual facts. Thackeray did the book out of his head and heart like Ruskin and Turner and Corot. It would have been worthless as literature had it been done otherwise.
It seems then that an artistic way of looking at things is vitally necessary to both painting and literature, and also that a poetic mood of mind, a feeling—the fine frenzy which sets the poet's eye rolling—are also required for the noblest art. Is there nothing else? What about the skill of hand, to which we have referred in passing, the skill that expresses the mood or feeling and records the way of seeing? Is not that a very important factor in the work of art or literature? Again one flings back to the many poets sown by nature, yet wanting the accomplishment of verse. Every writer has about him a group of relatives and friends who keep informing him what wonderful things they have in their heads if only they knew how to write. And every one knows the painter who insists that he sees things truly, but his technique bothers him and he cannot express what he sees. How far one may reach with hardly an original idea in his head, yet with adequate means of expression at hand, is suggested by the case of Gray, the poet. He has passed into a classic because of his skilful handling of language. As Lowell puts it: "He has a perfect sense of sound, and one idea without which all the poetic outfit (si absit prudentia) is of little avail—that of combination and arrangement, in short, of art. It is quite the fashion still as it has always been to depreciate the importance of technique, to put it down as the mechanical part of the book or the picture, something subsidiary to the thought; but when, where, and how in the history of any art has there been great work without it? How does it happen that the world's great writers, musicians, painters, sculptors are also the world's great craftsmen? If it is to be believed that literature consists primarily in the novel—in the subject rather than its handling—what prevents those imaginative writers Mr. Haggard and Miss Corelli from occupying seats in the literary front row? And, admitting for the sake of argument the first premise, why, even as novelists, are they outranked by Mr. Hardy and Mr. Meredith? In our own country the "best sellers" are written by people who pop up one year and perhaps pop down the next year, but the best novels are conceded to be written by people like Mr. Howells. Why and how does the criticism of the day arrive at such judgments if not by an analysis of the point of view, the mood of mind, and the workmanship shown? Mr. Howells is a great technician in literature and no small part of his genius consists in his capacity for taking infinite pains. He labors over paragraphs and sentences, over scene and setting, over impression and its adequate expression as a Louis Seize goldsmith over the design of a snuffbox. The result is the work of art in both the novel and the box—the perfected expression in pattern which you cannot add to or take away from or change in any way without injuring the effect.
We are inclined likewise to talk much of the soulful playing of some great pianist or the fine feeling of some great singer; but when, again, are these unaccompanied by mastery of technique? The life-long practice, and the skill derived therefrom, are the essentials of adequate expression. A Jean de Reszke may have been born but a Jean de Reszke was also made. The musician of nature, however wonderful in gifts, comes into the world and on the stage only half made up. He can never arrive at art save by long years of technical training. So again while we may rightly admire the exalted subjects and the romantic poetry of Wagner's operas we should not overlook the immense skill of the trained musician —the writing of the scores and the handling of the many motives by the orchestra. Call Wagner a genius if you will, a poet, dramatist, musician born by nature if you must; but at least it should be conceded that he was also the great musical technician of his day.
This argument may be applied with even greater force to painting and sculpture than to literature or music. The story told of Giotto and his drawing for the Pope that perfect circle on paper as a proof of his artistic ability is possibly a little fiction of Vasari's; but in the mouth of the mouthpiece of all the Italian painters, it is eloquent of the prevalent belief as to what constituted art. There was no great thinking or subject or theme there. Technical skill was the only thing demonstrated, but that was sufficient not only for Vasari but for the Pope and his councillors. Given that, they thought everything else might follow as a natural sequence. Two hundred or more years later, in the same town of Florence, Andrea del Sarto, after doing some superb frescos for the church of the Servi, received the popular designation of "Andrea senza errori" — Andrea without faults. It was his technical skill, not his thinking or his piety, that was without fault. That skill was the result of the insistence upon craftsmanship which had ruled in the teachings of the mediaeval guilds and had been handed down from master to pupil into the period of the Renaissance. It was the first and last requirement of the artist in any department that he should be a skilled workman.
What craftsmen were sent out of that land of Italy before, and through, and even after the Renaissance! To mention such names as Donatello, Verrocchio, Mantegna, Leonardo, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Correggio, Titian, Paolo Veronese is not only listing the great technicians, but suggesting the whole history of Italian art. Every one of them was a masterhand whether a master-mind or not. It was just so at the north. The Van Eycks and Memlings, the Durers and Holbeins, the Rubenses and the Rembrandts, were skilled in form, color, and pattern to the last degree known to their time; they were every one of them "senza errori" in the Florentine sense. They would not be alive to-day were it not for their skill. For their subjects have practically faded out.
"All passes—art alone
Enduring lasts to us,
The bust outlives the throne,
The coin Tiberius."
Which is to say that the religion, the history, the throne, or Tiberius—the original cause for fashioning the coin, the marble, or the fresco —eventually passes on and passes out; but the style, the skill, the art which fashioned it endures and lives after.
So we may return to the elementary distinction from which we started out, to insist once more that the thought in books and pictures and marbles may be a thing apart, that the subject may be a matter of minor importance, and that neither of them has much artistic significance in itself but may be made significant by an artistic manner of treatment. The way in which both are seen, and the depth of emotion or feeling which they may stir in the artist, are properly a phase of the art. Quite as important as this is the technical skill in form or color with which the point of view is maintained. This latter is par excellence the artistic feature of either the book or the picture. Art is primarily a matter of doing, somewhat a matter of seeing and feeling, and perhaps not at all a matter of theme or thinking.
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